China’s Aggressive Expansionism Is No Balm for Century of Humiliation
By N C Bipindra
The fourth-largest empire in the world at its time, the Qing dynasty lasted for almost three centuries commencing 1634. It was not only the largest but also the last dynasty in Imperial Chinese history.
Its true downfall began in 1839 when it lost to the British in the First Opium War. Soon, the French, Russians, Japanese and Germans nibbled away various parts of China. The final nail in the coffin of humiliation came about with the Eight-Nation Alliance comprising Germany, Russia, Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, the United States, and Italy quelling the Boxer Rebellion 1900.
The Chinese Communist Party or CCP has been propagating the theory that the period 1839 to 1949 was a Century of Humiliation. The CCP also wants the world to believe that it was CCP alone that brought an end to this subjugation in 1949 completely deleting any references to the giant contributions made by Sun Yat-Sen or Chiang Kai-Shek or the Kuomintang in the first half of the 1900s.
Since 1949, the CCP has gone all out to publicise the injustices meted to the Chinese during the Century of Humiliation. The CCP itself was founded in 1921. An accurate reading of history would reveal China does not have the exclusive tag to the harshness of colonial history.
Most poor countries of the 18th to 20th Century experienced similar or worse conditions by the colonial powers. Whether it was South America, Asia or Africa, colonies were exploited and humiliated in their lands. While today there are no colonies, many are still recovering from the effects of that exploitation. The British were the largest colonisers and today have a Commonwealth of Nations in its attempt to heal injuries it inflicted.
The French too have been following the healing approach with former colonies. It is but natural that any country which experienced such torrid times would want to be an ambassador against colonisation; championing the cause of mutual trust and dignity. Modern ex-colonies such as Vietnam, Brazil, India, Indonesia, China, South Africa, and many more would perhaps be expected to lead such a cause.
It is 2021 now. The centenary of the CCP. While propagating exaggerated versions of the Century of Humiliation and how the CCP freed the Chinese from it, one wonders what exactly the CCP has done to prevent a repetition of such colonial atrocities or how it has campaigned for human dignity and values.
A peek into the giants of CCP since 1949 and their attitudes would enable us to understand the present and the future that CCP has to offer the world. Mao Zedong, the CCP founder, strongman and first Chairman famously quipped, “Political power grows out of the barrel of the gun”.
And Mao was himself the architect of one of the ugliest genocides perpetrated anywhere in the world. His ‘Great Leap Forward’ followed shortly by the ‘Cultural Revolution’ resulted in an estimated 70 million deaths — all Chinese. The figure is comparable to the death toll all over the world due to World War II. For many Chinese, it appeared Mao was aiming at 100 million deaths to compete with the Century of Humiliation.
After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy prophesized “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”
China saw an economic boom during this period, shedding its Communist ideologies and moving more towards a free-market Capitalist approach. If there was one blot on Deng, it was the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The world moved away from China and isolated it consequently. The Chinese history books have conveniently erased all mention of the massacre though. The 1990s witnessed Jiang Zemin laying low and biding China’s time initiating military reforms with his three principles of ‘Modernisation, National Reunification, and Safeguarding World Peace and Common Development’.
Hong Kong too changed flags from a British Protectorate to a Chinese Special Administrative Region during the period. In the 2000s, Hu Jintao executed military modernisation with his concept of scientific harmonisation (kexue fazhanguan).
The period also saw world powers attempting to reconcile with China and the Tiananmen Square incident no longer affects the present. Finally, the world was hoping that China would be a proponent of Human Rights along with development.
The world was in for a rude shock. After assuming full control of China, Xi Jinping not only emphasised the need to return to Mao’s principles by ordering mass re-prints of his famous ‘Little Red Book’ (that contained a realist Mao’s policies of the world within and outside China) but has also stressed the eventual realisation of the great Chinese Dream.
This intractable desire is evident in the early indoctrination of impressionable schoolchildren whose textbooks contain elaborate stories of how unfair the world has been and how it is a question of honour to reclaim what is theirs rightfully.
