To Light The Lamps Of China

By Kevin Baker

Sino-American relations always seem to have at least a hint of the ridiculous about them, and small wonder, since they tend to be more about the images each nation projects upon the other than any objective reality. Witness the last superpower brush-up, which involved the death of a Chinese pilot who seemed most intent upon exchanging e-mails, an unacknowledged hostage crisis, and a non-apology apology from the United States.

All of this fizzled away before it could become something more tragic, but we can expect further confrontations to be just as edgy. The effort by China’s rulers to join the world’s economy—while still maintaining their dictatorial powers and asserting a regional hegemony, has left the Bush administration in a quandary. Is China to be regarded as the next great cold war threat, or our partner in globalization?

Both of these stances have their domestic attractions, which is the trouble. A belligerent China makes a useful boogeyman for those pushing for a defensive missile shield and a massive military build-up. A China looming as the world’s greatest market and one of its greatest producers is the vision dangled by those looking to abolish trade barriers and “engage” China’s dictators. Meanwhile, Americans on both the right and left wish to hold China accountable for the its ongoing persecution of religious and political dissidents.

Yet the worst scenario of all would be to regard China as what we desire it to be, as opposed to what it really is. We have done this all too often in the past, and the results have usually been disastrous.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Time magazine’s Henry Luce insisted on viewing Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang through the prism of his boyhood days as a Prebyterian missionary’s son in China. Luce’s bully pulpit, sympathy for a China reeling under Japan’s brutal aggression, and the Christianity and adroit public relations skills of Madame Chiang (Mei-ling Soong), created a “China Lobby” of American columnists, politicians, businessmen, and labor organizers, all convinced that the Chiangs were about to lead their nation forward into a benevolent, Christianized, Westernized democracy.

“We shall lift Shanghai up, up forever, until it is just like Kansas City!” Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry promised at the height of such fervor.

Others remained more skeptical. “Too much ‘issimo’ and not enough ‘general’,” was Texas Senator Tom Connally’s pronouncement upon Chiang, but when his corrupt and unpopular regime did collapse in 1949, millions of Americans smelled betrayal.

“Who lost China?” became the new rallying cry of the China Lobby. Spearheaded now by one Alfred Kohlberg, a businessman and professional conspiracy theorist known as “the Handkerchief King,” the lobby instituted a McCarthyist witch hunt that drove one dedicated, American foreign policy officer after another out of public life, and freely accused men such as Harry Truman and George Marshall of criminal incompetence at best, and outright treason at worst.

(The China Lobby also picked up a recruit in a California congressman named Richard Nixon, who would join the “Who lost China?” chorus until just about the day he stepped on a plane to go meet Chairman Mao.)

The whole idea that the world’s most populous nation and one of its most venerable civilizations was ever ours to “win” or “lose” is one of breathtaking hubris, and we paid a steep price for it. Our inability to now view China as anything but another block of monolithic Communism, and our sudden lack of experience in the East Asian bureaus of the State Department, did much to elongate the Korean War, hasten our blunder into Vietnam, and keep China a Soviet ally for longer than it might otherwise have been.

Yet all this is a familiar story. Less well-known is the business side of it—of how we have also insisted on projecting China as the great market of our dreams.

“Oil for the lamps of China.” The very words convey a certain romance, a tantalizing quest for riches, akin to the search for the Northwest Passage, or El Dorado. Now mostly forgotten, they once fired the imaginations of business tycoons and the American public alike.

The words—and the whole idea of China as our greatest trading partner—stemmed from John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Corporation. By the early 1880s, 85 percent of the world’s crude oil was still drilled in Pennsylvania, and of that amount more than two-thirds went abroad. Oil being America’s fourth largest export—and when you said oil you meant Standard Oil.

“In the early 1870s, kerosene penetrated China, Japan, and other far-off spots, and one American traveler in 1874 saw Standard kerosene flickering in the ancient quarters of Babylon and Nineveh,” Ron Chernow wrote in Titan, his prize-winning biography of Rockefeller.

Though Standard Oil already monopolized the domestic market, it was always looking for new opportunities. In 1882, the company sent a merchant named William Herbert Libby to East Asia, where he was soon distributing pamphlets praising the safety of kerosene lamps—and the lamps themselves. Like some latter-day software developer passing out free laptops, Libby saw to it that eight million Mei Foo, or “good luck” kerosene lamps were either sold for a pittance or given away free, with millions more soon to follow.

“In many countries, we had to teach the people…to burn oil by making lamps for them;” Rockefeller wrote in his memoirs. “we packed the oil to be carried by camels or on the backs of runners in the most remote portions of the world; we adapted the trade to the needs of strange folk.”

