Veteran reporter John Pomfret has given us a rich and vivid account of U.S.-China relations, full of surprising facts and unique characters.
In spring 1946, a Lebanese Christian, a Canadian legal scholar, and a Chinese playwright joined 62-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt for tea in her New York apartment. They had gathered to work on the first draft of what Roosevelt would later call “the international Magna Carta of all humankind,” the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. In the drafting process, the playwright took issue with the Christian formulation of human rights put forward by his Lebanese peer. To be truly universal, he argued, the declaration should not rest on the existence of God-given rights, since not all cultures are theistic. Thus, blending elements of Confucian and European Enlightenment thought, he inserted the Chinese concept of ren (translated as “brotherhood”) into the document, which allowed for the playwright’s biggest contribution: as inherently social creatures of ren, humans have responsibilities to society, as well as innate rights.
The playwright was P.C. Chang, a Tianjin-born representative of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist (KMT) government and all-round renaissance man. With a doctorate from Columbia University, Chang was just one of the “towering liberals” who worked to build a bridge between China and the West in the 20th century. Like other prominent American-educated Chinese, Chang’s life and work have been effaced and forgotten in China.
In The Beautiful Country and The Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, veteran China journalist John Pomfret chronicles the centuries-long relationship between China and the United States through the stories of individuals like Chang, who were its vanguard since the founding of the American republic. With a motley line-up of merchants, diplomats, politicians, soldiers, missionaries, scientists and journalists, it is, Pomfret claims, “a story of wild exploits, extreme misjudgments, and unsung impact.”
To tell that story, Pomfret draws on a variety of primary sources, including letters, memoirs, government documents, and newspaper reports in both English and Chinese. As the bibliography shows, he also does admirable service to the work of several Chinese scholars. The diversity of Pomfret’s sources combined with his two decades of experience as a foreign correspondent in China result in a book that is scholarly in tone and anecdotal in substance, a 700-page feat of research and reporting that rewards careful, committed reading.
In the first half of the book, Pomfret takes a reporter’s approach to the historian’s domain, describing the colorful characters who shaped the U.S.-China relationship in its earliest days, long before Richard Nixon was drinking maotai with Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People.
In the bustling port of 19th century Canton, we hear the story of trade baron Wu Bingjian — known as Howqua to the Westerners who did business with him — who invested in American infrastructure after amassing a fortune swapping tea for silver with New England merchants. Then there is Anson Burlingame, the first American minister assigned to Beijing in 1862, whose desire to usher China into the international order while protecting its sovereignty would lay the cornerstones of America’s China policy for the next two centuries. At around the same time, Baptist missionary Adele Fielde arrived in Hong Kong from New York. Regarding missionary work “more as farming than fighting,” she developed the first female literacy program in modern Chinese history. In doing so, she paved the way for other single American women to vacate their roles in the patriarchal capitalist economy and find new vocations in China under the umbrella of missionary work.
While the narrative’s episodic rhythm sometimes plods, the book is more than a scatter-plot of names, dates and locations. Pomfret deploys each vignette in the service of his larger argument, namely that the United States and China are locked into “a never-ending Buddhist cycle of reincarnation,” in which both sides experience “rapturous enchantment begetting hope, followed by disappointment, repulsion, and disgust, only to return to fascination once again.” By the end of the book — which took a decade to write — Pomfret has amassed so much evidence for his thesis that his conclusions land with significant moral weight.
Some of the most moving passages in the book deal with individuals who have been “airbrushed from China’s modern history” by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) historians. These include China’s forgotten liberals like P.C. Chang — the “Third Force” in Chinese politics who “became the conscience of their nation in opposing the tyrannical ideologies of the Communists and the KMT, resisting Japanese imperialism, and advocating democracy.” They also include Americans. Pomfret sounds a quiet note of indignation in his reference to Xi Jinping’s “China dream” speech, delivered on the threshold of the National Museum of China during his second week as president in 2012. Xi had just toured an exhibit on China’s history from the Opium War to the present day, titled “The Road to Rejuvenation,” which offered “not a single word of praise for any of the countless Western businessmen, scientists, soldiers, philosophers, diplomats and educators who had helped his country modernize.” Pomfret does not mince his words in identifying such hypocrisies — on both sides of the relationship.
As part of his scrupulously fair treatment of Chiang Kai-shek, Pomfret documents the U.S.’ inconsistent and sometimes downright deceitful treatment of the Generalissimo. This was particularly true of General Joseph Stilwell, who plotted Chiang’s assassination and persistently trafficked in the myth that the Nationalists did not fight the Japanese.
