Office of the Historian
United States Relations with China: Boxer Uprising to Cold War (1900-1949)
1900: The Boxer Uprising
In the late 19th century, anti-foreign sentiments merged with rural unrest and mystical cults to give rise to the Boxer movement. Practicing martial arts and espousing a slogan of "support the Qing, destroy the foreign," the "Boxers United in Righteousness" targeted all foreigners and Chinese Christian converts, who suffered violent attacks. The Uprising reached a peak in the spring and summer of 1900 when Boxer forces marched on Beijing, with the support of the Qing court. For two months the Boxers occupied the capital and besieged the foreign legation district, where the foreign community and a large group of Chinese Christians barricaded themselves within the legations. The foreigners managed to resist repeated Boxer attacks until a multinational force finally fought its way in from the coast and reached Beijing, lifting the siege. U.S. marines played a key role in defending the legations during the siege and also joined the multinational force that crushed the Boxers.
1901: The Boxer Protocol Signed
After defeating the Boxers, the foreign powers forced the Qing to submit to a punitive settlement that included a huge indemnity ($333 million) to be paid to the foreign nations. This essentially bankrupted the Qing government, which already faced serious financial difficulties.
1902, 1904: Provisions of the Geary Act Extended and Expanded
The U.S. Congress continued to pass restrictive legislation regarding Chinese immigration; new laws aimed both at preventing the arrival of more Chinese and establishing guidelines for the ultimate removal of all of those already in the United States. These exclusionary laws contributed to the ghettoization of Chinese communities in the United States as Chinese become more and more concentrated in insular Chinatowns in major urban areas across the country.
1905-06: Anti-American Boycotts in China
After the United States and China failed to come to an agreement on a new immigration treaty in 1904, Chinese in Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities launched boycotts of U.S. products and businesses. Some of the inspiration for the boycotts came from Chinese living in the United States, but the primary motivation was the nationalism that was rising in China.
1908: Remittance of the Boxer Indemnity
On May 25, Congress issued a joint resolution remitting the surplus amount of the U.S. portion of the Boxer Indemnity (roughly $11 million out of an initial $24 million) to the Chinese government. The United States was the first country to do something of this kind, and in response, the Qing decided to send between 50 and 100 students a year to receive their education in the United States. Secretary of State Elihu Root determined that the remitted funds would be used to finance this educational program.
1908: Root-Takahira Agreement
Secretary of State Root exchanged notes with Japan's Ambassador to the United States, Takahira Kogorô, which confirmed Japan's special interests and influence in Northeast China and Korea. The agreement also reaffirmed the Open Door policy regarding the preservation of China's territorial integrity.
1911: The Fall of the Qing Dynasty
Early in the 20th century the Qing finally enacted a range of reforms, including ending the centuries-old civil service examination system and constitutional changes, but these measures proved to be too little, too late. Discontent with the government rose, and when the Qing attempted to nationalize all of the regional railroads, and took out more foreign loans to do so, it proved to be the breaking point. An uprising broke out in the inland city of Wuhan in October, and within a few months local rebellions took place throughout the country. These eventually led to the fall of the dynasty.
1912: Founding of the Republic of China
The Qing collapsed during the fall of 1911, and on January 1, 1912, Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) took office as the provisional president of the newly created Republic of China. Although Sun's Revolutionary Alliance had widespread support, the power lay with regional militaries, and within a few months Sun stepped down in favor of General Yuan Shikai.
1915: Japan's 21 Demands
After entering World War I on the side of the Allies, Japan seized German territories in Shandong Province. Japan then issued 21 demands to the Chinese Government, seeking extensive new trade and territorial privileges. President Woodrow Wilson objected to these demands as being a rejection of the Open Door policy, and the U.S. Minister in China, Paul Reinsch, advised the Chinese to resist as long as possible. Eventually Japan dropped the portions that most severely compromised China's sovereignty, and the Chinese agreed to the rest.
