In China, Photo of Trade Talks Embodies ‘Young’ Country Passing Aging U.S.

Raymond Zhong

SHANGHAI — During trade talks in Washington last week, some people in China saw an exorcism of bitter, century-old ghosts.

After Chinese delegates met with American lawmakers on Thursday, a photograph taken from one end of the table circulated on the popular Chinese social media service Weibo. It was shared alongside one from 1901, when representatives from China and colonial powers signed an accord to end the Boxer Rebellion, a violent uprising against foreign influence in China.

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In the earlier black-and-white photo from Beijing, the representatives from the West cut a striking contrast with the elderly envoys of the Qing dynasty.

But in the photo from Washington, it is the Americans who appear to be older.

"Over the past 100 years, American officials have gone from young to old, and Chinese officials have gone from old to young," one Weibo user wrote. "This has a lot to do with the current state of the two countries. America today is just as closed off as China was 100 years ago."

The juxtaposed photos were even shared, at one point, by the official Weibo account of the Communist Youth League. (That post was later deleted.)

The symbolism is tantalizingly potent. The 1901 accord is regarded in China as a national humiliation, particularly by the Communist Party, which seeks to present itself as having rescued the nation from a century of being pushed around by foreign powers.

One of the Qing court's representatives in Beijing that day "was so feeble that he had to be lifted out of his chair by two men," The New York Times reported at the time. The Qing dynasty — China's last — collapsed not long after.

More recently, China's rise has created deep tensions with the United States. But after the latest trade talks between the two countries, China seems to have emerged well positioned.

The Trump administration has suspended plans to impose new tariffs, while China has not guaranteed that it will increase purchases of American goods by any specific amount. It also has not committed to curtailing its ambitions to become a technology powerhouse. That might be contributing to the feeling of triumph among Chinese internet users.

The two photos, however, make some inexact comparisons.

In the photo from Washington, the American officials are members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax and trade issues. They are not the exact counterparts of the Chinese officials on the left, who included Vice Premier Liu He, the top economic adviser to President Xi Jinping.

And while some members of last week's Chinese delegation do appear to have fuller heads of hair than the American congressmen, it is not as if the representatives from Beijing had a definitive advantage in terms of youth.

Mr. Liu is 66. Kevin Brady, Republican of Texas and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, is 63. The American congressmen who appear most prominently in that day's photo, however, are Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, 81, and Sander M. Levin, Democrat of Michigan, 86.