In 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, China replaced the USA as the largest recipient of gold medals. On July 27, 2012, the Summer Olympic Games will open in London. Around the world, people are watching closely an exciting competition between the U.S. and China for Olympic superiority. However, few people realize that America introduced China to the Olympic movement nearly one hundred years ago. China’s first Olympic appearance was in 1932’s Los Angeles Olympic Games, and the country won its first Olympic gold medal at the same city in 1984. In 1980 Beijing eagerly joined the American initiative to boycott the Moscow Olympic Games. While China and the U.S. have competed against one another for global sports supremacy in recent years, their longer shared history of friendship and cooperation through Olympics has been largely forgotten, even by themselves.
The shared history between these two countries goes well beyond the Olympics. The names of the United States of America and China in Chinese literally mean the beautiful country (美国) and the middle kingdom (中国), respectively. For the Chinese ears, these names convey images and perceptions of both countries as places of attraction and greatness. Historically, the Chinese and Americans have shared a lot of similarities; both are very proud of their historical achievements and their rich traditions. The United States has been an attractive model for the Chinese since the early 20th century, while China was of great interest to the American founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin once stated that China, instead of Europe, would be a better model for the new country, and once called China “the wisest of nations.”
This mutual respect led the nations to partner during both peaceful and turbulent times. China and the USA were close military allies for first two world wars, with China cited as one of the “Four Policemen” in the world after World War II, largely through support from Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the Cold War era, however, China and the USA found themselves on opposing sides of the two hot wars: first directly during the Korean War, then indirectly during the Vietnam War. Interestingly, both countries share the commonality of a national identity crisis: the Chinese wonder whether China is a civilization, a nation-state, or a party-state, while Americans question whether their nation is an empire or a declining superpower.
This important but usually forgotten shared history between the Chinese and Americans should serve as a key reference point when we think about the future of Sino-American relations. To be true, nobody can deny that Sino-American relations are most important relations in the world today. But one key point most people often forget is that their unique shared history in the past will fundamentally define their present and future relations. China and the USA are neither friends nor enemies, as their common past has demonstrated. In many cases, they are even in the same boat and their future survival and continuous success depend on their mutual cooperation and support.
This mutual cooperation and support is necessary to help China reach its full potential. Despite its astronomical rise in recent decades, China has very limited soft power and has failed to produce its own Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Noble winning scientists. Yet.
A lack of cooperation originates from misunderstanding: many Chinese believe the Chinese know America better than the Americans know China. Even top Chinese leaders let this slip to Americans. But this is false. Americans have far better trained China experts than their Chinese counterparts on America. Average Americans have more reliable access and channels to understand China than average Chinese have on America. Moreover, many Chinese even don’t understand their own history and traditional cultures well enough. In April 1974, Deng Xiaoping met Henry Kissinger and asked him, “Doctor, are you familiar with Confucius?” In uncharacteristic modesty, Kissinger said “not in detail.” Although the Chinese are nowadays trying to return to traditional cultures and values to boost their soft power and political legitimacy, I am afraid that the most Chinese have to echo Kissinger’s answer, “not in detail” when prompted with the same question. The fact still is that before the Chinese know their own history well enough they simply do not have the tools to understand American-China policy and perceptions about China and the United States well.
Americans, on the other hand, must understand that China is more a civilization than a nation-state. Historically, China has focused more on soft power than hard power to project its influence. Confucian civilization emphasized culture, morality, and human harmony, while the West-dominated international system from the eighteenth century on focused more on hard power—military and economic strength, and cut-throat military and economic competition. While in the West since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the notion of a nation-state has dominated the notion of a civilization. The Americans must keep in mind that many Chinese still suffer from inferiority syndrome and historical victimization complex which made them very sensitive to foreign pressures and heavy-handed diplomacy. The Chinese are masters of the means (中庸之道) while Americans usually practice the very opposite diplomacy, predictably causing friction with China. Although China’s adoption of the Western way of international politics, it has tried to move back towards its traditional values upon becoming stronger. A good example is that the Chinese try to set up Confucius Institute abroad and pursue a harmonious society at home.
The key point this short piece tries to argue is that both Chinese and Americans have an important shared history in the past and even present. The future of Sino-American relations largely depends on both countries learning lessons from the past: China’s first global historian Sima Qian (司马迁) wrote more than two thousand years, “Those who don’t forget the past will be masters of future” (前事不忘，后事之师). It does not really matter whether Chinese or American athletes triumph at the London Games, what is at stake is that both Chinese and Americans need to keep their shared history in mind to make sure their collective future will be in good hands. Let the Games begin!
Xu Guoqi is professor of History at the University of Hong Kong and author of “Olympic Dreams: China and sports, 1895-2008” (Harvard University Press, 2008); “Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War” (Harvard University Press, 2008); “China and the Great War” (Cambridge University Press, 2005 and 2011). He is now finishing a book tentatively titled “Chinese and Americans: a cultural and international history”, under contract for Harvard University Press.