We can only make sense of the present by understanding the past. It is hardly an original idea but Robert Bickers’ Out of China explains its particular relevance in understanding today’s China.
Historical consciousness has always been part of the Chinese Communist Party’s vision for the nation, and to an extent often underestimated by outsiders. Recall how Tony Blair was amazed to learn during preparations for the Hong Kong handover that the Opium Wars were still such a sore point for the Chinese, for instance (although Blair then took it upon himself to apologise for the Irish Potato Famine, so perhaps he understood that events of the 1840s could have relevance.)
Out of China – which was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize – explains how the nationalism of the current day has grown out of China’s past experiences in international relations, particularly its history of abuse and exploitation at the hands of the West and Japan.
The book begins in Shanghai with the celebrations of the armistice of 1918. The Chinese had joined the war the year before – opportunistically, some thought – just in time to be on the winning side. Any hope that this might help them reclaim territory held by the Germans in China was short-lived. The Japanese – who had been on the Allied side since the start of the war – were bigger beneficiaries of the Treaty of Versailles, gaining a German treaty port in Shandong province. As Bickers explains, this was another example of how China was treated more as a pawn than a player. Never mind that Chinese soldiers had died in the war: in the celebrations in the international zones of Shanghai, the Chinese were barely even acknowledged as belligerents.
The treaty ports were a key frustration for Chinese patriots. These zones suffered the downside of colonial occupation without being formalised colonies – where at least there was some sense of national responsibility for the territory concerned. This state of ‘semi-coloniality’ offered the worst of all worlds.
Of course not all Chinese felt aggrieved – many benefited from foreign education and travel in the modernising era of the 1920s and 1930s, and working alongside other nations sometimes seemed like natural progress. Or at least, it did if you were working with one of the international firms.
However, rescuing China from foreign interference was a major focus of both the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek and the rival Communist regime of Mao Zedong. (Which is not to say they were free from foreign influence either – both the KMT and CCP had foreign advisers and some of their leaders were educated abroad.)
For Chiang’s KMT, ending the principle of extraterritoriality on Chinese soil was a key goal. He had made some progress in the late 1920s, but the project had to be put on hold when hostilities broke out with an expansionist Japan in the 1930s.
Bickers offers some evocative vignettes about the decadence of Shanghai life in the 1930s too, including greyhound races in the French Concession which featured monkeys riding the dogs. But most of all he details how history in China has been framed as a series of national humiliations. In recent decades, this has become part of the government’s educational doctrine, emphasised through the network of “National Bases for Patriotic Education” (museums) and “Classic Red Tourism Sites” (shrines to Mao’s revolution). China’s policy successes of today, from claiming islands in the South China Sea to its space programme, have also been presented as a release from the shame of the past. Indeed, Beijing’s non-negotiable stance on all issues related to sovereignty – i.e. maritime territories contested with Japan, border disputes with India or the status of Taiwan – can only be grasped through the prism of history and angst over prior violations of Chinese territory.
Bicker’s book will help non-Chinese readers understand this point, plus how it drives much of the policymaking of today – from the ‘not one inch’ approach to sovereignty disputes to Xi Jinping’s ‘Made in China 2025’ industrial programme (a plan to leapfrog the West in new technologies like electric cars and artificial intelligence). While the latter strategy may have backfired in Washington and Brussels (so much so that Chinese state media have stopped referring to it), the longer term ambition holds.‘Make China Great Again’ is not a slogan used by Beijing but it neatly encapsulates its current worldview.
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