2009/09/20

Relevant Chinese history

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Different background lead to different behaviour. The expectations about other's behaviours and standards applied can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings. Such conflicts (and foreign policy mistakes) may be avoidable with a sufficient understanding of the other's background.

That's why I'd like to mention three important parts of Chinese history.
I'm no China expert, but I know a lot about history, and some events in Chinese history were just too large - they had a lasting influence on the Chinese culture.


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Historical Fact #1 is their never-ending quest for unified central governance.

China had been (re-)unified in 221 BC (after the period of the warring states that gave us the teachings of Sun Tzu).
Since then it was in an seemingly endless struggle against decentralization. Many powerful governors of provinces attempted to rule independently, many uprisings led to preliminary independent states and the 20th century civil war of communists vs. nationalists was the last great division of the country.
China isn't really one nation, but it's a group of nations that know prosperity only from times of unity.
The Communist's party reputation rests in great part on its ability to keep the country united (except Taiwan, of course) and to prevent civil war. (Another reason for its power is its ability to prevent famines.)

This historical fact leads to two important insights:
(1) It's near-insane to expect mainland China to accept a secession of Uighurs, Tibetans or other regions, or to give up its claim on Taiwan.
(2) The PR China can be expected to crack down reliably on too independent (corrupt) governors and bureaucracies in order to retain as much central control as the central government wants to have.

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Historical fact #2 is the Chinese experience with religious fanatics/sects.

The best and most influential example is the Taiping Rebellion. It raged in 1850-1864 and killed much more people than the First World War. The reason was a pseudo-Christian sect.
This war is almost entirely unknown in the Western World - that's not surprising, for Western knowledge of history in 'exotic' places is pretty much limited to universities with historical seminars.


This historical fact should help to explain why it's pointless and very irritating to call for a more moderate treatment of sects like Falun Gong by the Chinese authorities.

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Historical fact #3 is the Opium wars and the effect of Western imperialism on China in the 19th century.

The short story is that China was humiliated, partially colonized, pumped full with drugs, subjected to dictates about domestic legislation, exploited and disrespected by foreigners - especially Europeans.

The foreign control of Hong Kong (by the UK) and Macau (by Portuguese) was a well-known reminder of this history till a few years ago.

This historical fact explains why Chinese have a good reason to reject even the slightest attempt of outside interference in domestic affairs. We can attempt it, but it's most likely a stupid idea.

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On top of that there's of course a rich culture and history as an ancient civilization.

There was also a bloody war with Japan in 1937-1945 (with several previous clashes) that deserves to be called the beginning of WW2 because it was really a huge war with many victims and only ended with the Japanese surrender.
The Japanese did never really apologise for the war and what Japanese forces did in that war. That and a lingering racism in the triangle of China-Korea-Japan is a serious burden on foreign policy relations in the region.

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We should look at China's history and its lasting impact in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts and irritations. The knowledge of history also helps to avoid illusions about China and our influence on it.
Other historical facts than the ones I mentioned lead to additional insights, for example its own (limited) imperial history and its history with Korea and other continental neighbours.

Sven Ortmann
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1 comment:

  1. Great essay, Sven. If only those d***heads in both the U.S. & the E.U. could have similar I.Q. as you.

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