Opinion

The Decline of American Empire in One Photograph

Can a single photograph symbolize a momentous geopolitical power shift? Perhaps.

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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