Sunday, June 10, 2012

Return of the Dragon

Post Opium War: (left to right)
Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan slicing out China

There is a perception, especially in the West, that ever since China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest economy that China’s status as a superpower is something new.  For a while, in the last 30 years, China's economy has been growing at a fast pace, averaging a 10% growth per year.  In the last five years especially, the  media has compared China more favourably against the West along several economic markers, bringing it to our attention as though it were an anachronism in our decidedly fixed vision of the country as, “lagging behind the West” or “curtailed by its communism policies”.  One notes that China’s performance has only been more noticeable following the recent global economic crisis and its detrimental impact on both the EU and the US.  When the head of the Eurozone bailout fund flew to Beijing early this year to ask the Chinese to contribute from their massive foreign reserve holdings, this move was seen by some as an indication of China's emergence as the world's top economic power. 

Yet reviewing China's history beyond the 21st Century, China’s place as a top economy and its influential presence on the world’s stage is not something new. Hence the title of this article, Return of the Dragon, not Rise of the Dragon.

One must examine the reason why the Dragon's rise might be seen as a new phenomenon together with the fears that go hand in hand with such belief. Arguably following the Cold War period, the extensive English literature pervading our media where China was concerned has focused on the Cultural Revolution, stringent communist policies, the one-child policy, human rights records and censuring. That this coverage serves ethical and political (especially during the Cold War) values is one thing but its narrow focus fails to highlight the complete Chinese essence and partly obscures the vast history that has shaped China. Again, this narrowly focused coverage has, by its nature, bordered on propaganda, in the sense that it has fostered a  "rising fear about how China could use its power"

Re-Assessing China's History

China’s history is extensive with records dating back to 1600BC.  The assertion that events taking place in China during any particular decade either in the 20th or 21st century could serve as a definite marker for the country’s productive capacity and its standard behaviour in the international sphere, would be akin to attributing that Britain and Holland are defined by their colonial past, Germany by its Nazi Holocaust and Spain by its Inquisition.

China is clearly more than its Cultural Revolution, the subject of most films and historical books, at least in the West. In this extensively documented and troubling period, China saw the unprecedented burning of books by the Red Guards, together with the replacement of all practices that were deemed ‘old’, and therefore 'bourgeois', in favour of ‘new’ or 'working class' practices, often at great costs to culture, peace and social structure. Today, given China's consumer record, one would argue that 'bourgeois' practices have been embraced anew wherever affordable. So much for the Cultural Revolution.

Even if one were to reflect on the extent of communist influence in China, Mao’s policies do not define China more than would its 2600 years of Confucianism. Albeit there was a time, when the replacement of the 'old' with the 'new' did conflict with Confucianism and had a resounding effect on the country’s society, with children being encouraged to break away from filial duty by turning in their 'dissident' parents. Today however, it would be erroneous to believe that Confucianism is dead in China’s society. In fact Confucianism has experienced a strong revival in China in the last 20 years.

The Ming Dynasty - The Last Peaceful Period when China Ruled Itself

In evidence, one needs a broader picture of China. One needs to look back, before the unstable decade of the Cultural Revolution, long before Mao’s time, even prior to the colonial conflicts which led to the Boxer Rebellion together with the Opium Wars and China’s forced dispossession of Hong Kong.  Again, we should look prior to the 19th century, long before the reigning Qing Dynasty during which China was ruled by Manchu tribes for several hundred years, and when even the elegant thousands of years old Han-fu dress code, pride of the dominant Han culture, and precursor of Japan’s own Han-fu based kimono, was forcefully replaced by the plain qipao.

We are almost there…

...back to a time, when Chinese men were still permitted to wear their long hair in buns without being forced by the Manchus to shave their head and grow a braid; a time where they were masters of their own country: the Ming Dynasty.

The Ming Dynasty spans almost 300 years. A key period in Chinese history and one of the least written about in English language literature, it is also the setting for The Ming Storytellers, an English language character-driven historical novel whose plot weaves intrigue between Ming emperors, fleet navigators, shamans, eunuchs and concubines. The Ming Storytellers brings to the fore several key events in the Early Ming Dynasty, including the construction of the Beijing Imperial palace. 
Chronologically speaking, the Ming Dynasty sits between China’s 90-year rule by Mongol tribes and its near 300-year rule by invading Manchus (who have since blended into the Han Chinese population). 

The Ming Dynasty seems like some political miracle in comparison to these adjacent periods.  During this dynasty, the Chinese Han majority governed itself. This is in sharp contrast to its later political situation following its encounter with the Manchus, later with Western powers (Germany, Britain and France) and finally, with Japan in WWII. 

Evidently, China has had its share of foreign invasions and foreign political pressure. It raises a question as to whether it deserves the potential "red" invader reputation that some fearmongers have attributed to it in these modern times...Something to ponder.

China's Foreign Policy During the Ming Dynasty

While being itself a country familiar with external aggressors, one must acknowledge China’s then resource hungry Ming policies which saw it invade Annam (today’s Vietnam) during the 15th century and deforest a great part of the Annamese land to service its domestic architecture. Parallels might perhaps be seen with China's current policies towards Xinjiang and Tibet.

