The Opium War is a pretty shameful story. Perhaps it slipped your memory? It certainly hasn’t slipped [China’s] and is still unravelling.
On 28 December 2009, a prisoner of the Chinese state was driven through the freezing streets of Urumqi to a Public Detention Centre. The following morning, around 6.30, he was woken and offered a breakfast of thin rice porridge, and the opportunity to brush his teeth. By 10 a.m., he was delivered, under paramilitary guard, to a mobile ‘death van’, strapped to a trolley and given a lethal injection.
In some respects, the whole business was terribly mundane for the People’s Republic of China, which executes somewhere between 1,700 and 10,000 people every year. In its superficial particulars, the sentencing would have looked uncontroversial. Smuggling any quantity above fifty grams of heroin automatically incurs the death penalty; the condemned man had brought into the country a suitcase containing over four kilograms of the drug.
But in other ways, this was an unusual occurrence. The man, Akmal Shaikh, was an ethnically Pakistani British citizen, and hence the first European to be executed in China in almost sixty years. He was, moreover, a Briton whose legal responsibility for the crime in question was hotly contested by his family and friends. Shaikh, his British defenders argued, was mentally ill, suffering from bipolar disorder and manic depression. (He had originally travelled to China in 2007 planning to become a pop star, bringing peace to the world with his atonal debut single, ‘Come Little Rabbit’; his personal deposition in the Chinese court was so rambling and incoherent that his judges laughed at him.) He should, representatives of the British government had demanded, be given an independent psychiatric assessment by the Chinese authorities, a request that for months was stonewalled by the judges in the case.
Shaikh’s death swiftly became a major international incident. ‘I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms,’ said the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, ‘and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted.’ Ivan Lewis, a Foreign Office minister, pronounced himself ‘sick to the stomach . . . it’s a deeply depressing day for anyone with a modicum of compassion or commitment to justice in Britain and throughout the world.’2
Chinese opinion responded with similar anger. The parallels were too obvious: a new British attempt to meddle with Chinese legal handling of an opiate-smuggling case. The media and Internet bubbled over with references to 1840 and all that. ‘In China,’ went the official government response, ‘given the bitter memory of history . . . the public has a particular and strong resentment towards [drug smuggling]. In a recent web survey, 99% of the public support the decision of the Court.’3 ‘The execution of Shaikh is like the burning of opium stocks in Humen in 1840 during the Opium Wars’, analysed one academic. ‘This time, though, “gunboat diplomacy” could not work.’4 ‘England waged an Opium War against China’, raged an anonymous Internet commentator. ‘Does it feel “sick to its stomach” about having invaded us? . . . Lewis stands alongside Charles Elliot and Henry Pottinger: with the enemies of China.’5 ‘The words “England” and “opiate” equal “Opium War”,’ explained a blogger, ‘the start of China’s modern history of being bullied and humiliated. The English have forgotten that in 1840 their forebears began blasting open China’s gates with opium. But the Chinese still feel the pain acutely.’6 ‘Kill kill kill kill’, summarized another anonymous commentator.7 The Chinese, it’s worth pointing out, did not have a monopoly on memories of the Opium War. The same idea came to a handful of British commentators, one of whom denounced the fuss as ‘hypocritical and insensitive’.8
This was the third piece of alarming news to come out of China in December 2009. The first concerned the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change summit, following which European participants – bitterly disappointed that their hope for binding agreements on reductions of emissions had come to nothing – cast around for someone to blame, and found China. ‘China wrecked the talks,’ one impassioned environmentalist revealed, ‘intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so Western leaders would walk away carrying the blame.’ China’s only aim, he concluded, was to safeguard its own economic rise (reliant on free use of filthy, cheap coal), while encouraging the declining West to incinerate itself. The Chinese premier had not, moreover, even deigned to sit in the same room as leaders of the Western world – including Barack Obama – but had posted an underling to relay the negotiations back-and-forth by telephone.9 To anyone with a touch of historical memory, this looked like an ominous return to the style of pompous, sino-centric diplomacy that had so enraged men like William Napier and Harry Parkes in the run-up to the first and second Opium Wars, as the emperor’s officials refused to meet them in person, delegating instead the hapless Hong merchants.
Then, on Christmas Day, the Communist government (following months of illegal detention, and despite waves of international attention) sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment the celebrated veteran dissident Liu Xiaobo on charges of ‘state subversion’, as revenge for his authoring ‘Charter 08’ – an Internet petition calling for democracy and human rights for China. (Less than a year later, a group of Norwegians would enrage China by awarding Liu the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in protest at his sentencing.) Eleven years earlier, Bill Clinton had lectured the Communist Party on its human-rights record, in person, in China. We’re on the rise, the tune now seemed to run out of Beijing, and from now on you’d better get used to doing things our way.
The British press panicked. The foreign policy editor at the Daily Telegraph was swiftly grinding out invasion scenarios. ‘The year is 2050, and a diplomatic dispute between China and Britain risks escalating into all-out war . . . At the flick of a switch elite teams of Chinese hackers attached to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launch a hi-tech assault on Britain’s computer systems, with devastating consequences.’ Recent clashes, he concluded, have laid bare ‘the cold reality of China’s attitude to the outside world.
Rather than being a partner that can be trusted to work with the West . . . the Chinese have demonstrated that their default position is that Beijing’s only real priority is to look after its own interests . . . Much of China’s reluctance to engage constructively with the West on issues of mutual concern dates back to the psychological trauma the country suffered during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, when British gunboats routinely humiliated the Chinese government of the day . . . To ensure that there is no repeat of a time when foreign powers could push the Chinese people around with impunity, Beijing is today investing enormous effort into developing technology that would render the West’s superior military firepower useless.10
Drugs, revenge and Chinese plots for world domination: it was the Yellow Peril all over again.
Beneath the clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, things were more complicated. British commentators quickly assumed China’s hard line was exclusively directed at them. But there was a domestic subtext to the government’s lack of interest in compromising over Copenhagen, Liu Xiaobo or Akmal Shaikh. China’s rulers are, for good reasons, intensely nervous of doing anything (such as restricting cheap coal emissions) that will jeopardize economic growth: their absolutist mandate to rule is predicated on their ability to deliver prosperity to their 1.3 billion subjects. The CCP’s nervousness about domestic opposition showed in their grotesque treatment of Liu Xiaobo: China’s Internet seethes with potential dissent and capacity to organize against the regime, with Liu only one representative of contemporary China’s sizeable awkward squad.
