A Radical Role Reversal — Britain As China’s Gateway To Europe

On the occasion of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s official visit to Britain this week, it is important to remember that when the Chinese speak of their past “era of humiliation,” 1839 to 1949, it was Britain that started and perpetuated it for several decades. In light of its own multiple abuses of human rights in China, it would be a serious mistake for anyone in Britain to lecture Xi (or any Chinese) on human rights; instead, in light of the past, Britain and China should aim to forge a new constructive relationship for the 21st century.

A Recapitulation

For much of recorded history, China was the world’s wealthiest nation. As recently as two centuries ago, it corresponded to 33% of global GDP. By 1950, its share had plummeted to 3.3%. This was the result of foreign and civil wars, imperialist exploitation, which in turn exacerbated a breakdown in governance. China became a “failed state.” Britain wrote a good deal of that narrative.

The first industrial revolution in the late 18th century occurred in Britain, not in China. Given China’s image (Marco Polo, etc) of great wealth and splendor, as well as its big population, British traders looked at the Chinese market with drooling envy – illustrated by the slogan: “if every Chinaman would add an inch of material to his shirttail, the mills of Lancashire could be kept busy for generations.”

In 1793, as flag sought to accompany trade, the first British envoy, Lord Macartney, was sent to engage China in trade negotiations. China, however, was closed, inward looking, autarkic, and contemptuous of “foreign devils.” While the British delegation were forced to “kowtow” to the Chinese court – taken from the Chinese word kētóu, literally to “knock head” (on the ground) or prostration – Beijing refused British demands on trade. Confrontation loomed. The British discovered a strong Chinese demand for opium – and the world’s best opium was grown and cultivated in the British colony of Bengal.

I have on several occasions on this blog strongly recommended the reading of the Bengali novelist Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy for the remarkable narrative of the activities, actors and ambience leading to the first Opium War (1839-1842). I hope this advice is being heeded!

Following the war, Hong Kong was made a colony, providing Britain’s “gateway to China.” It was ruled for 155 years, interrupted only by the Japanese occupation from Dec. 25, 1941 to Aug. 30, 1945, until Jun. 30, 1997 when it was “returned” to Chinese sovereignty.

After the first, there ensued a second Opium War (1856-1860), in which British and Indian forces were joined by the French – whosecasus belli was the beheading of a French missionary, Father Auguste Chapdelaine, who had infringed Chinese laws by entering forbidden territory (he was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2000). Not only were Chinese soldiers and civilians brutally killed, but the invaders ransacked, pillaged and burnt to the ground the magnificent Summer Palace in Beijing: an act of hideous cultural vandalism.

Prior to the outbreak of the Opium War Canton’s Commissioner Lin Zexu wrote his “Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria”, pleading that she prohibit the opium trade. In the letter he makes the crucial point that as the sale of opium is prohibited in Britain, why impose it on China? Further, he appeals to her better moral judgment:

Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused. We have heard heretofore that your honorable ruler is kind and benevolent. Naturally you would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want.

It is not known whether Queen Victoria ever read the letter, but in any case she did not reply. Britain never had to experience the forced imposition of drugs from a foreign power, nor having invading Chinese troops marching down The Mall, nor was Buckingham Palace pillaged and burnt, as was the Summer Palace.

In order to avoid meddlesome Chinese laws, the victorious British imposed “extra-territoriality” on China, whereby their citizens could not be judged by Chinese courts, but by their own consular courts, which also applied to all Chinese accused of committing crimes against or alleged victims of crimes by Britons – a system adopted by all other Western powers and Japan.

Patti Waldmeir has recently written an excellent article, entitled “China looks back in anger at British justice,” which well describes the “injustice” and legal discrimination to which the Chinese were subjected on their own territory. Unlike India, Britain never colonized China (apart from Hong Kong), mainly because it did not have to: It could achieve its economic ends through informal imperialism without the costs of formal colonial administration. In Shanghai and other cities where there was a sizeable Western community, clubs, bars, restaurants, parks, leisure centers, were opened up from which Chinese were barred – except of course as servants. The Chinese were frequently made the butt of British racist jokes.

Following China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, the Western powers exacted more concessions from the Chinese government in the form of spheres of influence: Chunks of territory that were theoretically part of China but over which a given foreign power had exclusive economic rights. The British had extended their rule from the island of Hong Kong to include the peninsula of Kowloon in 1860 and then acquired the New Territories in 1898. In 1900, Britain participated in the brutal suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. Between 1903 and 1905, Britain, with the extensive use of Indian troops, invaded Tibet. With the development of colonies, establishment of plantations and exploitation of mines throughout the world there arose great demand for the supply of Chinese indentured labor, known as “coolies,” with which Britain was significantly involved.

All this should show quite categorically, emphatically and conclusively that Britain simply does not have the moral high ground from which it can lecture, let alone hector, the Chinese on human rights, as some have argued it should. First, it should recognize past crimes and express deepest apologies.

In spite of the multiple past transgressions and humiliations against the Chinese by Britain, there is no sign today that although China has regained strength, it is out to wreak revenge. But the scars of past humiliations are there and the wounds could reopen and fester. Essentially China is looking for its place in the world and for sustainable governance. As Europeans should know from our own extremely turbulent and often violent past this is not easy.

It is clear that the 21st century will be in good part determined by the impact and implications of China’s re-emergence as a great global power. From 33% of global GDP before the first Opium War, plummeting to 3.3% a century later, today China has re-risen to 15%. China has vast global interests extending across all continents. With initiatives such as the New Silk Road (OBOR, One-Belt-One-Road) the process will continue. But in its development, China faces not only external challenges, but also domestic ones: social, demographic, cultural, spiritual, economic,financial, technological, environmental and political. Should China achieve its “peaceful rise,” it would be the first great power in history ever to have done so. The implications for the world today and for future generations are huge. For the West the objective should be to engage with China cooperatively in achieving that end, and emphatically not to seek to contain China or through humiliation ostracize it from the global community.

Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under President Truman, famously remarked that while “Great Britain has lost an empire, it has not yet found a role.” A role it could aspire to would be to serve as China’s gateway to Europe – financially, but also culturally, socially, scientifically, intellectually and politically.

Britain took an important step in that direction when it ignored Washington’s objections and became a founding member of the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). As Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne commented during his recent trip to China, Britain and China should “stick together and make a golden decade for both our countries.”

Britain’s advantages to being China’s gateway to Europe (and possibly to the West generally) include not only its financial services and expertise, but also its strong academic credentials and achievements. Already many Chinese students attend British schools and universities. Given the comparative strength of U.K. institutions of learning in Chinese studies, there is significant scope for academic collaboration and cross-fertilization.

Forging this new relationship will not necessarily be easy. There are great differences between the two countries, politically and socially, as well as economically, not to mention bitter legacies of the past. China can be prickly, as was made evident by the public exhibition of the Magna Carta recently in Beijing. But this potential role stands out as a great opportunity that Britain is well placed for and therefore should seize. There is good reason to believe that engaging China in this manner will not only atone for some of the wrongs committed by Britain against China in the past, but serve far more positively in the improvement of Chinese governance and human rights than would hypocritical lecturing and hectoring. In this sense, Britain could play a critically constructive role in fashioning a 21st century that would relinquish to past history the “era of humiliation” and contribute to building a dynamic, prosperous and peaceful 21st century founded on respect and cooperation between China and Europe.


Text: Forbes Asia by Jean-Pierre Lehmann 19-10-2015

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