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The Nine Dragon Screen, Datong, Shanxi, China Photo: The Nine Dragon Screen, Datong, Shanxi, China (Photo by Wikimedia user Doron, licensed under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 Attribution).

China's Colonial Past Key to Understanding its Future

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

China's complicated attitude towards its past appear to be evolving. From a modern geostrategic viewpoint, however, the era of colonial China, above all others, plays a significant role in shaping Beijing's intentions and behaviors on the international stage.

BEIJING—The current wave of restoration of historical sites across China, such as the reconstruction of the 14th-century city walls at Datong, is sometimes seen as evidence of the country's changing attitude towards its past: The destructive tendencies of the Mao years have been replaced by a new curiosity and respect for the Middle Kingdom's long history.

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This interpretation, however, fails to capture the full scope of modern China's complex relationship with its historical identity. While traditional Confucian values encourage reverence of "the Ancients," Communist Party propaganda has veered from exhorting its people to make a "great leap forward," to embarking on a "cultural revolution," to now writing a "glorious new chapter of Chinese civilization."

In reality, 60 years of sloganeering—not to mention the dizzying contortions Chinese textbooks make in order to uphold the Communist Party's version of history—have resulted in an often-ambiguous and inherently problematic relationship between past and present in today's China. The most fundamental of these tensions is reconciling the orthodoxy that Chinese civilization has, for 5,000 years, been the most advanced and glorious on the planet with the party line that, before the Communists came to power in 1949, all Chinese lived in a feudal hell from which only Chairman Mao could emancipate them.

From a modern geostrategic viewpoint, however, there is one part of Chinese history that, above all others, plays a significant role in shaping Beijing's intentions and behaviors on the international stage: the era of colonial China. The period from the outbreak of the first Opium War in 1839 until Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao announced that, "Today, the Chinese people have stood up," is known in China as the "Century of Humiliations." Understanding domestic attitudes to this first attempt at engaging with the outside world is key to understanding Beijing's second, ongoing effort, launched by Deng Xiaoping's market reforms in 1978.

In the international arena, Beijing tries hard to appear humble and follow Deng's maxim of "hiding brilliance." But in domestic discourses, China's return to geopolitical prominence is invariably couched—albeit with differing degrees of virulence and directness—in the language of manifest destiny: a nation rising up to assume its just and natural place in the world after the shameful events of the 19th century.

In general, most foreign governments, companies, and individuals fail to appreciate just how raw the post-colonial nerve still is in China.

This paradigm underpins nearly all its interactions with the outside world. As the Financial Times' James Kynge puts it, the Chinese media "play on the widespread sensitivity to a history of humiliations by the West to construct a great wall of patriotic fervor." Even an event as seemingly unrelated as Google's recent closure of its Chinese search engine was heralded by the mainstream media as a great national triumph, with the humiliated Yankee "information imperialists" sent packing.

In general, most foreign governments, companies, and individuals fail to appreciate just how raw the post-colonial nerve still is in China. Often, even reasonable attempts to enter Chinese markets by foreign firms, or mild criticism from foreign governments, effortlessly feed into domestic paranoia over the West's aggressive instincts and rapacious tendencies. While most Chinese would freely acknowledge that their country lags behind its ex-colonial "aggressors" in developmental terms, most also assume the moral superiority of the Celestial Kingdom. Thus, while the common view—indeed, the image China tries desperately to project to the outside world—is one of a country moving forward at a spectacular pace, in nearly all domestic discourses, the country remains mired in its colonial past.

In popular debates, nearly all contemporary events are filtered through this historical prism, and the symbolism of the past abounds. For example, last year, when the French government refused to stop the sale at a Paris auction house of a bronze looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace, it was seen as a tacit endorsement of the colonial mindset. And when Akmal Shaik, a British national, was recently executed for smuggling 9 pounds of heroin through customs at Urumqi airport, the Chinese Embassy in London said the incident evoked the "bitter memory" of the Opium Wars.

With the history of colonial China still such a dominant influence on how the country perceives its interactions with the outside world, it is worth re-examining whether China truly seeks to integrate "harmoniously" into the international community—or if it is even capable of doing so. In party-led discourses, only a return to the days when China was the most economically and technologically advanced nation on earth can avenge the Century of Humiliations. On a wider societal level, the perception—perhaps justified—persists that the colonial dynamic is still the basic mode in which foreigners approach China.

Given that nationalism forms a central pillar of the CCP's legitimacy, it is hard to envisage any change in the party's deployment of historical narratives to frame contemporary events. Rather, such a change can only be initiated from the outside, by giving the party leadership the respect—or at least the Chinese equivalent, face (mianzi)—it so desperately craves. Symbolic gestures, such as the return of looted treasure, are one way of doing so. More generally, though, the West must instigate a post-colonial dialogue with China.

Predicting the future has become a favorite pastime of China-watchers in recent years. But to fully understand the country's developmental trajectory and international aspirations, and, more importantly, to have any control over them, we must first re-evaluate how we understand its past.

Iain Mills is a Beijing-based freelance writer.

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