This was, of course, an exaggeration. The “strange folk” of China had been burning oil in lamps for millenia before anyone had ever dreamed of the Standard Oil Company.

Yet Libby’s strategy was a great success. The lamps were indeed moved deep into the heart of China, in caravans of carts or on sampans. Before long, Standard Oil had broken both the monopoly on peanut oil exercised by mandarin merchants, and swept aside the prejudice village priests had against kerosene. Even when empty, the tin cans and wood frames the kerosene was packed in made useful household additions for poor Chinese peasants.

The whole endeavor seemed to be a shining example of pragmatic, Yankee ingenuity. Sell them the lamps and they will buy the fuel! “Oil for the lamps of China” soon became a byword among American businessmen and internationalists. It was even the title of a highly popular, 1932 novel, written by Alice Tisdale Hobart, an American woman who had married an oilman stationed in China.

Her story followed the rise of Stephen Chase, a young oil executive captivated by a vision of an industrialized China. In the novel, it is Chase who comes up with the idea for the Mei Foo lamps, by recalling his childhood night light.

“A tiny chimney, tiny bowl that would hold a coppers’ worth of oil! A lamp that peasants and coolies could afford to buy! Stephen smiled to himself, seeing their childish delight, remembering the pleasure they took in examining his watch, his flashlight…His dream expanded. In time the Company could put a lamp in every inn, every hut in Manchuria, in China! Four hundred million people, millions of lamps.”

Herein lay one of the very cornerstones of American optimism. The idea, tracing back to Puritans, that there need be no conflict between doing well and doing good. The Chinese would have light, China would rise, and the stockholders would get rich!

Like any good novelist, Ms. Hobart probed beneath the outlook of the annual report. As Richard O’Connor describes it in his history, The Oil Barons, Stephen Chase devolves into “a company man, completely dedicated to his career and to the higher echelon, and the Chinese world receded from his consciousness. The Chinese themselves were only faceless consumers—actors in a corporate drama.”

That corporate drama would play out a little differently, but it would indeed undermine John D. Rockefeller’s loftier ideals. Even as Standard Oil expanded into China, it was losing its worldwide monopoly on crude oil. Discoveries of massive deposits at Baku and elsewhere soon made it clear that the world’s oil had not all been providentially placed in western Pennsylvania.

Before long, companies led by Sweden’s famous Nobel brothers, the Rothschilds, and the Anglo-Dutch combine of Shell Oil and Royal Dutch, were drawing on enormous new fields and refineries from the Black Sea to the Dutch East Indies, and challenging Standard Oil’s hegemony around the world. By the 1890s, Russian crude oil production would even briefly surpass that of the U.S., and Rockefeller responded to the challenge with alacrity—and some less than savory methods. Trying to create alarm in Russia’s main superpower rival, Standard Oil hired British solicitors to spread rumors of a cabal under “Hebrew influence” who were trying to take Russian tankers through the Suez Canal.

Rockefeller himself railed against “our Asiatic competitors controlled by Jewish men who cry ‘Wolf! Wolf! Standard Oil Company!’ and keep moving in and getting control of markets,” and contrasted Standard Oil’s “fair-minded” practices with “the old, old, Jew method of treating one customer one way and another in another [way].”

This took considerable chutzpah, coming as it did from a man who had built his own company in good part by concluding secret, illegal preferential rate deals with American railroads. It was also disingenuous; the Rothschilds had been on the verge of reaching a deal with Standard Oil before it was scotched by Count Sergie Witte, Russia’s finance minister.

Much to Rockefeller’s chagrin, he would have to share the Asian market with Jewish and non-Jewish men alike (and soon, thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, the American market as well). Chinese peasants proved to know a little bit about capitalism themselves, and before long many of them were burning cheaper, Shell oil in their good-luck lamps. Finally, the civil and foreign wars that would soon convulse China for decades, followed by the Communist takeover, would prevent the Middle Kingdom from ever quite developing into the surefire market that the Rockefellers and the Stephen Chases had envisioned.

Another Rockefeller venture in China would prove more enduring. As part of its immensely beneficial, worldwide program of medical research and disease control, the Rockefeller Foundation opened the Peking Union Medical College in 1921. Even after being nationalized by the Communists the college, in Chernow’s words, “introduced a generation of Chinese doctors to modern medicine.”

The lesson in all this, perhaps, is that we deal best with China as we do with all countries, when we are clear in our motives and objectives. We only set ourselves up for disappointment when we insist upon seeing China and the Chinese as something infinitely fungible, capable of being whatever we want it to be, when we want it. We need to remember that we’re not in Kansas City anymore.