Glossed up history presents inaccurate view of China

The theory that civilisational states bound by an idea of common ancestry, such as China, are less prone to populism is not convincing ('Civilisational states' like China are less prone to populism; May 29).

China's present and future actions cannot merely be explained and understood by merely selective references to its glorified imperial past, especially when the last two centuries of world history have been marked by Western colonialism, internal revolutions and technological disruptions.

These disruptions have spawned communist rule in mainland China, martial law and then democracy across the Taiwan Strait, as well as a "one country two systems" situation in Hong Kong and Macau.

It is most surprising that some avid China watchers, especially those who have spent a considerable time in Hong Kong, could dismiss the possibility that the country may one day be led by billionaires or even generals.

The view that the Chinese believe scholars should be in charge of soldiers and businessmen - never the other way round - rings hollow in the face of the intelligentsia's brutal suppression by the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution.

If the chauvinistic mass movements which erupted during three decades of Maoist rule are not considered "populist" in nature, I don't know what is.

The recurring spiel by so-called China scholars that the Middle Kingdom was never bitten by the bug of hegemonism has gone stale.

While Chinese conquests and annexations were not as far reaching as Western colonialism, the Hans were certainly no less imperialistic in nature.

History - particularly ancient history - is useful for a better understanding of contemporary cultures, civilisations and countries only when it is not glossed up.

Toh Cheng Seong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'Glossed up history presents inaccurate view of China'. Print Edition | Subscribe