1917: Lansing-Ishii Agreement
With this agreement, signed by Secretary of State Robert Lansing and Japanese envoy Ishii Kikujirô, the United States reaffirmed its acknowledgement of Japan's "special interests" in Northeast China.
1917: China Entered the Warlord Period
Yuan Shikai, in a last-ditch effort to hold China together under his control, had himself proclaimed Emperor in 1916, but soon thereafter he passed away. The following year, China fragmented into territorial fiefdoms ruled by local warlords, with a nominal national regime located in Beijing. The United States maintained diplomatic relations with this Government, but U.S. citizens and companies in China often dealt directly with local leaders.
1919: Treaty of Versailles and May Fourth Incident
China had joined the Allies in World War I, partly at U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's urging, and hoped that in return it would regain control over the former German concessions that Japan had seized. However, this hope was not fulfilled by the Treaty of Versailles, due mostly to secret agreements between Japan, Britain, and France to give those territories to Japan. When word of this reached China, on May 4 students gathered for a demonstration at the Tiananmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace) in Beijing, and then stormed the house of a pro-Japanese minister, to express their discontent. This launched the May Fourth Movement, a mostly urban movement that combined cultural and educational reform with rising nationalism and a new energy for thorough political and social transformation. Although some felt betrayed by Wilson for not fulfilling his promises to promote self-determination, many Chinese looked to the United States for models of reform.
1921: Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) Opened
The Rockefeller Foundation began searching for philanthropic projects in China during the 1910s, and in 1915 it donated a large sum to found this institution. Conceived of as a joint U.S.-Chinese project, the PUMC trained nurses and doctors to serve as the core of a modern medical profession in China. Over time, its graduates did have a substantial impact upon medical practice throughout the country.
1921: Chinese Communist Party Founded
In July, a small group of Chinese leftists met in the French Concession in Shanghai to form the Chinese Communist Party. Within a couple of years, and largely at the urging of advisors from the Soviet Union, the CCP forged a united front with Sun's Nationalist Party (Guomindang/Kuomintang).
1922: Washington Conference Agreements
The Washington Conferences of 1921-22 focused on settling a number of issues relating to East Asia. Under U.S. leadership, the resulting Four, Five, and Nine Power Treaties returned the now Japanese-held areas in Shandong to Chinese sovereignty, and also set limits on the relative sizes of naval forces in East Asia.
1922: Anti-missionary Movement
The Chinese nationalism sparked by the May Fourth Movement spilled over into a wave of intense anti-missionary activity, much of it directed against U.S. citizens. This in turn gave rise to the Rights Recovery Movement to bring all missionary schools under Chinese control, which was achieved by 1927.
1924: Immigration Act Extended Exclusion
Also known as the National Origins Act, this legislation placed stringent quotas on new immigrants based upon their country of origin. In addition, it enacted a total prohibition on new arrivals from China and Japan, with a few exceptions, such as students, certain professionals, and others who did not intend to immigrate.
1925: United States Established China Foundation
The United States decided to remit all of China's remaining payments on the Boxer Indemnity, and redirected those funds to establish the China Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting science education and improving libraries in China.
1925: May 30th Incident
Chinese nationalists launched a nationwide anti-foreign movement when Chinese laborers demonstrating against cruel treatment at a Japanese factory were killed by British troops on this day. U.S. citizens were relatively unaffected by these developments in the short term.
1925: Death of Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen)
Sun, the man known as the "National Father," died in Beijing. Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) emerged as Sun's successor to lead the Nationalist Party, and the next year he launched the Northern Expedition to reunite almost all of China from the party's base in Guangzhou. Jiang finally succeeded in 1928, when Nationalist forces claimed Beijing.
1927: Nationalist Capital Established
After bringing most of southern China under their military control, the Nationalists established their capital in Nanjing. U.S. citizens and other foreigners were killed as the Nationalists took over Nanjing, but this proved to be an isolated incident that did not stand in the way of the United States establishing ties with the new regime.
1927: End of the United Front
Soon after establishing himself in Nanjing, Jiang Jieshi launched a major purge of Communists in Shanghai. This shattered the uneasy alliance between Nationalists and Communists, and sent the Communists into hiding in the countryside. The two parties remained in a state of civil war for most of the next 20 years.
1928: United States Formally Recognized Nationalist Government
The United States became the first nation to recognize the new regime as the legitimate Government of China when Secretary of State Frank Kellogg signed an agreement granting China full tariff autonomy. Kellogg also expressed a willingness to discuss abandoning extraterritoriality, but did not follow through on that goal.
1931: Manchurian Incident
Rogue elements in the Japanese Army staged an explosion on a rail line outside the city of Shenyang (Mukden), which they then used as a pretext for a military takeover of all of Manchuria. The following year, the Japanese installed the last Qing Emperor, Puyi, as ruler of the puppet state of Manzhouguo (Manchukuo). The League of Nations sent the Lytton Commission, which included a U.S. delegate in an unofficial capacity, to investigate the Incident. It concluded that Japan was at fault and called for the restoration of Manchuria to Chinese political control. As a result, Japan left the League of Nations in 1933. The United States separately criticized the takeover of Manchuria and never recognized the Government of Manzhouguo.
1933: China Requested American Aid in Rural Reconstruction
Jiang Jieshi, who wanted to institute rural reforms in areas formerly held by the Communists in order to maintain control over them, asked a representative of one of the American missionary organizations to lead a rural reconstruction effort in one of these regions in Jiangxi Province. This was the Chinese Government's first official rural development program, and like other private efforts, it relied to a large extent on American planning, funding, and/or implementation.
1934: The Long March
After a prolonged period of fighting and encirclement around their base camp in the mountains of southern Jiangxi Province, a group of Communists broke through the Nationalist lines and commenced a search for a new base of operations. After wandering for more than a year, they ended up in Yan'an, in Shaanxi Province in north central China, where they remained for the next decade. Along the way Mao Zedong solidified his predominance over the party and army. Less than 10,000 of the original 130,000 who set off made it to Yan'an.
1936: The Second United Front Formed
A Nationalist general named Zhang Xueliang kidnapped Jiang Jieshi while he was visiting the city of Xi'an and forced him to negotiate a new united front with the Communists, so that they could focus their collective efforts against the Japanese. The united front held for several years, but it was not strictly observed by either side.
1937: Second Sino-Japanese War
In July, Chinese and Japanese forces clashed at the Marco Polo Bridge outside of Beijing, and the conflict quickly escalated as simmering tensions turned into full-scale war. The Japanese Army swept down from Manchuria and along the coast to Shanghai, where Chinese troops put up a spirited defense before finally giving way. The Japanese military then pushed inland, with their assault reaching a destructive peak in the Rape of Nanjing in November. Just before the Japanese overran the capital, the Nationalist Government fled inland to the city of Chongqing, where it remained for the duration of the war. Some U.S. citizens became involved in an international effort to protect tens of thousands of Chinese in the International Settlement in Nanjing and to publicize Japanese actions there.
1938: United States Extended Credits to Nationalists
After the outbreak of war in China, U.S. popular and governmental support for China increased dramatically. Although not yet ready to go to war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the advice of his Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, and then Adviser on Political Relations at the Department of State Stanley Hornbeck and extended a $25 million credit to the Nationalist regime so that it could purchase necessary supplies. In 1940, President Roosevelt expanded the credit to $100 million.
1938: Indusco Founded
To help the Chinese produce materials for their fight against Japan, U.S. authors and journalists Helen Foster Snow and Edgar Snow joined with a few other foreigners to create Industrial Cooperatives (Indusco)—small factories that could be established anywhere with very little money. Both Nationalists and Communists picked up on this idea, and cooperatives were set up throughout Chinese held territory. In addition to making an important contribution to China's early war effort, the Chinese name of the project, with its spirit of concerted and collective action, provided a new word for the English language: gung ho.
