Should we be afraid of China?
Hands up who was taught about the sacking of the Summer Palace at school… It’s OK, I can wait… Anyone? No? Nor was I. This may seem like an odd question, but please bear with me.
I wanted to write this piece to illustrate to people who may be wondering just why it is that I remain unafraid of the rise of China, and feel that the mainstream Western media’s portrayal of China as a behemoth is rather a dangerous position to take. Obviously I don’t mean it’s dangerous because the Chinese are dangerous; what I mean is that the more we wilfully misunderstand the Chinese as a nation and as a people, the worse the situation will become, and the wider the gap between us will end up being. Our British politicians are not doing a great job at diplomacy when it comes to meeting the Chinese. The whole Hinkley-C issue is the perfect illustration of how easy it is to fuck things up if you don’t know what you’re doing. I understand perfectly well that diplomats are trained in what to say and how to behave, but this is why it is even more of a mystery to me how, at least when it comes to the Chinese, they still manage to get it so wrong, so often.
Liu Xiaobo is a writer, and is currently serving time in prison for subversion of the state. * His writing is very honest and he has not let the restrictions on freedom of speech stop him from saying what he feels needs to be said. His essays and poetry have been published as a collection, translated into English, called No Enemies, No Hatred. The following analysis starts on page 125, and I think it’s completely relevant to what I’m trying to say here:
“…I need to make some unpleasant comments,” Mr Liu says, “about the ways in which Westerners flatter China.”
“Flatter” is an interesting choice of word, but he has picked it deliberately, as becomes clear as you read on.
1. Some are attracted to Chinese culture purely from personal inclination, temperament, interest, and values. They seek spiritual resources, or a kind of comfort, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is a normal human pursuit. It’s just too bad that Westerners of this kind, who are responsible only to themselves, are so few. Indeed, it is too bad that human beings of this kind in general are so few.
I’d like to think of myself as fitting firmly into this first group – I’m interested in China for its own sake, because it’s fascinating. There is simply so much to learn and I have still only barely scratched the surface. The more I read about China, the more I recognise the extent of my own ignorance. In fact, it’s because I read so much that I’m able to do this. Those people who write about China in the papers seem to be confident they know all about it, but they clearly don’t bother to read up on it. The evidence is there in the colourful display of ignorant posturing that’s displayed in the papers and on the internet.
Mr Liu goes on:
2. Some, beginning from criticisms of their own societies, look to China for weapons that they can use to try to transform the West. Their mission leads them to embrace a Chinese political language and conceptual system, to strain it through their own Western thought processes, and thence to come up with a version of “Chinese” culture. These Westerners believe that they are Sinicizing themselves, but in fact they are doing nothing of the sort. […]
Certain figures in the political spotlight have recently embarrassed themselves (and me, on their behalf) by citing Maoism and nostalgia in the same sentence. John McDonnell quoted from the Little Red Book in Parliament. He did it to make a point, but it was extremely ill-advised, as he was lambasted for it by both the left- and the right-wing press. Diane Abbot reportedly said Mao “did more good than harm”, which was not only ill-advised but also completely untrue, as anyone can find out by doing a little digging. It’s no good looking back at Maoist China and seeing only positive lessons that we in the West can learn now, for fear of upsetting the apple cart. One lesson we can learn from Mao is that it’s far too easy to let power go to your head, with the result that millions of people starve to death (ref: the famine of 1958—61) – and if you don’t like what people are saying, well… you can always kill them (ref. Cultural Revolution, 1966—76). I’m sure neither Mr McDonnell nor Ms Abbot meant anything of the sort, and this is exactly the reason that people in high-profile positions have a responsibility to know what they’re talking about before they even open their mouths.
Mr Liu continues:
3. Some begin with Western superiority firmly in mind and a sense of noblesse oblige toward Chinese culture. Their affirmation of things Chinese is like that of an adult who commends a child for handling “big people’s language” or a nobleman who praises the loyalty of a slave. Both are mixtures of charity and insult. […]
This is damning, but he has a point. Let’s take the sacking of the Summer Palace as an an example.
On the 18th of October 1860, during China’s Century of Humilation (at the hands of, among others, the British), Lord Elgin gave the order to raze the Summer Palace to the ground.
The best information I’ve been able to find about this is in Stephen Platt’s book Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War. It’s not the easiest of books to read, but there is a lot of information about what happened in China during this time, and the author has clearly done a great deal of research. There’ll be names in the following excerpts that you won’t recognise, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the context:
Zaiyuan insisted to Parkes that all ministers of the government had to kneel before the emperor, no matter their rank. “We are not Chinese ministers,” replied Parkes, “so why should we kneel?” They proposed that Elgin stand at a distance and not actually face the emperor. Parkes would have none of it. It was on this issue of ceremony that the new round of negotiations broke down.
