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Photo from the current trade talks in color, and an image from the 1901 signing of the Boxer Protocols in black and white (original images via @readkrystalhu and gif by the author for Hyperallergic)

The trade talks between the United States and China are heating up, but a photo circulating from the latest round of meetings has started to generate discussion about the stark difference between the aging US representatives and the more youthful Chinese contingent.

Weibo users, as the New York Times noted, have been pointing out the contrast and the image’s relationship to a much earlier treaty with the US that has powerful symbolism in China, the signing of the Boxer Protocol in 1901. The Boxer Protocol, which followed the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901), may not be well-known to many outside China, but it is one of the so-called “unequal treaties” that the Chinese consider as agreements signed with the West by a weakened Qing dynasty that disadvantaged the Chinese state. The Boxer Protocol was signed by China, 10 European empires, and the United States. Within China, the signing is considered part of a national humiliation, so the comparison to this month’s trade talks is clearly loaded.

One Weibo user, quoted by the New York Times, summarized the symbolism. “Over the past 100 years, American officials have gone from young to old, and Chinese officials have gone from old to young,” the 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 negotiations come at a time when the Trump administration has suspended plans to impose new tariffs, while China has only made symbolic gestures that it will increase its purchase of US goods or possibly curtail its greater tech ambitions. The glee of Chinese internet users that the world’s leading superpower has come to the table with little in the way of concrete promises is telling.

Photographs can be tools of propaganda, but the latest social media shot in a larger trade war points out that social media users can easily be on the frontlines of memes that influence conversation. In the current state of the internet, it’s often hard to figure out where memes and other internet imagery actually originate, and it may not be as user-generated as we assume. The impact of this image also highlights how, regardless of your politics, photographs still pack a symbolic punch that those in power should never overlook.

As one artist with extensive experience in China let me know yesterday, it’s also worth adding that the Chinese government system of retirement often forces people to retire at age 55 for all but the most senior positions, such as the premier. That definitely adds another layer to this story.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

6 replies on “The Decline of American Empire in One Photograph”

  1. With a Chinese woman at the table almost opposite Trump, looks like no US women at the table. Plus, I’m betting several people on the Chinese team speak English at various levels and that none of the US team at the table speak any Chinese.

    1. OK, Do you know what Chinese women have done in history?
      One of them was a cruel torture-like empress. One of them was the Mao’s 4th wife who had eaten executed intellectual man’s penis. One of them was Chiang Kai-shek’s wife, who hooked up with all Democratic MPs during wartime and appealed some bombing for the massacre of total 700,000 Philippino and Japanese people.
      The women present at this conference are still actively participating in the ethnic cleansing of the people of Tibet and Uighur autonomous regions and the invasion of their own land.

  2. So, do you know the identity of these Chinese?
    Their grandparents and parents killed more than twice the people of the total of Nazis’ and Stalin’s murder numbers under the name of the Chinese Communist Party. Among them were their brothers and parents. Why were they killed? Because they had foreign books, because they were wearing glasses, because they had knowledge, because they were recording the abominable true history of China.
    Therefore, none of those Chinese who are present at the meeting know their true history and culture. Also, Chicom burned all the academic papers in the era of the Cultural Revolution, so they don’t have any Chinese origin technology even now.

    Their economic development was due to the great assistance from Japan and the Western countries, and the theft of technology from those countries. So, they discussed about those stolen information. Certainly they may be young, but their youth is only used for ridiculous lies, theft and for violent invasion and ethnic cleansing occurring in and out of China. That is why we are wary of the rogue state China.

    1. You are one of those brainwashed by mainstream Western trash, reading junk news thinking it’s actual knowledge. You dont know shit about China

    2. Yeah you can find atrocity stories about pretty much any modern power you care to name.

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