The Politics of the Past: How Divergent Interpretations of History Shape East Asian Diplomatic Relations in the Present

David Cameron’s refusal to remove his poppy for his 2010 visit to China was revealing of a stark contrast in the significance granted to history in politics between himself (and the British political establishment as a whole) and his hosts. Whilst history has often played the role of a footnote to contemporary politics in the UK – as reflected by the severe lack of meaningful authority being granted to historians in any government department barring the Foreign Office, and even then only recently – it is central to the national self-portrayal of the Chinese nation. The ‘Century of Humiliation’ narrative that plays such a pivotal role in the story of the nation, as painted by the Chinese Communist Party, is one that the West would do well to take more notice of. Meanwhile, in Japan and Korea, the legacy of the Japanese colonial project looms large in contemporary relations. Perhaps as the ‘victors’ of modern history it is easy to relegate the past to that which went before. In Asia, where the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were ones of humiliation and soul-searching, it is impossible to simply sequester the past – it is intricately bound to the politics of the present.

China’s relations with the West underwent a radical shift in the Great Divergence of the nineteenth century, as European powers and the United States came to dominate the globalising world order. The reversal in fortunes suffered by the Qing Empire and, later, the modern Chinese state, has served to inform Chinese foreign policy and education ever since. Chairman Mao linked the Japanese imperialism of the early twentieth century to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth, and the same wars were used to justify Communist China’s ‘reaction’ against their Western oppressors. The Chinese national imagining has therefore come to be defined in opposition to, and in competition with, a West that remains stained by its past, a point of nuance that David Cameron failed so visibly to grasp in 2010, and one that continues to underlie the diplomatic fallacy that we are able to negotiate any sort of equal standing with the Chinese government. A competitive national consciousness has been fostered that means that ‘the West’ will always be cast as the natural point of comparison for China’s past failures and current successes, leaving them and the likes of the UK at polar ends of a dichotomy that western governments, until very recently, have failed to fully grasp.

A Nationalist officer guarding women prisoners likely to be comfort women used by the Communists, 1948.
(Credit: Jack Birns, The LIFE Picture Collection, Getty Images)

Elsewhere in East Asia, the memory of the Japanese military’s ‘comfort women’, who were drawn from across the Empire through the course of the Second World War and forced into what can only be described as sexual slavery, retains a pervasive political potency. The majority of these women were Korean and though estimates vary, they seem to have numbered in at least the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands. Indeed, such a range in estimates comes as a result of the topic’s controversial nature in the context of the countries’ poor diplomatic relations in recent years. The plight of the comfort women and the allocation of responsibility for the crimes against them has come to represent a clearly drawn battle line between the two countries – Japanese nationalists, the recently departed Shinzo Abe amongst them, seeking to play down the extent of official sanction for such atrocities, whilst Koreans pursue justice not only for the victims, but for the Korean nation as a whole. In order for the nations’ relations to reach some level of normality, the governments of both must look to find a compromise between what are currently polarised memories of the Japanese Empire. Forgetting those years is a luxury that only the oppressors may take, yet it is clear that in Korea too a way must be found for the nation to move on from the scars of their past.

Both of these cases demonstrate the historical dimension of diplomacy in the East Asian political sphere. A history of ruptures, clean breaks and colonial exploitation has bred national imaginings in which the traumas of the past play a central role. This significance is one that can be easily underestimated by those of us in the West for whom history has taken on an almost trivial status, as a backdrop to the present. Cameron underestimated it and it appears that our current leaders are also misunderstanding the inescapable threat posed by a Chinese leadership that places itself firmly in the context of historical competition with Western ‘imperialists’. Such cultural ignorance not only offends those whose culture is being ignored, but also hamstrings those guilty of that ignorance. Without a clear understanding of the other side’s thinking, diplomatic blunders like the poppy controversy are not likely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

Hong Kong’s National Security Law: Power Not To The People

You might have heard of the unrest in Hong Kong last year, stemming from the Government’s attempt to introduce an extradition agreement with Mainland China and culminating in a full-blown humanitarian crisis with the enactment of the National Security Law (NSL). Why was the extradition agreement met with such vigour? The proposed Bill would have led to both foreign nationals residing in Hong Kong and local criminal suspects becoming extraditable to mainland China, which has a substantially different criminal justice system and a history of breaching fundamental human rights. This has included arbitrary detention, unfair trials and torture, with the only requirement that “prima facie” evidence, which carries a significantly low standard of proof, be provided to the Chief Executive and the courts. Following escalating public clashes between the Government, police and citizens, and protests seeing over a million people in attendance and over 10,000 people arrested, the Bill was shelved. But by that time, the damage was done. The Bill exacerbated the deep fears of local citizens and expats in Hong Kong, who saw it as an early sign of China’s descent upon the nation and the dark future to come.

Several demands arose from the locals: the formal withdrawal of the Bill, release and exoneration of those arrested from the protests, the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police behaviour, universal suffrage for the Legislative Council, Chief Executive elections in addition to the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and lastly the retraction of the characterisation of protests as “riots”. Somewhat unsurprisingly, only the first demand was met, which was seen by the Hong Kong people as highly unsatisfactory, and protests continued with increasing intensity. All this culminated in the Chinese Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress enacting the NSL, which opened a bigger can of worms.

Protesters marching at the “Stop Police Violence, Defend Press Freedom” silent march called after media professionals were insulted by police officers when covering protests against the extradition law to China. (Credit: Ivan Abreu, SOPA Images, Sipa via AP Images.)

Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997, resulting from the First and Second Opium War, Britain handed back control of Hong Kong to China on the condition that the “One Country, Two System” and freedoms of free speech, assembly, religious belief, amongst others, would continue to be enjoyed by the former until 2047. The NSL contained intentionally vague provisions, which would allow for ‘secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces’ to become punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. Having already been exercised to charge 50+ individuals, this has naturally given rise to a sense of deep unease in both the domestic and international sphere. As the legislation would have also allowed cases to be tried in Mainland China under their legal system, there was a real risk of criminal suspects being deprived of fundamental human rights, like being held incommunicado in undisclosed locations for up to 6 months before being formally arrested or released. Whilst the UK has similar national security laws in that suspected terrorists can be detained without charge for up to 28 days, these individuals are nevertheless allowed legal representation after a maximum period of 48 hours upon arriving at the police station. Compared to Mainland China, the UK is subject to more intense public and legal scrutiny whenever human rights are undermined. The legislations effect is essentially a complete curtailing of free speech, press and political dissent in Hong Kong. Critics worldwide have speculated that this directly contravenes the Joint Declaration’s condition of “One Country, Two Systems”, with the addition of the NSL being also applicable to crimes committed abroad, to non-permanent residents and people outside of Hong Kong. This means that the reach of the law is far and extensive, essentially subjecting foreign nationals to r to the authority of the NSL. 

Whilst the realistic probability of extraditing foreign citizens in the West for crimes committed against the communist party are relatively slim, the law has already caused a growing reluctance amongst foreign investors to conduct business in Hong Kong for fear of being subject to the extensive powers of the NSL. After the emergence of Covid-19 and consequent increasing criticism towards the Communist Party, it will be a matter of great importance for there to be checks and controls to prevent Mainland China’s ever-increasing influence. If they are left unchecked, one can only hope to stay out of the line of sight of the Chinese Government, and that is something I concern myself with, as this article has the potential to be considered “subversion” under the draconian National Security Law.

May Lam, History in Politics Contributor

The Environment Has No Ideology: Debating Which System Works Best is Inherently Flawed

It is often assumed that we in the ‘West’ are the arbiters of environmental policy, that we simply ‘care more’ than the rest of the world. ‘China’, for many, evokes images of flat-pack cities and rapid industrialisation synonymous with the stain left by humanity on the natural world. It is lazily viewed as an outlying hindrance to the global goal of sustainable development, whilst we remain wilfully ignorant of our own shortcomings, both past and present. Instead of viewing Chinese environmental negligence as unique, I argue, within the lingering paradigm of the ‘capitalist good/communist bad’ dichotomy, that a more bipartisan assessment of the root cause of environmental degradation may be in order. Our planet, after all, cares little for politics.

Many of China’s environmental failures have historically been attributed to the communist policies of the ruling party, particularly under Mao, whose ‘ren ding shen jian’, or ‘man must conquer nature’ slogan has been presented by the historian Judith Shapiro as evidence of the Communist Party’s desire to dominate the natural world, even at the expense of its own people and environment. Of course, there is merit to this argument – the collectivisation of land and the Great Leap Forward’s unattainable targets  wreaked havoc on the land and contributed in no small part to what Frank Dikötter has termed ‘Mao’s Great Famine’, which is estimated to have killed up to 45 million people between 1958 and 1962. It can be easy, therefore, for us to assume that this environmental exploitation is one peculiar to China’s communist system of government.

A factory in China by the Yangtze River, 2008. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Without excusing the undoubtedly detrimental and inhumane policies of Mao’s government, we should  view the environmental impact of the Chinese state’s rapid development in a more contextual manner. After all, did not the rampant capitalism of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom lead to the explosion of soot-filled cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham? All of which were centres of heightened industrial activity that harmed both their human population and the surrounding environment. London’s death rate rose 40% during a period of smog in December 1873, and similarly, we can look to the Great Smog of 1952, which the Met Office claims killed at least 4000 people, possibly many more.

Industrial potteries in North Staffordshire during the nineteenth century. (Credit: StokeonTrent Live)

Geographically closer to China, the Japanese state has also shown in recent years that pointing to ideology might be mistaken. The post-war Japanese growth-first and laissez-faire mentality left the likes of Chisso Corporation in Minamata to their own devices, and the results were devastating. From 1956 through to the 1970s, first cats, then human residents of  Minamata began coming down with a mysterious illness, one that caused ataxia and paralysis in its victims. It would transpire that what came to be known as ‘Minamata disease’ was the result of Chisso’s chemical plant releasing methylmercury into the town’s bay. This was absorbed by algae and passed up the food chain through the fish that local residents (both human and feline) were regularly consuming. Government inaction was deafening, despite the cause being known since 1959, and change only came after it was forced by  non-capitalist union pressure in the 1970s. If this seems like a problem confined to the past, one need only cast their mind back to the Fukushima disaster in 2011, ultimately the result of the irresponsible decision to pursue a nuclear energy policy on the disaster-prone Pacific Ring of Fire.