Neither should it be forgotten that Akmal Shaikh’s conviction and execution took place in Urumqi – the epicentre of violent clashes between Muslim populations and Han migrants in July 2009 that left 140 dead and many hundreds injured; it remained, as of January 2010, under tense paramilitary control. For years, China’s preservers of law and order have connected drug-smuggling into Xinjiang via Central Asia with Islamic separatist terrorism. And in the couple of months preceding Akmal Shaikh’s execution, Chinese newspapers were scattered with indications that Communist law and order was malfunctioning up and down the country: at least five deranged killing sprees, several of which involved multiple murders of family members – a sign that under the helm of the CCP, the moral fabric of society seemed to be in disintegration.11 Look at us now, the Communist Party told their citizen subjects as they stood firm over Akmal Shaikh, we can keep domestic and international order. Where the West repeatedly saw deliberate, provocative defiance, the Chinese government also saw internal security issues. The whole sequence suggested another Opium War parallel: while seemingly at war with the West, China is also at war with itself.
It was worrying, though. It showed how edgy relations are, at base, between the West and a China that is clutching at superpower status; and how troubled these relations still are by a highly politicized historical memory.
One of the great clichés of non-specialist reporting on post-Mao China is that the place is changing, and fast. But through the transformations of the past thirty years, at least two things have remained reassuringly the same. One is the Communist Party’s untiring claim to lead the country. Another is the airless account of modern Chinese history that the party constructed in the 1920s and 1930s, with significant help from the Nationalists, to shore up its own legitimacy and demand sacrifices from the Chinese people: namely, that the history of modern China is a history of imperialist victimization (from which only the party can save the country).
In the 1980s, though, this familiar narrative played to something of an empty house. For sure, the textbooks carried the old tune about ‘the hideous sufferings’ inflicted by the ‘shameful opium trade’, and ‘the Chinese people’s resolute will to resist foreign invasion.’12 But this was a decade in which the government had trouble persuading anyone about anything. For many Chinese people, the volte-face from the Cultural Revolution was too dramatic for the regime to maintain its old credibility – former enemies of the people were suddenly rehabilitated; the vicious energies expended in persecuting and humiliating them were dismissed as an unfortunate mistake; the years that millions of urban intellectuals had spent ‘learning from the peasants’ were redefined as a waste of time. Even the once-deified Mao was pronounced in 1981 to have been only 70 per cent right.
A key element of the post-Mao change of heart was to admit that learning from the West – or parts of it, at least – was acceptable. But even as the government tried desperately hard to pick and choose what it imported – foreign investment, science and technology were fine; democracy less so – control proved elusive. ‘Once you open the window,’ as Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping famously commented, ‘it’s hard to stop the flies and mosquitoes coming in.’ And when the party tried to block certain imports, ridicule resulted. In the early 1980s, it focused its energies on eradicating ‘Spiritual Pollution’: not only pornography and smuggling, but also less obviously criminal manifestations – long hair, flared trousers, slightly modernist poetry whose meaning was not as transparent as road-signs. By this point, although such campaigns could still chill the Chinese people with memories of the Cultural Revolution, they were far less successful at actually convincing anyone. Many urban Chinese recall the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign as the single event that – through its sheer pettiness about things like hairstyles and clothing – destroyed their final shreds of intellectual respect for the CCP. ‘Where shall we go and get polluted tonight?’ mocked Yang Xianyi, one of the country’s most famous literary intellectuals, down the phone to his friends as propaganda chiefs in the People’s Daily railed against contamination by ‘vulgar individualism’. Writers targeted by the campaign responded by cultivating Western support. ‘Everyone I knew was disgusted with China, with the government’, remembered Bonnie McDougall, a celebrated translator of post-Mao Chinese writing into English, and a resident in Beijing through the 1980s. ‘I would be approached all the time by people asking me to get them invitations abroad . . . they wanted to get out.’13 The West was becoming no longer the root of all China’s problems, but its saviour.
The authorities also seemed to lose some of their appetite for brainwashing the populace, through propaganda offensives, about their own infallibility. Many things were allowed to become publicly uncertain in the 1980s: how Marxist principles fitted with economic liberalization; how outrageous the government’s vocal critics would be in their next essay or public lecture; how much cooking oil would cost next month. But as China stumbled towards a market economy and as inflation rocketed, one general conviction grew: the government’s reforms weren’t working and the leadership had not found a way to persuade the populace that they could lead. It was a decade in which almost everything and everyone Chinese seemed vulnerable to mockery and attack, and often from within the establishment. In 1988, as criticism fever ran high, Central China Television screened – not once, but twice – a six-part historical documentary entitled Deathsong of a River (Heshang), that scorned thousands of years of Chinese history and ridiculed the country’s national symbols (such as the Great Wall and the Yellow River), while extolling Western-style trade, freedom, capitalism, science and democracy. The most avant-garde rebels – such as the 2010 Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo – speculated that China could only experience ‘great historical change’ if it were colonized as Hong Kong had been.
The Opium War industry went into decline. The decade was littered with missed opportunities for commemorating Sino-British conflicts, with the neglected ruins of the old Summer Palace, to Beijing’s north-west, a perfect example. During the Maoist period, the palace’s pleasure gardens had become a treasure trove for pilfering farmers, questing for stone and bricks for pigsties and other useful buildings. Through the 1980s, administration of the place – crowded, as a couple of visitors noted, ‘with heaps of rubbish, vegetable plots, pigsties and beancurd presses . . . fly- and mosquito-infested ditches’ – was so slack that no one could be bothered to charge an entrance fee.14 Fictionalized memoirs of the 1980s recalled a new, creative use for the dilapidated precincts: as a trysting location for the privacy- and sex-starved students of nearby Beijing and Qinghua Universities.
The neglect of political education had a direct effect on popular views of the CCP’s legitimacy. From the mid-decade onwards, urban China was given pause, every year, by student protests: over the lack of government transparency; over the rising cost of food; over the rats in their dorms. Admittedly, some of these demonstrations seemed to be set off by anti-foreign feeling: most notoriously, the 1988 riots in Nanjing triggered by racist fury that African students were consorting with Chinese girls. But at bottom, these xenophobic eruptions were driven by acute domestic tensions. By the close of the decade, the leadership was unable to agree even in public on what it should be doing about the country’s looming political and social crisis. Between 1986 and 1989, two of the men – Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang – appointed by Deng Xiaoping to manage his socialist market economy were sacked for failing to come down hard enough on dissent (what the establishment had now started calling ‘bourgeois liberalization’). The sudden death of Hu in April 1989 provided a focus for student dissatisfaction that led directly to the massive demonstrations of that spring and summer. After Zhao blanched at Deng’s decision to send in the People’s Liberation Army against the demonstrators, he would spend the next sixteen years (until his death in 2005) under house arrest, allowed out only for the occasional round of golf on one of Beijing’s courses.
When a triumvirate of student leaders knelt on the steps to the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square on 26 April 1989, to present the Communist leadership with a petition demanding democratic reforms, they had no idea that over the next two months their protests would fill the square with hunger-striking protestors, infect every major Chinese city, mesmerize the world’s media and almost bring their Communist government down, before ending in bloodshed. (As the movement advanced, it became apparent that the students were clear about few of their aims, including democracy – many were distinctly lukewarm about the idea of giving the vote to the country’s uneducated masses.) But whatever they did anticipate, no one could possibly have imagined – given how much emphasis the traditional Communist narrative of the Opium War had placed on taking the moral high ground over Western aggression – that it would be the government’s most public act of violence against its own civilians (the suppression of the demonstrations on 4 June) that would restore the Opium War to its old, illustrious position as Pre-Eminent National Wound.
They were busy days in Beijing, just after 4 June 1989, just after the People’s Liberation Army soldiers had lowered their rifle muzzles to chest height and begun firing at will on the people of Beijing. The military forces needed congratulating on national television on their triumph over the ‘counter-revolution’; civilian bodies needed clearing from the streets; leading protestors who had not managed to smuggle themselves out of the country needed rounding up. But it was also a time for the leadership to reflect on what had gone wrong ideologically over the past ten years; on why the Chinese populace had seemed to stop believing in what the Communist Party told them; on why urban China had been on the brink of declaring war on the government; on why even the staff of the government’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, had joined the protestors, parading through the streets waving banners demanding ‘No More Lies’.
Two answers were found – one public, one private. The public explanation was a reliable favourite: the turmoil was the result of foreign manipulation. ‘Some political forces in the West’, explained Chen Xitong, the Mayor of Beijing, ‘always attempt to make socialist countries, including China, give up the socialist road, eventually bring these countries under the rule of international monopoly capital and put them on the course of capitalism. This is their long-term, fundamental strategy.’15 A small group of counter-revolutionaries, he went on, had colluded with plotting foreigners, who had ploughed hundreds of millions of dollars into splitting the country.
In their more honest moments, though, China’s hardliners might have concluded that they had brought it on themselves. Since Mao began his career in the Nationalists’ Propaganda Office, the Communist Party had prided itself on its mastery of spin; on its understanding that in politics, surface is more important than substance. (In 1935, almost as soon as the ragged, starving remainder of Communist troops on the run from the Nationalist army limped into a new headquarters in the north-west, Mao had ordered underlings to get to work telling heroic tales about the trek, transforming it from a year-long rout into a triumph over adversity: the Long March.) But through the 1980s, that lesson had been sidelined in the interests of introducing fresh air into Chinese society: controlling public opinion had seemed less urgent than the drive towards a vigorous market economy. In spring 1989, as discontent climaxed, the party’s propaganda chief extraordinarily lifted an initial media ban on reporting the protests, instructing newspaper editors to present ‘the actual state of affairs’ – to let the people make up their own minds; following which, journalists streamed into the square to join the demonstrations.16
The lessons were well marked by Deng Xiaoping. ‘For many years,’ he now sternly observed at a national meeting of propaganda department chiefs, ‘some of our comrades, immersing themselves in specific affairs, have shown no concern for political developments and attached no importance to ideological work . . . Our gravest failure has been in [political] education. We did not provide enough education to young people, including students. For many of those who participated in the demonstrations and hunger strikes it will take years, not just a couple of months, of education to change their thinking.’17 Deng’s second-in-command, Jiang Zemin – who had scrambled up the party ranks on the strength of his muffling of 1989’s Shanghai protests – was keen to show that the pendulum was swinging back. His predecessor, the disgraced Zhao Ziyang, had not even attended annual National Propaganda meetings; Jiang made a point not only of attending every one, but also of making the keynote speech.
Once the oversight had been acknowledged, though, the question was how to fill the propaganda vacuum. In declaring soon after Mao’s death that ‘practice was the sole criterion of truth’, Deng had implicitly thrown ideology out of the window (perhaps the same one through which all the flies and mosquitoes were coming). The loss of Communist China’s ‘spiritual pillars’ – the political, Marxist thought that glued the place together – had been the result. But now that the guns of the People’s Liberation Army had been turned on the People, lecturing populations on proletarian principles was, realistically, going to be problematic – even though the conservative wing of the party remained in denial about this until around 1992, as they busily tried to orchestrate a return to old-style Maoism.
Some of the savvier elements in government had another idea: to combine recriminations of the West with a revamped patriotic propaganda drive – to reinvent the post-1989 party as defender of the national interest against Western attempts to contain a rising China. It was an almost improbably audacious plan: how on earth, a matter-of-fact observer might have reasonably asked at the time, was the party going to persuade its people – whom it had openly butchered through June 1989 – that it was, in fact, the country’s saviour from evil Western schemes? The demonstrations’ blood-soaked denouement was an international and domestic PR disaster of the first order: while Western politicians and overseas Chinese called for economic and political sanctions and sinologists contemplated switching discipline in protest, hundreds of thousands of sobbing Chinese people came out in protest in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Western cities, comparing the PRC to Nazi Germany and spray-painting the national flag with swastikas. Surely, from here, there was no way back.
But one historical coincidence, at least, seemed to smile on the endeavour. The aftermath of the 1989 suppression fell upon an auspicious commemoration: the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Opium War. And through the months following June 1989, some of the country’s modern historians got to work. While elsewhere in the world Communist states collapsed, academic hacks wrote and organized and wrote some more until, as the new year approached, they were at last ready. In 1990, China’s establishment fought a vigorous campaign to remind the Chinese people of their history of oppression at the hands of West, through literally dozens of articles, conferences and spin-off books about the conflict.
‘The Opium War’, went Humiliation and Resistance – the book resulting from just one of the year’s commemorative symposia – ‘was the great event in China’s modern history: not only the beginning of China’s modern history of humiliation, but also the first glorious chapter of the Chinese people’s struggle of resistance against foreign invasion. The War has not only branded an enormous, painful, unforgettable memory on the hearts of countless sons and daughters of China, but has also provided a hugely worthwhile lesson for later generations to reflect upon.’ China’s modern history was the story of the Chinese people suffering from, then resisting, (Western) imperialist aggression, beginning with the ‘shameless’ and ‘filthy’ Opium War, a concerted plot to ‘enslave our people, steal our wealth and turn a great nation that had been independent for thousands of years into a semi-feudal semi-colony.’ The Chinese people were also to remember that ‘between the Opium War and the War of Resistance Against Japan, the Chinese people gradually awoke until, after many failed choices, they eventually chose socialism . . . and the leadership of the Communist Party . . . In recent years, some enemies of patriotism have been shouting about “total Westernization” . . . This is extraordinary . . . To forget history is treachery.’18 ‘Since the Opium War,’ another conference paraphrased, ‘history has shown that . . . only the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is the core power for the victory of the revolution . . . only socialism can save and develop China.’19
The Opium War’s birthday extravaganza of 1990 was the start of one of the Communist Party’s most successful post-Mao ideological campaigns, Patriotic Education, a crusade designed – as the People’s Daily explained in 1994 – to ‘boost the nation’s spirit, enhance its cohesion, foster its self-esteem and sense of pride, consolidate and develop a patriotic united front . . . and rally the masses’ patriotic passions to the great cause of building socialism with Chinese characteristics.’20 The campaign encompassed three big ideas: first, to indoctrinate the Chinese in the idea that China possessed a unique, glorious, millennia-old ‘national condition’ (guoqing) unready for democracy; second, to remind them of their sufferings at the hands of the West; and third, to underline the genius of Communist leadership. In practice, this meant talking up the ‘great achievements’ of the Chinese People, Nation and Communist Party, in stirring films, in feel-good sing-songs, in top-hundred lists of heroes, great events and battles and in numbing references to China’s ‘century of humiliation’ inflicted by foreign imperialism, always beginning with the Opium Wars, always passing slickly over the CCP’s own acts of violence (the Maoist famine of the early 1960s; the Cultural Revolution; the 1989 crackdown). ‘How can we give our youth patriotic education?’ asked Seeking Truth (Qiushi), the party’s leading policy journal. ‘By teaching them to understand the historical inevitability and correctness of choosing the socialist road . . . since the Opium War.’21 Shortly after 1989, the Central Propaganda Department dubbed modern Chinese history ‘a meaningful security issue.’22 (In 2001, the official history of the CCP explicitly traced the party’s period of pre-development back to 1840, ‘in order to explain the historical inevitability of the CCP’s establishment.’23) A rash of National Humiliation books erupted: The Indignation of National Humiliation, A Dictionary of National Humiliation, A Simple Dictionary of National Humiliation, Never Forget National Humiliation.24 ‘High schools didn’t teach students anything about the Opium War until 1990,’ a veteran author of history textbooks from the People’s Educational Press recalled in 2007, ‘when they brought it in to improve their patriotic education.’25 As Francis Fukuyama pronounced the death of ideology, and both specialist and non-specialist China-watchers were predicting that China’s famed propaganda system was in crisis, this machinery geared itself up for a new message.
Post-1989 China has bristled with new or improved tourist destinations commemorating the horrors of foreign aggression. The government finally mustered the will to capitalize on the propaganda value of the ruins of the Summer Palace, replacing the pigsties and piles of rubbish with new signs littered across the gardens reminding visitors of what would have been there, if the British and French had not burnt or stolen it first. The ruins of the Qing emperors’ imitation Versailles, of course, were left in place – a handful of curlicued pillars looming up out of evocatively disarranged rubble – as if 1860 were only yesterday still. Before their groups scatter for photo-opportunities, Chinese tour-guides today make sure their charges have taken the point: ‘This isn’t history,’ I overheard one party being told. ‘This is a national tragedy.’ After a solemn amble through the palace’s remains, visitors eventually reach, along a fifty-yard walkway lined by notices detailing the location of items looted in 1860 in foreign museums (‘the humiliated soul of the palace’s remains is a constant imperative to reflect on history’), a courtyard museum in which a fifty-minute documentary film, The Vicissitudes of the Summer Palace, blares out on continuous loop: a masterpiece of shrill socialist realism graced by production values from the 1970s. ‘Never forget history!’ hectors its conclusion. ‘Revive China!’ (Naturally, there are no such publicly preserved ruins of the many historical sites destroyed by Chinese people, with full government encouragement, during the Cultural Revolution, or published listings of priceless artworks smashed or stolen by Red Guards.)
Inevitably, the first Opium War also did well out of the patriotic boom of the 1990s, with the redevelopment of a heritage trail around Canton and Nanjing. By the end of the decade, a new Sea Battle Museum rose, like a great barnacle, out of the Guangdong coastline, recounting British ships’ 1841 destruction of the crucial forts that guarded the riverway up to Canton. The temple on the outskirts of Nanjing in which China’s first ‘Unequal Treaty’ was agreed on 29 August 1842 had been destroyed during the Second World War; the site was reconstructed into the Museum of the Nanjing Treaty, in time for the all-important anniversary of 1990. In 1997, to mark the Handover of Hong Kong (the British occupation of which, pronounced Jiang Zemin, ‘was the epitome of the humiliation China suffered in modern history’), six million yuan in public subscriptions were collected to pay for the forging of a massive ‘Bell of Warning’, which now stood at the entrance of the complex: ‘to peal long and loud, lest we forget the national humiliation of the past.’26 That same year, a blockbuster about the Opium War – full of tough, righteous Chinese officials and cruel, lecherous foreigners – hit Chinese cinemas.27
In 2007, a Central China Television documentary entitled The Road to Revival chronicled China’s history since the Opium War, tracing out the horrors suffered before the joys of Communist victory in 1949. Near the entrance to the accompanying exhibition at Beijing’s grimly Stalinist Military Affairs Museum, a vast flashing map (‘The Historical Humiliations of the Chinese People’) boggled visitors’ minds with statistics about the millions of ounces of silver that the Unequal Treaties cost the country, while a video loop juxtaposed pitiful images of naked Chinese children with those of fully clothed Western soldiers. The briefest of nods to the glitches of communism were permitted. The exhibition offered one mention of the Great Leap Forward – Mao’s fanatical 1957 farming revolution that led to some 30 million deaths in the man-made famine of the early 1960s – and glossed the decade of the Cultural Revolution with a three-dimensional display of China’s first successful explosion of an atom bomb. The events of June 1989 were blotted out with images of happy Chinese people shopping for televisions through the 1980s, followed by even happier farmers, computers and skyscrapers through the 1990s. ‘Remember our history of humiliation,’ ran the closing display, ‘build a beautiful future.’
Chen Xitong – Mayor of Beijing through the spring and summer of 1989 – termed Patriotic Education a ‘systematically engineered project’; and it seems to have produced results. A survey of 10,000 young people in 1995 already found most of them expecting China’s status to surge over the next thirty years; that year, patriotism rose to number two in the list of values important to China’s youth, from number five only ten years previously.28 In 2003, almost half of a 5,000-strong sample of students surveyed expressed confidence that in twenty years China should and would be able to become a leading military world power.29 Popular, anti-Western nationalism has regularly erupted since the mid-1990s. In May 1999, as the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen confrontation approached, tens of thousands of Chinese students spilled onto the streets of urban China roaring not for democracy but for revenge against America for the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. ‘Oppose invasion!’ ran one slogan. ‘Blood for Blood!’ ran another. Horrified apologies by the American government (whose Beijing embassy was besieged by protestors) that the bombing had been a mistake caused by CIA bungling and inefficiency meant nothing; the incident had instantly pressed the Opium War button in a Chinese public now seemingly conditioned to expect only the worst from the West. ‘This is no longer an age’, analysed the People’s Daily, ‘in which people can barge about the world with a few gunboats . . . no longer the era in which Western powers plundered the Imperial Palace at will . . . and seized Hong Kong . . . The hot blood of people of ideas and integrity who have opposed imperialism for more than a hundred and fifty years flows through the veins of the Chinese people. NATO had better remember this.’30 There was, the instinctive reasoning went, nothing chance about it – it was the latest manifestation of the old foreign conspiracy against their country.
