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China-US relations

Chinese-American General Ying Hsing Wen, who pioneered warm relations 100 years ago, offers lesson for today, honour says

  • The Museum of Chinese in America bestows an award on the family of Ying Hsing Wen, one of the first two Chinese cadets to graduate from the US Military Academy
  • ‘The first economy of the world and the second economy of the world have to learn to get together because it benefits both sides,’ Wen’s granddaughter said.
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 2:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 11:14pm

Luminaries of the American Chinese community were treated to a rare symbol of unity between the US, Taiwan and mainland China this week in New York City, when the family of a former Kuomintang general from Guangdong was honoured for his pioneering contributions to building US-China relations.

More than a century ago, Ying Hsing Wen was one of the first two Chinese cadets to graduate from the US Military Academy, and at a time of souring bilateral tensions brought about by the United States’ Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and China’s Boxer Rebellion against foreign influence. He went on to become a prominent, US-friendly general in China’s Republican army under Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang (KMT) leader who fought the Communists and later fled to Taiwan to establish the Republic of China.

On Thursday, Wen was posthumously awarded the Generational Legacy Award by the Museum of Chinese in America, an honour the organisation bestows once a year to a family whose achievements and contributions have advanced the perception of Chinese people in America.

I think at the end of the day, politics aside, common sense prevails
Harriet Tung, granddaughter of Ying Hsing Wen

Recipients of other awards on the evening included the author Maxine Hong Kingston, philanthropist Nancy Lee and breakout singer Katherine Ho, who featured on the soundtrack of the summer blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians.

“[Wen] set a precedent for 100 years of people who are bridging US-China relationships, who are thinking a lot about friendships and building grass-roots relations, which I think are vital to improving any sort of bilateral relationship,” said museum president Nancy Yao Maasbach. “What the US-China relationship really needs, I think, is some authenticity, some transparency.”

Through Wen’s legacy, Yao Maasbach said, “we can really see that authenticity come through in much more powerful ways than any sort of potential rhetoric that exists on the bilateral level”.

Wen attended the prestigious West Point military academy from 1905 to 1909 before returning to China, where he promptly rose through the ranks of the country’s armed forces, applying the insights and knowledge acquired in the US to the military’s modernisation efforts.

Watch: Why closer US-Taiwan relations make China uncomfortable

Speculation flourished in the US at the time as to whether Wen – a popular student at West Point who had made headlines when Congress passed an act allowing a foreigner to attend the military academy – had joined the military coup to topple the Qing dynasty in the 1911 Xinhai rebellion. “Rumour is that he is of the forces that are driving the Manchus from power,” said a New York Times article in December 1911.

True enough, Wen aligned himself with Sun Yat-sen in the uprising that ended China’s dynastic rule and ushered in a new republic, and he rose to the rank of lieutenant general in the KMT military.

After fighting against Communist and Japanese forces, he served as a military envoy, a role in which he visited the US on diplomatic missions and advocated strongly for the forging of close relations between the two countries.

Soon after the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Wen – unlike many other KMT officials who fled to Taiwan to establish the Republic of China – relocated to the US, where he settled in Washington and opened a laundromat.

“It was difficult because of his Kuomintang connections to stay [in China], so his friends at West Point said: ‘Ying, it’s time for you to come back to America’,” Wen’s granddaughter Harriet Tung said.

Speaking of the award, which she accepted on Thursday on behalf of the Wen family, Tung said it was “very significant” that her grandfather’s pioneering connection between the US and China had garnered recognition.

“The links started with my grandfather during the Manchu dynasty, and it’s been sort of a rocky road, the relationship,” she said.

“The first economy of the world and the second economy of the world have to learn to get together because it benefits both sides. And I think at the end of the day, politics aside, common sense prevails.”

Tung, who lives in Hong Kong, established a programme in her grandfather’s honour to send West Point cadets to China on research trips. Established in 2011, the Lieutenant General Ying Hsing Wen Memorial Award is given to two students from the military academy’s department of foreign languages every year.

Watch: Beijing says Taiwan independence is doomed to failure

Trilateral relations between the US, China and Taiwan have become increasingly strained in recent months as Washington has taken a whole-of-government approach to turning the screws on Beijing, which it says is pursuing a model of globalisation that threatens international order and the sovereignty of other countries.

There’s so much politics, so much grandstanding, so much vested interest when it comes to [the US and China]
Harriet Tung

The US has slammed countries like Panama for switching diplomatic relations from the self-governed island to Beijing – despite the US having done so almost four decades ago – and in late October sailed warships through the Taiwan Strait in an apparent show of solidarity with Taipei.

The previous month, the US agreed on a US$330 million arms sale to the government in Taipei, to the ire of Beijing. Taipei has also recently irked Beijing with the approval of a referendum, to be held on November 24, to decide whether the self-ruled island should compete in future Olympic Games as “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei”.

Taiwan to vote on removing ‘China’ from name of 2020 Olympic team

Against such a backdrop, Tung is hopeful that the West Point travel programme she started will contribute to a deeper level of understanding between the peoples of the world’s two largest economies.

”There’s so much politics, there’s so much grandstanding, there’s so much vested interest when it comes to these countries,” she said. “I think the best way is just for young people to go and open their eyes and see for themselves and form their own opinions.”

“[Wen’s] experience coming to the United States as a young man really benefited China, his own country,” she said. “And hopefully the US can benefit from China equally. It’s a two-way street”.

The 1909 edition of the West Point yearbook certainly suggests his experience in the US played a role in honing his proclivity for cultural exchange.

“Wen has assumed a great many American characteristics”, fellow cadets wrote of him, “and is even getting proficient in American profanity.”