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What Does Xi’s Visit Have To Do With the Seattle Riot of 1886?

What Does Xi’s Visit Have To Do With the Seattle Riot of 1886?

On Sept. 22, Chinese President Xi Jinping touched down in Seattle, Washington, the first stop on what will be a seven-day stay in the United States, where he will have a state dinner with President Barack Obama and address the United Nations General Assembly. Many have speculated as to why Xi chose the rainy northwestern city as his first destination – perhaps to strong-arm U.S. tech companies in a show of power before meeting the U.S. president; perhaps because Washington exports more to China than any other state; or perhaps out of nostalgia, since Xi visited the state back in 1993 when he was a lowly local-level official.

But one influential blogger has another idea. Zhou Xiaoping, a young nationalist writer whom Xi  lauded in October 2014 for spreading “positive energy” — a term referring to online speech that praises China and the party’s leadership — argued in a popular Sept. 22 essay that Xi tacitly aims to showcase modern China’s power and status in a city rocked by anti-Chinese violence almost 130 years ago. To Americans, the obscure Seattle riots of 1886, when an angry mob forced hundreds of Chinese residents out of the city, might seem like ancient history. But to some Chinese, the incident — and the national humiliation that it represents — is still a fresh wound, reinforcing a narrative heavily promoted by the Chinese state: the peril of national weakness versus the glory of national strength.

Zhou’s essay, titled “Why Did Papa Xi Choose Seattle As His First Stop on His Visit to the U.S.?” and already reposted to at least one state media website, drew largely upon a Chinese sense of injustice at the hands of stronger global powers. While Americans rarely give much thought to the U.S.-China relationship prior to World War II, when the two countries fought Japan as a common enemy, China’s treatment at the hand of Western powers during the 19th and early 20th centuries still looms large in Chinese national discourse. That period is known as the “century of national humiliation,” during which the country experienced partial colonization by Western nations and Japan, civil war, domestic chaos, and invasion.

Today, some Chinese remain resentful that the Qing dynasty was too weak to protect its overseas citizens (censure that China’s ruling Communist Party has worked hard to avoid.) “Every time the Chinese government has fallen into upheaval or become so weak it can no longer preserve itself,” wrote Zhou, “there has been no one to protect the interests of overseas Chinese. Whenever this happens, anti-Chinese massacres have happened around the globe.” He went on to cite historical examples of this in the Philippines, Singapore, and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Seattle Riot

The 19th century turmoil within China pushed hundreds of thousands out of the country to look for work and stability abroad, and many of these landed in North America. This influx resulted in a rising tide of xenophobia among some Americans and eventually culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese from entering the United States, halting the flow of immigrant laborers. But thousands remained in the United States and its western territories, and in subsequent years these communities became victim to forceful relocation perpetrated by sometimes violent mobs.

One of the largest episodes of violence occurred in Seattle in February 1886, when a mob forced hundreds of Chinese onto a boat and the U.S. president Grover Cleveland had to send in federal troops to quell the unrest (pictured above). In his essay, Zhou described this and other incidences of violence that occurred around the same time, writing, “White mobs destroyed Chinese shops, demolished Chinese homes, beat Chinese without sparing even women and children, and many Chinese even had their heads cut off in the street.” (While dozens perished in outbreaks of violence in western territories in the 1880s, the Seattle riots forcibly expelled hundreds but did not seem to lead to loss of Chinese life).

Xi, of course, did not mention Seattle’s historical xenophobia during his speech on Sept. 22. But he did speak at some length about the “Chinese dream,” his token slogan now widely invoked to describe the goal of national rejuvenation and the restoration of China’s rightful place among the world’s great powers. As a powerful leader sometimes dubbed a “strongman” and architect of the country’s new assertiveness, Xi has undoubtedly taken to heart the lessons of instances like the 1886 Seattle riot, and the fate of a government which cannot defend its interests and citizens abroad.

Today, China’s rising global stature is a source of national pride as well as Xi’s own domestic popularity. “As Papa Xi visits the United States with Seattle as his first choice, it’s no surprise that the residents welcome him warmly and that local Chinese smile proudly,” Zhou concluded. “As China again encounters Seattle, we have not forgotten history.”

Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons