China’s century of humiliation is over, and trying to repeat it is a grave mistake
“Xi is fixated on ending China’s century of humiliation” – reads an article in Politico, one of the commentaries condemning Emmanuel Macron for his decision to visit Beijing, depicting him as a traitor to the US cause for doing so, and for his later statements.
The article goes on to describe the motivations of China’s leader Xi Jinping: he apparently wants China to “emerge as the greatest power on earth, and he fears the US is equally determined to do everything it can to ensure he fails.”
What is the century of humiliation? Why does it matter to China and what is its relevance today? The term has become a commonly mentioned concept in Chinese political discourse which is used to evaluate the country’s past in the early modern era. China is depicted as having suffered existentially at the hands of foreign powers, which “humiliated” it from a misplaced sense of greatness in an era of national decline. The discourse of humiliation is used to draw a contrast with the current “revival,” as the ruling Communist Party frames it, in China today.
The century of humiliation is understood as the era when foreign colonial powers subjugated, coerced and exploited the declining Qing Dynasty, forcibly opening up China in order to economically exploit and attain political influence over it. The period is typically considered to have begun with the opium wars of the mid-1800s, whereby the Qing’s refusal to import opium from British India led to war, which ended with the signing of an “unequal” Treaty of Nanking. This not only forced British trade interests on Chinese ports, but also annexed Hong Kong island.
The opium wars were followed by many other conflicts directed against Beijing, including the forcefully created “treaty ports” that were quasi-colonial annexes where foreign law was applied over Chinese law, and atrocities such as the 1860 burning of the Old Summer Palace occurred. The impact of the century of humiliation unleashed ideological and political change in China and led to the birth of new revolutionary ideologies which sought to revive the country, one of which became the Communist Party. On obtaining power following the 1927-1949 civil war, the Communist Party framed itself as the driving force of China’s revival and modernization, and the “humiliation” of the past as a backdrop to the rebirth of the country bringing the country to where it is today.
In doing so, China’s leaders consider American attempts at containment of the country as an effort to impose a new century of humiliation. US efforts in blockading the rise and development of China through military encirclement and technological embargoes and sanctions are designed to prevent it from overtaking the US as the world’s largest economy. This naturally draws comparisons in China to the old foreign aggression against it. The US does not want China to do well, it wants to politically and economically dominate it to its own advantages, but it has only hardened the political resolve in Beijing that the failures of the past must not be repeated.
China’s determination to be an independent world power, in itself, immensely raises the risk of war and conflict. Beijing is not seeking hegemony, as some Western commentators choose to portray it, but is nonetheless seeking to restore what it deems its rightful status following its national decline in the past. China does not want sagas such as the opium wars to ever be repeated, and in doing so is likely to accelerate its own military development and size in a bid to deter the US and its allies. Critical to all this is that Taiwan remains an unresolved legacy of what Beijing perceives to be part of the century of humiliation.
The Japanese annexed the island from the mainland in 1895, and China sees the reunification of that territory as its right, and sees attempts to block such reunification, such as those by the US, as an effort towards a new humiliation. This means that the political stakes attached to the future of Taiwan are significant. Therefore, is it wise to try and push China to the absolute limit?
War and conflict, after all, are very much aspects of China’s own national confidence. For example, its success in the Korean war of 1950-1953 is heralded, from the Chinese perspective, as the end to the century of humiliation, and the rise of China as a modern power in the world. Attempts, either deliberately or unintentionally, to “humiliate” China again is inherently dangerous, because it involves trying to corner a nation that does not want to be cornered and is strong enough to fight back. Every effort should be made to cooperate and co-exist with a rising China, as opposed to trying to suppress it. At this stage of China’s rise, it’s clear that in economic and military terms it is not to be underestimated, and in turn attempting to relive the era of “humiliation.” Any attempt to add a new legacy of Western powers imposing their will on China wantonly, may prove to be a huge error.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.