By Jeffrey Wasserstrom
In April 1990, nearly a year after the Chinese government had quashed the protests in Tiananmen Square, sparking international outrage, recently retired leader Deng Xiaoping gave a speech in which he alluded to the crackdown and its aftermath, making a telling historical comparison in the process. “I am familiar with the history of foreign aggression against China,” he said. “When I heard that seven Western countries . . . had decided to impose sanctions on China, my immediate association was to 1900, when the allied forces of the eight powers invaded China.” Deng was referring to the Boxer Crisis, which began in 1899 with members of a rural religious sect attacking Chinese Catholics and Protestants; peaked with a mid-1900 siege of Beijing’s legations quarter that endangered the lives of hundreds of foreigners, including diplomats and their families; and ended in 1901 when the Qing dynasty, which had supported the anti-Christian agitation, agreed to pay a large indemnity to a consortium of foreign powers to compensate them for losses of life and property.
The actions of the anti-Christian Boxers and the Eight Nation Allied Army that invaded China to battle them have been and remain common and often highly charged points of reference in contemporary China. Today, as The New York Times and other publications have noted, many in China have taken a renewed interest in the Boxer Crisis, as evidenced by a pair of juxtaposed photographs—one taken more than a century ago, the other snapped earlier this month—that have gone viral on Chinese social media platforms.
THE SIGN OF A NEW ERA?
One of the images shows a group of American and Chinese officials arrayed around a table in Washington during a recent meeting. The other depicts a similar-looking international gathering held in Beijing in 1901. It was taken during the negotiation of what Westerners called the “Boxer Protocol,” one of the most infamous of the unequal treaties imposed on a weak China between the Opium War (1839–42) and World War II, a period known in the country as the “Century of Humiliation.”
trending on Weibo…people compare the trade negotiation with the signing of Boxer Protocol in 1901 pic.twitter.com/oqhmJQvv4t
— Krystal Hu (@readkrystalhu) May 17, 2018
As most Internet commentators noted, the photographs suggest a notable shift in international relations. In the 1901 picture, aged and weary-looking officials of the Qing dynasty sit across the table from their young international counterparts. The image seems to symbolize the inability of China to defend itself from vigorous young foreigners who hail from all over the world, including Japan, Russia, and the United States. In the 2018 photo, by contrast, it is the Chinese trade officials who exude youth and vitality as they meet with U.S. congressional leaders of advancing age and worn-down dispositions. (One sign that some things have stayed depressingly resistant to change is that every single person in the 1901 photograph is male, while in 2018, despite heightened global concerns over gender disparities in the foreign policy sphere, there is just one woman at the table.)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who also heads the Chinese Communist Party, is striving to make his country the equal of the United States in the global arena. By posting the two photos together, social media users are suggesting that an even more dramatic change has already happened. The 1901 script has been flipped, and an era of Chinese dominance and U.S. withdrawal has begun.
In 1990, Deng remarked on something that, in his view, had not changed since the Boxer Crisis: foreign powers were still prone to ganging up on China. The juxtaposed photos are used to make the opposite point—that China today stands strong. Other commentators have added that it is now the United States under President Donald Trump that, like China under the late Qing dynasty, is closing itself off from the world and resisting the international order.
Yet there are problems with this reading of the photos, as some eagle-eyed analysts have been quick to note. For one, Vice Premier Liu He, leader of the Chinese delegation, is 66 years old—not exactly in the first bloom of youth. Moreover, as the journalist James Palmer pointed out on Twitter, “China is massively gerontocratic,” with a looming demographic crisis brought on by an increasingly large population of elderly citizens. Although the juxtaposition makes for a tweetable post, the “young China versus old United States” dichotomy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Similarly, although Xi may talk a good globalization game, his actions tell a different story. He, like Trump, is an economic nationalist. And he has made it clear that he will allow only certain kinds of ideas and information to flow into China.
