Trump’s TikTok Deal Shows how Trade with China is Woven into the American DNARoundup
tags: social media, China, Trade, Donald Trump, TikTok
Sean Fraga is a historian of the North American West and a postdoctoral fellow with the USC–Mellon Humanities in a Digital World Program at the University of Southern California.
During the past few years, the Trump administration has been stoking an on-again, off-again trade war with China. By levying tariffs on Chinese imports, restricting immigration of Chinese students and skilled workers and moving to cut off TikTok and WeChat from American users, the administration has repeatedly erected economic and legal barriers between the United States and China. Even after months of shifting goals and deadlines, the Trump administration’s approval of a modified deal to allow TikTok to continue to operate in the United States has succeeded only in increasing the uncertainty for businesses operating between the United States and China.
But China has been economically important to the United States since the Revolutionary War — so much so that Americans spent most of the 19th century trying to lower physical barriers to trade with China. To do so, they undertook one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of the United States: building the transcontinental railroads.
Between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I, Americans built multiple railroads across the continent. Historians have explored these railroads’ effects on the United States in great detail: how the railroads flooded the North American West with White settlers, pushed corporate power to new heights and enabled environmental devastation.
But Americans at the time also saw railroads in global terms. They believed transcontinental railroads to Pacific harbors would make it easier for the United States to import valuable Chinese commodities, especially silk, tea and spices. Americans’ beliefs about the value of transpacific trade informed every aspect of the transcontinental railroads. This history shows how deeply trade with China is woven into the American fabric and suggests President Trump’s hostility toward China is unlikely to outlast his administration.
At first, expanding the nation to the Pacific Ocean seemed ludicrous. In the early 19th century, it took months to even cross the continent. Americans worried any settlements on the Pacific Coast would quickly break away from the distant United States, just as they themselves had revolted against far-off Britain. The Rocky Mountains, they believed, would create a natural barrier to territorial expansion. Even Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri senator and otherwise ardent expansionist, proposed “the statue of the fabled god, Terminus, should be raised upon [the Rockies’] highest peak” to mark the nation’s western border.
The railroad’s invention changed everything. High-speed steam-powered rail transportation promised to shrink the globe and profoundly altered how Americans imagined their country’s future. In 1845, Asa Whitney, a New York merchant in the China trade, proposed a railroad to the Pacific Ocean to carry “the teas and rich silks of China” across the continent. Suddenly, it seemed not only possible but lucrative for the United States to reach the Pacific Ocean.
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