East Asia Watch

US-China ties: Echoes from the Boxer Rebellion

The romance between the Middle Kingdom and the Beautiful Country has had its ups and downs. Covid-19 is pushing the relationship into a dangerous new cycle.

At the height of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, China's Empress Dowager Cixi, the power behind the throne, declared war simultaneously on Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, which had their collective eyes on further carving up the Middle Kingdom.

The Eight-Nation Alliance sent troops to China's capital, crushing the Qing dynasty-backed Boxer Rebellion, a xenophobic secret society - known in Chinese as the "Fists of Righteousness and Harmony" - whose adherents practised martial arts and performed rituals that purportedly made them immune to bullets.

After the Boxers and Qing troops were defeated, China signed the Boxer Protocol in 1901 in which it was to pay 450 million taels of fine silver (about 18,000 tonnes) as indemnity over a course of 39 years to the eight powers - a devastating blow to the Chinese economy. The Qing never recovered and was toppled in 1911.

In a munificent move in 1908, then US President Theodore Roosevelt's administration used the remaining part of America's share - 7.32 per cent of the total indemnity - to grant scholarships to Chinese studying in the US and set up a preparatory school for US-bound Chinese students, Tsinghua College, which later became a university and is now known as China's Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Tsinghua counts among its alumni President Xi Jinping and his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, both of whom attended their alma mater's 100th founding anniversary in Beijing in 2011.

The goodwill gesture was tantamount to the US waiving its rights to war reparation from China. To this day, some Chinese are grateful to the US, but others are of the view that it was China's money in the first place and that the Boxers were merely trying to drive out foreign invaders.

"We students and alumni are cognisant of our school's history," said Tsinghua journalism student Lynn Lin. "It was very astute on the part of the US, which was the only one of the eight powers to do so. It cultivated many Chinese talent, but at the same time also exported American culture and values to China."

This export accelerated after 1978, when China launched its economic reforms and opened up to the outside world again. Mao suits have since given way to jeans, business suits or shirts. Starbucks, Coca-Cola, McDonald's burgers and KFC chicken are now part of China's lifestyle, as are Hollywood movies and music. US degrees are a status symbol. More than three million Chinese have studied in the US in the past four decades. In the academic year 2018-2019 alone, a record number of almost 370,000 Chinese pursued studies there.

But in recent times, the gloss is coming off this phase of the relationship. An increasingly acrimonious trade and tech war in the past year was especially corrosive. And now we have Covid-19.


It is unclear who translated America into Chinese as "beautiful country" (mei guo), but it has been referred to as such since the waning years of the Qing dynasty.

Despite that positive appellation, relations between China and the US have see-sawed since the 1949 communist revolution, reaching a nadir when both sides fought each other during the 1950-1953 Korean War. It was not until the landmark visit of US President Richard Nixon in 1972 that rapprochement began. A decade-long diplomatic honeymoon followed Washington's switching of recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. Then it all fell apart when the Chinese army put down the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests.

Things looked up again when, with the blessings of the US, China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Bilateral trade boomed, but sowed the seeds of today's troubled ties as China's trade surplus with the US grew and grew. For about three decades, China looked up to and learnt from the US on the economic and financial fronts; that came to an end during the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, which exposed the weaknesses of the American system.


Two sexagenary cycles after the Boxer Rebellion - 60 years are historically one cycle for reckoning time in China - the US and China are mired in another kind of war: a blame game amid an escalating war of words over the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread across the world since first surfacing in Wuhan, provincial capital of Hubei in central China, last December.

In an ironic twist of history, some US members of Congress are seeking compensation from China for losses from the outbreak.

Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, and Representative Elise Stefanik, a Republican from New York, have introduced a bicameral resolution, calling for a "full, international investigation" into the contagion and demanding that China be held accountable and pay an unspecified amount as compensation.


Representative Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana, told Fox News that Beijing should forgive US debt and face trade tariffs for its role in the global spread of Covid-19. China has bought more than US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) in US debt in the form of Treasury bills, notes and bonds.

A lawsuit filed in a federal court in Texas seeks a staggering US$20 trillion from China. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Florida and Nevada, but law experts cast doubt about their viability.

