Tuesday, 21 May 2013

We should better understand China's history of relations with the West

The most recent piece of psyops from China in its cold war against Japan over the Senkaku Islands concerns Okinawa, which a couple of Chinese academics say are not part of Japan; this has led to some reflections by Fairfax's Peter Hartcher, who reminds us that when Hu Jintao, the previous president of China, visited Australia's Parliament, he spoke words about China's ancient links with our continent dating back to 1420 when a Ming fleet sailed the ocean blue and visited many parts of the globe. It was a short-lived and unrepeated exercise, an outward-looking venture that would not survive China's internal realpolitik and its view of itself in the world, so that when a British nobleman, Earl Macartney, in 1793 embarked on an embassy to Peking to treat with the Qing emperor Qianlong and request the opening of China's northern ports to British trade, he would be rebuffed. (The portrait that accompanies this post was made during Macartney's embassy.)

China's rejection of global capital except in a strictly limited way lasted until 1842 when there was armed conflict and subsequently the cession of Hong Kong to the British as well as Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo, Fuchow, and Amoy. More armed conflict ensued 14 years later and this led to foreign embassies being allowed in the capital, Tianjin being made a trade port, and Kowloon being ceded to Britain.

Hartcher's piece today is a ripe piece of scare-mongering but it must also lead to thoughts about the nature of dialog between the Middle Kingdom and the West (I use these terms merely in order to highlight the usefulness of learning more about east-west relations over the longer period, and not just relying on current events to help form our views about China).

But what can China learn from its history? In Japan, the effort to remain inviolate in the face of global capital led to armed conflict as well, with the showdown finally ending in 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry of the US. The case of Japan is salutary, since it didn't take long from Perry's military exercise until 1868 and the restoration of imperial rule under Emperor Meiji; that's just 15 years in case maths is not your long suit. From 1868 to 1905 is another 37 years: that's when Japan defeated Russia in war (the war that eventually sparked the 1917 Soviet revolution).

So in just over half-a-century, Japan went from feudal backwardness to colonial power. Tokyo's mandarins took this as a cue and proceeded to work to dominate Asia for the next 40 years until they were reminded of the importance of playing nice by the dropping of Little Boy on the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, followed by Fat Man over Nagasaki on 9 August. Japan took 92 years to reach the establishment - in both instances under duress imposed by the US - of democracy, and since then it's done very well for itself thank you very much. It also made a lot of enemies; unlike the British, who only wanted market access (this applies in India as well, at least in the early stages of the game; for the bulk of the time actually), Japan sought to impose its culture, language and politics on the subject demos. Japan's problem with its claim on the Senkakus date from this period of political adjustment: those 92 years of working out how it should fit into the world. China has a long memory.

For its part, China's problems with the British in 1794 (it took about a year for Macartney's embassy to reach its destination) and all through the bulk of the 19th century also have to do with its view of itself in the world. Likewise the problems China has with pronouncements today by leaders in foreign governments (notably, at least most vocally, the US government) that it believes impinge on its sovereignty, have to do with its view of itself. While in the past this kind of emblematic dysfunction led to armed conflict, these days it generally takes the form of public utterances and propaganda, along with the deployment of military assets in various parts of the high seas near the Chinese coastline.

I think what history tells us is that broader and deeper understanding is necessary for all parties in the game. It's also salutary to remind oneself that it's only been 24 years since China opened up to global capital; as in Japan's case, China has done very well for itself as a result, thank you very much. But we should all look back and contemplate how north Asia has fared in the face of global capitalism, if not since the Renaissance, when the process of rapprochement really started in earnest, then at least since the 18th century. It's not enough to look at the conflicts on Chinese soil. You also have to look at how global capital operated within the British political system: specifically inside Parliament in London. And so the Macartney embassy can form a very useful point of reference for those who would like to better understand the way that China has traditionally viewed itself as a sovereign entity. Likewise, Chinese people can study the 18th century in Britain in order to understand how capital operated on the democratic polis. This kind of mutual regard can only be useful in the longer term.

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