In April 2008, a similar outburst of Chinese nationalism was triggered by furious responses to Tibetan Independence demonstrations during the Olympic torch relay. While anti-Chinese protests spread through Tibet, China Daily blamed the unrest on British invasion following the Opium War.31 On 7 April, when pro-Tibet protestors in Paris tried to grab the Olympic flame from a wheelchair-bound Chinese paralympian, the French leg of the relay broke down only half an hour after starting out from the Eiffel Tower. Around ten days later, civilian nationalists had mobilized protests around the French embassy in Beijing, and outside French supermarkets in at least five different Chinese cities. ‘Protect Our Tibet! Bless Our Olympics! Boycott Carrefour!’ ran banners displayed at demonstrations on the north-east coast. ‘Say No to French Imperialists! Strongly Protest Britain and France Invading China in 1860!’ As popular Chinese outrage grew about perceived anti-Chinese bias in Western reporting on the riots in Tibet, more than ten members of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China received death threats. ‘People who fart through the mouth will get shit stuffed down their faces by me! Foreign reporters out of China!’ a posting on a popular news site owned by the People’s Daily responded. ‘These bastards make me want to throw up,’ ran another. ‘Throw them in the Taiwan Strait to fill it up. They’re like flies – disgusting.’32 Those without first-hand experience of or interest in China now encountered (either physically or on prime-time news slots) files of red-flag wavers in Australian, American and European cities occasionally prepared to kick and punch advocates of Tibetan independence. Things looked particularly ugly in clashes between Chinese and pro-Tibetan demonstrators at Duke University in the US, where one Chinese student who suggested dialogue between the two sides received death threats from compatriots. For a while – until the Sichuan earthquake revived global sympathy for China – dyspeptic chauvinism looked set to become the international face of this imminent superpower.
In the course of all this, a brash new persona in Chinese public life has emerged: the fenqing – angry, intensely nationalistic (predominantly male) youth.33 Although they periodically spill out onto the streets, the favoured habitat of the fenqing is the Internet. One of the most impressive aspects of the CCP’s post-1989 Patriotic Education campaign has been its ability to adapt new technology to its purposes. For sure, plenty of young Chinese nationalists’ minds have been fed on old-fashioned, traditional media: on what one Chinese academic in 2006 controversially called the ‘wolf’s milk’ of the PRC’s nationalistically selective textbooks. The youngest self-proclaimed fenqing that I have encountered was a sixteen-year-old from Beijing, who told me that he had first learnt to become angry aged thirteen, in his modern Chinese history classes at junior high school. ‘Our schooling taught us that China’s misery was imposed by Western countries’, observed one twenty-three-year-old in 2006. ‘We were all strongly nationalist . . . We were bound to become fenqing.’34 But the Internet in China has also become a crucial virtual meeting place for new extreme patriots: every nationalist flashpoint since the late 1990s has been stoked by, or organized over, the Internet.
For well over a decade, the Chinese government has been one of the world’s most assiduous censors of the Internet, controlling the public’s access to information through its ‘Great Firewall’: a handful of servers guarding the gateways at which the Chinese Internet meets that of the outside world, in order to block sensitive foreign sites.35 Yet despite the regime’s nerves about the Internet offering a free forum for exchange of political information and views, it has tolerated and even encouraged outbursts of angry nationalism, in the hope that anti-foreign sentiment will blur into state-defined patriotism. And on the face of it, the gamble has paid off. After the 1999 protests, the People’s Daily set up the ‘Strong Nation Forum’: an official outlet for nationalistic postings. After the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter plane and an American spy plane off the coast of southern China, the site raged with anti-US comments on the incident.36 Aware that a great many Chinese Internet users are primarily interested in games, the propaganda department has ensured that rising generations can spend their leisure hours refining their patriotic instincts. In 2000, for example, an officially sanctioned news site featured games in which web-users could thump Lee Teng-hui (the President of Taiwan who oversaw the island’s first democratic elections in 1995), stick silly noses on him or shoot at him as he jumped out of a plane. As the Hong Kong Handover approached in 1997, a software company launched an Opium War game whose players fought the British virtually: ‘Let’s use our wisdom and courage’, ran the manual, ‘to exterminate the damned invaders!’37
Unexpected breeds of angry young men have reinforced the CCP’s messages. In the middle of the decade, popular nationalism hit China’s bookshelves in the form of a series of bestselling volumes denouncing the West’s dark conspiracy to ‘contain’ (ezhi) or even ‘enslave’ a rising China. Zhang Xiaobo, one of the co-authors of the earliest of these books, China Can Say No, was an improbable supporter of state orthodoxy: a veteran of the West-worshipping 1980s imprisoned briefly after 1989 for his involvement in the protests. The Plot to Demonise China (an account of the American media’s conspiracy to blacken China) was put together by a group of young, Westernized intellectuals (one a professor at an American university). ‘We were nothing to do with the party,’ protested Zhang – now a highly successful independent publisher ambitious to produce China’s first legal pornographic magazine – more than ten years later.38
In the late 1990s, as the Internet began to take off in China, George W. Bush predicted blithely that ‘freedom’s genie [is] out of the bottle’. Within another ten years, such optimism was starting to look misplaced, with a bullish Communist government defying Western governments on key issues – the undervaluing of the yuan, multilateral agreement at Copenhagen, freedom of speech – and apparently cheered on by Internet-users who classified each collision as an imperialist plot to keep China down. And the more that the government and its netizens dwelt on Western schemes to intervene in China, the more they fuelled old Yellow Peril fears in British and American minds. In January 2010, after more than three decades of market reforms and a decade of the Internet, Sino-Western relations seemed as haunted by the Opium War syndrome as ever.
In winter 2007, finding myself in Beijing with some spare time on my hands, I decided to take the temperature of Patriotic Education for myself: to see whether it really was manufacturing furious chauvinists. So I arranged to sit in on some high-school history classes. It was surprisingly straightforward. If I’d been a Chinese researcher trying to do the same thing in England, I would probably have had to wait weeks or months for a Criminal Records Bureau check. A friend – a clever and good-humoured thirty-something teacher with a degree from an American university – contacted a couple of his friends, then rang me back with a handful of phone numbers. ‘Give them a call and they’ll tell you when to come.’
