MATT KIRSCHNER reflects on Chinese-American relations from a historical and personal perspective.

(wikimedia: Flying Tigers Planes)

Liu Zhengde was seven years old when Japanese soldiers invaded his home in Wuhan, China in 1938. Leaving their belongings behind, Zhengde and his family fled Wuhan for Chongqing—the provisional wartime capital of China. Zhengde’s father worked to support his three children, wife, sister, brother, sister-in-law, mother, and aunt. Together they lived in a small, cramped house and ate a diet of rice and porridge. Every day Japanese planes bombed the city. Whenever the city’s sirens sounded, Zhengde and his family would run outside to hide in ditches. The bombings killed over 10,000 Chinese in Chongqing, most of them civilians. This routine continued until 1941, when a group of about 100 American pilots recruited by President Franklin Roosevelt flew to China to help defend the country against Japanese invaders. They called themselves the Flying Tigers, a name derived from their aircrafts’ distinctive shark’s mouth paint scheme. One day Zhengde watched and cheered as the Flying Tigers shot down a Japanese bomber. The Flying Tigers shot down 299 Japanese aircraft and only lost 12 of their own. They helped stop the advance of the Japanese in China. When Japan surrendered in 1945, Chongqing hosted a celebration, during which Zhengde shook hands with the Flying Tigers and even played soccer with them. Zhengde developed a strong appreciation of peaceful relations between different cultures and peoples, and an especially strong sense of gratitude toward the U.S. Zhengde was my grandfather.

There aren’t many people like Zhengde left to tell their stories. If there were, maybe tensions wouldn’t be so high between China and the U.S. Eighty years after the Flying Tigers helped defend China from the Japanese invasion, the U.S. and China find themselves on opposing sides of a brewing cold war. How did relations deteriorate? After China successfully defended itself from Japan, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defeated Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, leading to a rapid decline in Sino-U.S. relations—especially as the U.S. entered the Cold War with the USSR. The U.S. saw communism as a threat to freedom and democracy around the world. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the U.S. fought on opposing sides. When the PRC bombed islands controlled by the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan, the U.S. actively intervened on behalf of the ROC. It wasn’t until 1979 that the U.S. established relations with and formally recognized the PRC as the sole government of China.

The U.S. and China developed a strong economic relationship during the 1980s. After Deng Xiaoping—paramount leader of the CCP following Mao Zedong’s death—opened China’s economy to foreign trade and investment, the U.S. and China became more and more dependent on one another. The U.S. benefited from China’s large supply of low-cost labor and China benefited from increased foreign investment, propelling the countries into a marriage of convenience. The U.S. attitude toward China grew optimistic, as the country seemed on a path to becoming a democratic and capitalist country. This optimism proved to be short-lived.

Since Xi Jinping was elected president of the PRC in 2013, the country has shown no signs of abandoning its communist roots, nor of embracing democratic institutions. Tensions have risen to new heights as the U.S. and China threaten each other’s international influence. On June 15, 2018, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) released a list of $34 billion worth of Chinese imported products with “industrially significant technology” that would be subject to a 25% import tariff. The tariffs were a response to unfair trade practices by Chinese companies, including allegations of intellectual property theft. China responded immediately with tariffs on exports critical to America’s agricultural sector, including soybeans. Thus began a back-and-forth economic battle involving tariffs and trade embargos. The trade war quickly morphed into a battle for leadership in core technologies like 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), and semiconductors. When COVID-19 emerged, the U.S. politicized the pandemic with the Trump administration accusing China of spreading the virus, further escalating tensions. All the while, China grew increasingly ambitious in its attempts to attack Taiwan for the sake of “Chinese reunification”—as well as to control Taiwan’s dominance in semiconductor production, which is key to AI development and the development of virtually all new technology. 

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan at the beginning of August may just be the spark to set off real fireworks. The U.S. doesn’t officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country under the One China policy but has repeatedly vowed to help Taiwan protect itself against potential attacks. While attempting to prevent Chinese infringements against Taiwanese freedom and democracy, Pelosi may have inadvertently given China an excuse to significantly ramp up their military presence surrounding Taiwan. After Pelosi’s visit, China reaffirmed its threat to use military force to bring Taiwan under its control, initiating a bombardment of missile firings into Taiwanese waters and airspace by Chinese warships and fighter planes. At this rate, the U.S. and China are on a collision course.

At a time of rising division in U.S. politics, anti-China sentiment seems to be the one thing gaining bipartisan support. Anti-China rhetoric and scapegoating of Chinese people for the spread of the COVID-19 virus has led to attacks against Asian Americans in the U.S. and a sharp increase in hate crimes. Hundreds of Chinese-American scientists were investigated solely because they are Chinese and had research collaborations with China. To add salt to the wounds, then President Trump joked about the “kung flu,” further exacerbating tensions. But China is complicit in edging the U.S. and China closer to conflict. In China, where there is virtually no freedom of the press, state media spews negative views about the U.S. During the COVID-19 outbreak Chinese state media propagated false narratives about COVID-19 originating from Fort Detrick—a bioresearch lab 60 miles from Washington D.C.—and being brought to Wuhan by members of the U.S. military. If war were to break out, both sides would bear responsibility for inflammatory rhetoric leading up to that point.

My grandfather Zhengde unfortunately isn’t around anymore to tell stories about the unique history he witnessed between the U.S. and China. If we can gain perspective on relations between China and the U.S. by remembering moments of solidarity and cooperation, perhaps both countries will be more likely to find common ground. My parents recently visited the WWII Pacific Memorial Hall Museum in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a small two room museum that highlights the heroism of Chinese and American soldiers during the war, with a special exhibit dedicated to the Flying Tigers. The museum is modest, and my parents were the only visitors at the time. But I believe that it’s small reminders like this museum that play a large role in continuing my grandfather’s legacy of sharing positive stories and giving hope to the future of China-U.S. relations.

Matt Kirschner can be contacted at Matt is a student at Yale in Ezra Stiles College from Bethesda, Maryland. He is double majoring in East Asian Studies and Economics and is interested in research and writing on contemporary China.