1941: Aid to China Expanded
In May, the United States extended the Lend-Lease program to China, so that it could obtain war supplies, and during the summer it enacted an embargo against Japan to pressure it to halt its offensive in China and Southeast Asia. General Claire Lee Chennault, who had been serving as an advisor to Jiang Jieshi since 1937, organized the American Volunteer Group ("Flying Tigers") and, with permission from President Roosevelt, brought a squadron of planes and pilots to defend China from Japan's aerial attacks. After Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States formally entered into the war on China's side.
1942: United States and China Formed Wartime Alliance
President Roosevelt sent General Joseph Stilwell to Chongqing as the chief U.S. military advisor to the Chinese Government and commander of U.S. forces in China. He and Jiang Jieshi had a tense relationship, in which the two disagreed over strategy, troop deployments, and expenditures. Material aid from the United States was limited by the difficulty of getting supplies to Chongqing, particularly after Japan seized control of Burma from Britain in May and cut the Burma Road that had been China's lifeline. Thereafter, U.S. pilots flew supplies in over "the Hump" from India.
1943: Madame Jiang Jieshi Visited United States
Jiang's wife, Song Meiling, a graduate of Wellesley College, came to the United States to rally greater support for China's war effort. She spoke to Congress and generally made a good impression on the U.S. public, and succeeded in gaining more aid. In a show of solidarity, the United States pushed to have China declared a major power in any postwar settlement, and also promised that China would gain sovereignty over all areas seized by Japan, especially Manchuria and Taiwan.
1943: The End of Extraterritoriality and Exclusion
The two nations signed a treaty formally ending 100 years of extraterritoriality in China, bringing an end to the legal privileges long held by foreigners. Simultaneously, the United States passed legislation allowing Chinese immigration for the first time in 60 years, although it was under a very low quota.
1944: The Dixie Mission
With approval from Jiang Jieshi, the United States Army Observation Group went to the Communist base camp at Yan'an to explore the possibility of U.S. aid to Communist forces. The group, which maintained a presence there from July 1944 to March 1947, was on the whole favorably impressed with the discipline and organization of the Communists, and sought to provide direct assistance. However, Jiang objected to this, as did U.S. Special Envoy Patrick Hurley, who came to China that year and also visited Yan'an, and General Albert Wedemeyer, who replaced General Stilwell as the senior U.S. military officer in China.
1944: Vice President Visited Chongqing
Vice President Henry Wallace paid a visit to China's wartime capital, making him the highest-ranking U.S. official to set foot on Chinese soil up until that time.
1945: Japan Surrendered, United States Attempted to Negotiate China's Civil War
With the common Japanese enemy gone, Nationalists and Communists let their long-simmering disputes erupt again. In December, President Harry S. Truman sent General George Marshall as a Special Envoy to negotiate an agreement between the two sides on a cease-fire and a national unity government. These agreements quickly collapsed, and the Marshall Mission ultimately failed as full-scale civil war began in early 1946.
1947: Wedemeyer Mission to China
President Truman sent General Wedemeyer back to China on a special mission to assess the current conditions in China's civil war. Wedemeyer returned with recommendations for large-scale aid to the Nationalists. Although a strong U.S> "China lobby" supported this position, it went against the views of others in the Truman administration, who saw the Nationalists as a lost cause.
1948: China Aid Act Passed
The U.S. Government extended additional aid to Jiang Jieshi's regime, although President Truman signed it largely to gain support for the Marshall Plan aid to Europe. In fact, the United States refrained from getting deeply involved in the conflict. By the end of the year, the Nationalists were suffering from a series of defeats and a Communist victory seemed more and more likely.
1949: People's Republic of China (PRC) Founded
After driving the Nationalists from the Mainland, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the PRC on October 1. Before this, U.S. Ambassador John Leighton Stuart met with Communist leaders to discuss U.S. recognition of the PRC, but those talks failed when Mao announced his intention to lean towards the side of the Soviet Union. The Department of State issued the China White Paper, which stated that the United States had stayed out of the Chinese civil war because it neither should nor could have influenced the outcome. The Truman administration was prepared to abandon the Nationalists, allow the Communists to take over Taiwan, and perhaps even grant recognition to PRC.