Britain and China then and now: The Big Power Syndrome

The state visit to Britain of Chinese President Xi Jinping got off to a splendid start with great pageantry.

One sour note was that Prince Charles, heir to the throne, boycotted the opening Buckingham Palace banquet, apparently because of "Tibet". Presumably he was mulling over the fact that Britain under his great-great-grandfather, Edward VII, invaded and occupied Tibet from 1903-1905. That was in the "good old times", when it was "Great" Britain that ruled the waves and pretty much acted throughout the world as a bully - as all (no exception) "great" powers are prone to do - for example, the US in Iraq, Russia in Ukraine.

Indeed, one should remember that when the Chinese speak of their past "era of humiliation", 1839 to 1949, it was Britain that started and perpetuated it for several decades. In the light of its own multiple abuses of human rights in China, it would be a serious mistake for anyone in Britain to lecture Mr Xi on human rights; instead, in the light of the past, Britain and China should aim to forge a new constructive relationship for the 21st century.

For much of recorded history, China was the world's wealthiest nation. As recently as two centuries ago, it corresponded to 33 per cent of global gross domestic product. By 1950, its share had plummeted to 3.3 per cent. This was the result of foreign and civil wars, imperialist exploitation which, in turn, exacerbated a breakdown in governance. China became a "failed state". Britain wrote a good deal of that narrative.

With the outbreak of the first industrial revolution in the late 18th century in Britain, British traders looked at the Chinese market with drooling envy - illustrated by the slogan "if every Chinaman would add an inch of material to his shirt tail, the mills of Lancashire could be kept busy for generations". However, they were repeatedly frustrated by the Chinese government rejecting Britain's overtures to engage in trade. When the British realised there was a strong demand for opium in China and that the world's best opium was grown in the British colony of Bengal, confrontation loomed.

Thus broke out the first Opium War (1839-1842), following which Hong Kong was made a colony, providing Britain's "gateway to China". After the first, there ensued a second Opium War (1856-1860) in which not only were Chinese soldiers and civilians brutally killed, but the invaders ransacked, pillaged and burned to the ground the magnificent Summer Palace in Beijing: an act of sheer cultural vandalism. The victorious British imposed "extra-territoriality" on China, whereby their citizens could not be judged by Chinese courts, but by their own consular courts, which also applied to all Chinese accused of committing crimes against or alleged victims of crimes by Britons - a system adopted by all other Western powers and Japan.

Britain never colonised China (apart from Hong Kong), mainly because it did not have to: It could achieve its economic ends through informal imperialism without the costs of formal colonial administration. In Shanghai and other cities where there was a sizeable Western community, clubs, bars, restaurants, parks and leisure centres were opened, from which the Chinese were barred - except of course as servants. Britain continued to oppress China for decades with numerous acts of humiliation and violent abuses of human rights - including in the traffic of Chinese indentured labour, known as the coolie trade.

In spite of the past transgressions and humiliations against the Chinese by Britain, there is no sign today that although China has regained strength, it is out to wreak revenge. But the scars are there and the wounds could reopen and fester. Essentially, China is looking for its place in the world and for sustainable governance.

But China faces not only external challenges, but also domestic ones: social, demographic, cultural, spiritual, economic, technological, environmental and political. Should China achieve its "peaceful rise", it would be the first great power in history ever to have done so. The implications for the world today and for future generations are huge. For the West, the objective should be to engage with China cooperatively in achieving that end, and emphatically not to seek to contain China, or through humiliation, ostracise it from the global community.

Mr Dean Acheson, secretary of state under US president Harry Truman, famously remarked that while "Great Britain has lost an empire, it has not yet found a role". A role it could aspire to would be to serve as China's gateway to Europe - financially, but also culturally, socially, scientifically, intellectually and politically. It took an important step in that direction when it ignored Washington's objections and became a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. As Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne commented during his recent trip to China, Britain and China should "stick together and make a golden decade for both our countries".

Forging this new relationship will not be easy. There are great differences between the two countries, politically, socially and economically, not to mention the legacy of the past. But this potential role stands out as a great opportunity that Britain should seize. There is good reason to believe that engaging China in this manner will not only atone for some of the wrongs committed by Britain against China in the past, but also serve far more positively in the improvement of Chinese governance and human rights. Britain could play a constructive role in fashioning a 21st century that would relinquish to past history the "era of humiliation" and contribute to building a dynamic and peaceful 21st century founded on respect and cooperation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2015, with the headline Britain and China then and now: The Big Power Syndrome. Subscribe