Arriving at the school early on a November morning, I was met at the gates by another young, smiling history teacher, who took me to the classroom. ‘High-school education’s politically very important,’ she told me as we walked over. ‘That’s where most people get their ideas about modern history from.’ And the class – on the Opium War – did indeed kick off stolidly enough, with an introit about the evils of British drug-smuggling and the damage done to the Chinese people’s dignity, and images of socialist realist sculptures depicting muscular Chinese resistance. The lecture was accompanied – in an emotive touch foreign to the history lessons I remember sitting through as a teenager – by an atmospherically sinister soundtrack. ‘To forget history is treachery’, a PowerPoint slide reminded the students – in case they hadn’t heard it a hundred times before.
But there were surprises in the fifteen-minute discussion that followed, in which students were invited to debate why China was defeated, and the influence that the war had had on the country. One classroom wag hauled himself to his feet: ‘As Chairman Mao said . . .’ he began, in a deliberate parody of political correctness. Once his classmates’ and teacher’s gusts of laughter had died down, he made his point: ‘We lost because we were too weak, too closed up.’ His classmates agreed: ‘The problem with us Chinese,’ another went on, ‘was that we had no backbone; we were all high on opium the whole time.’ ‘Our weapons were three hundred years behind the West,’ observed a third, ‘and we had no experience of naval war. We were too cowardly, too backward, too isolated.’
Despite the impressive efforts of the Propaganda Department to construct a China-as-victim account of modern history, commemoration of the Opium War is still saturated with self-loathing. ‘We made The Road to Revival,’ its director (a suave forty-something called Ren Xue’an) told me, ‘because although we’ve solved the basic problem that led to the Opium War – that the isolated will be backward, and the backward will take a beating – there are lots of other things, such as national wealth and strength, democracy, harmony and civilization, that we haven’t achieved yet. We’re not obsessing about this period of history just for the sake of it, but in order to march forward, to tell the Chinese people to keep studying new things . . . the war opened up the rest of the world to us, and we began to learn from it.’39
Views are, in fact, very divided about the impact of Patriotic Education. History teachers on the front line of the crusade fret that, despite diligent reminders of the ‘Century of Humiliation’, ‘the youth of today aren’t very patriotic’, as the teacher I saw in action complained. ‘They’re selfish. They have no sense of responsibility – they don’t worry or think about things like Unequal Treaties. Some of them don’t even know what the Boxer Indemnity is! Nothing matters to them, except passing the university entrance examination. If you tell them to be patriotic, they don’t take any notice.’ After one class, a group of Beijing sixteen-year-olds told me they hated modern history – it was so dark and oppressive. ‘They all prefer ancient history,’ their teacher told me. ‘They like the sense of culture and the emperors.’ I also observed some of the new compulsory modern history classes (that replaced older courses in Marxism-Leninism) at Beijing University. Soon, the only way I could keep myself awake was by sitting at the back and keeping a count on all the students who had obviously fallen asleep (some of them in the front rows).
A tour of some of China’s sites of patriotic education intimated that the lack of enthusiasm was not restricted to students. A case in point was the Sea Battle Museum. The curators have made a stalwart attempt to fan visitors’ sense of grievance through instructive captions (‘the British colonialists attempted to open the door of China by the contemptible means of armed invasion and opium-smuggling . . . the sublime national integrity and great patriotic spirit of the Chinese people displayed during the anti-aggression struggle showed a national spirit that would never disappear’), and three-dimensional artists’ impressions of the struggle: one’s attention is grabbed particularly by a lurid waxworks of the fight for one of the forts, in which an unarmed Chinese man has wrestled to the ground an armed and apparently moribund British soldier, and is about to dash his brains out with a rock.
On the beach outside the museum, however, day-trippers seemed unperturbed by the events of 170 years past. As they laid out snacks and drinks, threw balls around and kicked shuttlecocks in the shadow of the forts that failed to protect China from British ships, tourists were far more interested in enjoying a few hours at the seaside than in contemplating the national tragedy. The largest and most accessible of the fortifications was Weiyuan Paotai (the Fort That Overawes to a Great Distance) just to the right of the beach: a long seawall regularly punctuated by large cannon, several of which were being straddled by young women in tight shorts who were having their photographs taken. I asked a young man watching his male friends scramble over the guns what he felt visiting the place: ‘I . . . er . . . don’t know. I haven’t thought.’ I tried goading him a little: ‘I’m British, you know.’ ‘Really? I hear Britain’s very advanced.’ I gave him another opening: ‘British as in “The Anti-British Invasion Museum” [another nearby site of Opium War-period patriotic education]. Wouldn’t you like me to apologize?’ ‘Oh, that. That’s just history.’ Even the flagship monument to National Humiliation – the ruins of the Summer Palace – is patchy in its effects. ‘Oh, yes, I’m very angry,’ one male student visitor told me. A few minutes later, he tapped me on the shoulder to ask what country I was from and what opportunities there were for studying law in England.
For all the success of young Chinese nationalists in periodically grandstanding Western media coverage, almost every Chinese urbanite I have spoken to is embarrassed by them, refusing to admit they represent the mainstream. And in any case, most of China’s patriots do not draw a clear line between themselves and the West. Significant numbers of China’s angriest cyber-nationalists – denouncers of China’s ‘victimization’ by the West and Japan – rank among the most enthusiastic exploiters of the wealth and opportunities generated by the opening up of post-Mao China to the outside world. A joke circulating in 1999 rumoured that demonstrators outside the US embassy in Beijing were lobbing into the compound stones wrapped in visa applications. Interviews I have attempted to conduct with fenqing have often been distracted by their earnest requests for advice about studying or getting published in the West. In one transcript, my interlocutor’s speech on his readiness to send his army to the British Museum to recover the treasures looted from the Summer Palace is interrupted when he enthusiastically accepts a complimentary cup of Christmas coffee from a Starbucks waitress. Pragmatism, at least as much as patriotism, is the religion of the contemporary PRC.
Despite its fears that the population is oblivious to Patriotic Education, China’s propaganda establishment is anxious also that the campaign might be too successful: that nationalist anger might prove uncontrollable.
Back in 2007, I encountered one of China’s Angry Youth in person: a tall, rangy, mop-haired journalist, whom I will call Wang Ningwen.1 I had first encountered him at a meeting at a small independent bookstore called Utopia (Wuyou zhixiang), just outside the western gate of Beijing University, that had established itself as a gathering place for left-wing nationalists. He was one of a group assembled to discuss the patriotic problems in Li Ang’s Oscar-winning sensation, Lust, Caution – a sex-stuffed tale of Japanese-occupied Second World War Shanghai, in which a female resistance worker ends up sacrificing herself for the political collaborator she is supposed to help assassinate. The discussion started off predictably enough: the film, the speakers agreed, was ‘an insult to the Chinese people’, a ‘Chinese traitor movie’, ‘a sexually transmitted skin disease’. These denunciations out of the way though, things took a slightly surprising turn. What the speakers were really worried about was not the idea of a Hollywood cabal plotting to defame Chinese patriotism, but instead the utter spinelessness of the Chinese government’s response to the film. Why hadn’t they banned it? ‘What did the censors think they were doing?’ one speaker demanded, to enthusiastic applause.40 China’s problems, the group agreed, were the traitors within, not the enemy without: the ‘comprador power-group’ (maiban shili) at the heart of government, who identified with the West and Japan, who thought China would be better off today if it had been a colony for the last two centuries. These Chinese ‘running dogs of capitalism’ were turning China into the West’s ‘concubine’. I was struck by the fact that, although the speakers had no love of the West (Western culture, I learnt from one of them, ‘is bestial – it turns everyone into animals. The West is infantile, savage and destructive; China is civilized’), their main quarrel was with the current Communist leadership. While the assembled had ostensibly gathered to condemn a non-mainland film, their anger quickly bounced back at the Chinese government.