This sudden reminiscing of the Boxer Crisis, a series of events that bear a familiar name but whose details are little remembered outside of China, may seem odd to many in the West. Even widely read Americans usually know very little about what happened; their knowledge of the crisis generally extends no further than the fact that for 55 days in 1900 all of Beijing’s foreigners were trapped in a siege and that, eventually, foreign armies rode to the rescue.
In China, schoolchildren typically have much more detailed, albeit skewed, bodies of knowledge to draw on about the Boxer Crisis. They may have heard little about the large number of Chinese Christians and smaller number of missionary families killed by the Boxers—whose name derives from their use of martial arts fighting techniques and who were not really “rebels,” as they have been labeled by many Western historians, since they worked with the Qing dynasty during the siege. Chinese students have read a good deal in their textbooks, however, about the violent campaigns of reprisal and looting, which Mark Twain aptly likened to brutal pirate raids, that foreign soldiers carried out after conquering Beijing.
BOXER ANALOGIES THROUGH HISTORY
Comparing a breaking news story with the Boxer Crisis fits a pattern in international affairs. Whenever tensions rise in Beijing’s relations with other parts of the world, someone somewhere finds a Boxer angle. In 1905, for example, some Americans in China decried a nonviolent boycott drive criticizing U.S. immigration policies as being a new Boxer movement; the Japanese raised this same cry in 1919 and the British in 1925 when boycotts targeted their countries. In 1966, the Western press made Boxer analogies when Red Guards, inspired by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution–era calls for youths to take bold actions against all domestic counterrevolutionaries and representatives of imperialism, lashed out against foreigners.
Boxer Crisis analogies were in the air yet again in 1999, after NATO bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese citizens—but in that case they flew in two very different directions. When crowds of young protesters trapped the U.S. ambassador inside the American embassy in Beijing and threw paintballs at its walls, some Western journalists thought that the Boxer spirit of madness was taking hold again in China. Chinese media outlets, by contrast, playing in part on the terms “NATO” and “Eight Nation Allied Army,” which share some of the same characters in the Chinese language, lamented that nearly a century after the savage invasion of 1900, Chinese were again being killed by a fighting force of which Americans were part.
When compared with these previous instances, the Boxer Crisis reference in the juxtaposed photos offers something new: it illuminates the degree of Chinese self-confidence in the age of Xi. If one looks back a few years, though, another point of reference for this “see how times have changed” attitude comes to mind. It came also at another key moment in history, in the so-called Century of Humiliation: the Sino-Japanese War that began in 1894 and ended with the Qing dynasty signing another “unequal” treaty in 1895.
In China, given the importance of 60-year cycles, 120th anniversaries are symbolically laden in the way that bicentennials are in the West, so at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, there were numerous reflections on the start of the Sino-Japanese War. As far as we know, no “then and now” photographs went viral. Many Chinese commentators pointed out, however, that although Japan had surprised the world by besting China in the mid-1890s to become, for the first time, the dominant power in East Asia, the situation was now very different. It was their country, not Japan, that was on the rise and reclaiming its old position as the largest economy and major military power of its region.
Despite Trump’s occasional boasts about how fast he has forged a strong friendship with Xi, the U.S.-Chinese relationship remains in a fragile state owing to many factors, including how different the history of interactions between the two countries can look when viewed from Washington as opposed to from Beijing. When Trump and his advisers invoke history in threatening to launch a trade war against Beijing, for example, they present the story of the two countries as defined by the recent period when a bullying China has been taking advantage of allegedly “weak” U.S. administrations. In Beijing, by contrast, a key point of reference when thinking about the history of the U.S.-Chinese relationship remains the point in 1901 when Washington was part of a coalition that bullied an enfeebled dynasty to accept yet another unequal treaty. It is impossible to say what the future holds for U.S.-Chinese relations, but two things seem certain. One is that there will be new crises. The other is that when these crises erupt, no matter what form they take, one or both sides will bring up analogies of some kind to the previous crisis that occurred in the time of the Boxers.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.