"The case for Chinese liability for Covid-19's consequences seems less about international law than how the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China has shaped the politics of this pandemic," Professor David Fidler of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think-tank, wrote on the Just Security website.

Bilateral relations are at their lowest ebb since normalisation and are likely to get worse before they get any better.

For Beijing, the US has been anything but kind to China from the outset of the coronavirus outbreak. When Wuhan, a city of almost 11 million, was locked down on Jan 23 in an unprecedented move, some US politicians, academics and media condemned the measure as draconian.

And yet despite obvious signs of the severity of the disease - reflected in the increasingly tough measures China had to take in sealing off the country to contain its spread - Western countries took little preparatory action on their part in the lead time they had against a virus that respects no borders.


"The Boxers thought they were immune to bullets. Maybe the US and Europe thought they were immune to the coronavirus," a retired Chinese government official, requesting anonymity, told The Straits Times.

He also took issue with the demands for compensation; going by that logic, shouldn't the US retroactively pay compensation for the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, he asked.

The congressional resolution is not China's only distraction.

The International Council of Jurists and All India Bar Association have joined the fray, filing a petition with the United Nations Human Rights Council seeking reparations from China and accusing Beijing of "surreptitiously developing a biological weapon capable of mass destruction".

Global lawsuits against China for breaching the International Health Regulations could run to at least £3.2 trillion (S$5.7 trillion) from just the nations of the Group of Seven, according to the Henry Jackson Society, a conservative British think-tank.

Some critics want to take China to the International Court of Justice, but it would be an uphill struggle.

"There is no precedent for this. No state paid compensation for Mers, Sars, Ebola and H1N1," Chinese lawyer Steven He said, referring to infectious diseases in recent decades.

"This is a manifestation of anti-globalisation. There is a need for some foreign governments to shift criticism for their bungling of the epidemic to China," he added.

For Beijing and many Chinese, it is hypocritical of the US and European countries to blame China for the devastating impact of the virus on their countries.

"Those in (the) West indifferent to China's early pain now blame China for their loss," read a headline in the Global Times.

Furthermore, little was known about the new virus in the weeks after it first surfaced. It would have been difficult for China to issue an early alert on how contagious or deadly it was in the early days even if it wanted to. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Reuters in February: "It takes time for people to gain more understanding and knowledge about it."


Seen from China's perspective, the assaults it is facing from the US and other Western countries are driven by short-term calculations - US President Donald Trump faces an election in November and needs a scapegoat for the consequences of his disastrous mismanagement of the crisis - as well as fundamental political differences.

America's political elite has become increasingly frustrated that China did not become a liberal democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. That the Chinese government has succeeded in building a powerful economy and now in suppressing the spread of Covid-19 raises questions as to the superiority of Western democracy over the Chinese Communist Party's authoritarian system.

This belief that the Chinese system is somehow fundamentally flawed perhaps explains the vehement attacks along the lines of cover-ups, official obfuscation and violations of human rights, without acknowledging that the Chinese success in containment of the virus may have less to do with ideology and more to do with effective mobilisation of resources and a willingness to undertake tough but necessary sacrifices.

The attacks on China also seem a bit disingenuous now that Western countries are imposing lockdowns on their own cities and in the light of Mr Trump's chaotic and arbitrary actions in fighting the pandemic in the US.

"We have a thousand reasons to get the China-US relationship right, and not one reason to spoil it," Mr Xi told Mr Trump at their first meeting at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, in April 2017.

The hope underlying those sentiments grows increasingly dim these days.

Peking University's School of International Studies dean Wang Jisi says China is losing hope that the US will seek a return to friendlier ties.

The pandemic's damage to the American economy will only add to the ammunition of US hawks who argue for greater decoupling and a more aggressive policy towards China.

A bare-knuckled approach would be a mistake. The People's Republic of China is not the Qing dynasty and Mr Xi is not Cixi. When push comes to shove, China will punch back, and with more force than that from a band of Boxers armed with swords, spears, shields, prayers and magic rituals.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2020, with the headline US-China ties: Echoes from the Boxer Rebellion. Subscribe