Human rights are a controversial issue anywhere in the world; China can hardly be an exception to the rule.
I originally wrote this essay and had it published some months after the 2015 UK-China trade mission. I noted that the 2015 UK-China trade mission was controversial. Interestingly enough, the conservative government appears to have emphasised upon practical business concerns, rather than contentious human rights issues.
I also argued that the trade mission actually had a more entertainable premise than some might have argued; it is difficult to reduce the modus operandi of the mission to mere cynicism per se.
And now, a little later, in 2017, human rights remains a big topic. This updated version of the essay will repeat the same arguments made in the original version. It will become very clear soon that the arguments are still highly newsworthy and pertinent.
The contentious approach of David Cameron’s conservative government, in a trade mission that happened just a few years ago, does raise the question of what will happen with future trading missions from Western governments; especially those who are considered prominent advocates of human rights.
Yet, it is too easy to condemn the trading mission for ‘opportunism’ and ‘taking the line of least resistance.’ UK politicians are in a serious double bind. They can end up being criticized either for imperialist presumption, or for heartless indifference to the plight of ethnic or religious minorities, women or other individuals in China.
And there are certainly grounds for caution. It ought to be uncontroversial to say that the refusal of Lord Macartney to bow to the Emperor Qianlong in 1973 is a disgraceful episode in the history of international relations and diplomacy. Short of being consistently roughed up by the Emperor’s officials from the moment they set foot on shore to the moment they met the sovereign leader of China, it is difficult to see what could ever have remotely excused Macartney’s arrogance. Seasickness and the inevitable strains, stresses and fears of his task seem rather weak pretexts in themselves.
Macartney’s conceited ‘worthier-than-thouness’ encapsulates the hypocrisy and lack of humility of the shock troops of ‘civilization.’ And indeed, many men of the traditional bureaucracy of Qing China considered past Britons to ‘barbarians bringing civilization.’
And for all the faults of the late imperial literati, however conservative or even (at times) reactionary many such figures were, they were hardly far off the mark in seeing the self-exalted ‘savage-civilizers’ as being, at bottom, ‘savage civilizers.’ The Opium Wars, treaty ports and other infamous, punitive and intrusive campaigns and measures have inflicted wounds which even today, suppurate and fester. And every now and again, these wounds break out in fresh bleeding once again.
Consider the fascinating studies of the views of Chinese ‘cyber-nationalists’ by Xu Wu and Ying Jiang. It is certain that while many Chinese people are wary of baring their wounds to the broader global sphere of communications, there are nevertheless a number of ardent nationalists who are quick to call foreign governments and other political and ideological agents to account.
And in all sincerity, it is difficult for a person of integrity to attribute the writings of the cyber-nationalists purely to ethnocentrism, racism, culturalism, Occidentalism, or the fear, anxiety and ‘fragile national-masculinity’ of a prominent nation-state rising to what may, in due course, be the geopolitical -jackpot of true world-historical significance: to wit, one of the ‘poles’ of a truly multipolar world order, where the USA is merely one superpower among several.
Of course, some Chinese people, including many in authority, will often show discretion, even in the face of what they may consider to be unbearable provocation and utterly demeaning behavior. This is probably not merely a matter of cultural differences, the latter being the first refuge of the simple-minded and simple-speaking scoundrel. Rather, tact is part of diplomatic convention all over the world, even if it is not always consistently applied.
Yes: the mere absence of explicit criticism of their humanitarian pedagogues, or indeed of any objection at all, whether explicit or implicit, does not mean that Chinese people are indifferent to the past. In China, like everywhere else in the world, the past is emphatically not a foreign country, regardless of what the flamboyant fancies of poets and novelists may insinuate.
On the contrary, the past is intimately bound up with tensions lived out in the present, and the anxieties of the future. Some Chinese people may have forgiven the atrocities of Western and Japanese imperialism; but to forgive is not the same as to forget.
An old, old story. Elsewhere in the world, the Vatican of 2016 (a ‘Middle Kingdom’ all of its own) would feel guilt-stricken in condemning the marginal Protestant Christian-barbarians on the fringes of the empire to eternal hellfire. The olive branch of Vatican II has been adorning the throne of St Peter for some decades already!
It does not follow that Martin Luther is to be deemed a good Catholic, or half the man St Francis or St Ignatius Loyola have been.
Vague and crude as the analogy is, the general point is clear. Even if many Chinese people will not hold the crimes of past British, French or Japanese people against the people living in such countries today, China is no less a historically-conscious nation than anywhere else.
Thus, ,whether or not ‘postmodern consciousness’ has led to a weakening of historical awareness in China or anywhere else can be debated; but in this country at least, the past is not up for sale. Not even to the highest bidder!
(And how can the UK government be sure they could match the bids of other nations anyway? It is exceedingly difficult to buy off and appease a powerful nation, where legitimate grievances are still firmly woven into the emotional fabric of the nation).
This is not to say that every Chinese person is consumed with simmering resentment against ‘outsiders.’ It is merely to say that governments of certain nations have to watch their step. And it is possible that David Cameron’s baffling and arguably extravagantly naive decision to meet with the Dalai Lama in May 2012, and subsequent on this score may have made the task of not unnecessarily provoking the Chinese authorities an even stronger imperative than it might have otherwise been.
Ultimately, the UK’s history of coercing China by military force cannot easily be treated as ‘past history’ by the many Chinese people who view this past as living history, and not as dead history.
This is an edited version of an article originally published in EAST Magazine. This is a student-run publication from my alma mater, the University of Leeds.