From p 105
The first line of the Allied columns crested a dike on October 5 and came into view of the long, low walls of Beijing across a wide plain of yellow earth. Senggelinqin was already on his way north with his Mongol cavalry, and the remaining imperial forces simply melted away before the allied advance. Tired from the march, they paused and made camp for the night just two miles from the city. The next morning, an advance detachment of British cavalry and French infantry set out for the Summer Palace, where they still expected to find the emperor in residence. Entering through the outside gates, they found it empty and undefended. And then the looting began for real.
A British officer recalled arriving at the Summer Palace that first day, in the midst of the burgeoning free-for-all, to find “some men, quite off their heads with the excitement of looting a palace, and for no apparent reason tearing down grand embroideries. I saw one man send the butt of his rifle through a huge mirror.” The officer made his way through the palace until he came to “a great hall with grand-looking vases, apparently gold, and some splendid bits of jade carving.” He felt like “a boy suddenly told to take what he likes in a pastry-cook’s shop” and was “puzzled where to begin.” Having heard that jade was particularly valuable, he “made a collection that probably has rarely been seen,” which he loaded onto his pony, and then he took off for camp with both arms around his load of priceless treasures…
The breakdown of discipline as the fever for looting swept through the ranks embarrassed and angered the British commanders, who tried to keep their men in camp to prevent them from pillaging the palace – though the French got free reign, which sparked the jealousy and resentment of their British counterparts…
“Plundering and devastating a place like this is bad enough,” [Elgin] wrote, “but what is much worse is the waste and breakage…”
From pp 107—08
Frankly, it isn’t that hard to see how this would have made the Chinese (and the Qing government) feel. Their beautiful, priceless Summer Palace, being looted and trashed by Westerners who really had no business being there at all, and who thought they were superior to the Chinese whose land they were on. They were there because of war, effectively pitting the (Chinese) Taiping against the (not Chinese) Qing government. So when they arrived at the Palace and found the emperor gone, they saw an opportunity for profit. And they took it.
From the same book, p 109:
With the emperor in flight and the city abandoned by its officials and its defenders, the capital of the once great Qing Empire was utterly helpless. But the Allies left the city itself untouched as on October 18, four miles to the northwest, British forces began the work of methodically destroying the eight-hundred-acre complex of buildings and gardens where the Xianfeng emperor had been born, where he had lived for most of his life – and indeed, which had been practically the only world he had ever known. There were so many ornate buildings on the grounds, covering more than a square mile, that it took them two full days of burning and breaking and smashing before the major structures were destroyed. The imperial treasures that had proven too heavy or unwieldy to loot and carry back to England and France (or sell at auction in Beijing) were smashed and burned as well.
So to return to my question at the beginning, why are we not taught about this part of our history at school? Why do most people outside of China know little or nothing about it? It might just be that it’s considered irrelevant to us today. But a different reason might be that our successive governments are ashamed of what happened and have done their very best to cover it up. (Or they still consider themselves superior to the Chinese and think it simply doesn’t matter – the people whose country they were destroying were, after all, only Chinese.) The British (and the French, and others) humiliated the Chinese over and over again. They don’t call it the Century of Humiliation for nothing. And yet now, when China shows signs of becoming the world economic power that it might have been sooner had it not been for the West’s appalling behaviour, those same Western governments are quick to disseminate the view that we ought to be afraid, that those Chinese are inscrutable and dangerous and we should watch out.
With all this in mind, it’s hard for me not to come to the conclusion that Western governments fall into Liu Xiaobo’s third category.
Number 4 in Mr Liu’s list starts as follows:
“Western tourists praise Chinese culture out of their amazement at unfamiliar things… China’s ignorance, backwardness, and primitiveness present sharp contrasts to the culture of Western civilization, and all of this, for tourists, stimulates curiosity and a sense of mystery.” […]
“Aw, look at that. How beautiful / cute / amazing that the Chinese thought of this and we didn’t…” How patronising. How embarrassing. How spot-on Mr Liu is in his assessment.
Number 5 is short, so I’ll reproduce it in full:
“A very small number of Westerners view China from a purely academic standpoint. These people, who study China from a certain remove, are relatively objective and clear-sighted. China’s virtues and vices are irrelevant to their personal interests, and their views of China, for that reason, are all the more realistic and of theoretical value. These are the Western voices that Chinese should listen to most carefully.”
