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About "Dangerous Straits"
An introduction to the FRONTLINE documentary

Historical context in which to learn about U.S.-China relations, an overview of the key issues between the two countries, and information on the recent strains in the United States' relationship with China

Lesson Plan
Students are asked to prepare policy briefs for their U.S. representatives; to learn about the art and practice of diplomacy; and to engage in meaningful debate about U.S.-China relations.

Where to go, on the Web and in the library, for more information


Burma "Hump": Dangerous Himalayan air route by which American supplies were flown to Nationalist Chinese forces in West China during the wartime Japanese occupation of Burma (1942-44). (See also Lend-Lease.)

Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975): Renowned leader of Nationalist China, his political fortunes soared during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45) only to collapse during the Chinese Civil War (1946-49). Forced to retreat to Taiwan, he was able to set up a government there headed by mainland associates, a number of whom were highly educated and far-sighted administrators. While Chiang controlled the political order, these associates, with American assistance, were able to carry an effective policy of land reform and economic development, under which Taiwan emerged as one of the most successful development stories of the 1960s and 1970s. Although Chiang maintained an autocracy based on martial law, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, took the first vital steps to end martial law and introduce democratic institutions.

Chinese Exclusion Act: From 1850 to 1882, around 100,000 Chinese men came to the U.S. to search for gold and to help lay railroad tracks. After violent anti-Chinese riots in the Western states, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, cutting back Chinese immigration. This act and other exclusionary legislation remained in force until 1943.

Cold War: Term for describing the global struggle that broke out in the wake of World War II between allied non-communist states led by the U.S. and communist states led by the Soviet Union. During this time the U.S. and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R. or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) built up huge nuclear forces capable of destroying each other many times over. But their conflicts were fought through "proxy wars" mostly erupting in former colonial regions in Asia and Africa. In the 1980s, Soviet power began to crack, partly due to internal uprisings in Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, partly due to the U.S.S.R.'s unsuccessful war in Afghanistan. The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the communist regimes of East Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 spelled the end of the Cold War -- although not of the nuclear forces it had generated.

Coolies: A Chinese term literally meaning "bitter labor." Applied to around 100,000 Chinese men who came to the U.S. between 1850 and 1882 to search for gold and to help lay railroad tracks. After violent anti-Chinese riots in the Western states, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, cutting back Chinese immigration. This act and other exclusionary legislation remained in force until 1943.

Dalai Lama (1935-): The 14th Dalai Lama is recognized by the great majority of the Tibetan people as their top spiritual and political leader. As a spiritual leader, he is the 14th reincarnation of the spirit of the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion Chenrezig (Guanyin in Chinese). As political leader, he fled to India in 1959 believing his life to be in danger from a Chinese coup. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, he now makes his headquarters in Dharamsala in Northwest India. While decried in China as a "splittist," he has become a powerful voice for the Tibetan community in exile.

Hegemonic: An unflattering term in Chinese politics, "hegemon" is used to refer to political power gained by physical rather than moral means, and that therefore lacks universal recognition. It was first used to describe regional leaders who began eroding the power of the Zhou dynasty around 600 BCE. It is now used as a critique of the super power status of the U.S.

Lend-Lease: Legislation initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to support the war efforts of other nations that served the interests of American security. Wartime Nationalist China became a major beneficiary of goods purchased under this legislation. Until the Japanese occupation of Burma, these goods were arduously trucked up the long and dangerous Burma Road into southwest China. Later they were flown over the Burma Hump.

Mao Zedong (1893-1976): One of the most well-known political leaders of the 20th century, he became leader of the Chinese Communist Party in 1935 and led the successful civil war which drove the Nationalist forces out of the China mainland in 1949. On Oct. 1, 1949, he pronounced the establishment of the People's Republic of China atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace (see Tiananmen Square) in Beijing. After 1949, his policies became increasingly controversial. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, he was worshiped by millions of young people. In his last few years, his most important foreign policy decision was to begin restoring relations with the U.S.

