The 12,000 Chinese immigrants who worked on the Central Pacific Railroad between 1865 and 1869 were inducted into the US Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor during a ceremony attended by their descendants in Washington on May 9, 2014. The US signed an equal treaty with China in 1868, but it was replaced with the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Photo: Xinhua
by William Mundell
by William Mundell

A trade deal won’t solve anything if Americans don’t understand China. This was true in 1868, and it’s still true today

  • US envoy Anson Burlingame brought a dramatic shift in US-China relations in the 19th century, but it was reversed within years. In 2019, even if Donald Trump gets his deal with China, the benefits might prove equally ephemeral
The United States’ frustration over trade relations with China boils down to one gripe: China doesn’t play fair. Yet, just over 150 years ago, the roles were reversed. Back then, it was imperial China that complained about the US not playing fair and it was the US that was on the verge of becoming the world’s largest economy. 
At a critical moment in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln sent a charismatic former Congressman, Anson Burlingame, to China as his envoy. This would change history and may hold important lessons for today.
Until then, economic disputes between China and Western nations, including the US, had been resolved by force and China had been compelled to accept unfair trade agreements and territorial cessions.

Burlingame, however, led the way in fostering a so-called Cooperative Policy between China and Western powers. The US would treat China in the same peaceful manner as other nations, upholding its sovereignty and territorial integrity and agreeing not to interfere in its internal affairs.

But here we are today, and coercion is once again an instrument of US policy. In the 19th century, it was guns; in the past year, it has been economic pressure.

In a break with the policies of his predecessors, President Donald Trump imposed unilateral tariffs on China outside the framework of the World Trade Organisation.

As US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said recently of the dramatic policy shift: “I honestly believe that good people tried for 20 years a multilateral approach … You'd have to be crazy in my judgment not to try something else.”

In 1867, Burlingame took a different path of diplomacy. At the suggestion of top Chinese officials, he became China’s envoy to the US and Europe after resigning from his US post.

Burlingame was a splendid orator, and on his campaign-style tour across the US in 1868, he preached the gospel of support for China: emphasising that the cultural values of China and the West were compatible, and that America would reap vast economic rewards from being fair to China.

Arriving in Washington, he negotiated the Burlingame Treaty, which would be the first equal treaty between China and a Western nation in the modern era.

Today, although public opinion has given the Trump administration licence to pursue a radical approach towards China, we should be wary of where that mandate leads us.

Even if Trump succeeds in making a trade deal with China, its benefits could prove ephemeral. An economic shock like the financial crisis of 2008 could jolt our nations into something far worse.
We’ve seen this movie before: the hard economic times of the 1870s heightened the animosity towards Chinese immigrants and intensified the nativist impulses of the day.
Political support for anti-Chinese measures culminated in the replacement of the Burlingame Treaty with the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In a 21st-century world, similar fears could spin out of control and set us on the road to war.

The easy answer is to wish China would stop violating agreements and start engaging in fairer economic behaviour.

But we must realise that China is behaving much like the US did when it was the rising economic behemoth, appropriating the technology of more established powers while believing it is only taking its rightful place in the world.

A more sophisticated understanding of both nations' history is the key to avoiding the path of confrontation.

Today we have remarkable technology, from jet travel to the internet, which can help the two peoples understand each other in a way that was impossible in 1868.

We have yet to truly take advantage of these opportunities to build a connection, and to do so at the current crossroads may call for leaders and measures as creative as those in 1868.

At a minimum, we should be seeking agreements that bring benefits to both countries and are easily verifiable. If we can break through the distrust and reach a more harmonious modus vivendi, perhaps this time we will not repeat the undoing of Burlingame’s great work.

William Mundell is an American entrepreneur and the producer of the documentary, Better Angels, about the US-China relationship. It will open the documentary section of the Beijing film festival next week