A watch maker in Shanghai, 1979. When foreign goods were banned in China, Chinese purchased items manufactured domestically. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Chinese have used economic boycotts of foreign countries for over a hundred years to protest foreign interventions and perceived humiliations. In the early twentieth century, boycotts precipitated or accompanied major turning points in China’s relations with the imperialist powers, and since the 1980s have reemerged as China has reintegrated itself economically with capitalist countries.

The boycotting of goods has figured prominently in Sino-foreign relations for more than a hundred years. Boycotts began in the first third of the twentieth century as a means of protesting against foreign powers who intervened in Chinese affairs or who were perceived to have humiliated China. As China reintegrated itself into global capitalist markets in the later twentieth century boycotts reemerged to foster Chinese economic nationalism, although the World Trade Organization, with China as a member since 2001, has tried to ensure market access to foreign goods.

Boycotts as Policy

Beginning in the early twentieth century boycotts gave rise to or occurred simultaneously with major turning points in China’s relations with the imperialist powers. There were significant boycotts in 1905, 1908, 1909, 1915, 1919, 1923, 1925, 1928, 1931, and then nearly continuously into the second Sino–Japanese War (1937–1945). The policies behind the boycotts may have even provoked the war with Japan, which sought to ensure market access.

On one level prewar boycotts followed a predictable pattern. After a specific foreign humiliation, a popular protest ensued, which included a boycott. They generally ended when government suppression from above, inertia from below, and the profit motive among merchants, who made imports irresistibly inexpensive, undermined the commitment of participants. On a deeper level these individual boycotts did not merely emerge from nowhere as an emotional response to an act of foreign aggression in China. Rather, they are best viewed as the most conspicuous aspect of a broader continuous effort to combine nascent nationalism and consumer culture by teaching Chinese to differentiate Chinese products from foreign products. Although boycotts always included opportunists, such as hooligans and petty government officials who used the events to shakedown merchants, the core supporters remained active between boycotts. Even when boycotts failed to ban the targeted imports, which they always did, they played a pivotal role in developing Chinese nationalism and anti-imperialism.

The Anti-American Boycott of 1905 institutionalized the use of boycotts in China as an expression of anti-imperialism and nationalism. The anti-American boycott of 1905 was atypical in that it began after affronts to Chinese overseas rather than infringements of Chinese sovereignty within China. Like subsequent boycotts, this one had an identifiable spark: the increasingly restrictive U.S. immigration measures applied to all Chinese. Toexpress their outrage and help pressure the United States, Chinese merchants in cities throughout China boycotted American products.

This boycott was critical to the development of a sustained economic nationalist movement for four reasons. First, it initiated a long series of anti-imperialist boycotts. Second, it was national in scope, with participants in at least ten provinces and many major cities throughout China and within Chinese communities abroad, such as San Francisco. Third, the boycott cut across class lines. U.S. immigration officials had mistreated all Chinese, including manual laborers and aristocrats, so all classes supported the boycott. Fourth, the boycott created new ways and co-opted others to foster popular participation, including modifying popular songs, destroying stocks of American products, soliciting pledges, tearing down advertisement posters for American goods, spreading rumors (for example, that American cigarettes contained poison), and using advertisements to identify products as Chinese and encourage their consumption.

Protestors used different media to reach as many people as possible. Newspapers targeted the cultural elite; songs, lectures, slogans, drama performances, and cartoons of mistreated Chinese reached a wider audience; and handbills, leaflets, and placards written in the colloquial language informed intermediate groups. In short, the boycott, which gradually dissolved by 1906, fostered economic nationalism among Chinese consumers and a growing sense of empowerment through consumption and nonconsumption.

The next major anti-imperialist boycott occurred in early 1908 after Chinese officials in Guangzhou seized a Japanese ship, the Tatsu Maru II, which they believed to be smuggling weapons to anti-Qing revolutionaries. The Japanese government demanded the immediate release of the ship, an indemnity, and a formal apology, which the weak Qing government agreed to. The agreement, however, angered Chinese in the south who wanted their government to stand up to the Japanese. The chamber of commerce and native-place associations in Guangzhou proposed a boycott of Japanese products until the aggregate value of the boycotted goods matched the indemnity. Longshoremen refused to unload Japanese ships, local shipping companies vowed not to use these ships, and merchants burned Japanese products. As with other boycotts, ad hoc organizations formed to support this one. The boycott spread to other cities, particularly those with populations of merchants from Guangzhou, such as Shanghai, and in overseas communities in Honolulu, Manila, and even the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

