How past humiliation acts as a motivator in China

China’s struggle to reassert itself may be the defining geo-political narrative this century

Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Shapes China’s Push for Global Power, by Howard W French (Scribe UK, 352 pp, £20)

Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination, by Robert Bickers (Allen Lane, 576 pp, £30)

Subjugation, looting and humiliation by hostile overseas forces has been a stark force in shaping China over hundreds of years, and disgrace is central to the country’s ambitions to force its way back to a seat at the top table of global influence.

In Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Shapes China's Push for Global Power, former New York Times foreign correspondent Howard French examines China's interaction with the outside world, and how its emergence from a period of devastating humiliation by the West will change the world order.

Digging deep into history, French shows how China's belief in its authority over tian xia or "everything under the heavens" informs its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, which have brought it into conflict with nearly all of its neighbours, many of whom have historically been tribute states to dynastic China.

To understand China’s foreign policy, it is necessary to understand how deeply feelings of “inside” and “outside” run in the political thinking of successive dynasties and governments.

Dogged reporter

Hard times for China have always followed periods of “inside disorder and outside calamity” and French combines wide scholarship with the instinct of a dogged reporter to show how the current government under Xi Jinping is set on ensuring this doesn’t happen again.

Beefing up its military prowess in the past years, the question is what will China do with its new powers? At the very least, French argues, “China will wish to restore itself to the pinnacle of affairs in East Asia.”

China has built islands and military aircraft ready on remote reefs to back its claims to most of the South China Sea, through which one-third of the world’s maritime trade passes every year. Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei each have competing claims with China.

There are almost weekly incidents in the area within the territorial demarcation known as the “nine-dash line” to which China says it has historical rights, a claim denied by the international maritime court in The Hague. Tensions around these remote craggy islets and reefs could spark global conflict.

Goodwill ambassador

One Ming dynasty story is a crucial element in the narrative that is used to back up China’s claims. Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who became an admiral, commanded the largest fleet of ships the world had ever seen in the early years of the 15th century. There are some wild claims that he travelled to America years before Christopher Columbus, but what is true is that he covered large swathes of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, a showcase for Chinese shipbuilding and innovation.

In the Communist Party’s official version, which has become the one you regularly hear from people in China, Zheng He was a goodwill ambassador, offering the hand of friendship to neighbouring lands and bringing trade and prosperity, in sharp contrast to the Western explorers’ journeys of imperial conquest and colonisation.

French writes that this is “Chinese idealisation, not history.”

“To the contrary, nearly the entire perimeter of present-day China was incorporated via tactics of imperial conquest and subsequent colonialism,” writes French.

Malacca, in present-day Malaysia, was brought to heel. Java was subjugated and Vietnam effectively conquered. Sri Lanka (Ceylon) came under Chinese influence.

Internal power struggle

After the death of the Ming emperor Yongle in 1424, the Chinese suddenly ended their 22-year campaign of southern expansion, as the empire sought to deal with an internal power struggle between powerful eunuchs and bureaucrats and other domestic issues.

The overseas expansion pretty much stopped, but what remained was the idea, in China itself, that China was the greatest country in the world.

When the Qianlong emperor allowed an envoy from King George III to visit, led by George Macartney, a Trinity College Dublin-educated earl from Ballymoney in Co Antrim, permission was granted on the basis that it would “contribute to the Emperor’s glory”.

As Qianlong pointed out in a letter for George III, China didn’t need to trade, as it had everything it needs. A bit of trade out of Canton was allowed, but only because Europe needed tea, silk and porcelain.

Any new requests for more trade fail to recognise the throne’s principle to “treat strangers from afar with indulgence”, and to exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes.

Mere barbarians

This idea has long resonated with French, an African-American raised in Washington DC. He writes of his grandfather Joseph French’s fascination with the idea, “passed on to me by my father through these stories, that in a world of suffocating white supremacy, the Chinese somehow managed to sustain the belief that they were more civilised, and hence superior to every other people. What this meant, I was told as a boy, was that to the Chinese the rest of the world, whites included, were to one degree or another mere barbarians.”

Having reached such heights, it is no surprise that the subsequent period of Western intervention and dominance has been so keenly felt.

Humiliation features strongly in Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination, by the Bristol professor Robert Bickers, the great chronicler of the role of foreigners and Western influence in China.

“Modern China’s history is not a history made by foreigners; but its domestic history was an internationalised one, at times very heavily spiced with them,” writes Bickers.

His is a close reading of 20th-century interactions with the outside world and how these will have repercussions for us all.

Early on he picks out one of the truisms of the Chinese experience of humiliation by foreigners, the famous, almost certainly mythical, sign outside a Chinese park saying “No Chinese and no dogs admitted”.

Chinese anger

There is no unbendable proof that particular s sign ever existed, but it has become a focus point for Chinese anger and feelings of disgrace over the years.

In the 1973 film Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee kicks the sign and smashes it, prompting delighted reactions from Chinese audiences.

“Despite that kick, the sign lived on. It is one of the symbols of China’s degraded status in the past that is still regularly rehearsed in its present. But because the sign is a myth, it is also vulnerable to those who would seek to belittle the importance of that past, writing it all off as fabrication,” Bickers writes.

In Fist of Fury, Lee's character spends most of his time fighting Japanese, including one who suggests he act as a dog to get into the park.

Treaty ports

Bickers has written widely about how China has experienced the West – The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 and Empire Made Me – and he loves to dig out vivid tales of Western excess and corruption in China in the foreign-run treaty ports and concessions. His style is lively and engaging. "The world seems simpler when looked at along the barrel of a gun. You certainly know that you have the ability to change something, the course of a life not least, your own, somebody else's."

Bickers is sceptical of how successive rulers, including the current Communist government, have sought to control the story of Chinese humiliation, and believes that the story of the foreign presence in China in the 20th century, and previous centuries, is too important to be left to the approved script.

“The China dream is grounded in this story of an unrelenting Chinese nightmare. We need to acknowledge that, and understand it, but we do not believe it.”

Both of these fascinating books deal in very different ways with China’s rising power and the way it looks outwards. What they share is the idea of humiliation as a powerful motivator, and how China’s struggle to reassert itself against the West is likely to be the defining geo-political narrative of this century.

Clifford Coonan is China correspondent

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