By Bumpy Walker
Back in the distant past when Jamaica’s premier anti-corruption crusader Trevor Munroe was a Marxist, I got my hand on a large suitcase of political tracts on “Kamumism” from one of his acolytes. The writing used big, obscure multi syllable words. The intent I suppose, was to convert the gullible and / or disenfranchised. A lot of energy was spent to rationalise the foreign policy of the Soviet Union as well as paint its now nearly extinct political system in a positive humane light. Though the content was mostly forgettable, one point was retained and puzzled me. This was a claim that The People’s Republic of China had border dispute with literally every single one of its neighbours.
Given that this information was from a “fraternal” ideological nation, it was surprising. This was a blatant attempt to demonise China, to demonstrate political superiority of the pax Sovietica over pax Maoist.
The History of China Podcast Series
During this time of Corona, by complete chance I came across a treasure trove of Chinese history, a remarkable series of nearly two hundred half hour podcasts on the history of China. This was one of those moments when a single event recalibrated my poor assessment of human history. It proved to be serendipitous, as yet again there seems to be another transnational attempt to demonise China. This is being done as crudely as Ian Fleming’s characterisation of Dr No in the Bond series of books.
China is no innocent victim of super power chicanery; it is as amoral as any other national actor in seeking economic and political dominance both internationally and in Asia. China seems to get reduced to a simplistic caricature as the manufacturing hub of the world, serial air polluters, war mongers and disease spreader seeking to expand; a nation of mindless automatons devoid of humanity and history.
Older than Adam
The narrative of Chinese mytho-history seems to have predated the well-known Abrahamic creation tradition. However, China, as a united political entity, came out of a remarkable creative 15 year period; the Qin Dynasty (221- 206 BC). This unification of smaller kingdoms into an empire was the brainchild of the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang, famed for the Terracotta Army. Politically he should be remembered for attempting to re-write history, literally burning all history books and executing scholars by burial alive. This was not the last time this re-writing of history was attempted. Think Hitler, Pol-Pot, Stalin, Trump and Churchill.
The death of the first Emperor allowed his chief advisor, the eunuch Zhao Gao, to extract revenge for the murder of his family and his mutilation by deliberately destroying the Qin Dynasty. Frankly, Zhao made the machinations of Little Finger in the HBO series “Game of Thrones” seem like a rank amateur!
At times in China’s long history it has been dominated by non-Han Chinese. These include the Xiongnu to whom the first emperor paid tribute, the Mongolians who established the Yuan dynasty and the Japanese who established a colony in Taiwan and northern China from the late 19th century to 1945.
Era of the Unfair Treaties
The century from 1845 to 1945 is referred to as the “Era of the Unfair Treaties” in China. During this time China was dominated by outside nations. This ran almost concurrently with the era of European colonisation of Africa. While literally everyone is aware of the two Opium Wars by the perfidious British, other players in these ignoble activities are ignored. There is a level of disingenuous PR by other nations, attempting to hide their own immoral exploitation of China while highlighting the British activity.
A good summary of the era is detailed in Jung Changs book “Empress Cixi,” where the machinations of the British, French, US, Russia, Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese, Swedes and Italians are detailed. All vied to establish trading ports like Hong Kong, and forcing unfair trade agreements on the failing Qing Monarchy. Cixi, who by all accounts was a remarkable woman in the tradition of strong, over bearing Dowager Empress, navigated the era with great sophistication and nuance. She is viewed through the communist prism with considerable suspicion, but equally she was also demonised in the west.
The above mentioned Jung Chang was the first person from the People’s Republic of China to obtain a PhD in the UK. She seems to average a single book of popular history every decade. These works include a highly acclaimed but critical, in depth biography of Mao Ze Dong, the Chinese dictator. Her reward was to be in semi exile from China where her books are banned, and she is prevented from visiting her family.
I do confess that, before listening to the podcast, the last two centuries is the era through which I viewed China. And while I search for commonalities, analogies, if you will, this limited approach was wrong.
Neither Sinophobe or Sinophile be
It should be noted that literally all of the disputes in the 1970s that the Soviets chose to so “innocently” mention have their roots in Era of Unfair treaties.
There is no need to either to dismiss or over hype China in its changing role in the world. The “reductiveness” with which China has been portrayed in recent months is akin to racism, xenophobia, ala Ian Fleming. The news cycle has portrayed Corona virus much in the same way that HIV had been, with China replacing Africa.
The 1984 deal between Great Britain and China was an agreement whereby the port city would be handed back in 1999 as per original treaty. The compromise was that a “one-nation-two-systems” would be in place. Hong Kong, like Macau, would be a special zone and would be ruled under a mini constitution called The Basic Law. The rest of China would continue to live under pre-existing Chinese laws. There would be no changes to this arrangement for fifty years. Any expectation that this system would be sustainable demonstrates that no one paid attention to the lessons learnt from the post-colonial history.
Last year there were pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong for nearly six months. To counter this, the Chinese Parliament this week passed a law that intends to bypass the Hong Kong Basic Law. The new law, according to China, is to tackle terrorism, succession, foreign interference and subversion. Let me be equivocal: I would rather live under the post hand-back Basic Law than the laws under which the rest of China lives. This new law certainly would concern me if I lived in Hong Kong, used to as I am to the concepts of the Jamaican constitution!
Even the current border dispute between India and China, it can be argued, has its roots in the Era of Unfair Treaties. Among other border legacy issues, from colonialism, the Venezuela – Guyana border dispute springs to mind; and yes, the Syles Picot Agreement which defined multiple national borders in the Middle East
Despite this both India and China share a common history of artificial borders being imposed on them, so they should have resolved this issue without the need for posturing given both sides have nuclear arsenals. My solution is to offer a delegation with former prime ministers PJ Patterson and Bruce Golding to mediate! Look, it is more credible than one from the US, Germany, Russia or Britain. After all, Jamaica never seized trading ports from either nation!
There is more than anecdotal evidence on social media that demonstrates there is similar contemptuous treatment of us people of African ancestry in China; perhaps more brutal in manner than such behaviour in the United States.
China exists; its economic power is increasing and has to be engaged with. In order to engage with the Chinese as equals the world, and particularly the West, needs to have an awareness of its history and its cultural myths. Nor should China be view as an enlightened evolved society.
For an outsider engaging with the United States in commerce, education or entertainment, most are aware of its historical self-myths: the revolution to over throw the “tyranny” of British Colonialism, the war of Northern Aggression that ended slavery.
Maybe it is just me, but Chinese history is a Terra Incognito, thus the creator of the podcast series (and Jung Chang) have educated me by using western historical analogy as well as time lines to make the ideas that are delivered accessible. Still the names, language and geography of China remain challenging.