Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: A Tale of Two Presidents in China

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is the Editor of the “China Beat” blog/electronic magazine and a graduate student in history at the University of California, Ivrine.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press, April 2010).

Note: an earlier version of this essay appeared on the “History News Network” website.]

There was a lot of debate in the American press late last year over whether Barack Obama’s first trip to China was a success, but there was a consensus on one thing: it was best understood in light of the visits to Beijing that other American presidents have made since the seventies.

We agree. But we do not just mean the 1970s, which is as far back as other commentators tended to go. We think that a look back to the 1870s has at least as much to tell us....

The significance of the 1870s lies in the fact that Ulysses S. Grant was on a world tour that included a stop in China as that decade came to a close. And although by the time Grant did his globetrotting, he was a former occupant of the White House, he did many of the same things in China that ex-President that Nixon, Obama, and all recent Commanders-in-Chief in between have done while in office.

Grant met with some of China's leaders (including Li Hongzhang) to discuss U.S.-China relations. He expressed the hope for a future in which closer ties would develop between our “young” country and the “ancient” one across the Pacific. And he even went to see the Great Wall and reflected on its meaning. In his case, inspired by a comment about the landmark made by William H. Seward (a member of Abraham Lincoln's storied "team of rivals" who made it to China earlier in the 1870s), Grant mused on the fact that as much labor was probably required to construct it as had been expended on building all of America's railroads, which at the time were considered marvels of state-of-the-art engineering....

One such striking parallel relates to large-scale global events. The most important of these in Grant’s day were World’s Fairs, and just three years before his trip to China, he had presided over the first of these ever held outside of Europe. That spectacle, the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, signaled America’s entry into the charmed circle of thoroughly modern lands. It was a wake-up call to established powers such as France and Great Britain that the ground was shifting under their feet--though the impressive showing American industry had made the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, the very first World's Fair, had made some European leaders take notice even earlier.

The Olympics are now as important as World’s Fairs once were. And when Obama went to China, it was his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, who was fresh from presiding over a grand spectacle, the 2008 Beijing Games, which was the first event of its kind held on Chinese soil. Like the Philadelphia World's Fair, it was viewed by many as an impressively produced gala. And like that International Exhibition, it was interpreted as symbolizing that a familiar geopolitical landscape had been altered, and would soon perhaps be transformed further....

These kinds of switches should not surprise us for, the great contrasts relating to political systems aside, China is now much like the U.S. was then. This is a point that others have made before us, including American historian Stephen Mihm, whose essay "A Nation of Outlaws"(Boston Globe, August 26, 2007) traces parallels between the way an era of "exuberant capitalism" played out on our side of the Pacific over a century ago and is now unfolding in China.

Read entire article at China Daily

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