Carve-Up: 120 years after the Eight-Power Intervention of 1900 the racist assumptions of the Western powers vis-à-vis China have hardly changed at all. They still arrogate to themselves the right to dispose of the future of the Chinese people as they see fit. There remains the same racist assumption that the West’s values and institutions are superior in every way to those of a civilisation that has endured for 3,000 years. The same hunger for profits that drove the British to force their opium into the lungs of the Chinese people at the point of a gun, continues to drive the Western capitalist elites.
ANTI-RACISM IS BIG at the moment – very big. Why, then, are so many on the left of politics, both here and overseas, climbing aboard the Western powers’ New Cold War Express? The European nations that profited most from the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the ruthless beneficiaries of the plantation system; the peoples who introduced the terms “white” and “black” to the world’s vocabulary; these are the racist capitalist imperialists the Left is lining up with against the Peoples Republic of China. Given that the Old Cold War brought the world to the very brink of nuclear annihilation, the idea of joining in the creation of a new one seems ever-so-slightly daft. Why can’t the Left see that?
The answer, sadly, is that the contemporary Left is almost entirely ignorant of geopolitics and the strict limitations it places on diplomatic action. Even when it comes to basic economics and its decisive influence on politics, the Left’s powers of analysis have atrophied to an astonishing degree. All that remains to those who still identify themselves as “left-wing” is the ersatz “morality” with which the Western powers are so adept at cloaking their attacks on geopolitical and economic rivals. China must become our enemy because of its treatment of Tibet, the persecution of the Uighurs, and the suppression of political dissent in Hong Kong.
Let’s deconstruct this analysis piece by piece – starting with Tibet.
In geopolitical terms, Tibet constitutes the “high ground” of Eurasia. Whenever the Chinese Empire was strong enough to assert its suzerainty over Tibet (which was most of the time) the Tibetan theocracy willingly paid homage to Beijing. In the nineteenth century, however, the British transformed Tibet into one of its many “protectorates”. In the “Great Game” (the euphemistic term employed to describe the imperial moves and counter-moves of the British and Russian empires for control of Central Asia) Tibet was seen by London as crucial to the protection of India’s northern flank. China, humbled in the same wars that secured the island of Hong Kong for Her Britannic Majesty, was in no position to resist.
Fast-forward to the middle of the twentieth century. The British Empire is in full retreat. India has won its independence. The Chinese Communist Party has driven the nationalist Kuomintang regime off the Chinese mainland and, with the support of its Soviet ally, is well-positioned to restore China’s suzerainty over Tibet. In geopolitical terms, the CCP has little choice. Acknowledging Tibet’s “independence”, would be interpreted by the Indians and the Soviets as an invitation to fill the power vacuum themselves. Accordingly, the Peoples Liberation Army occupies Tibet, dismantles its feudal Buddhist theocracy, and drives the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas to exile in India.
While the Communist Party retains power in Beijing, Tibet will remain under Chinese control. And, for as long as well-meaning new-agers in the West demand the restoration of the Dalai Lama, Beijing will do everything it can to smother Tibetan nationalism. Tragically, that means smothering the ancient religious culture which inspires the nationalists’ resistance. The louder the international clamour for an independent Tibet, the more determined the CCP becomes to transform the territory into just another Chinese province. Perhaps Richard Gere and his fellow travellers might like to think about that the next time they feel moved to raise the flag of “Free Tibet”?
An equal determination to crush the forces of religious nationalism is evident in Xinjiang, where the CCP has launched a massive campaign to neutralise the ability of the Islamic faith to arm – both literally and figuratively – the nascent movement for Uighur independence. With Xinjiang sharing its western border with five Islamic states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Beijing’s nervousness is understandable. The concentration of upwards of a million “suspect” Uighurs in massive high-rise complexes reflects the CCP’s longstanding belief in the superiority of coercive social-engineering over the much more costly alternative (in every sense) of full-scale military engagement and “pacification”.