The mainstream media are a far cry from the sort of people Mr Liu thinks Chinese should listen to. Instead, they seem hell-bent on convincing the public that we ought to be afraid of the Chinese. If you look around the internet, you’ll find a good number articles on this topic just by typing ‘should we be afraid of China’ into a search engine. The fact it’s so easy to find is what’s actually quite disturbing, because it means people are asking this question. To be fair, it’s also easy to find reasons we don’t need to be afraid, but it amounts to the same thing: the public are being led to believe there is a reason to fear China: its economic rise; its policies; its human rights record; its taking over as the world’s biggest and most influential power…
Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere, I think. It’s not hard to deduce that everyone reading this website, including me, are of an age which means the greatest world power for all of our lives has been the USA. There was no question about this when we were kids (in my case, in the early 1980s). It just was. Now that China is becoming a more important player on the world stage, however, questions are arising. The main question being: Should we be afraid of China?
We’ve all heard the phrase “the inscrutable Chinese”, but how inscrutable are they, actually? If this were really the case, there’d be no point sending diplomats over to China to negotiate, as it would be completely impossible to deal with them. (The fact that our British diplomats still manage to mess things up is, at this point, not part of the discussion.)
This mindset is so ubiquitous here in the UK that even some of the people who know us best, while recognising our Long Yu project is set in a pseudo-Chinese society, have expressed a belief that yes, we should indeed be afraid of the rise of China. This is a shame, as it doesn’t take that much effort to discover that this is not the case. But there’s a lot of information out there – hundreds of books, countless documentaries – though to really get the most out of them, it helps to be interested in China to start with. It’s easy to see how, if you’re not that bothered, you might get swept up by the news reporters who tell you to watch out, be careful, the Chinese are dangerous and we should be afraid. They may not say this directly. It’s the subtext that matters. Subliminal messages are everywhere, and we need to learn to spot them or we’ll end up in trouble.
It really is no good saying the Chinese are dangerous, and a threat to the West, without knowing the context and the history which has led to this belief. The West has dealt China blow after blow after blow – and I haven’t even mentioned the Opium Wars yet, which led directly to China signing over Hong Kong to the UK; nor have I mentioned Portugal’s “agreement” with Macau. Things which are also conveniently “forgotten” when we’re taught history at school. When we grow up, therefore, it’s this incomplete context that (mis)informs our opinions. Opinions which, when taken at face value, seem perfectly reasonable. But when looked at more deeply, in context, and with a framework with which to build a deeper understanding of the West’s ongoing relationship with China, those orthodox opinions begin to look a little… naive, at best. At worst, without informing ourselves about this vast country, relying on propaganda and mainstream news (though the two are more often than not the same thing) to give us information, our views on China and its people can lead to outright racism. Unintentional though this may be – obviously, there are decent, intelligent people who trust these sources, because they see no reason not to – it’s still low-level racism. And perhaps we’re all guilty of that to some extent. If something doesn’t affect us, we don’t see it happening. But when the information is available, laid out clearly and easily found, our excuses start to become just a little worn.
I’ll say it again – I do know that to want to even start delving deeply into the heart of Chinese culture, it’s necessary to have that desire to know in the first place. For many, if not most people, it simply isn’t there, and that’s fine and perfectly understandable. China is a long way away, and for most people, it makes little direct impact on their lives, beyond most of their clothes being made there (but that’s another story). But because of that, when the media tell people that China is now a threat to their lives – when it looks like it might have a negative effect – it’s only then most of us take an interest. As for me – I’m obsessed. I always have been.
It is not possible for Western governments to remain impartial the way they need to be, and so we get propaganda – subliminal messages that yes, there is reason to be afraid of the Chinese – when this simply isn’t true. This is a dangerous standpoint, and one we must be careful to avoid getting caught up in if we’re not to end up flat on our arses. If that happens, then when we look up, it may well be a Chinese face looking down at us. And you know what? They’d be right to.
And you may be afraid of that. All that bothers me is my fellow Brits, as a nation, looking like a bunch of complete wankers. Can we not do that, please? Can we have some respect for the Chinese instead, and repair some of the damage that we, the Brits, have caused?
* Mr Liu died of liver cancer on the 13th of July 2017, barely a month after being released from prison. He was released after being diagnosed, but was still under 24-hour surveillance while he was in hospital. After his death, his wife Liu Xia disappeared, leading to fears for her safety, but she has since moved to Berlin, where she remains.