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China: a Phoenix rising from its ashes ?

January 24, 2018

“China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep for when she wakes she will move the World” alerted Napoleon. That omen is about to come true.

In their mutual relationships, Occident and China were always dominated by a blend of distrust and fascination. Both were great civilizations, if not the greatest, and both were split by all – religion, culture, philosophy, political administration, alphabet and even the  hierarchy of values. Due to their distance, they developed independently, nonetheless, they affected each other even during the Antiquity. Thus, the Roman Empire was prolific in silk trade and craftsmanship, the cornerstone of Chinese marketing and Imperial budget. From the West of Middle Kingdom flows, through merchants, precious materials such as jewelry, glass, gold or even cosmetics.

For two thousand years, the conditions and terms of exchanges were dictated by the Empire. The situation collapsed with the Industrial Revolution, which brought a large advantage to Europe. China was turned into colony-like territory. From the sight of Millenial Empire, the European diktat was a terrible shame and humiliation. Nowadays after 2 centuries of Occidental domination, the World returns to the old ruts, with Chinese commercial supremacy in the spotlight. Is the expansion due to old complexes?

Silk fantasy

We still don’t know when the first Sino-European meeting actually took place. Maybe it was in Middle Asia during the conquests of Alexander the Macedonian. On the available Silk road (since 3rd century B.C) merchants and investors never met personally.  They contacted each other through Parthes, masters of the territory situated in between, which corresponds to today’s Iran.  The trade among both empires engendered a lot of benefits for Parthes.

Despite the numerous impediments, Romans like Chinese tried to get in touch directly. In 93 AD, commander Ban Chao reached Caspian Sea and sent his ambassador to Daqin – aka Roman Empire. Unfortunately, his journey ended in a disappointment provoked by Parthes. They convinced Ban Chao to forsake the expedition because of its length.

As a result, it was Marco Polo, who was the first European to step on Chinese ground. His report met a great enthusiasm among the European intelligentia albeit some skeptics accused him of being a fool. It is true that some anecdotes could induce astonishment like the fact that  there were more splendid cities than glorious Rome, that governors were richer than French King, that acupuncture was used as a healing method or that they cooked dogs ( yes, this one is related too.) Despite their cultural differences Occident and China, even in XIII century, thought about allying against growing Islam, which was obviously an obstacle to their mutual interests and security. To no avail.  Soon the Silk road was on its way to perish because of the Turkish and Arab invasions.

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "marchand de la route de la soie"

Marco Polo’s merchants expedition to East on the Silk Road. The Road was about 7 000 miles (12 000 km).

In other words, it was the end of Sino-European collaboration. Nevertheless, the wealth of the  Middle State was unforgettable for the Western Countries. In 1513, Jorge Alvarez, a Portuguese navigator arrived in China by sea. When he anchored his boat at the outlet of Pearl River, he was received with mixed feelings. It was a consequence of Malaka invasion by Portuguese in 1511. The Sultanate was vassal of the Emperor; a violation of its security meant violation of the Chinese’s. Portuguese “conquistadors” were forbidden to tread on the Empire land. “As you wish” Portugal commander said, and the trades took place on the vessel deck before leaving the port.

To negotiate better terms, the King of Portugal sent in 1517, an ambassador to Beijing. Tomé Pires demanded an audience. He obtained it … after three years ! And when he was finally granted audience, Chinese nobles felt astonished even outraged that the Portuguese monarch put himself on an equal footing instead of pledging  allegiance and preaching for mercy as if he were the Heaven Son.  Decidedly, these Portuguese were not worth all the generosity of the Court. Pires and other diplomats were jailed for life. As to the translators… they were beheaded. All these events were transformed into propaganda. Thus, the commander of Portuguese Navy waiting in Canton was accused of the most cruel and devilish deeds such as kidnapping and devouring Chinese children. Lies or not ? The poor commander should have stayed in Portugal and eaten cod. Through Portugal it was the whole vision of Europe that was changed. They were called “overseas devils”. It was just an au revoir for Portugal.

“Chinese have a brain”

China’s foreign policy needed to be alleviated. Don’t be surprised, when your pockets are empty you call the richer neighbour. That’s how it was at that time. In 1535, the port of Canton re-opened its gates to foreigners. 20 years later, even a few marketplaces were directed by Portuguese merchants as well as lots. Foreigners paid a consequent tribute (20 kg of silver per year)  for a little piece of land. “Great Deal !” thought the Chinese lords. But it was a failure. They had certainly never read Sun Tzu, otherwise, they would have foreseen it. It’s exactly how Macau was built; it’s not until 1999 that it was attached to China.

From the other side of the continent, Europeans drew lessons from Pires’s tragic fate. No more cupid diplomats were sent but highly educated and open-minded missionaries, mainly Jesuits. When one of them – the Italian Matteo Ricci – discovered a mistake in Chinese astrophysicists calculus about Sun eclipse, aristocrats, in their meekness, gave more credit to occidental science and religion. It was reciprocal. Of course, adapting Taoist or Buddhist concepts in a Christian background strengthened their position in the Chinese bastion. So thus, German Johann Schall von Bell for reforming the calendar became the Emperor’s private adviser, Flemish Ferdinand Verbiest designed astronautic engines, Pole Jan Smogulecki told them about logarithm and other too complicated stuff to develop.

Jesuits reports were so fascinating that European nobility adopted a typical style called in elegant French : “chinoiserie”. Every aristocrat’s residence had Chinese motifs. Special rooms were dedicated to China: fan and panoply were decorated with flourishing camellias, lacquer shined on furniture; even some alcoves or pavilions appeared in gardens. It was very much à la mode. As to intelligence it was gratified and remarked by philosophers such as Voltaire, Leibnitz or Diderot. The discovery of China marked an end to superstitions about Chinese “wild” nature. (No, don’t speak about pandas!) To put it in a nutshell, Goethe remarked: “When our ancestors lived in forests, their already read marvelous books.”

Manchurian Empire

The enchantment grew up with the discovery of three decisive inventions  for Europe- impression, gunpowder and compass, which were in fact already common in China, without mentioning paper, barrow, lucifer, horse-collar, seismograph, paper money … (Actually half of the things we use nowadays, overlooking those which are produced by them but it’s another part.)

Mutual fascination stayed, until the geopolitical situation evolved. The Great Wall failed. Manchuria invaded and abolished the Ming dynasty in 1644 before installing their own. Is it to believe that the Ming destiny was cursed? Some of them were ready to convert to Catholicism in exchange for Western help. In fact, the cruelty of reprehension knew no limits. They sent an SOS to the Pope, to the King of England even Portugal. They decided nevertheless not to lose their time with an already dead minority. It was the pitiful end of the Ming chapter in China’s history, a dynasty which brought more than they took.

Meanwhile, Manchuria extended their borders to Pamir, Himalaya and Baikal Lake ; Birma, Laos and North Vietnam came under their influence. The Chinese Empire reached an apogee never seen. On the other hand, their hegemony never crossed the borders so the relationship with Portugal stayed on the old ruts. Actually, they had other ships to launch.

“We don’t need you !”

Manchurians were so convinced about their superiority regarding the barbarism from the West that they rested on their laurels. Meanwhile, in 1793, at the outlet of Hai River, surrounding Beijing, the British fleet anchored with at its front the “Lion”, a vessel counting 64 shotgun barrels. It was the ambassador’s escort itself (called “Hindustan” named after their own colony.) The deal addressed to Emperor Qianlong was about signing a trade agreement and resolving the diplomatic issue. In order to promote British ingenuity, few gifts were brought such as hot air balloon or telescope. “We need nothing from you. We have all we need !” deflected Qianlong. It was another failure for British diplomats who thought about levelling their conflictual relationship with China.

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The caricature by James Gillray shows Chinese emperor declared that he doesn’t need Europeans inventions.

Isolationism was from now on at the core of China’s foreign policy. No reforms, no measures for fear of moving the stability and balanced harmony envisaged by Confucius. On the other side, the real potential of the British was looming. It disclosed especially with one, particularly demoniac stratagem. British decided to grow poppies  in their numerous trading posts in India. Not to be used in cooking but in order to turn it into opium. Most lucrative businesses are illegal (it’s not a reason to do it ;)) and it’s how in 1837, they exported about 2 million kilograms of opium.

Profitable for British as well as for Chinese administrators who turned a blind eye to it. But one incorruptible man was clear enough to discover the devil under the carpet.

Lin Zexu, an influent courtier known for his purpose, convinced the Emperor of his “incapacity to protect the country with a junkie army” in 1838. As a result, officials responsible for the chaos were killed and Lin Zexu became the right hand of Qianlong.      The proof of his merit was the title he obtained : imperial commissionner. Full of self-confidence he reached Canton from where he sent an official missive to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria in 1839 : “By which right, in name of your benefits, dare you to hurt Chinese nation by bringing him poison ? Where is Your consciousness?” 

Regardless of the answer, Lin Zexu demanded to all the ship-masters to entrust them with their loads. They refused. History has shown that when you are in a lower position you had better let it go. Lin Zexu made them understand. They were deprived of food and water. At last, they threw over 1100 tons of opium above the deck.

Insulted by the Regime, the Crown requested a compensation. But Queen Victoria categorically refused. It was the beginning of a conflict that the next Prime Minister of the UK, William Gladstone,  would call “the most unfair and humiliating war ever seen in History.”

The abasement century

In 1840, in Canton were launched 4 000 English soldiers, 15 warships with arsenal to attack the city. Thanks to their innovative carabins, British could snipe a Chinese before he managed to target his enemy. Chinese were defeated. The Emperor was put face to a wall; he finally signed the surrender, a pseudo peace treaty that obliged China to open 5 new ports including Canton and Shanghai. But the most important was the lifetime management of Hong Kong, still under a statu quo.

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Caricature of the Chinese cake by Henry Meyer.

It was an abasement not only for the Heaven Son.  The value of silver like taxes increased. Chinese became angry because of the great loss of money following the Opium War. Protests triggered Taiping insurrections throughout the country (1851 – 1868). Bloody repression caused over 10 million killed. Western Powers cynically took advantage of the situation by imposing more and more concessions.  Every dissent was treated as a precaution to take and each time it needed an intervention; it became known as  the 2nd Opium War. England was supported by France, even Germans who claimed their part of the Chinese cake. After 2 years of incessant war, year 1860 brand the terrible fate of Beijing. Europeans input, ravaged and plundered the north capital, Beijing.

“The Empress Dowager, Cixi, reacted in the way that the authors of the document presumably hoped she would. ‘Now,’ she is reported to have exclaimed, ‘the Powers have started the aggression, and the extinction of our nation is imminent. If we just fold our arms and yield to them, I would have no face to see our ancestors after death. If we must perish, why not fight to the death?’ A Decree (which was widely ignored) went out to the provinces ordering them to send troops to Peking.”

The siege at Peking by Peter Fleming, 1959. 

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British float destroying the Chinese one during the Opium War.

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Chinese smoke opium until they reach a supreme state during which they lose self-control

In the next treaties, 11 ports were ceded. Of course, I overlooked the opium flourishing trade. Forget about Escobar and other Columbine cartels, the biggest dealer ever was the John Company directly managed by the British Empire. To give a figure, 1 out of 3 Chinese citizen were addicted to their cargo.


The long domination of foreigners and the illegal transit of drugs left a profound scourge in China’s soul. It brought forth a complex of inferiority. This era was particularly painful for the people. Most of the white shops or cafés panelled the next superscription: “Dogs and Chinese are forbidden”. It enhances the dehumanization Occidentals to degrade the natives. The curse continued with the defeat against Japan (1894 – 1895) which was considered as a copy-paste of China. Elites and folks had enough. In 1899, the discontent was embodied by the “Boxer Revolution” – another bloody but still unsuccessful rebellion against Manchuria and Occident. As a consequence, China became partly-European-American-Japanese half-colony.