In several places, Pomfret notes that the KMT compared favorably with the CCP in terms of bloodshed in the name of ideology: while 2 million landlords were executed in China, Chiang’s administration undertook a land reform campaign on Taiwan with no loss of life. And Chiang Ching-kuo’s “hardball tactics” “paled in comparison to the havoc that Mao’s secret police were wreaking on the mainland.” Both are true, but the comparison does not allow for a thorough accounting of the KMT’s tactics. By not mentioning the February 28, 1947, incident and its long aftermath, Pomfret neglects a key context for the development of Taiwan’s democracy and its distinct identity, which he champions in subsequent chapters. In a book of this length and meticulousness, this is a surprising omission.
[Pomfret] has cut through the rhetoric of both countries to reveal the curiously emotional core of their relationship — acknowledgment of which, for today’s leaders, would be a good place to start.
In evaluating the behavior of China’s business and political leaders, Pomfret refuses to commit the same folly that he identifies in American policymakers and submit to Chinese exceptionalism — the notion that China cannot be judged according to the same standard as other countries (the U.S., neatly, being the other global purveyor of its own exceptionalism). This is one of the book’s great strengths. His clear-eyed approach allows him to challenge received narratives and take on historical taboos. He invokes, for example, the fascinating — and nowadays illicit — counterfactual of a divided China. Describing General Albert Wedemeyer’s 1944 suggestion (repeated three years later) of partitioning China into the Communist north and the Nationalist south, Pomfret notes that “Wedemeyer had hit on perhaps the single best way to deal with the Chinese Communist threat.” He does not press the point, merely noting that the American belief in “a united China” was too deeply entrenched for the idea to have traction with the Truman administration. But his book provides ample fodder for this provocative thought experiment.
Pomfret also writes insightfully on the American experts on China, known as China Hands, who were hounded out of government and into academia by McCarthyism in the 1950s. In the backlash to McCarthy’s virulent anti-communism, these martyred American Sinologists shifted to the left. At Harvard, John K. Fairbank and Owen Lattimore adopted a more forgiving view of the Chinese Communist Party and Mao’s revolution, foreshadowing the détente two decades later. Fairbank went so far as to judge that Maoism “gets results” and dismissed estimates of up to 2 million deaths in the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward as “extreme.”
Here, Pomfret leads the reader to reflect on one of our own assumptions: that American scholars would have been as sensitive to the rise of authoritarianism in China as they were to the same trend in Soviet Russia. I discerned no evidence of this aspect of Fairbank’s thought at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, where I completed the Master’s Degree in East Asian Studies that Fairbank established in 1946.
That Fairbank’s objectivity was clouded by his affection for Mao’s plucky Communist rebels goes to the heart of one of the trickiest aspects of the U.S.-China relationship documented by Pomfret. The credulous paternalism of the China Hands was part of a broader pattern, in which Americans were “disarmed” by China, seeing the Chinese and especially the Communist Party “as underdogs to whom we owe our sympathy.” This tendency, Pomfret argues, has led American policymakers to let the CCP off the hook for a range of behaviors unpropitious to U.S. interests.
Released at the beginning of a new U.S. administration that claims it will be tough on China, The Beautiful Country and The Middle Kingdom could not be more timely. U.S. President Donald Trump recently said that he “fully understands the One-China policy.” But as this book shows, to fully understand the “one China” policy is to recognize that the U.S. has always been viscerally committed to the idea of keeping China whole — partly because the U.S. sees so much of itself in China, and partly because it believes that the U.S. benefits when China is stable.
Pomfret’s prescriptions for the future are modest in proportion to the amount of evidence he has compiled to support his conclusions. Instead of allowing mutual enchantment (and suspicion) to cloud their vision, he says, both sides would be better served by lowering their expectations and transparently pursuing policies that are in their national interest. This is not an argument for mercantilist isolationism or surly inflexibility, but for an approach to the Middle Kingdom that is realistic, consistent, and “more transactional.” As a reporter, Pomfret has given us a rich and vivid account of U.S.-China relations, full of surprising facts and unique characters. As a historian, he has cut through the rhetoric of both countries to reveal the curiously emotional core of their relationship — acknowledgment of which, for today’s leaders, would be a good place to start.
The Beautiful Country and The Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present
Henry Holt, 2016