China and the World Have Some Interesting History — In the Game of Negotiations, Trade or Otherwise, It Helps to Know the Players

Street scene of daily life in China, by Eva Dunlap. Undated circa 1920s. Digital file ©2019 All rights reserved.

China and the Unites States are in the midst of trade negotiations. There are China-Europe and China-Everywhere-else-in-the-world negotiations going on as well. There is a long and complex history which illuminates the differences, striking or nuanced, between the players.

Here is one small piece of that history.

In 1911 Eva and Albert Dunlap*, just married, left America for Shanghai, China. Albert a doctor of otolaryngology, and recent graduate of Harvard medical school was part of a group of fellow graduates and others who were on an adventure to establish a medical college in China**. In their 40 plus years in China he and Eva, (an accomplished classical vocalist, artist and teacher who managed the household and raised six children), established a great social and cultural network of friends, professional associates, active politicians and military personnel. They were prolific writers, Eva left dozens of diaries and thousands of letters with details of daily life, including the world events that often engulfed their lives.

Throughout their years in China the Dunlaps saw many armed conflicts and invasions. In the early years, 1911–1916, factions fought near the western compound where they lived. Eva wrote to her family back in America that she could hear the gunfire out in the street, but not to worry, we have protection, and after-all it’s not aimed at us.

In 1908, 3 years before the Dunlaps arrived, the Empress Dowager Cixi died. This ended one era of Chinese-Western world interaction and began a new one. One of the lessons of this history is that the old era never really had closure. Several European governments and to some extent America and Japan made investments in China’s infrastructure (e.g., railroads) during the1800s. This sort of investment in technology was often imposed on Cixi, the de facto power of China. It was a way of offering a benefit to China, some cash or a convenience. But it came at the cost of being more to the benefit of the foreign investor. This is not unusual for any investor, it’s why people invest in things, but it did not please Cixi.

Simply put, Cixi and the Chinese government were put in the position of owing the foreign powers for their help. Once that reality became obvious, Cixi sought to change the situation. She thought one opportunity was the Boxer movement. This was a small faction on the rise in late nineteenth century China. A primary Boxer goal was to rid China of all foreign invaders and their influence, especially missionaries and the native Chinese they had converted to Christianity.

As Cixi began to support this movement it grew into the Boxer Rebellion*** November 2, 1899 to September 7, 1901. It was an extremely harsh period focused on the killing of foreigners and ultimately ended by the combined military power of European, Japanese and American forces. The cost of waging and losing this conflict was enormous for China, reparations were paid to foreign governments well into the twentieth century.

The decade that brought Eva and Albert to China also brought wave after wave of conflict to China. Eva witnessed and wrote, in her diaries and letters, that the Chinese people had a long memory and a resilience that we (our culture) could learn from.

In today’s environment it’s easy to think that a topic at hand is all that matters — trade, licensing, business — that our culture and memories are the only ones we need to acknowledge and understand. Maybe they are, it’s hard to understand something with which you have no experience. But that does not change the existence of the other person or group’s point of view. If you choose to not acknowledge it then you have chosen to limit your knowledge, understanding, and power.

The Chinese government for centuries kept closed borders, then had mixed results with the outside influence of the western world. If we ignore the roots of why they may be less than happy about negotiating with us now then we are simply repeating the mistakes of the past. Cixi tried to save what she saw as a bad deal, by betting everything and then losing so much more. This cautionary tale applies any negotiation that involves betting to “get more” when you already have so much that winning more is irrelevant and losing can cost so much more than you have.

The caution we should have now — just as the saying goes blood is thicker than water, we may find that traditional bias is more compelling than common sense. By knowing China and the people for over 40 years, Eva learned that as a culture China has the patience of the Ancient. America has the exuberance of the young. We can learn from each other.

Tales are there to be told whenever you are ready to listen.

*Albert and Eva Dunlap are my grandparents. I am working on a book about their years in China 1911–1953, and the interesting times they experienced there.
**Spoiler Alert: Albert and his associates were successful in their founding of Peking Union Medical College, which still stands today as a top tier medical college in China.
***Further reading:
The Search for Modern China, Jonathan D. Spence. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/162556.The_Search_For_Modern_China

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