Today, there is everything from school competitions to television shows that actively attempt to realise the Chinese dreams of Xi Jinping. Such emphasis of passionate ideology stoking Chinese nationalism can be loosely compared to the indoctrination of young Islamic students in the name of ‘jihad’. The Chinese version dwells more on the nationalist need to reclaim their rightful place in history.
Xi, it appears, wants to not just return to Mao’s principles but outdo Mao in every metric feasible. He intends to remain the President for life, just like Mao — not just of the CCP, but also China.
If Mao was responsible for over 70 million deaths, Xi has started in earnest by subjecting inhuman unspeakable atrocities against the Uyghurs. From mass internment, organ harvesting, forced religious conversions, forced marriages, et al — indeed Xi has arrived.
Today, CCP’s China boasts the highest per capita cameras in the world for monitoring its population. Every citizen is mandatorily required to install a variety of applications on their mobile phones so that the CCP can monitor every move of yours. Non-compliance is rewarded by prompt arrest. CCP’s centenary celebrations can claim the undisputed title of the ultimate surveillance state in the world.
All the above could always be brushed under the carpet in the guise of foreign propaganda against the peaceful rise of the Chinese. Approaching gullible smaller countries in the name of development and aid, just as the colonial powers did in the 18th and 19th centuries, Chinese commerce is being followed up by its Flag.
The CCP is diligently gobbling up small countries through its debt-trap diplomacy. And where the countries do not bend, strong-arm tactics are employed through blackmail, stoppage of developmental work and other means.
In its elaborate plan, it is not just debts that are employed. Taking over of local telecommunications, transport and perhaps most importantly control of the media have become the standard tools to colonise the host countries.
From Papua New Guinea to Vanuatu; from Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, Djibouti, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo to South Africa; from Ecuador, Venezuela to Argentina; from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Mongolia, Laos, Maldives, Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines, Tajikistan to Indonesia; from Montenegro to Ukraine and counting, CCP it seems is giving the 21st Century a lesson in neo-colonialism.
The behaviour witnessed by the world is not restricted to combative words, but in aggressive actions too. In early April 2020, a Vietnamese fishing trawler near the Paracel Islands was rammed and sunk by a Chinese coastguard ship.
In May 2021, when there were photographs of Indian cremations consequent to COVID-19 deaths, instead of providing solace as a mature neighbour, Weibo, the Chinese official website compared how Hindus in India light pyres while the Chinese ignite their rockets to launch satellites to outer space.
Recently, Ukraine was pressured into withdrawing its support for a United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva that called for scrutiny of the treatment of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region.
The threat was simple. Ukraine was first forced to purchase Chinese-made 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines which itself are under scrutiny for their efficacy. Once Ukraine supported the UNHCR resolution, CCP threatened to not deliver on the doses which were already paid for. There are many more such examples.
Of late, the CCP has gotten into a ‘Wolf Warrior’ mode through its diplomats. Wolf Warrior is a 2015 Chinese movie on its Special Forces. Perhaps CCP diplomats have assumed everyone other than themselves are thugs and opine that CCP behaviour too must be thug-like!
When arrogance fills up, it spills over out in the open. Sample all the tweets by CCP’s official diplomats and foreign ministry spokespersons. CCP diplomats, it appears, are proud of their trolling than any form of maturity or healing nature on social media platforms.
It is time someone reminded the CCP that having endured the miseries of colonialism, one would expect a 21st Century China to heal itself and other past colonies, with a humane approach; instead of turning into the Marshal of the very same devouring behaviour and mete out the exact treatment to lesser privileged.
Humiliating one’s population and subjecting others to neo-colonialism is no balm to heal the century of humiliation is perhaps the most important lesson that the CCP needs to draw as it commemorates its centenary.
N. C. Bipindra is Chairman, Law and Society Alliance, which recently published a Research Report ‘Mapping Chinese Footprints and Influence Operations in India’, and Editor, Defence Capital magazine. The views expressed are personal.