Beijing has observed the philosophical cul-de-sacs into which the West’s policies of multicultural diversity and religious tolerance have driven it, and remains committed to enforcing a single, Han Chinese-derived definition of citizenship. That China’s official communist ideology now finds itself engaged in a no-holds-barred, hearts-and-minds struggle with the Islamic religion is in no way considered wrong or unfortunate. Rather, it is seen as a necessary and unavoidable confrontation between progressive and reactionary thinking. A vast “struggle session” from which, it is confidently assumed, the Chinese state will emerge stronger and more united than ever.
Beijing is no more willing to countenance a challenge to its sovereignty from the eastern extremity of the Peoples Republic than it is from its uttermost west. Indeed, the threat of an Islamic jihad breaking out in Xinjiang, and the year-long protests bedevilling the “Special Administrative Region” of Hong Kong, are viewed as evidence of a single, US-led, effort to divert and delay China’s re-emergence as the world’s dominant power. From the CCP’s perspective, the slightest indication of weakness on the part of the Chinese state will only encourage the West to apply new and greater pressures at other points of perceived vulnerability.
The story of Hong Kong is illustrative of the West’s long-term Chinese strategy. It has been an article of faith in Western capitals for many decades that the adoption of what they considered “capitalism” by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 would lead China inexorably towards “liberal democracy”. Far from being seen as proof that Beijing will do whatever it takes to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, the West interpreted the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square as merely the first act in a drama that would expand and intensify until the inevitable triumph of human rights and freedoms. Hong Kong was supposed to show Beijing the way. In time the whole of China would embrace free speech and the rule of law.
What China saw was something quite different. “Liberal democracy”, as applied in what had been the Soviet Union, brought only territorial disintegration, corruption and Nato’s relentless advance to Russia’s suddenly buffer-less and strategically vulnerable borders. Boris Yeltsin, a boorish drunkard, epitomised the humiliation of the once proud Soviet state. He presided over a vicious kleptocracy while the life expectancy of the Russian people plummeted. That he won re-election was due almost entirely to the shameless intervention of American political fixers. If these were the blessings of liberal democracy, Beijing wanted none of them!
China’s national security apparatus was particularly determined to ward off any hint of the so-called “colour revolutions” which had swept Europe’s former socialist states. It familiarised itself with the tactics of these initially student-based “non-violent” protest movements. They noted how, when met with brutal state repression, these movements were able to blossom into society-wide uprisings. They also tracked the involvement of foreign advisers and their American funders.
What had worked in Belgrade, Tbilisi and Kiev would not be permitted to work in Hong Kong. While Washington waited impatiently for the arrival of the PLA – and another Tiananmen bloodbath – Beijing quietly prepared its new Security Law. Slowly, but unmistakably, the yellow ribbons and umbrellas of Hong Kong’s year of living dangerously are melting away.
In 1900, an eight-nation alliance of Western powers mounted a military intervention to suppress the popular revolutionary movement which was threatening to end foreign influence in China. Comprised of British, French, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Italian, United States and Japanese military units (along with state contingents from Australia) this 45,000-strong force subdued the revolutionaries, pillaged Beijing, and forced the Imperial Chinese government to meet the costs of their punitive expedition.
The moral tenor of this frankly and unapologetically imperialist intervention is best captured in the message sent to his troops by the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II:
“A great task awaits you: You must see to it that a serious injustice is expiated. The Chinese have overturned the law of nations. Never before in world history have the sanctity of diplomats and the obligations of hospitality been subjected to such contempt. It is all the more outrageous that these crimes have been committed by a nation which prides itself on its ancient culture ….. When you come upon him, know this: Pardon will not be given. Prisoners will not be taken. Bear your weapons so that for a thousand years no Chinaman will dare even to squint at a German.”
120 years later, the racist assumptions of the Western powers vis-à-vis China have hardly changed at all. They still arrogate to themselves the right to dispose of the future of the Chinese people as they see fit. There remains the same racist assumption that the West’s values and institutions are superior in every way to those of a civilisation that has endured for 3,000 years. The same hunger for profits that drove the British to force their opium into the lungs of the Chinese people at the point of a gun, continues to drive the Western capitalist elites. Nothing is forbidden to those whose skins are white.
Such is the historical force alongside which the Western Left has chosen to position itself.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 24 July 2020.