The Forbidden City, Beijing

Chinese History & Culture

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present

John Pomfret, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2016.

T
his comprehensive telling of the basic dynamics of U.S.-China relations is not only highly accurate but beautifully-written, with intriguing detail and photos and cartoons of key personalities and incidents. The excellent writing is delightful, if not surprising given the author’s career as a highly-respected journalist with both study and reporting from China as a Washington Post China correspondent and China editor. Pomfret has clearly immersed himself in all the relevant literature as well as researching archives for letters and other unpublished material. I would just add that the titles for the short chapters are intriguing, but don’t assist the reader in identifying specific themes or times. However, the detailed index is very helpful.

The book’s focus naturally is on national-level political and economic interests and actors in the U.S. and mainland China, up through today’s Silicon Valley immigrants and EB-5 investment visa holders. (Developments in Taiwan are touched on at the end of Chapter 41). But the author also explores less well-known but influential cultural (Ch. 12) and social interactions including Chinese immigrants and students in America (Chs. 5 and 41) and the pioneering Chinese Educational Mission (Ch. 5). Chapters 3–6 point to the influential role of Christian missionaries in early diplomacy and modern education, and later on in other professional fields. Ch. 7 highlights the positive impact of women missionaries. The result is a portrait of the many-sided contribution by American society in China’s modernization, much of which is not officially acknowledged in China. The book has less coverage of the post-Mao development of the Chinese church as part of the broad resurgence of civil society, though these too have benefited from input by American religious and social resources.

Especially commendable are Chapters 19–22 on World War II alliance and Ch. 28 on war in Korea. They are extremes reflecting the author’s main thesis—that a persistent cycle between collaboration and hostility dates back to the days of sailing ships. The swings of opinion between political poles in both countries produce inflated optimism expecting unrealistic benefits from the relationship or inflated pessimism and suspicion of the other.

The author with his clear-eyed viewpoint produces key insights from the intricate interaction of shifting geopolitical interests and happenstance. For example, pages 88–89 explain the cooling of relations with the American Exclusion Act and China’s aborting of the CEM, followed by a drop in trade and U.S. turn toward Japan. Pages 245–46 detail the reverse trend in the 1930s as China was depicted as a budding democracy under threat from Japan, worthy of American aid.

Although the author persuasively calls for a more realistic China policy, there are occasions when he overstates American gullibility vs China’s alleged superior diplomacy (or perfidy). For example, while I agree (page 594) that the Clinton and Bush administrations sought to enmesh China in a web of international agreements, I disagree this amounted to a goal of elevating China as a global power. The author himself sometimes backs away from his theses. He repeats an argument that U.S. interests are served mainly by stability in China, whether it follows the American political and social order or not. Yet the Afterword, page 635, admits the U.S. must continue “the painstakingly slow process of convincing China’s government of the need for political reform” as essential to sustain stability.

In all, this highly commendable and thought-provoking book makes clear the difficulties facing both governments as they seek to use a mix of engagement and containment to manage all the factors affecting this increasingly important relationship. This book belongs on your book shelf or in your e-reader as a most valuable and entertaining reference.