In 1792 and again in 1816, King George III of Britain sent ambassadors George Macartney and then William Pitt Amherst to China to negotiate the opening of trade between the leading country in the West and the leading country in the East.
In both cases, the British envoys were sent packing after refusing to kowtow as they approached China’s Celestial Emperor, which they found humiliating. The kowtow usually required the person approaching the throne to kneel three times and touch his forehead to the floor three times each to acknowledge the superiority of the Middle Kingdom.
Today, among the thousands of recommendations being thrust upon US president-elect Barack Obama comes one urging him to perform a virtual kowtow to the leaders of China by going to Beijing shortly after his inauguration.
The proposal is ill-advised and shows little understanding of China, past or present. Rather, the new president should invite Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to Washington with full honors at an appropriate time.
Jeffrey Garten, an undersecretary of commerce in the administration of former president Bill Clinton, has said: “Barack Obama’s first overseas trip should be to China and it should occur within a month after his inauguration on Jan. 20. He should bring Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his ambassador to Beijing.”
“Such a trip would be a showstopper, breaking all precedents,” Gartner, a professor at Yale, wrote in Newsweek magazine last weekend. “The trip would not be designed to negotiate or resolve specific issues. Instead, Obama would be setting the style and the tone of a new US approach to China.”
The Chinese, however, would see that visit as the young, new, and relatively inexperienced president coming, like the envoys of old, to pay tribute to China. In Asia, where symbols command more attention than in the West, an early Obama journey would be seen as the “Western barbarian” submitting to the power of the Chinese court.
US presidents since Richard Nixon have made the mistake of going to China before inviting a Chinese leader to Washington. In Chinese eyes — and for many others in Asia — this puts the president in the position of supplicant. It reinforces the Chinese belief that they are reviving the Middle Kingdom as the center of the world, destined to be superior to all others.
A picture of chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and Nixon in Mao’s study in 1972 had Mao slouched back and relaxed in an easy chair while Nixon sat up straight on the edge of his chair like a schoolboy before the headmaster. Asians everywhere saw that as evidence that Nixon had come to seek favor from Mao.
Former president Clinton may have been the worst offender in travel to China. He journeyed through China for nine days in 1998, longer than his trips to other nations, and was seen by the Chinese as the leader of the western barbarians being dazzled by the splendor of their country.
Further, he was enticed into publicly taking a position on Taiwan that appeared to favor China, which claims sovereignty over the latter and has threatened to take it with force. The US asserts that any resolution of the Taiwan issue must be acceptable to the people on Taiwan and be peaceable. It is the most troubling issue between China and the US.