Connecting History

Connecting History logo


Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

History Shadows U.S.-China Relations

by Jeffery N. Wasserstrom on Sep 1, 2001

Jeffery N. Wasserstrom

When George W. Bush’s advisers brief him for his October trip to Beijing, they may be tempted to only discuss recent conflicts. They should resist this temptation.

Recent events certainly deserve attention. The collision last April between a Chinese jet and an American aircraft triggered a spy-plane crisis. And the Japanese Prime Minister’s plan to visit a shrine honoring soldiers who died for his country during World War II has inflamed tension between China and Japan.

When Bush gets to Beijing, however, one thing his hosts will have on their minds is the Boxer Protocol, which continues to be a source of outrage in China. The President needs to be acquainted with the details not just of current events but also of a crisis that ended a century ago on Sept. 7, 1901, the date of the signing of that controversial treaty. To have a successful summit, therefore, he should be briefed about the Boxer Crisis.

In 1899, groups of North China villagers attacked Protestant and Catholic missionaries and Chinese converts to these faiths. The militants claimed that worship of Christianity had angered local gods and caused a terrible drought. The Western press dubbed the Chinese militants ìBoxersî because they used martial arts fighting techniques.

Soon, the Boxers had slain a few dozen foreigners and hundreds of Chinese converts. They had also destroyed churches and other foreign properties.

In June of 1900, the Boxers laid siege to the foreign legation district of Beijing. Fifty-five days later, troops representing the United States, six European powers and Japan arrived to crush the uprising.

When the Protocol was drafted, it placed all of the blame on China. The treaty required China’s rulers to pay an indemnity of more than $30 million (then an astronomical amount) as compensation to foreign powers for the damage caused by the Boxers.

Chinese have long insisted and still claim that those nations should have been censured, not paid, in 1901.  Foreign soldiers committed war crimes, critics of the Protocol argue, and earlier acts of imperialist aggression had sown the seeds for the Boxer Rebellion by impinging on China’s national sovereignty.

One reason all this matters now is that a new issue of indemnities, linked to the spy-plane crisis, is currently a source of acrimony. Beijing has demanded one million dollars to make up for the death of a Chinese pilot and the cost of taking care of the American plane that landed in China without formal permission last April. Washington has countered with an offer of $30,000.

For all the differences between the Boxer Crisis and the spy-plane conflict, there is another parallel besides a wide difference of opinion about an indemnity. Now, as a century ago, competing visions of Chinese national sovereignty have been exposed, and radically different tales about who is to blame for acts of violence have begun to circulate.

Chinese and Western tales of the Boxers diverge most sharply concerning the events that followed the lifting of the siege. 

Western accounts typically say simply that foreign troops executed Boxers and restored order. Chinese versions describe savage campaigns of revenge. Schoolbooks speak of the “Invasion of the Eight Allied Armies.”

Bush should be aware that this label is used, and that the label is accurate. Foreign soldiers killed thousands of Chinese who were not Boxers. They looted Chinese national treasures. They raped Chinese women.

American soldiers did not behave as brutally as some other troops, but they still were part of an invading force that committed atrocities.

Recent tensions between China and Japan have shown yet again how insensitivity to historical wrongs can frustrate attempts to improve relations in the present. The Japanese government’s stubborn refusal to accept full responsibility for the heinous actions of Japanese troops during World War II continues to poison its interactions with neighbors.

Bush’s trip and the arrival of the Protocol’s centenary offer a rare opportunity to demonstrate our determination to try, in the 21st century, to do something Japan has been unable to do in dealing with China. Namely, to move out of the shadows cast by the tragedies of the 1900s.  

Mark Twain hailed the Boxers as heroic “patriots,” but the President need not — indeed should not — go that far.

It will be enough for him to convey to his hosts an understanding that during the Boxer Crisis people from many lands, including his own, ended up with the blood of innocents on their hands.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a writer for the History News Service and the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times" (2007).