China Also Rises

China Also Rises

Mini Teaser: Will China seek revenge for its century of humiliation at the hands of the West?

by Author(s): Piers Brendon

Worse still, it was unable to prevent further alien incursions during the Second Opium War, which began in late 1856 after the search of a suspicious British ship, the crescendo of many Chinese attempts to resist the outsiders in Canton. The war culminated in the burning of the emperor’s Summer Palace in 1860, a punitive enterprise directed from the Hall of Probity by British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin, whose father had despoiled the Parthenon of its marbles. Significantly, a film about this monstrous act of vandalism was shown in Beijing during the 1983–84 negotiations with Britain about the future of Hong Kong. At a time when Deng Xiaoping appeared to be taking pleasure in imposing a thoroughly unequal treaty on the impotent Margaret Thatcher, who seemed to think that winning back the Falkland Islands authorized her to retain Hong Kong (which Deng could have taken with a telephone call), the film focused less on the barbarity of the Europeans than on the humiliation of the Chinese.

And that humiliation persisted. Outside powers continued to devour China’s areas of sovereign control as the country ravaged itself from within. Enabled in large part by the 1860 Treaty of Tianjin, in which foreigners gained access to even more ports, further freedoms of travel and immunity from many Chinese laws, Britain, France and Russia dominated the Middle Kingdom. The opium trade was legalized and the right of Christians to evangelize was secured, which prompted the Chinese, once again, to turn on their oppressors. In 1898, a secret society known as the Righteous Harmonious Fists was founded to fight the outsiders. The Boxer Rebellion followed a year later. The rebels not only killed foreign devils but attacked every sign of their influence: railways, telegraph lines, steamships, merchandise, mines, schools, orphanages and churches. The last, with their heavy steeples, weighed especially hard upon the spirits of the earth, upsetting its geomantic harmony or feng shui. Among the many thousands killed were missionaries, some answering the call not only of Jesus but also of President William McKinley, who urged the Christianization of Asia as a fulfillment of America’s manifest destiny.

The Dowager Empress Cixi, who had effectively ruled China since 1861 and prevented any reform of its institutions, shared the Boxers’ loathing of aliens and secretly supported their insurrection. She eventually declared war against the West, only to reverse her position and support the foreign powers after the Boxers were defeated. Thus, Cixi was widely discredited both by the rebellion’s success and by its failure. The nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, Christian, socialist and democrat, blamed her reactionary court for China’s backwardness. And in 1911, three years after her death, revolutionaries owing allegiance to him overthrew both the Qing dynasty and the age-old system of imperial rule.


BUT EVEN as a republic, China remained riven by internal strife and lacerated by external aggression. Sun’s eventual successor, Chiang Kai-shek, was a kind of national warlord, fighting off lesser warlords while keeping Communism at bay. Assailed by Mao Zedong’s Red Army, Chiang was also under attack from without, for by 1931 the “invading dwarfs” of Nippon arrived, hungry for Chinese raw materials and markets.

That the Japanese, in thrall to China from time immemorial, should try to subjugate their vast neighbor seemed an inversion of the cosmic order. Japan had long been viewed as the inferior nation looking to its Asian neighbor for monies as well as culture. That they should turn the tables with such cruelty compounded the shock. The Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937, some forty years after the first (fought over Korea) had indicated a change in the balance of power. TheJapanese army, the Soldiers of the Sun, mounted a sustained campaign of terror against the civilian population, murdering, raping, looting and destroying on an inconceivable scale. As Japan’s “blood-spot flag” advanced, thousands of villages were razed to the ground. Shanghai was so pulverized that Japanese witnesses said it was “just like our earthquake.” And at the end of 1937, Nanjing became the scene of the worst atrocity of all, as Japanese troops raped at least twenty thousand women and massacred perhaps more than one hundred thousand people, providing evidence of their own brutality with trophy photographs.