Then again, one must also acknowledge the extensive Ming tribute system. In this mostly peaceful system, diplomacy and trade with China were dependent on a country's willingness to send gifts to the Ming emperor. To reward its 'subjects', China reciprocated in gifts and offered protection from pirates. China's feared Ming fleet made it a respected superpower. 

In the Ming Dynasty, China successfully engaged in a tribute system with what is now Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Southern India, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Borneo.  

Overall, however, China's foreign policy was geared towards diplomacy and 'face', not profit. The cost of the tribute system which included massive expenditure on the Ming fleet, was so significant, that even China’s government ministers would rile against it, leading the country to eventually close itself to better deal with its growing inflation. 

Ming China - an Economic Giant Catering for a Global Market

Nevertheless, China during the Ming Dynasty was an economic power, producing mass quantities of silk, porcelain, craftwork and food products.  During Admiral Zheng He’s time, the Ming treasure fleet, travelling as far as Zanzibar and Dhofar, carried in its holds thousands of porcelain pieces destined for Persia, Constantinople, Hormuz and other parts of the Arab world. Topkapi Palace museum exhibits 10700 pieces of porcelain ranging from the Song, Yuan (Mongol), Ming and Qing dynasties. In the Ming Dynasty, porcelain destined for the Islamic world was even designed by the Chinese with their Muslim patrons in mind. The pieces limited figurative imagery, as prescribed by religious guidelines. 

China’s mass manufacturing, its industrious spirit and its capacity to cater for its world market and trade extensively with the rest of the world is clearly not exclusively a post-Mao neo-liberal phenomenon.

Civil Liberties During the Ming Dynasty

Interestingly, if we extend our scope to domestic policy, China’s reputedly stringent political control is not a device born of communism.  To support this claim, one only has to dwell into the beginnings of the Ming Dynasty at a time when Emperor Zhu Di once officialised a secret police known as the Eastern Depot. This institution was named after the Donganmen (the Eastern city gate of Beijing) where it was situated.  The Eastern Depot was a ruthless secret police that saw eunuch guards hire spies to weed out dissidents and potential traitors while systematically torturing political suspects.  

The Eastern Depot had its own torture prison called the Zhenfusi and was feared for its cruel torturing techniques. It lasted for as long as the Ming Dynasty.  The Eastern Depot is a central theme in the character-based The Ming Storytellers. While the novel covers a larger scope than the political, The Ming Storytellers gives a fascinating insight into the paranoia of the early Ming emperors and their often corrupt secret police, driven to service political interests at the cost of civil liberties and justice.   

The Zhenfusi is not unlike Guantanamo, nor is Guantanamo unlike many other torturing locations in the world.

The Threat of the Dragon

It appears that China is today more than just regaining its place as a world superpower. Just as we have been noticing China more and more, China, too, is regaining an interest in its past. Unlike the days of the Cultural Revolution where the past was seen as decadent and not a subject to learn from, China has lately seen a rising wave of interest for history books and films. 
Evidently, China's surge in interest for its history serves the country's growing nationalistic pride. It is this rising nationalism that is seen by some Westerners as a threat, especially by those who fear that China, given its political and economical power, could assert itself more aggressively in the future just as it has been seen to assert itself in Tibet.  

In this respect, one must remember that there is always an irrationality in fear that needs to be closely examined. That nationalism in China should arouse fear while the singing of La Marseillaise by the French leads to goosebumps, invites curiosity. After all, to use it as an example, France once invaded parts of America, Africa and Asia. Its government practiced scorched earth policy in Algeria. France's human rights record, notably, during the aptly named Reign of Terror following the French Revolution, and, over several centuries as a prominent slave trader, could equally lead to suspicion or sense of threat. 

Why does it not?

The answer to this question might well be found in Nicolas Barre's argument published in France's Le Figaro, 21 April 2008  during the pre- China Olympics period which saw a call to boycotting of China in response to its treatment of Tibet: 

"No matter how sincere this pro-tibetan mobilisation is, we can observe that it is sometimes accompanied by an anti-Chinese dimension which is not unlike the anti-Japanese animosity of the 70s and 80s. Under the white flag of great principles and human rights discourses, there often hides, here and there, a certain resentment towards a country, which similarly to Japan 20 to 30 years ago, perturbs the world's equilibrium, notably in economic terms: this mobilisation is often stronger when it is fueled by the fear of the 'made in China'. Cloaked in the noble argument of our so called 'universal values' there often exists the stench of racism which lies at the antipodes of those principles that we pretend to incarnate." - author's translation 

A New Beginning

Only time will tell if the Dragon that is China, cannot be trusted and if this Western fear is at all justified.  Indeed, perhaps this fear is the same type of fear as the one which haunted early Ming emperors when they established their secret police. 

For now however, having taken a brief glance at its broad history, together with the global role it has played in past centuries, one should not feel surprised to watch this Dragon rise. 

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