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Foreign Policy

The U.S. and China: Inextricably Linked

Jun 13, 2019
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

China and the United States of America have a long and complex history.

Many Chinese came to America to find their fortunes at Gold Mountain during the California gold rush. Coming from the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian in China, they fled war, war, poverty and misery in China. The Taiping War – raging at the time – consumed an estimated 20 and 30 million people and evaporated the economy of that entire region. 

Landing in Angel Island located in San Francisco Bay, they came to find work and make a new life for themselves and the families they left behind. The very areas they left are now booming in China today.

One-hundred and fifty years ago –post Civil War – was a time of great American initiative. With the help of Chinese labor, the Transcontinental Railway was completed – a great, anticipated railway from coast to coast. In May of 1869, with the final golden spike hammered at Promontory Point, Utah, the country was connected rail-to-rail – a mighty American feat made possible with Chinese labor in California and the West by the combining of the Central Pacific in the west and the Union Pacific railway in the east. Yet, Chinese contributions have been virtually erased from American history.

Looking closely at the 150-year-old celebratory pictures that capture this awesome accomplishment, one notes a group of workers conspicuously absent: the Chinese. There are virtually no Chinese faces among the men celebrating this incredible feat of engineering that linked a nation together after the tumult of the Civil War, marking a new beginning of industry and wealth for the United States. The beginnings of our rise as a global power. 

As many as 20,000 Chinese laborers worked to build the Transcontinental Railway. We see, bosses and politicians, wealthy barons and railway workers – but no Chinese workers. The Chinese were paid only 1/3 of what their Irish immigrants and Civil War vets were earning, working long hours and living in shacks to lay track throughout the West.

Chinese men, far from home, laid their lives on the line to connect America. They perished at an alarming rate. These workers were considered expendable, given the most difficult, riskiest, and dirty jobs that others were unwilling to accomplish. Leland Stanford, a railway baron, argued against hiring the Chinese, but Charles Crocker, another wealthy Californian, knew better. He argued for Chinese laborers who were far better workers than their American counterparts, who spent their earnings in brothels and gambling dens, often not turning up for work.

After the completion of the railroad, the country entered an economic recession and racism reared its ugly American head: Chinese workers were scapegoated, driven out, violently attacked, their homes burned all over the western states. 

Then in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that codified exactly how much the Chinese were not welcome. People whose labor was used to literally build and connect this country were not wanted. This first anti-immigrant law targeted the Chinese.

All Aboard? Fast Forward to 2019

These early exclusions still reverberate today with the US/China-Trump-tariff trade dispute. With all this finger-pointing going on between our two nations and within America today, who is at fault?  I say:  “Those without sin, cast the first stone.”

There are many reasons to push back against China and trade policies, but ”forcing U.S. companies to transfer technology as a price of doing business in China,” is not one of them. 

The United States has long tried to enter the Chinese markets, first in the 1990s by declaring China’s ‘most favored nation’ status, made permanent in 2001. Since then, U.S. companies have made economic and business decision to play by China’s rules for access to their market of 1.4 billion consumers. American CEO’s and shareholders built factories in China, getting rich in the doing. To blame the Chinese for American executives’ greed is disingenuous at best.

China may be guilty of “stealing U.S. intellectual property”, but last I looked, we have not compensated China for their four great inventions (and there are others): 1) paper, 2) the compass, 3) gunpowder, and 4) printing (both woodblock and movable type). While two wrongs don’t make a right, to borrow a well-used phrase, those who “forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

Nor has the U.S. apologized for abusing and murdering Chinese laborers in the building of the Transcontinental Railway – celebrating its 150th Anniversary this month – or for passing the Chinese Exclusionary Act, making it illegal for Chinese people to enter the US. 

The Trump approach to try to embarrass, bully, and intimidate China will not be a winning strategy for our country in the long run. 

With a 5,000 year history and a century of humiliation (1849-1949) still seen in their rearview mirror, China’s leaders cannot and will not risk being seen as weak in the eyes of its newly wealthy and proud people. 

The only way forward in this tariff/trade war game of tit-for-tat is a face-saving win-win for both sides to declare victory and move forward.

America Needs an Investment Strategy

While we are attempting to slow China’s rise, we have taken our eyes off the prize. 

As the 21st unfolds, those that invest in knowledge, talent, education, innovation, creativity, big data, AI (Artificial Intelligence) and infrastructure will prevail. Those that don’t will fail.

China is investing at home and abroad in initiatives that only make them stronger: infrastructure, education, technology, AI and ‘big data’ while attempting to buy friends around the globe by investing in global resources. At the same time, America is disinvesting and alienating our allies. America needs to create a national strategy in order to counter the threat of China’s rise. Addressing the trade issue may truly be the easiest part. 

While President Trump makes China the boogieman, the problems of the American people are being diverted from the need to invest in our collective futures. We need to do so if we wish to remain “great’ and “number one”. There is no God-given right for the USA to remain number 1.

Whining about China and starting a unilateral trade war is not a winning strategy. US leaderships needs to understand that our greatest fear should not be China’s successes, but its potential failure. When China stumbles the world will tumble.

With thoughtful American leadership, China’s rise need not come at our demise. Hopefully a face-saving, win-win compromise can be negotiated soon before more harm is done to the American people. 

Be clear, America’s farmers, manufacturers and consumers are paying the price of Trump’s trade war. 

The US/China relationship remains the most important bilateral relationship in the world today: how our respective leaders, Presidents Trump and Xi need to resolve this dispute that is already impacting Americans, Chinese and potentially all of humanity.  

It is important to all that a win-win solution is soon found soon.


In this great 150th Transcontinental Railway Anniversary, let’s not allow our trade dispute to railroad the American or the Chinese people.

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