American Business and Chinese Nationalism: Lessons from 1905

A US administration looking to score points with nativist know-nothings on the back of vulnerable immigrants. A newly assertive China led by a government frightened of change but eager to appease a vocal middle class. Chinese commercial interests colluding with government officials to exploit a rising sense of nationalism as part of a basket of tactics to stymie foreign competition. Chinese and American diplomats banging tables as they try and resolve a trade dispute which threatens to escalate into a broader conflict.

Welcome to the world… in 1905.

On May 10, 1905, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution urging their fellow Chinese nationals not to buy American goods. Within a week, word of the boycott spread via recently installed telegraph lines and along newly built railways throughout the country. From Guangzhou to Xiamen to Shanghai, Chinese citizens stopped buying American.

This was a new form of resistance different from the barbaric yawp of the Boxers, a form of resistance which was immune to the crude pressures of boots and gunboats. As Robert Bickers, once wrote: “Boxers could be slaughtered by foreign troops, but nobody could be forced to smoke an American cigarette.”