A Timeline of U.S. Crimes against Chinese

Time to Live and Let Live

China has long been the home of a dynamic and multi-varied culture. Ancient Han Chinese built up an agrarian civilization centered on the Yellow River Basin and called their country the “Middle Kingdom,” with varying relations of conflict and cooperation with the nomadic and pastoral cultures surrounding them. Ancient Chinese pioneered a tolerant, inclusive, multi-faith, culturally diverse society. Muslim and Jewish communities have existed there for over one thousand years, for example. People of any ethnicity were allowed to serve as government officials by passing exams, under a meritocratic civil service exam system that continued for over a millennium, up until the beginning of the 20th century.

Their tradition of tolerance and diversity extends to the current era. 55 distinct, minority ethnicities are officially recognized, and benefit from affirmative action-like programs in education and employment. Until recently, they were exempt from the one-child policy. There are well over 100 languages spoken. American tourists to China discover that the foods to sample go far beyond the Peking, Sichuan, and Cantonese cuisine that they are familiar with. The rich variety of clothing and food encountered by a tourist walking down the street in Beijing easily rivals that of New York.

Sadly, however, the long-standing and well-documented history of racism against the Chinese appears to have greatly intensified recently, both in terms of the actions of the last three U.S. presidents (Obama, Trump, and Biden) as well as in terms of the opinions and behavior of the public in Western countries. This latter type of racism is undoubtedly more or less the result of overt brainwashing. There is both fear and loathing of China and Chinese people, and of other East Asian peoples. Anti-Asian hate crimes, hate speech, etc. inside the U.S. are at epidemic levels. The economic success of the People’s Republic of China and the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” campaign have only worsened our ubiquitous Sinophobia, which goes back to the late 19th-century and early 20th-century Yellow Peril propaganda.

With that in mind, it might be instructive for Americans to consider how Chinese might view us and to review a rough chronological account of some of the major events in our history with the peoples of China.

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,” and Article 21 begins, “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” Let’s consider in what ways the people of our country and our government have repeatedly violated in China the human-rights principles that are behind those two articles.

1894-95, the First Sino-Japanese War. This was not the first violation, but it is a convenient place to start. Through this act of violence, the Empire of Japan acquired Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula. U.S. Secretary of State John W. Foster advised the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and helped to draft the Treaty of Shimonoseki after the war, putting the U.S. stamp of approval on this thievery. In this way, the U.S. helped the Empire of Japan establish itself right in the heart of China. The First Sino-Japanese War, like all wars, was a violation of the right to life. Below I attach the label “Article 3” to such violations, borrowing this concept from the UDHR as a useful category. It was also a violation of the right of people to participate in government, which is Article 21 of the UDHR. In retrospect, one can say that the principles behind Article 3 and Article 21 were violated many times—by the Empire of Japan, and by the U.S. and other Western powers.

1899-1901. During these years, U.S. citizens joined the Eight-Nation Alliance, invaded China, and violently put down the anti-colonial struggle known in English as the Boxer Rebellion. Afterwards they pillaged artifacts and other valuables, and committed sexual violence against civilians.

1905. Under the Taft–Katsura Agreement we gave Korea to the Empire of Japan in exchange for the Philippines. This paved the way for the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) that got the Empire of Japan its “sphere of influence” over Korea and eventually facilitated their annexation of the country in 1910. Surely many Chinese remembered that a ruler of this country had twice aimed to conquer China by invading Korea (during the years 1592–98).

1919. Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty violated Chinese people’s right to “take part in the government” of their country, first and foremost the right of the people of the Shandong Peninsula. (Article 21). The Treaty of Versailles was a huge betrayal for Chinese since China had backed up the Allied Triple Entente (Russia, France, and the UK plus Ireland) in World War I (1914-18). What did they get for all their sacrifices, which included 140,000 manual laborers sent to help the British and French on the Western Front? The Western powers handed the Shandong Peninsula to the Empire of Japan. (Shandong had been a colony of Germany before that). This sparked the May Fourth Movement, a sociopolitical movement that laid the groundwork for Chinese nationalism. “China’s failure to secure any gains at Versailles prompted the May 4th Movement and can be seen as a key juncture in the long and winding road from empire to nation-state,” writes Alex Calvo and Bao Qiaoni. The injustice of the Treaty of Versailles is just one example of how Chinese nationalism is not wholly the fault of the peoples of China, and how the successors of the Western powers then (who were in this case the U.S., the British Empire, France, and Italy) and Japan must take responsibility for it.

1937-72. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), the Chinese Communist Revolution (1945-49, AKA, the War of Liberation), and after 1949, Washington backed up the Guomindang (i.e., the “Chinese Nationalist Party,” aka, Kuomintang or KMT). The U.S. was supposed to be fighting the Empire of Japan, not getting involved in China’s civil war. The Guomindang were not “freely chosen representatives” who were chosen by the people of China; they were one political party competing for dominance. China was up against the Empire of Japan, which, by that time, was a fully modernized military machine, and China needed Washington’s help, but we only helped one side, the Guomindang. The Guomindang leaders in turn, most prominently Chiang Kai-shek, helped themselves. (Article 21).