To adapt to the new situation, in 1911, army and belligerents known as the Chinese United  League (still in activity in Taiwan under the name of “Kuomintang”) forced the 5 -year-old Emperor, Pu Yi,  to abdicate. On December 29th, the Republic of China was proclaimed.

The League obtained a large majority which allowed to gather broken China. Nonetheless, their efforts were spoiled by the Land of the Rising Sun. Indeed, the Japanese Empire invaded Manchuria in 1937 (Slaughter of Nankin.) Another player input on the stage, obviously, the Communist Party supported by Stalin’s Russia.

A big leap?

At the end of World War II and the defeat of Japan, two players were still standing: weaker and weaker, Kuomintang, and the growing Communist Party . On October 1st 1949, Mao Zedong, the leader, claimed the inauguration of the People’s Republic of China. Although Mao cut off with the past, his revolution was not so far from it. It was founded on giving back China’s sovereignty and lead her to an absolute power. Here it’s just a question of name; before it was the Emperor, now it’s the Party Leader.

After cutting the link with the West, China became independent from her helpful brother, Moscow.  China marched according to her proper way and isolated from the world. As you can see, the fear of “overseas devils” was still present in their minds. To fill the complex, they launched a desperate policy of Big Leap Forward. The prevision was that within, at least, 15 years, China would exceed the GDP of the UK. Without any sensed decisions, it turned out to be one of the biggest economic failures of the XXth century. The starvation killed between 10 and 40 million people. ( The figures are not exact because China is still politically closed.)

Mao stifled the people’s outcry about it and folded the critics during the “Cultural Revolution”. Then he did what centuries ago Qianlong avoided – started a new chapter with the USA. In 1972, he welcomed for the first time a US president, Richard Nixon. A symbolical handshake which branded the beginning of a fruitful cooperation. The fulfilment of diplomatic relations were ensured few years later, in 1979, by his successor, Deng Xiaoping. As well as past emperors opened Canton’s gates to foreigners, this pragmatic Marxist opened the door to modern capitalism. He had the choice to close it, somehow the exclusive area of Shenzhen seemed to be an unprecedented success.  It was a real leap forward, which turned a fisher harbor into 10-million-inhabitant modern mainland.

In the back of the US?

From this moment on,  all was going very fast. Chinese economy increased over 8-10 % every year. Since 1980, exportations have been growing up from $14 million to $2 billion.

China prevailed in his ancient status of exporter. If America is the attic of the World, China is certainly its factory. In 2016, Americans purchased products from China for $420 billion and sold them for only 140 billion. The question posed a few years ago by Chinese economist Wang Yiwei was “How can we stop the unavoidable falling of USA ?” (It’s not at least an intellectual provocation 🙂 ) Recently globalized China can’t lose her first economic partner and prolific market, America.

The rising Giant is also opening its arms to other stuff. As Napoleon predicted, China will transform the World; it’s doing so already. Exploitation of raw materials in Africa or financing the Nicaragua project for a substitute to the Panama Canal. You may not know it, but Volvo, Motorola, Pirelli  are already Chinese. Same thing for the Piraeus port in Greece. Generally speaking, China is everywhere!

The Chinese army joins the run too. In fact, it’s the most numerous one (2,3 million soldiers) and is still looking for the best arsenal. In 2012, the first aircraft carrier drifted on the Pacific Ocean. They have also built  3 considerable marine headquarters and bases.

These plans are just a few among the ambitious projects that China has in store. Remember: in 2003 the first spatial flight; in 2008, the organisation of the Olympic Games ; finally,  the landing of a lounger in 2013. Is it not a proof of breaking with obsolete complexes?

“In Chinese culture, pride, designed by the conviction of being perfect and exclusive, has a major place. Nonetheless, pride has two sides : arrogance or gentle opening to others. In China since the first encounter with the West, arrogance has prevailed.”

Perry Link, sinologist.

The question is: will it change?

Xavier K.

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