This boycott, though short-lived, further established the usefulness of boycott process by demonstrating how quickly locals formed boycott organizations of broad social coalitions. Moreover, these groups simultaneously promoted both the boycott and the development of Chinese industries. Seventy-two leading merchants in Guangzhou, for example, were asked to finance the establishment of a large commercial firm, where merchandise of every description would be collected from all over the country and sold at a designated price to encourage and to help improve Chinese industry. The boycott also broke, if only temporarily, established trade relationships. This opened up the possibility that domestic manufactures would replace Japanese imports, allowing Hangzhou umbrella manufacturers, for instance, to gain a foothold in a market dominated until then by popular Japanese-manufactured umbrellas. Above all, the boycott provided a lasting reminder that Chinese outside the government could take foreign policy into their own hands and express nationalism and anti-imperialism through commodities. The formal boycott lasted only a few months. Nevertheless, this form of protest had been introduced to new areas of China and would soon be repeated.

Boycotts and Rising Nationalism

Japan’s treatment of China during World War I, particularly its issuance of the notorious Twenty-One Demands of 1915, which initially called for the elimination of Chinese sovereignty, led to the first nationwide, prolonged boycott of Japanese goods. The lengthy negotiations over the demands gave the Chinese plenty of time to grow impatient and organize opposition. But with Japanese pressure on the Chinese government to crack down on boycotts, supporters had to turn to less explicit ways of disseminating the call to boycott by referring to Japan indirectly. In Guangzhou, for example, Chinese newspapers regularly received letters from readers offering money to support armed resistance against the “unwarranted aggression of a certain empire.” Likewise, Chinesewere enjoined not to buy “inferior products,” which along with “enemy products” became code words for Japanese goods.

The protests surrounding the Versailles Peace Conference (1919), which grew into the larger May Fourth Movement, provide another example of the how boycotts are linked and reveal the development of Chinese nationalism. As with earlier boycotts, a specific national humiliation was at the center of protests in 1919, in this case, a shift in the foreign control of Shandong Province. Since the late nineteenth century, the province had been part of Germany’s sphere of interest. During World War I, however, Japan took over and expanded the German possessions in Shandong and required China to recognize its interests there as part of the Twenty-One Demands. China had expected to recover control of the Shandong concessions as a reward for entering the war against Germany. Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric of self-determination heightened this expectation. However, Japan had carefully laid the groundwork for assuming control with secret agreements. The publicizing of these agreements during the Versailles Peace Conference sparked Chinese demonstrations. On 4 May several thousand students gathered at Tiananmen Square at the entrance to the Forbidden City to advocate the return of Qingdao and denounce the Versailles settlement. In the following weeks and months, the inhabitants of some two hundred Chinese cities spread over twenty provinces participated in strikes and boycotts that lasted, depending on the place, until 1920 or 1921. The protest aimed to translate humiliation into retaliation by boycotting Japanese products, ships, and currency.

New humiliations continually stoked anti-imperialist sentiments and kept the boycotts alive. Indeed, it is not clear that any boycott ever ended. In most places theygradually declined, only to be rekindled by new humiliations in the 1920s and 1930s. These new boycotts heightened economic nationalism through increasingly violent and vigorous means.

One of China’s most famous boycotts, that of 1925, may appear unique because it was the first time two countries were boycotted at once. The demonstrations and strikes grew out of months of escalating conflict, following the death of a Chinese factory worker at the hands of his Japanese boss. On 30 May 1925, Chinese responded to the broader mistreatment of workers at a local Japanese-owned textile mill by holding a demonstration on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road. British-led police officers from the International Settlement, of which Nanjing Road was a part, fired on the crowd, killing eleven and wounding a few dozen more Chinese. Within days strikes broke out across Shanghai and spread throughout the country. In contrast to earlier actions, Chinese demonstrators explicitly targeted both the British and the Japanese. But this fact becomes less remarkable when viewing the boycott as part of a larger effort to promote economic nationalism, which had from its start stigmatized the consumption of all imports. By the same token, interpretations of the boycott of 1925 as an event run by the fledgling Communist Party, whose labor activism undoubtedly played an important role, are overly narrow.