They saved up much or most of the financial resources and weapons they got from the U.S. for the big battle that they knew would come as soon as the Empire was defeated. They spent some of their resources fighting against the people of their own country. At least as early as 1937, the U.S. was financially supporting Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek). He and his Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party) wasted a lot of energy fighting against his own people rather than against the Empire of Japan.

China held back the Empire of Japan on their own from 1937 to 1941, which was before the Allies (with the exception of the Soviet Union) declared war on the Empire. But the peoples of China never received any thanks for that valiant struggle from the U.S. Between 25 million and 35 million people in China perished as a result of the War. Once the Chinese overcame the Empire of Japan, with U.S. help, in 1945, the struggle between the two parties exploded into a full-blown civil war as everyone expected. The Chinese Communist Party battled the Guomindang, and despite the Guomindang receiving generous support—the U.S. provided Jiang with almost $3 billion in aid and large supplies of arms throughout WWII—the Communists overcame the Guomindang in 1949.

U.S. histories always say that hostilities between the Guomindang and the Communists were put on hold during the War (1937-45), but this is not true. In fact, this support for Jiang Jieshi and his Guomindang was one of the reasons why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. (See Paul L. Atwood, War and Empire: The American Way of Life [Pluto, 2010], Chapter 9). In other words, our involvement did not start on “December 7th, 1941,” the day that Roosevelt said would “live in infamy.” We were already involved, giving the Guomindang extra ammunition against the Empire of Japan, and we were, objectively speaking, helping them fight against the Communist Party of China. Jiang Jieshi was always presented to Americans as the hero, when in the end, it was mainly the Communists who held back the Empire of Japan until the U.S. joined the war in 1941. Jiang’s party, the Guomindang, had been known as slaughterers of communists since at least the Shanghai Massacre of 1927 and the subsequent White Terror years, so the U.S. government knew exactly with whom they were partnering all during these years 1937-72.

Washington was so satisfied with the work of Jiang Jieshi, after he had bided his time and wasted their money during the War, that they continued to prop up his government in Taiwan for decades afterwards (again violating the rights of Chinese people expressed in Article 21). “Chiang’s [Jiang Jieshi’s] nationalist army hoarded US aid monies, arms and material to such a degree that President Truman wrote that ‘the Chiangs, the Kungs and the Soongs (were) all thieves ‘having stolen some $750 million dollars of US funds’.” But the river of U.S. cash kept flowing to Taiwan.

Washington aided the Guomindang attacks on south China from Burma. (Article 21).

1945-present. The U.S. has violated the Chinese right to “security of person” by threatening nuclear war against China for the last several decades (not to mention the threat to the rest of the world through the possibility of “nuclear winter.” This is a violation of Article 3 since we have a right to security of person, i.e., the right to not be threatened with violence). There were U.S. nukes on the Korean Peninsula from 1958 to 1991, threatening China and other states. The U.S. is the state that introduced the problem of “The Bomb” to the world, and we are the only country who has actually dropped one on a city. Actually twice. We are, therefore, a real, credible threat to people around the world.

1945-78. During this period the U.S. blocked reconciliation between Tokyo and Beijing. This international tension resulted in less security for Chinese. (Article 3). On 12 August 1978 the two countries concluded a formal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Now the People’s Republic of China is economically strong, but if they had been at peace during the years 1945-78 with the neighbor that had attacked them twice (during the First and Second Sino-Japanese Wars), they would have enjoyed much more security.

1949-53. The U.S. prosecuted the Korean War, leading to the death of 900,000 Chinese soldiers and 1.5 million Chinese civilians. (See Bruce Cumings, The Korean War, 2010, Chapter 1. This was a violation of Article 3).

1954-55, the First Taiwan Strait Crisis. Washington aided the Guomindang against the Communists. Hundreds of Chinese were killed (Articles 3 and 21).

1958, the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis. Washington again aided the Guomindang again, and this battle resulted again in the deaths of hundreds of Chinese (Articles 3 and 21). Besides threatening the lives of Chinese, this crisis” was also a nuclear crisis, according to Daniel Ellsberg. It almost resulted in a nuclear war with China.

1989, Western reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests. It is no coincidence that many tens of thousands of students and workers marched on Tiananmen Square the day before the funeral of Hu Yaobang (1915-89). Having been born into a poor peasant family, he was largely self-schooled. In the 1980s he had attempted to reform government in ways that were popular with workers and students, and immediately after his death they demanded that the government reassess his legacy. The protests began within an hour after he died on 15 April 1989. Western media have painted this as a student movement demanding Western-style, liberal, capitalist democracy, when actually the working class of China were deeply involved. “In Beijing, after the declaration of martial law, workers took to the streets, built barricades, and fraternized with advancing soldiers, effectively stopping them from reaching the city center. While students and intellectuals who spoke English did talk in abstract terms about ‘democracy,’ workers were primarily concerned with economic problems that were being exacerbated by market reforms introduced by the government, which they saw as the result of an undemocratic bureaucracy.” (See Working Class History: Everyday Acts of Resistance and Rebellion [PM Press, 2020], p. 82-83). The false history of this movement promoted by Western journalists lent power to capitalism and took it away from democracy (Article 21).