Pacific War: Term used to denote the World War II fighting in the Pacific Ocean region following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Note: The fighting resulting from the Japanese invasion of north-central China in 1937 is always known in China as the War of Resistance against Japan.

PRC: People's Republic of China, established on Oct. 1, 1949, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party. It now has a population of nearly 1.3 billion people. Since 1979, its economy has been growing very rapidly (experts debate about how rapidly). While Japan remains the dominant economic power in East Asia, China is now the dominant political and strategic power in the region.

Stillwell Mission: Mission sent to China by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall to advise President Chiang Kai-shek on military strategy against the invading Japanese. It was led by General Joseph W. Stillwell, an experienced army officer and China hand. Arriving in China in March 1942, Stillwell tried to reform the Nationalist military structure in order to conduct a campaign against the Japanese in Burma. He retreated with Chinese Nationalist forces into India and in 1944 was able to lead the fight to drive the Japanese forces back out of Burma. Stillwell's influence in Washington was undermined by Roosevelt's special representative to China, Patrick J. Hurley, and he was recalled in October 1944.

Taiwan: An island 100 miles off the coast of southeast China. Mainlanders mostly from Fujian province began settling there in the 17th century and gradually pushed indigenous peoples up into the East Coast mountains. In 1895, the Qing dynasty lost Taiwan (by then a province) to the Japanese under the terms of the Treaty of Shimonoseki ending the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. It was returned to Nationalist China at the end of World War II. In 1949, when the Nationalists lost China to the Communists under Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek set up his government in Taiwan and 2 million mainlanders joined him in retreating to the island. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 saved Taiwan from invasion by Chinese Communist forces. Taiwan is now de facto an independent country, though it is not legally recognized by the U.N. or any major country, with its own elected president and national government. It has a highly developed economy and a population of around 21 million.

Taiwan Relations Act: A 1979 congressional initiative resulting from the Carter administration's decision to transfer its recognition of China to the PRC government in January 1979 and to abrogate the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. Under this legislation, the U.S. and Taiwan governments set up unofficial liaison offices to handle diplomatic business. The U.S. agreed to sell certain defensive weapons to Taiwan and to "resist any resort to force or other coercion that would jeopardize" Taiwan's status as a de facto independent entity.

Tiananmen Square: Tiananmen means Heavenly Peace Gate. This gate is the main entrance to the Imperial and Forbidden Cities in Central Beijing. The Square, a vast space directly south of this gate, was created after 1949 as a stage for demonstrating the unity and power of the Communist Chinese People's Republic of China. It is ringed by important political buildings; these now include Mao Zedong's mausoleum. The Square was the scene of huge student demonstrations in 1989. It is famous for mass rallies during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and other important events in modern Chinese history.

Tibet: The region or country (depending on one's perspective) occupying the Inner-Asian high plateau north of the Himalayan mountains. Tibetan and Chinese political sources fiercely disagree over the historical relationship and political boundaries between Tibet and China. After the collapse of the Chinese empire in 1911, Tibet enjoyed virtual independence from China but, unlike Mongolia, was never able to gain recognition of independence from other countries. Chinese military forces entered Tibet in 1950, recovering Tibet for the Chinese "motherland." In the early 1960s, south-central Tibet was renamed the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Tibet autonomous districts are to be found in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces. Tibetans refer to the Qinghai region as Amdo and to the eastern TAR and Western Sichuan region as Kham.

Xinjiang: The most northwestern province in China, now known as Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Contains substantial population of Turkic ethnic minorities, of which the Uygurs are the largest group. Around 1,000 years ago, Islam entered this region and displaced Buddhism as the dominant religion. Important Islamic shrines now exist in Turpan, Kashgar, and other dominantly Uygur cities. In the late 19th century, the region was the site of a major Islamic rebellion which was brutally suppressed by Qing Imperial forces. Recently there has been unrest in Xinjiang, as a result of which China has closed its borders with Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

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