This event provided a ghastly climax to China’s years of humiliation and confirmed its people’s abhorrence of outsiders. Chiang’s book China’s Destiny, which he wrote during the war, was a bitter denunciation of alien interference in his country. Soon after, Japan was defeated by the Allies, and Mao Zedong finally overthrew Chiang and established himself as the Red Emperor. His regime ended up being every bit as inward looking as that of the Qing dynasty, and he himself unsurprisingly took the traditional view of “foreign devils.”

None are more unpopular in China today than the Japanese, who persistently refuse to acknowledge the full extent of their guilt. Such apologies as they make are deemed halfhearted and insincere. Japanese schoolchildren are taught a sanitized version of history. And Japanese prime ministers have paid visits to the Yasukuni Shrine which honors not only the country’s war dead but also war criminals.


AMERICA IS disliked almost as much as Japan, not only because of the part it played in China’s shameful exploitation but also because it backed Chiang Kai-shek, who retreated to the fortress of Taiwan after Mao’s Communists took control of the mainland. The “loss of China” as ally, market and mission field appalled Americans such as Henry Luce, proprietor of Time magazine and the most influential voice of the China lobby. Convinced that Beijing was a puppet of Moscow and that the United States should roll back the yellow Reds, he and his ilk were guilty of much “Luce thinking”—Time, said its owner, was nonpartisan but supported Chiang.

The China lobby contributed to the paranoia that fostered the Cold War abroad and McCarthyism at home. America clashed with China in Korea. Eisenhower, who refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China, famously “unleashed” Chiang against Mao, lifting Truman-era restrictions on Taiwan-launched military attacks against the mainland. It was rather like unleashing a mouse against a cat, and Ike had to sustain Chiang by intimating that he might use tactical nuclear weapons to protect islands such as Quemoy, claimed by Taiwan. Despite Richard Nixon’s détente with China, Taiwan itself remains a potential flash point to this day. Its president’s visit to the United States in 1995 provoked serious saber rattling from Beijing, where then-President Jiang Zemin reportedly warned his compatriots that America would never give up its policy of westernizing and disintegrating China. Nixon himself had concluded that unless the United States learned to “cultivate” developing China, it might become the “most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world.”


HERE, THEN, is an account calculated to show that the reinvigorated Chinese dragon will endeavor to retaliate against the American eagle, itself seeking a new foe in lieu of the Soviet bear. China is bound to regain face, so the argument goes, by using its newfound resources to arm itself and to confront the United States in military terms. The idea that progress heads westward and that power follows the sun was heard, it has rightly been said, “from Horace to Horace Greeley.” Now Chinese authorities such as Wang Jisi (dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University) quote the adage that “the torch of history seems to be relayed from the West to the East.” A clash between the two titans, divided for so long by so much bad blood, is widely supposed to be inevitable.

This is not the case. Not only does history not repeat itself, it contains no rhythms or patterns which enable its students to make sure predictions. It is a “flickering lamp,” wrote Winston Churchill, in a world governed by time and chance. Human beings and all their works are subject, as Edward Gibbon said, to “the vicissitudes of fortune.” Or, in the somewhat less coherent words of Margaret Thatcher, “the unexpected happens” and “fail-safe plans are designed to go wrong.” But while certainty is unattainable, history does offer more optimistic possibilities than the saga of Chinese humiliation at foreign hands may suggest. One conceivable outcome that deserves serious consideration is that we are at the dawn of an era of fruitful cooperation between China and America.

It must be said that commercially successful states do not automatically or immediately beat their pruning hooks into swords. For all its overwhelming industrial and mercantile dominance, the United States remained a tenth-rate military power (except for its navy) until galvanized by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Deng’s China itself put the modernization of its armed forces behind that of agriculture, manufacturing and science, and in the two decades after 1981 its troop numbers fell by half, to 2.3 million. Admittedly, its defense spending rose thereafter, but it remains a much-lower percentage of GDP than does America’s. And this year the rise has been checked, apparently in order to assuage foreign worries about its military modernization.

Image: Pullquote: There is little evidence that China wishes to jeopardize its burgeoning affluence by adventurist attempts to contest American hegemony. . . . Prosperity breeds contentment.Essay Types: Essay