Expanded Scope of Boycotts

By 1925 the Nationalist Party had begun to strengthen its relationship with organizations advocating economic nationalism. Boycotts in 1928 and 1931 were the most effective to date. The nationalists greatly extended the scope of these boycotts, but they never completely controlled (and certainly did not invent) these events. Indeed, proponents of economic nationalism used the nationalist government as much as the other way around. For instance, economic nationalists used an official government campaign against cigarette smoking in the mid-1930s as a pretext for confiscating only foreign cigarettes. Ultimately, heavy pressure from Japan and the policy of “first internal pacification, then external resistance” convinced nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi 將介石, 1887–1975) to withdraw support for boycotts. Nevertheless, even after the nationalist government began suppressing the boycott in May 1932—attempting to ban, for instance, the popular term enemy products—many Chinese continued to pressure merchants by picketing stores, confiscating goods, sending intimidating anonymous letters and postcards, disrupting distribution channels, pasting posters on storefronts, and forcing shopkeepers to place advertisements in local newspapers in which they vowed not to sell imports.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chinese leaders finally and completely gained control over tariffs. Within a few years, the PRC government effectively banned the importation of virtually all consumer goods, particularly those from capitalist countries. Chinese consumers had no choice but to buy Chinese. Thirty years later China dramatically changed course. With the initiation of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and opening to the outside world, China slowly began to import consumer goods.

Boycotts in Modern China

Since the start of China’s market reforms in 1978, imports from capitalist countries have once again arrived in ever-greater numbers. Such imports have collided with established economic interests as well as a growing consumer movement, which is ever ready to call a boycott against companies and countries deemed to have treated Chinese consumers unfairly.

As the range and volume of imports grew, particularly with the lead up to and China’s ascension to the World Trade Organization in 2001, the tension between Chinese products and foreign products periodically reemerges for at least three reasons. First, China’s WTO commitments allowed easier market access for multinationals and rendered countless village-owned and state-owned enterprises uncompetitive, creating millions of unemployed workers. Although less visible internationally, government and academic critics remain opposed to China’s reintegration to the capitalist market. Second, a new generation of students continues to invoke the language of economic nationalism and call for boycotts, as did those protesting the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the widespread boycotts ofthe French retailing giant Carrefour in China in 2008 in retaliation for the disruption of the Olympic torch relay in Paris. Finally, Chinese consumers periodically call for boycotts of specific foreign products when they feel Chinese consumers collectively have been treated poorly or differently by multinational companies.

1905 Anti-American Boycott Literature

In a widely read 1905 pamphlet of boycott literature called “Tongboa shounue ji” (A story of ill treatment of Chinese brethren), the author describes the living conditions of Chinese immigrants attempting to enter America. The descriptions in pamphlets such as this help fuel the angry sentiment of the Chinese at home and promoted the boycott.

The sheds are set up along the coast of San Francisco (other entry ports are building them now) exclusively for the arriving Chinese. They are made of thick wood set upright like a fence and topped with thin planks. Inside, it is dark, filthy, and smelly. Along the course sides of the interior, planks are set up as beds and tables. The [living] conditions in the shed are even worse than in a prison. When thirsty, one can drink only cold water; when hungry one can eat only black bread or hard rice, of which there is never enough. One cannot do laundry when clothes are dirty; no relatives and friends are allowed to visit. Every day, guards are watching and no detainee is allowed to step outside. There is also a bunch of hooligans who are neither officials nor commoners. They burn some kind of medicine to fumigate the [detainees’] faces and heads for contagious disease. These people steal money whenever they have a chance. When [you] are in the shed, the situation is hopeless. Almost every Chinese who comes to the United States has had this experience.

Source: Wang, Guanhua.. (2001) In search of justice: The 1905–1906 Chinese anti-American boycott. Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Asia Center, 142.

One hundred years after the first nationwide boycotts began to popularize product nationality, and even as the WTO attempts to ensure market access to foreign products, the real and imagined nationality of products and brands still influences Chinese life.

Further Reading

Cochran, S. (1980). Big business in China: Sino-foreign rivalry in the cigarette industry, 1890–1930. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Fewsmith, J. (2001). China since Tiananmen: The politics of transition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Gerth, K. (2003). China made: Consumer culture and the creation of the nation (East Asian Monograph series). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gries, P. (2004). China’s new nationalism: Pride, politics, and diplomacy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jordan, D. A. (1991). Chinese boycotts versus Japanese bombs: The failure of China’s “Revolutionary Diplomacy,” 1931–32. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Remer, C. F. (1933). A study of Chinese boycotts, with special reference to their economic effectiveness. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Wang Guanhua. (2001). In search of justice: The 1905–1906 Chinese Anti-American Boycott (East Asian Monograph series). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Source: Gerth, Karl (2009). Boycotts and Economic Nationalism. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 200–204. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Boycotts and Economic Nationalism (Guóhuò yùndòng yù jīngjì mínzúzhǔyì 国货运动与经济民族主义)|Guóhuò yùndòng yù jīngjì mínzúzhǔyì 国货运动与经济民族主义 (Boycotts and Economic Nationalism)

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