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The Currency Question: Andrew Jackson and Chairman Mao

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China Power

The Currency Question: Andrew Jackson and Chairman Mao

Convergences and divergences between America and China tell us a lot about each country’s current trajectory.

The Currency Question: Andrew Jackson and Chairman Mao
Credit: Chinese and US bank notes image via

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the rise of the Red Guards, who lashed out against American capitalism, and the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong, who encouraged those militant students but went on to bring Richard Nixon to China in 1972, re-establishing relations between Beijing and Washington. This makes 2016 a good year to assess the recent history of economic and political convergences and divergences—involving substance and style alike—between China and America.

This week’s news stories relating to U.S. currency and Chinese political titles are worth pondering as we do this. Yes, we can learn useful things about past and present similarities and differences between the U.S. and China from Washington’s announcement that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson as the face of the $20 bill, as well as from Beijing’s report that Xi Jinping, already holder of so many honorifics that he has been nicknamed “chairman of everything,” is now officially China’s “commander-in-chief” as well.

If we go back to China and the United States at the time of the Red Guards and the 1972 summit, the exercise is a study in contrasts. When Mao met Nixon, only the latter had won an election, wore a suit and ties, and was called “president” of his country. Only America had a free press, a stock market, an independent judiciary; and malls, McDonald’s, and millionaires. Only Nixon’s country had a globally important currency: the renminbi (literally “People’s Money”), or yuan, was not even traded on international markets. And only U.S. banknotes were emblazoned with the visages of past leaders, for the faces on the People’s Money were of representatives of different social groups.

Today, while China’s leaders still don’t stand for election and Beijing continues to control the press and the courts, many of the economic and symbolic contrasts between the two countries have lessened. Investors around the world are interested in the soars and dives of Chinese stocks. The country Xi runs consumes more luxury goods than any other. The renminbi has attained such international financial importance that last November the International Monetary Fund designated it a global reserve currency. In addition, even though Xi, like Mao, derives much of his power from heading the Communist Party, he is regularly referred to as a “president” and often wears suits and ties that look much like those routinely sported by leaders from other countries.

How do this week’s news stories fit into the picture? The fact that China’s leader can be called “commander-in-chief”—long a standard term for describing the military position held by American presidents—fits in with a story of surface-level convergences, (such as Presidents Obama and Xi being photographed in matching getting-to-know-each-other shirtsleeves attire during one of their meetings) which can hide enduring contrasts. The $20 bill story, though, points to ways that China and American still diverge—and at times even switch places in the way they handle some things.

The decision to remove Andrew Jackson’s face from the front of the $20 bill reflects a willingness to acknowledge that the United States does not have one singular shared historical narrative—and to question, as Chinese leaders are loathe to do, the way important and traumatic parts of the past have been treated. Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, whose portrait will replace Jackson’s on the front of the $20 bill, obviously experienced the mid-19th century quite differently than Jackson and his fellow white male Southerners. And although the $5 and $10 bills will continue to feature Great White Men of American History (including the newly beloved Alexander Hamilton) on their faces, the reverse sides of both will become more diverse, with the addition of suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, opera singer Marian Anderson, and civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr.

The imagery of the renminbi, on the other hand, has actually become less diverse over the decades. For the first 40 years after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, a succession of bills were largely adorned with proper socialist imagery: tractors and trains, fields and factories, diligent laborers. Several of the designs incorporated women and members of the country’s ethnic minority groups as well, to reflect the official policy (if not reality) of inclusiveness. But perhaps surprisingly, Mao’s face could not be spotted on Chinese currency—even during the height of his cult of personality in the days of the Red Guards, when his Little Red Book was everywhere, and his profile on countless badges and pins. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Mao appeared for the first time, first as one of the four “Founding Fathers” of the PRC gracing the 100 RMB note, and then, after a 1999 currency redesign, as the one person featured on all bills valued one yuan and above.

There is much we find ironic about China staying its Mao-centered course, in terms of monetary symbolism, at a time when Jackson is excised. One reason the American president is being booted to the back of the $20 bill is due to his responsibility for causing great suffering—and the same thing can definitely be said of Mao, whose Great Leap policies caused mass starvation. Another is that, while round number anniversaries are particularly fitting times to reassess the mix of accomplishments and flaws of past leaders like Mao and Jackson—this is only an anniversary year for the former, the one whose suitability to grace banknotes is not being revisited.

The biggest irony may have to do with the status of women. Some of Mao’s earliest writings criticized Confucian patriarchy. Right after he came to power, the Communist Party he led introduced a new marriage law that gave wives more parity with their husbands than they had in the United States at the time. It was no surprise, in such a context, that when Mao met Nixon, only the latter governed a land whose banknotes all had only male faces on them.

Flash forward to the present and things are very different indeed—and not just because Harriet Tubman and the suffragettes will soon be on American currency. Back in Mao’s day, it was easy to imagine that a Chinese woman would rise to the top of the political order before an American one would. Instead, China continues to have not just a man in charge but an all-male Politburo Standing Committee, while there’s a good chance that America’s next “commander-in-chief” will be a woman. And the United States now appears more interested in having a broad spectrum of “the people” represented on its banknotes than the land where the so-called “People’s Money” is used.

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham and Jeffrey Wasserstrom co-wrote the second edition of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford 2013)—and are currently working on the third, to be published next year.