I made an appointment to meet Wang Ningwen a few days later, to talk a little more about his Weltanshauung. (As a security check, I tested the depth of his anti-Western feeling over the phone by suggesting we met at Starbucks, to see whether his love of multinational lattes would triumph over patriotic principle.) Once we were sitting down over coffee, he poured out his grievances. They began with the West: ‘All China’s problems are connected to foreign invasion, starting with the Opium War . . . the British smuggled and stole – they behaved disgustingly . . . The accounts of history have to be settled . . . China’s obsessed with getting an apology from Japan; they should get one from Britain, too.’ But he was very clear about where the root of the problem lay: in the cowardice and treachery of China’s own government. There was no such thing as patriotic education in China, he told me. ‘It was all so boring we hated it – I called it anti-patriotic education . . . The average highschool student doesn’t remember how badly the West behaved – all they know is that Japanese, American and European things are good . . . mainstream opinion in China today is trying to replace national identity with stuff about how we should be modern and civilized, like the West . . . The entire CCP today is basically a gang of traitors.’41
He was outraged by Yuan Weishi’s criticisms of Chinese textbooks published in 2006 in Freezing Point: how could a Chinese scholar have allied himself with the Western imperialists? ‘It was pure treachery – he was desecrating his own ancestors’ graves . . . He should have been drowned in rotten eggs and spit . . . or maybe have had his house vandalized. It would have been completely right and proper.’42 But even though Freezing Point was shut down by the government, Wang Ningwen was convinced the two sides were allies in the same conspiracy: ‘Yuan’s article is serving the current CCP, he’s in cahoots with their treacherous bureaucrats.’ At the end of our talk, Wang Ningwen had questions for me, too. The following day, he had been invited to an interview with the British Council for a scholarship to study in the UK, and he was wondering how best to present himself. ‘Try not mentioning the [Opium] War,’ I suggested. He must have controlled himself, for he won the award.43
Wang Ningwen’s fierce anti-Western nationalism, then, was an odd hybrid. While it had swallowed whole the angry, victimized rhetoric of the Opium War narrative constructed by the CCP, it was far more concerned with opposing the current Communist government itself. Wang – as a graduate of Beijing University, a member of the country’s intellectual elite – angrily attacked the regime’s public monopoly on historical interpretations of the Cultural Revolution and of modern history in general. ‘They don’t want us to remember modern history,’ he commented scornfully of The Road to Revival, ‘they just want to make us realize how great the present is.’44 Ren Xue’an – representative par excellence of the contemporary Communist media establishment so disliked by Wang Ningwen – was disapproving of fenqing nationalism: ‘We should tolerate different voices, but their take on history is wrong. It doesn’t resonate with many people in China today.’45
One of the reasons that the regime draws so much attention to the ‘Century of Humiliation’ is that it dreads the Chinese remembering man-made disasters of the Maoist period.46 But the popular fury that is diverted into nationalism also reminds the establishment too much of the anarchic civil violence of the Cultural Revolution.47 Ren Xue’an explained to me why commemorating recent domestic traumas was still out of the question. ‘The Opium Wars were international issues, while the Cultural Revolution was an internal problem. China has to deal with internal turmoil in its own way . . . because the Chinese people aren’t educated. If we said, let’s sit down now and discuss the Cultural Revolution, all the settling of scores would mean we’d soon have a new civil war on our hands – it would be like the French Revolution. It would be awful.’48
For all its promotion of state-defined patriotism, the Chinese government has reason to be nervous of the feelings this can unleash. Attitudes towards Japan offer a good example. It’s obvious that the post-1989 state has, with the help of the Patriotic Education campaign’s emphasis on historical traumas, worked on generating anti-Japanese feeling. Under Mao, ‘peaceful, friendly relations’ with Japan had been state policy – no reparations or apologies required. Through the 1990s and 2000s, by contrast, hostility towards Japan grew in direct proportion to the CCP’s expansion of public commemorations of the Second World War. A 2001 revision of high-school history textbooks toned down the old Marxist, anti-imperialist rhetoric on every one of China’s former aggressors – except for Japan.49 By 2007, textbook coverage of the Opium War had been slimmed down from eighteen pages stuffed with images of evil British plunderers to a sketchier four. Coverage of the Sino-Japanese War, by contrast, remained outraged: ‘Burning, killing, raping, looting – there was no evil that Japan did not perpetrate’, runs a caption directly opposite the photograph of a grinning Japanese soldier standing among massacred Chinese. ‘What sufferings did Japan inflict upon the Chinese people between 1931 and 1945?’ probes an essay question, instructing students to search out victims to interview.50
Apparently as a result of this patriotic education, in spring 2005 anti-Japanese demonstrations – fanned and organized by Internet activists – broke out across China’s major cities, protesting (amongst other things) the publication in Japan of new school textbooks that hushed up wartime atrocities in China.51 Yet although this movement began life converging with state-sponsored goals of anti-foreign nationalism, it was clear that the demonstrations quickly moved out of official control and into the hands of grass-roots organizations. As the protests spread to a third weekend, an uneasy note crept into the authorities’ pre-emptive announcements: ‘Express your passion in an orderly manner,’ the police instructed would-be demonstrators on the Internet, warning that all street protests must be approved by the authorities and ordering well-known grass-roots campaigners to stay at home. Soon after, a major government newspaper denounced the anti-Japanese demonstrations as an ‘evil plot’ with ‘ulterior motives’ to bring down the Communist Party – an orthodox protest movement had clearly boiled over into civil activism and potential subversion.