2000. Women who hoped to bring about a 21st century free from war organized what they called a “People’s Tribunal.” According to the Women’s Active Museum in Tokyo, the Tribunal “represented an effort by global civil society to break the cycle of impunity that perpetuates wartime sexual violence.” After that event, U.S. government officials would have known, or easily been able to find out about the crimes of sexual violence that Japanese committed against Chinese women up until 1945 through their system of “comfort women” stations. They could have demanded justice for the victims, which would have brought greater “security of person” to women in China and everywhere. There were already international laws against sex trafficking long before the time of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946, so the “comfort women” atrocity could have been prosecuted then. By the year 2000 it was clear that the U.S. had no excuse to not seek justice. The U.S. stand was made clear when Obama coerced South Korea and Japan to make a deal on the issue without involving the voices of the women themselves. They did this for the sake of “American strategic interests.” (Ignoring this history violates the principle of “security of person” in Article 3).

Even Jiang Jieshi could have thoroughly investigated the “comfort women” crimes in China but chose not to do so. (See Chapter 8 of Peipei Chu’s Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, Oxford UP, 2014). One day, when those crimes are prosecuted, Chinese women, women in Okinawa/Ryukyu and in other islands of Japan (who are threatened constantly by military personnel from U.S. bases), and even women in the U.S. will be able to walk down the street feeling a little more secure. If and when they are violently attacked by a man, that attack will be recognized as a crime for which they can realistically seek justice.

2001-21. Destabilizing Afghanistan through our war there. This reduced security for people in China, which shares a border with Afghanistan (Article 3). Now they have to worry about Afghanistan becoming a “safe haven for militant groups targeting China.”

2010-present. iPhone manufacturing. We all know that U.S. corporations exploit Chinese workers, and many of us have heard that iPhones are made in sweatshops in China. We who have bought iPhones have voted to keep this system going. At “Foxconn City” (the Longhua factory complex) there were “18 reported suicide attempts that year alone and 14 confirmed deaths. Twenty more workers were talked down by Foxconn officials.” At one time, the complex of factories employed 450,000 workers. Some Americans might say, “That’s on the government of China, for their not protecting their workers, for their poor labor laws,” and argue that the problem is not our responsibility, but every time we buy an iPhone, we are communicating to businessmen in China and around the world that we want this exploitation to continue. Every purchase is a vote. One could argue that suicides are a violation of Article 3 and that extreme exploitation of workers and regularly logging 12-hour shifts is not good for democracy and the right to “take part in the government” of one’s country.

2014-present. Washington twisted the arm of South Korea to install THAAD (the U.S.-made “Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense” missile defense system) on the Korean Peninsula, complete with radar that enables Washington to see deep into China. It had been announced by 2014 and it was deployed in 2017. This is viewed as a threat to the lives of Chinese, as it surely must be, and it accelerates the arms race in East Asia. (Article 3).

2018. Former President Donald Trump started a trade war with Beijing, a policy that Trump’s successor will probably continue. This trade war will hurt many Chinese and American workers (Article 3).

2021. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of carrying out genocide against Muslim Uighurs and other minority groups in the western region of Xinjiang. This has been debunked by The GrayZone in multiple reports and analyses. This big lie could easily lead to the violation of Article 3 as Washington continues to use it to build support for a war against China.


Even this short sketch of U.S. human rights violations above may be sufficient to conclude that our country has been a major violator of the rights of people in China, if not the number-one violator there during the last 127 years, and that we have not been good “neighbors.” (We could imagine the Pacific Rim as one very large “neighborhood”). Therefore, in terms of the moral standing of our country, neither the U.S. government nor American intellectuals are in a position to lecture China or the Chinese on their human rights record.

We who are U.S. civilians are not “in” East Asia, but our government stations many tens of thousands of soldiers and other military personnel on bases surrounding China, most obviously on the many bases of Okinawa (at least 31 bases), Japan (a dozen or so), and South Korea (15 or a few dozen, depending on how you count), not to mention the thousands of sailors on the aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, etc., that constantly prowl the seas around China, or the personnel at the highly secretive “Naval Support Facility” of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The U.S. is a country that has yet to acknowledged for our many crimes. From their perspective, the U.S. is a hostile nation and a constant threat.

Beijing, on the other hand, has sought harmony at every stage in their dealings with Americans (although it is generally much more assertive than our submissive “client state” Japan). Confucianism defines ideals for both the family and for government, and social harmony is one of the main goals of Confucianism. It comes as no surprise, then, that China was the first nuke-have nation to propose and pledge a no-first-use policy, stating that they would not “be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.” China and the U.S. are very different societies, but with full awareness of the wrongs that the U.S. has committed against Chinese, isn’t it about time that we live and let live? Rather than pointing our death-and-destruction war machine at Asia, why don’t we “pivot to peace”?

Joseph Essertier is an associate professor at the Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan, an international human rights advocate, and an editor of The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Read other articles by Joseph.