Today, America is not only the sole superpower of the world; it is also the leading voice of the West. The recent US visit of the Chinese President Hu Jintao provides an opportunity to look into the history of Sino-West relations because the present is often shaped by the past experiences. Presently, in the Sino-US trade, the Chinese trade surplus is nearly $230 billion. In addition, the Chinese hold almost $ one trillion in US debt. Most analysts predict China to emerge as the greatest global power by the middle of the 21st century. No wonder, the US is quite perturbed.
The American mood on the eve of Hus arrival was best captured by the headline of an editorial in the Chicago Tribune entitled, Meet the landlord implying that the Chinese are the landlords and the Americans their humble servants. Now, the Americans expect their landlord to treat them generously and respectfully. Herein lays the irony. Today, the West seems to be afraid of the rising China, two centuries back, the Chinese were at the mercy of the West. Ill give a few glimpses of the Chinese encounters with the West so the readers may judge themselves as to how the West treated them at the apogee of their power.
Well before the birth of Christianity, the Chinese had evolved into an accomplished civilisation with a vast empire serving as a model for the neighboring states in East Asia. When Marco Polo visited China in the 13th century, he found them to be far ahead of Europe in science, technology and the art of governance. To the cultured Chinese, the Europeans were nothing more than barbarians who could hardly offer anything that the Chinese lacked. That is why when King George III of England sent a permanent ambassador to Peking in 1793, Chien-lung, the Chinese emperor declined the request in these words: There is nothing we lack nor do we need any more of your countrys manufactures.
But the Western greed to plunder China could not be put off for long because by the middle of the 19th century, the Western traders, soldiers and missionaries reduced China to a semi-colonial status. The advent of the Western civilisation to China turned out to be a bitter experience. Not only the Chinese wealth was plundered by the Western imperialists (and these included all the civilised nations of the West such as Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) but in human terms, the Chinese were humiliated and reduced to an inferior status in their own country. The humiliation felt by the Chinese at the hands of the Western imperialists could be imagined by the observation of a Chinese engineer, who returned to Shanghai from abroad in 1913 along with his Belgian wife: In Shanghai it was agony, for there it was too plain that in my own country I was nothing but an inferior, despised being.
There were parks and restaurants and hotels I could not enter, although she could. I had no rights on the soil of a Chinese city which did not belong to the Chinese, she had rights by reason of something called skin. No self respecting Chinese can forget such an insulting treatment at the hands of the foreigners in his own homeland. Currently, the West is expecting a fair treatment from the Chinese. How can the Chinese forget the past, particularly the unjust treaties of 1842, 1844, 1858 and 1860 forcibly imposed upon them by the Westerners, drunk with the arrogance of power?
Chinas first military conflict with the West occurred due to the insistence of the British, American and the French merchants to sell opium in China. When the Chinese government tried to ban the import of opium, a war was started by the British that lasted for three years (1839-42). It ended with the British victory and sealed the fate of China for unlimited exploitation under the 1842 treaty of Nanking. China ceded Hong Kong and had to open five ports to the British traders. This Chinese defeat encouraged other imperialist powers to demand their pound of flesh. For example, the US acquired trading privileges and extraterritoriality for both civil and criminal cases.
Between 1858 and 1860, the Russians snatched territories north of Amur River, and additional territories on the Pacific coast where they subsequently developed the port of Vladivostok, in actuality, depriving China of an area larger than Texas. They also compelled China to lease ports Arthur and Dairen. The French came on the Russian heels, forcing the Chinese to lease Kwangchow Bay for 99 years, and recognise the French authority in Indo-China as well as in South China. Such capitulations emboldened the Germans, who landed their troops in China and obtained the lease of the port and bay of Kiaochow for 99 years and commercial privileges on the Shantung Peninsula.
The Chinese were totally at the mercy of the Western imperialists, who were not in a mood to give any quarter. The Western mind could be best understood from the thinking of the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston in 1850s: The time is fast approaching when we shall be obliged to strike another blow in China because in his grand judgment These half-civilised governments such as those of China, Portugal, Spanish America require a dressing down every 8 or 10 years to keep them in order. And so the Chinese received many a dressing down.
The feeble resistance led to the burning of Chinese Emperors summer palace in Peking by the British. At the turn of the century in 1900, a secret organisation of the poverty-stricken Chinese peasants called The society of the righteous and harmonious fists better known as the Boxers went on a rampage against the foreigners in Peking. The imperialist response was swift and ferocious. They sent an international allied force comprising British, Germans, French, Americans, Russians and Japanese to rescue the foreigners under the command of Field Marshal Count Von Waldersee with explicit instructions from the Kaiser To give no quarter and to take no prisoners so that no Chinese will ever again dare to look askance at a German.
This international force brutally crushed the Chinese forcing the latter to pay an indemnity of $333 million and grant the foreign powers the right to station their troops. In this way, China became a virtual colony with many masters, Yet, in the memorable words of the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen none of the masters feels responsible for its welfare.
The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]