Until 2009, one of China’s most passionate anti-Japanese nationalists (founder of the Greater China Anti-Japanese Alliance) was a former criminal judge turned philosophy professor called Guo Quan, who won instant celebrity in 2005 for vandalizing the tomb of a Ming Dynasty merchant accused of collaborating with Japanese pirates. In 2006, his feelings started to take him in a new, anti-government direction. ‘I am against Japan,’ he wrote on the Internet, ‘but also against the lack of democracy, freedom, and human rights in Chinese society.’ By 2008, he had moved on to call openly for an overhaul of the political system, forming a China New Democracy Party. On 13 November 2008, he was arrested under charges of state subversion, and his computers, bank card and mobile phone confiscated; on 16 October 2009, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.52
The curious thing about contemporary China’s most intemperate nationalists, then, is how easily their anger turns against their own government and people. Public discontent about Japan’s refusal to apologize for the Second World War, or claims to the Diaoyu Islands, often spirals into fury at the Chinese government for failing to defend the country’s honour, or contempt for the indifferent general public. The government’s tough stance on Freezing Point in 2006 was motivated at least in part by a desire to soothe cyber-nationalists outraged by the offending article’s iconoclastic liberalism. Two days after the Carrefour protests erupted in 2008, the Chinese authorities moved to dampen their nationalistic ardour. ‘Internet users are in an intense mood toward Western countries’, noted government censors. ‘Such information has shown a tendency to spread and, if not checked in time, could even lead to events getting out of control’.53 ‘It’s good your hearts are patriotic,’ one group of fledgling anti-Tibetan-independence demonstrators were told by Public Security, ‘but you can’t compromise social order and traffic flow.’54 Chinese patriotism today must not imperil social stability, or frighten off foreign investment – the key to achieving post-1989 China’s economic miracle and to persuading the population to keep trusting in the wisdom of the Communist Party. For China’s current rulers, the Century of Humiliation is a tricky balancing act. Properly controlled, public memory of the Opium War and later acts of imperialism provides a politically correct pressure valve for venting strong feelings in the PRC’s tightly controlled public sphere. Carelessly managed, these same feelings spill out into something dangerously subversive.
Contemporary China and its current surge of nationalism, then, are not as stable or monolithic as the CCP would ideally like. In the summer of 2009, Martin Jacques’ carefully illustrated When China Rules the World suggested, over the coming decades, the decline of the West (with its model of liberal democracy) and the inexorable rise of a probably authoritarian, racist China that views itself as a ‘civilization-state’: homogeneous, unchanging over (at least) the past 2,000 years, and convinced of its own superiority over the rest of the world. But while political editorialists worried at the prospect of ‘the rise of the middle kingdom and the end of the Western world’ (the book’s subtitle), other China-watchers saw things differently. Six weeks after the book was published, the political and environmental journalist Isabel Hilton pointed out, the Muslim-dominated north-western province of Xinjiang erupted into racial violence in which hundreds of Han Chinese settlers were killed or wounded; tense paramilitary control descended, and a communications cordon was drawn up around the region, cutting off Internet and mobile-phone connections. Hilton argued against ‘a story that the Chinese government likes to tell: that China is the world’s oldest continuous, unchanging civilization (the dates vary, according to the exuberance of the moment, from 2,000 to a mythical 5,000 years) . . . A more accurate description would be that it is a recently expanded land-based empire struggling to justify itself.’55 For there is plenty of social and political volatility disturbing the twenty-first century’s supposed new superpower (in the form of the tens of thousands of ‘mass incidents’ – strikes, street demonstrations and so on – that take place each year; an estimated 58,000 in the first quarter of 2009 alone); and around the patriotism that seems to be fuelling its confident rise.
China in the third millennium possesses (as it did in the nineteenth century) about as many reasons to fall apart as it does to stick together: banks riddled with bad loans, the challenges of finding employment and pensions for a massive, rapidly ageing workforce, severe social inequality (which, according to Chinese estimates, reached potentially destabilizing levels as early as 1994), government corruption (at the end of 2009, a Chinese newspaper directly blamed the country’s rash of mass incidents on officials ‘blindly pursuing profit’ through ‘expropriating land and demolishing houses’), environmental degradation.56 There is general agreement that the country has grown extraordinarily, and with relative ease, over the past three decades. Consensus on what will come next is non-existent.
For 170 years, the Opium War and its afterlives have cast a shadow over Sino-Western relations, both sides tampering with the historical record for their own purposes. Influential nineteenth-century Britons worked hard to fabricate a virtuous casus belli out of an elementary problem of trade deficit: to reinvent the war as a clash of civilizations triggered by the ‘unnaturally’ isolationist Chinese. Joining this blame game, twentieth-century Chinese nation-builders in turn transformed it into the cause of all their country’s troubles: into a black imperialist scheme to enslave a united, heroically resisting China. The reality of the war itself, by contrast, illuminated deep fault lines in the messily multi-ethnic Qing empire, as China’s rulers struggled unsuccessfully to rally its officials, soldiers and subjects against a foreign enemy.
The West’s public stance of self-justification over the war overlaid a moral guilt that has subsequently fanned further fears of, and tensions with, the Chinese state and people. Opium became a symbol both of Western malfeasance and of a sinister Chinese pollution, generating irrational clouds of Yellow Peril suspicion that arguably still haunt our media coverage. In China, meanwhile, opium, defeat and imperialism have manufactured an unstable combination of self-pity, self-loathing and pragmatic admiration for the West that continue to coexist uneasily in Chinese patriots.
Whether Western nations such as Britain have attacked the Chinese for their arrogance in refusing to pay them enough attention or respect, lambasted themselves for what they did or obsessed paranoically about Chinese retribution, one misconception has remained constant: that the West is central to China’s calculations and actions. But both back in the nineteenth century and now, China’s rulers have been primarily preoccupied with domestic affairs, rather than foreign relations. This refusal to look at matters from the perspective of the Chinese state’s own prerogatives helped drive Britain towards war in the nineteenth century, and risks pushing relations towards confrontation in the early twenty-first.
In 1839, the Qing court was too distracted by fears of social unrest to come up voluntarily with a pragmatic response to Western trade demands; Britain interpreted this political paralysis as inveterate xenophobia. In 2010, the situation did not look so very different, with the government infuriating Western states over its rejection of climate-change legislation that might slow growth, its harsh stance on social control and its aversion to compromise on international-trade issues, such as strengthening the yuan relative to the dollar (thereby making exported Chinese manufactures more expensive, foreign imports less so). ‘The current leadership’, China-watcher Jonathan Fenby observed in January 2010, ‘just want to get to retirement without the country collapsing. And their caution sometimes leads them into conflict with the West. Take the question of revaluing the yuan. There’d be plenty of advantages: less danger of a trade war with the US, cheaper imports. But they’re nervous of jeopardizing economic growth or looking like they were capitulating to the West – the public outcry in China might be too great.’57 For the noisy anti-Western nationalism that the state has programmatically engineered since the 1920s (and with renewed energies after 1989) regularly threatens to mutate into anti-government dissidence.
From the age of opium-traders to the Internet, China and the West have been infuriating and misunderstanding each other, despite ever-increasing opportunities for contact, study and mutual sympathy. Ten years into the twenty-first century, the nineteenth is still with us.