Oct. 1 marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, an especially momentous occasion for the Communist party, given that the Soviet Union lasted only 69 years. Marked in Beijing by a monumental military and civilian parade in front of the iconic Tiananmen Gate of the Forbidden City, the commemoration was — more than any event since arguably the 2008 Olympics — a statement by Beijing that a new era of the Chinese regime was in force at home and around the world, and a message to all to deal with it. In many ways, the event was more capstone than preparation: China has been the world’s second-largest economy for nearly a decade, and has become increasingly vigorous in its international diplomacy. This more publicly-confrontational China has been met in the US with its own reorientation of the basis of the relationship, away from China as a land of business opportunity and reform potential into a more fully-developed, near-peer adversary. The obvious consequences of this shift have been in the kinds of policies and objectives discussed in media and politics. A less-public, but perhaps more significant consequence of this shift has been in what kinds of individuals are elevated to centrality in the US dimension of the relationship. A dramatic increase in the relative importance of security concerns (see: Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc), as well as the clumsily-titled “trade war,” has led to a similarly dramatic diminution of the influence of business leaders and self-taught “Friends of China” who once dominated the landscape. But who were these people anyway?
In the summer of 2008, while on a brief trip back to New York City from my then-home in Shanghai, I was introduced to a gentleman in his early 70s, who told me he had been doing business in China since 1979. He was a huge man, portly, and well over six feet tall, with bright blue eyes and a shock of white hair. He had the demeanor of a mid-20th century Borscht Belt performer, and a loud, tooth-filled chortle to match. He told a series of ever-grander tales of his life and times in China: playing Bridge with Deng Xiaoping, drinking with Kissinger, negotiating market entry for BASF, and of an enormous banquet he organized to celebrate GM’s joint-venture partnership with Shanghai Automotive. He was jovial, with a love for and fascination about China that he wore on his sleeve. What he was most certainly not was a trained specialist on China in any way that we would recognize in the early 21st century. He had no formal education about the country or its politics. Despite decades of working there, he could not speak the language, and his understanding of Chinese history was riddled with half-truths, axiomatic oddities, Orientalist tropes, and unintentionally regurgitated CCP talking points. In 1979, he would have been as good as Marco Polo. By the time I met him, he was a relic.
He told a series of ever-grander tales of his life and times in China: playing Bridge with Deng Xiaoping, drinking with Kissinger, negotiating market entry for BASF, and of an enormous banquet he organized to celebrate GM’s joint-venture partnership with Shanghai Automotive.
This man was a “China Hand,” one of a breed of late 20th-century transpacific impresarios whose good timing, ambition, and energy catapulted them to the center of US-China relations across business, diplomacy, media, and economics for decades. In this, they followed something of a recurrent theme in American life that the first generation of big names in any field or industry are the showmen. With a reach that usually exceeds their training, and often their grasp, they bound into the unexplored wilds in search of wealth and renown, learning with each punch they take and each time they get up. We lionize them in our popular media and histories; they’re the ones who embody a particular American-ness we admire. But they also often have a messianic zeal about their role, and their work, missing forest for trees, and occasionally leading to mistakes as big as their successes. But when everything still feels up for grabs, and credentials aren’t yet formalized, their energy and ambition matter more than their lack of formal training, and they dominate the First Act.
Many of them, including most especially Henry Kissinger (who had no particular specialization in China before being dispatched by Nixon), were elevated and valorized by the Washington elite and the Op-Ed pages, and were in large measure responsible for promulgating many of the most reductive and catchy catechisms we have maintained about China ever since. This inclination was bolstered by the drought of public knowledge about China that has broadly existed for decades. In one particularly well-recounted exchange, Kissinger was deeply impressed with what seemed like profundity when in 1972, Zhou Enlai, then China’s foreign minister, responded to a question about the impact of the French Revolution with the alleged remark, “It’s too soon to tell.” In fact, there had been a translation error, and Zhou thought the question was on the Paris uprisings of 1968.
Taking advantage of the immense gap in mutual connections and knowledge between the countries, built up over decades of isolation under Mao, they quickly realized that the single most important asset they had was simply knowing anything and anyone at all in China. Even rudimentary knowledge was valuable when compared with total ignorance. In the absence of much in the way of minimum qualification requirements, they built up networks of party, government, and business contacts, and cultivated their narrative about China and influence in the US to put it to work. But the China Hands had been there, they had met people, they had done things. Many of them had become quite rich. Certainly, they knew, no?
Well, not exactly. Or rather, they possessed and cultivated a very particular kind of knowledge of China and an intellectual relationship to that knowledge: one focused very tightly around their own experience, the slice of time in which they were operating, and the broader narrative of development that was then dominant. They often focused on the immediately recent past (“Reform and Opening”), wild, unfounded extrapolations from their personal business experience (“They’re going to take over everything”), or highly orientalized axiomatic characterizations of “The Chinese” as a group (“They think in terms of centuries.” “Five thousand years of history.”). Not a single one of these assertions stands up to any kind of passing scrutiny, of course. But thoughts like those, and the mode of thinking that birthed them, came to populate conventional wisdom about China for years.
But now, as the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close, the US and China have entered the next act of the relationship, one that, by all available signals will be more mature, adversarial, multiaxial, and complex. To meet this challenge, American academic and professional institutions now mint specialists on China in economics, defense, industry, technology, language and politics every year, to fill all the technical roles of this high stakes diplomatic dance.
In whatever role they played in strengthening and intensifying the ties and exchanges between the US and China over the last 40 years, the China Hands have also helped create the conditions for their own impending extinction. A bilateral relationship as dense, broad, interwoven, and now also as precarious as the current relationship between the US and China has no more use for theatrical, entrepreneurial, self-taught mavens of transpacific relations to help shepherd it along. It is no longer enough to have been to Beijing and “have some friends in the Party.” One must know something, and know it deeply, to make a meaningful contribution to managing the relationship.
China Hands were once the one-eyed men in the land of the blind. And as we have all learned to see better, the limits of their insight have become more obvious. Kissinger’s 2011 tome of a memoir, “On China,” was rather tepidly received, and the fellow I met in 2008 has not been able to secure a new American or European client or deal in nearly a decade. Newer, younger, and more professionally-trained scholars, for whom mastery of the language is considered not a bonus but the price of entry, are becoming more regularly featured in publications. Our knowledge is growing more robust and more efficacious. The relationship has matured.
In their passing from relevance, the China Hands fulfill a role as traditional and recurrent in American life as their presence manifested. As the world into which they vaulted was new, exciting and unknown, a species of cultural and geopolitical frontier, so too is the end of the era in which they were central a kind of closing of that frontier, as Frederick Turner wrote of American life in 1893. One set of possibilities is over, one kind of future has been chosen, and others foreclosed upon. It is up to those of us here now to build something meaningful out of the future we have chosen for ourselves.
Peter T. Charles is a writer and a PhD student in Chinese politics and history in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @p_t_charles.