As trade war escalates, Chinese remember ‘national humiliation’

A woman poses for photos at the ruins of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. In 1860, British and French troops burned it to the ground in an era the Chinese remember as a “century of humiliation."
A woman poses for photos at the ruins of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. In 1860, British and French troops burned it to the ground in an era the Chinese remember as a “century of humiliation.”
(Mark Ralston / AFP)

As Li Xuewei stepped through the ruins of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, one phrase repeated itself in her mind — and on almost every explanatory sign:

Wu wang guo chi. “Don’t forget national humiliation.”

The 24-year-old medical student was visiting the capital from Shandong province for the first time with her boyfriend, Jia Jiyao.

They’d come to see a scene printed in every Chinese student’s textbooks: a devastated palace, its European-style columns now broken, their swoops and arches upturned among jumbled piles of rocks.


Li learned this place’s history as a child. The Qing Dynasty called it Yuanmingyuan, “Garden of Eternal Brightness,” a sprawling “garden of gardens” famed for its architecture, art and imperial landscaping.

In 1860, British and French troops ravaged the palace, looting, then burning it to the ground as part of the Second Opium War — a war fought over Western forces’ demand for better trade terms and access to Chinese markets.

As the U.S.-China trade war escalates, many Chinese are recalling a state-sponsored narrative of China’s “century of humiliation,” when a weakening imperial China fell prey to Western and Japanese colonialism during the 19th and 20th centuries.

On Friday, the U.S. increased tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods. On Monday, China announced it would raise tariffs on $60 billion of American goods in return.

Liu He, China’s vice premier and chief negotiator in the trade talks, told state media that China’s demands are a removal of U.S. tariffs, better terms of procurement, and “balanced text” in the trade agreement.

“The text must be balanced and expressed in terms that are acceptable to the Chinese people and do not undermine the sovereignty and dignity of the country,” wrote the People’s Daily, a state mouthpiece, over the weekend.

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The insistence on balance comes from an idea that each of China’s 1.4 billion people memorize in school and then ingest from state propaganda: Wu wang guo chi, especially in the form of “unequal treaties.”

Modern Chinese history taught in schools begins with the Opium Wars, when Britain smuggled opium into China to make up for its trade deficit.

China resisted, leading to war, and China then signed a series of infamous unequal treaties, ceding numerous ports, trade access, territorial rights and legal extraterritoriality to foreigners.

“We used to be so behind. Everything was destroyed by those invaders,” Li said. Visiting the ruins made her thankful for how strong China had since become, she said.

“I think China isn’t scared of anything anymore. Whatever happens with the trade war, I don’t think we’ll lose,” she said.

Jia, her boyfriend, said China has the confidence to push for fair treatment in negotiations.

“America can ‘punish’ China with tariffs, but China can impose tariffs right back,” he said. “We can stand on equal ground.”

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Many visitors to Yuanmingyuan on Monday were not thinking about the trade war. Willow trees leaned over glassy blue lakes, tickling the water with their branches.

Tourists took photos for social media with Qing Dynasty-themed frames, dressing up as emperors while eating ice cream and jianbing, crunchy Chinese crepes.

A grandfather in his 60s from Wuhan, who identified himself as Li but declined to give his full name because of privacy concerns, was holding his grandson’s hand as they walked out of the ruins.

“See what the foreigners did to us?” he said to the toddler. “The country needs to be strong, or else you get bullied. We were too weak; that’s why this happened.”

The biggest perception gap between the United States and China lies in both sides’ sense of entitlement, said Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London.

“China feels like it morally deserves this moment of renaissance after its terrible modern history, and doesn’t feel like the West has the right to stop it,” Brown said. “America feels like it’s been giving too much and never been getting what it really wanted.”

Specifically, the United States supported China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and allowed market access to China, without getting full access in return. Meanwhile, China also did not democratize or liberalize as the U.S. had expected.

“The U.S. has not been perfect, but it really did make a considerable effort over a very long period of time to cast the die in a different way,” said Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.

“But it all demanded in some fundamental unspoken way on China slowly reforming and changing. Not to become more like us, but to become more congruent with the global system, the rules-based order, with open markets, more open politics,” Schell said.

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Those reforms haven’t happened, but to many Chinese people, they don’t matter as much as being wealthy, strong and able to resist foreign pressures.

Yuan Taoguan, 37, sat with her parents under a tree at the ruins Monday. She was taking them on a trip from their hometown in the mountains of southwestern China’s Yunnan province. The ruins were sad, she said, but it should be impossible for that kind of foreign pillaging to ever happen again.

“America is strong, but it can’t do whatever it wants anymore,” Yuan said. She wasn’t following the trade war, but she didn’t think things would escalate.

“Now it’s a peaceful era, isn’t it?” Yuan said.

Meng Guangchun, a retired coal mine engineer from Shandong, said it was his first time at Yuanmingyuan, though he’d been to Beijing many times. Qing Dynasty China’s problems were weak governance and poverty, he said.

“We were really poor. We didn’t have a strong military or money to spend on it,” Meng said. “Now it’s not possible to have unequal treaties, because now China is wealthy and strong.”

The United States was probably afraid of China, he thought, because China is so big and developing so fast.

“Now they have some competition for the No. 1 spot in the world,” Meng said. “If they sanction us, we’ll sanction them right back. China has defensive power now.”