British Prime Minister David Cameron is in China, trying to thaw frosty relations with the world’s second biggest economy and conclude a series of favourable trade deals that will become increasingly important in the coming decades. His visit is to be succeeded in the coming week by that of Joe Biden, the US Vice-President, who will travel to Beijing at the conclusion of a short East Asian tour.
The visits come at an awkward moment, with China’s leadership acting increasingly belligerently against the West and its allies, notably Japan. Last week’s announcement of a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering disputed islands in the East China Sea, was the latest example of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hierarchy not making life simple for its geo-strategic competitors.
One of the CCP’s biggest grumbles is the perceived hypocritical preaching of Western leaders over internal Chinese affairs, including (but not restricted to) human rights, political corruption and democracy. This adds to a general resentment against the West for its role in creating the most embarrassing period in Chinese history.
Known as the ‘Century of Humiliation’, the period from the start of the First Opium War (1839) to the CCP victory in the Chinese Civil War (1949) is an important watershed in Chinese history, when outside influences undermined the country’s sovereignty and great power status.
Chinese ports already hosted sizable international business enclaves by 1839 and the Qing Dynasty was in decline. Nevertheless, the opposition of the British Empire to Chinese attempts to control the flow of opium into the country led to a chastening three-year war, ended only by the first of the so-called ‘Unequal Treaties’ which saw China cede Hong Kong, not to mention a plethora of trading rights, to Britain.
Demands for further trade privileges within China by both the British and French (and to a lesser extent the Americans) led to the Second Opium War (1856-60), during which Chinese palaces and cultural sites were sacked and looted. The Convention of Peking that concluded the war led to the cession of further Chinese territory to Britain, France and Russia, as the Europeans threatened to do to China what they would later do to Africa.
With a economically weak and politically decaying imperial dynasty, China was left vulnerable to foreign influences for the remainder of the 19th century, a matter compounded by the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, during which the Japanese wrenched away Chinese influence over Korea, ready for an assault on Manchuria in the coming decades.
The Japanese would remain the scourge of China in the first half of the 20th century and there remains an underlying anger from the Chinese towards the Western powers for not reigning in the Japanese when they had the chance and thus preventing the atrocities that occurred in the 1930s and ’40s. Even during WWII, despite some Allied bombing missions and air-drops, it was the Soviets that offered the Chinese the most on-ground assistance against the Japanese invaders.
A point that is often made is the hypocrisy of the West in decrying China’s supposed ‘alternative development’; i.e. the economy develops but the political system remains authoritarian and undemocratic.
The Chinese are justified in pointing out that during the ‘Century of Humiliation’, the Western powers had no qualms about exercising economic imperialism, bureaucratic corruption and human rights abuses, the consequences of which were felt in China. To now accuse the Chinese of similar actions is inherently hypocritical.
More pointedly, the West needs China to sustain its economic recovery and to ensure future global security. Cameron has rightfully noted this by grovelling to Chinese business leaders and trumpeting the benefits of a Chinese-EU free trade deal, even when his own party questions Britain’s commitment to mainland Europe.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, has promised to raise the issue of Chinese ‘provocation’ in the East China Sea. He has called for the CCP to scrap their ADIZ as a means of preventing further antagonism of Japan. Such a statement, whilst well-intentioned, is only going to anger China further. It is just another example, the Chinese will claim, of Western powers interfering in their domestic affairs and thus undermining their sovereignty.
The Chinese have not forgotten the 19th century; for the sake of peace and stability in East Asia, it is important the West do not either.