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The true story of Xi Jinping

The true story of Xi Jinping

In international relations, narratives matter, and China has been busy spinning a story of American perfidy that is demonstrably false.

In the acrimonious exchange between U.S. and Chinese diplomats on March 18 in Anchorage, Alaska, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Foreign Affairs Chief Yang Jiechi asked, “So have the Chinese people not suffered enough in the past from the foreign countries?” 

This statement reflects China’s narrative of victimization summed up in what the CCP calls the “Century of Humiliation,” according to which China’s setbacks since 1839 were due to foreign depredations, not the failures of China’s own leaders.  

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From the “Century of Humiliation” story, Chinese President Xi Jinping has built his concept of the “China Dream.” Unlike its American counterpart, Xi Jinping's China Dream is not based on personal fulfillment and freedom but it focuses on rejuvenation of China’s national power and prestige in the face of what it perceives as Western and, especially, American efforts to keep China down.

But it is false and dangerous to cast the U.S. as a traditional belittler of China. At critical turning points, the U.S. helped preserve China’s independence and promoted Chinese economic development.

Foreigners did plunder China. In the first Opium War from 1839-1842, British gunboats forced China to open its country to the sale of dangerous narcotics and sign unequal treaties that undermined Chinese sovereignty.  

The U.S. concluded its own unequal treaty with China in 1844, but with American characteristics. The U.S. treaty protected the rights of American missionaries to spread Christianity and allowed Americans to study the Chinese language, something China had forbidden. It also accepted China’s legal authority to prosecute Americans caught trading in opium.

As an enfeebled Manchu dynasty teetered, foreign powers prepared to carve up China like a melon, as Chinese often say. But, in 1899 and 1900, U.S. Secretary of State John Hay issued the Open Door Notes, urging foreign powers to respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Open Door Notes slowed European and Japanese encroachment on China. 

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Chinese depictions of victory over Japan in World War II leave one thing out: it was largely the United States and the nationalist Chinese that defeated Japan. The CCP played a relatively modest role. After the war, a victorious America abjured any special rights or territorial claims on China. 

The U.S. and China came to blows when North Korea invaded South Korean and U.S. forces pushed north to the Chinese border. Chinese “volunteers” joined the fray on the side of Korean communist leader Kim Il-sung. Rather than use its nuclear advantage to deliver a knockout blow against the fledgling People’s Republic of China (PRC), the U.S. demurred. President Truman fired his best general rather than chance a broader war with China.

When China and the Soviet Union engaged in border clashes in the late 1960s, the U.S. once again came to China’s aid, brushing off Soviet probes regarding a preemptive attack on Chinese nuclear facilities and engaging in a broad opening to China that effectively opposed Soviet “hegemony” in the East. 

When China emerged from its self-imposed chaos of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the United States joined others in pouring foreign direct investment into the country, contributing to the rise of China’s economic might

Most importantly, the U.S. championed a rules-based trading system that expanded China’s access foreign markets. The U.S. included China in the World Trade Organization in 2001 and opened its markets to Chinese goods. China accepted these opportunities gladly and, at the same time, widely violated American intellectual property rights in what FBI Director Christopher Wray has characterized as one of the “largest transfers of wealth in human history.”  

As China sought to learn from the West, the U.S. welcomed hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to America’s top universities. Xi Jinping sent his only child to study at Harvard.

And the U.S. Seventh Fleet kept the peace in East Asia, further facilitating China’s development. At each step, the U.S. pursued its own interests, but it did so in ways that also benefited China.

Beijing’s one-sided depiction of the U.S. as bent on undermining China threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Americans read China’s narrative as unfounded hostility toward the U.S. Moreover, anti-U.S. animosity stoked by Chinese leaders among the Chinese people may prove hard to control.  

A new cold war between the U.S. and China is not inevitable. But false PRC narratives about U.S. behavior toward China will only contribute to a further souring of relations.

The U.S. must look critically at the stories it tells itself about its own past. But so too must China compare its narrative of America’s role in the “Century of Humiliation” with the facts.

Just as Mao Zedong admired Chinese writer Lu Xun, Xi Jinping does too. Xun’s famous work “The True Story of Ah Q,” highlights foreign abuse of a hapless China. While it is tempting for Chinese leaders to cast the U.S. as a tormentor of China, that characterization is demonstrably false.  

The true story of Xi Jinping should reflect the more complex realities of the U.S.-China relations, for the good of both China and the U.S.

Mark C. Storella is professor of the Practice of Diplomacy at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and previously served as an American diplomat for three decades.