U.S. officials want China to pay reparations for the coronavirus. In China, those demands echo a history of foreign imperialism.
When asked about reparations at an April 27 press briefing, President Donald Trump said the U.S. will be seeking “very substantial damages” from China for the financial fallout of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
There are signs that this demand is translating into political action. On May 1, The Washington Post reported that senior-level officials in the Trump administration are mapping out a strategy to punish China; to seek financial compensation for China’s missteps and cover-ups early in the outbreak and the devastation the pandemic has subsequently wrought in the U.S.
At a briefing in late April, China dismissed the efforts and accused the U.S. of trying to divert attention away from its own mishandling of the pandemic.
“The sole purpose for some U.S. politicians trying to fool others with their obvious lies is to shift the blame of their own incompetence,” said Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a briefing on April 28. “Their attempt [for reparations] is doomed to fail.”
Over the past week, the U.S. calls for reparations have spurred a string of editorials and social media posts in China that speak to the ugly history of such demands.
In 1900, thousands of Chinese rebels, known as the boxers, descended on Beijing to attack foreigners and Christian missionaries in a movement known as the Boxer Rebellion. The boxers were part of an anti-imperialist, populist movement that was frustrated with the influx of missionaries and the privileged status of foreigners.
After the boxers laid siege to the Beijing neighborhood where foreigners lived in June 1900, an alliance of eight foreign governments, including the U.S., sent 20,000 troops to China. After landing in China in July, the foreign troops broke the boxers’ hold on the city and defeated the uprising by the middle of August.
The foreign troops occupied Beijing for over a year, before eventually pressuring the Chinese government to sign the Boxer Protocol in September 1901. The deal gave China control of Beijing in exchange for reparations worth $330 million—equal to nearly $10 billion today—paid to the eight nations over the next 40 years.
For many in China, Trump’s new demands for COVID-19 reparations are an extension of this imperialist history.
“China now thinks that, basically, the foreigners are trying to do the same thing to us, a second treaty to force China to pay,” said Xu Guoqi, a Chinese history professor at the University of Hong Kong.
A Gengzi year
A search for the term ‘reparations’ on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, reveals a string of posts denouncing the idea, with many referring to them as the ‘Gengzi reparations.’
One post from Wang Haiyun, a retired general in China’s military, has attracted over 30,000 views since it was published on Tuesday. He writes, “The national shame of the ‘Gengzi reparations’ cannot be repeated again.”
The term Gengzi, meaning metal rat, harkens back to superstitions based on China’s 12-year zodiac calendar. A Gengzi year falls on the year of the rat every six decades. 2020 is a Gengzi year, as was 1960, 1900, 1840, and so forth.
In China’s popular imagination, Gengzi years are associated with calamity, and evoke feelings of China being taken advantage of by foreign powers.
In 1840, the U.K. invaded China in the first opium war, and forced China to open its markets and cede land that would become Hong Kong. The 1900 Boxer Rebellion also marked a Gengzi year. In 1960, the Chinese government was carrying out the Great Leap Forward campaign, an initiative that sought to transform China from an agrarian nation into an industrial power. However, just as farmers were starting to shift their production to goods like steel, a deadly drought struck China. The ensuing famine killed up to 45 million people in China during the 1960s.
In 2020, COVID-19 has once again brought a Gengzi year disaster to China, and, in the eyes of Chinese citizens, Trump’s calls for reparations bear a striking resemblance to how foreign powers have abused China in the past.
“When the descendants of some of the Eight Nation Alliance shamelessly demand [COVID-19] compensation, they evoke our historical memory of humiliation,” writes Li Jiaming, a news broadcaster on China’s state-run China Central Television, in an editorial in the Global Times, referring to the eight nations that allied to quash the Boxer Rebellion.
Humiliation and distrust
In China, the Chinese Communist Party propaganda often dwells on the trauma of past imperial abuse to paint China as a one-time victim that’s since risen to power.
Chinese schools teach that the period from “the Opium Wars in the 1840s to [the founding of the People’s Republic of China in] 1949 is the century of shame and humiliation,” said Xu, which draws a stark contrast to the China of today. “The party instils this version of history… it’s a very powerful narrative.”
When criticism of China from Western powers evokes visceral reactions among Chinese citizens, it’s easier for the CCP to operate a tried and true strategy: to draw attention to China as the target of foreign distain and discrimination and away from the party actions that prompted the criticism in the first place.
“Calls for compensation provide an easy way for the Chinese Communist Party to present evidence [to Chinese citizens] of anti-Chinese sentiments abroad,” said Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “The Chinese propaganda machinery redirects people’s attention from the failings of the government in China to the racist bullying of Western countries.”
Ultimately, the rising anti-China rhetoric among foreign governments such as the U.S. is likely to further cement distrust of outsiders among Chinese citizens.
“[The calls for reparations] make Chinese people think that no matter how much we try and work hard, the West will never accept us, foreign countries always treat us unfairly,” said Xu. “From a historian’s perspective, this all makes me very scared.”