This article does not wish to make the case for either the capitalist or communist system’s superiority in environmental affairs. Rather, it should be clear that the common thread running through all of these disasters – from the Great Smog to the Great Famine and Fukushima – is a policy emphasising economic growth as the paramount standard of success is a dangerous one that will inevitably lead to environmental destruction. The style and severity of that destruction may be influenced by ideology, but if we are to live in harmony with our environment, we must be willing to abandon the ideals of gain (collective or individual) and competition, that have placed us in our current quandary, whatever the tint of our political stripes.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

History as a Tool of Fascist Revolution

The past is a powerful weapon, one that in the wrong hands has the potential to tear asunder the present. Its utility is one that spans the political spectrum, and propagandists have long recognised its appeal. The most effective appropriation of the past as a tool of persuasion has undoubtedly been central to the exclusionary policies of fascist regimes; most apparent in Mussolini’s Italy and, perhaps lesser known, in China under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Guomindang. Whilst communists sought to destroy the past, fascists chose to worship their own national version of it.

Chang Kai-Shek in 1943. (Credit: Public Domain)

Looking first to the use of history as the binding glue of the revolutionary Chinese republic, a peculiar relationship with the past that emphasises both rupture and continuity becomes apparent. The May 4th Movement, which reached its climax in 1919, had stressed the importance of a break with the Confucian past, embodied by the ‘backwards’ Qing Dynasty, as the only means of competing with the ‘modern’ West. 

As the movement split into communist and nationalist camps throughout the 1920s, the Guomindang (a nationalist party) increasingly came to cast themselves as the defenders of a Chinese, Confucian culture against the ravages of the Red Menace encroaching from the USSR by means of Mao Zedong’s CCP, who were at this time seen as a periphery, almost foreign force. The Guomindang thus found themselves promulgating a policy of revolutionary conservatism, what would come to be known as ‘Confucian fascism’. They took the legacy of the Confucian social order and bound it to a fascist future; as Chiang himself put it in 1933, ‘as members of the revolutionary party we must dedicate ourselves sincerely to the preservation of the traditional virtues and the traditional spirits.’ The restoration of the ancient past was the goal of the revolutionary present, a means by which the new Chinese ‘nation’ might define itself against the world. History was front and centre of the nationalist ideology. Out with the old and in with the older.

Indeed, the invocation of antiquity was not unique to Confucian fascism. The blind admiration of days long forgotten is one of the key features that the Chinese regime shared with the better-known fascist movements sweeping through Europe during the 1920s and 30s. The Nazis claimed descendance from the Holy Roman Empire or the ‘First Reich’, dissolved in 1806, and even constructed a somewhat less palpable link to the Vikings (see the SS Viking Division). Neither the Chinese nor Germans, however, could compare in their reverence of the past with the imperial illusion incubated by Benito Mussolini throughout his reign.

Il Duce sought to construct a ‘vast, orderly, powerful’ Rome, as it had been under the Emperor Augustus. He built the Via dei Fori Imperiale, which led through the ancient monuments of Roman power and civilization, and along which his 1938 parade welcoming Hitler was to proceed. Furthermore, he reintroduced the Roman salute that we now recognise as the quintessential declaration of fascist loyalties and explicitly pursued a restoration of the Roman empire in his failed invasions of North Africa. Drawing on more recent history, his Blackshirts were modelled on the Redshirts of the father of Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi. Like Chiang, he sought an exclusively Italian culture. His promise was a return to the splendour and majesty of Rome’s glory days – an end to the division that had plagued the peninsula for centuries, and a remedy to the humiliations of the Great War.

These appeals to the past, like those of Adolf Hitler and the Chinese nationalists, exploited a population facing crisis: in Germany, the 1929 financial crash obliterated the economy; China had fallen into fracture following the 1911 fall of the Qing dynasty and the subsequent ‘warlord’ years. In Italy, it was the end of the First World War and the ‘Red Years’ of leftist agitation that granted Mussolini his opportunity. 

In times of turmoil, when the present seems under threat, people often look to the idealized past. This tendency leaves them vulnerable to the forces willing to seize upon it. Amidst the crises of our time, we would do well to bear that in mind.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

Perpetrator of Evil: Uighurs in China

Is the White House in Any Position to Help Chinese Muslims? - Pacific  Standard
Chinese policemen pushing Uighur women protesting, July 7th, 2009, Urumqi, China. (Credit: Guang Niu, via Getty Images)

‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’, George Santayana wrote these words forgetting that human nature contains a propensity for evil just as it does for good. Being aware of the evils of the past does not prevent evil deeds. China’s totalitarian socialist political system has continued its strangulation of individual liberty, advancing into genocide – bringing into memory the harrowing events of the not-so-long-ago past against the Jewish people. 

In an atheist socialist regime, it is sacrilege to speak up against the systematic imprisonment and neutering of the Uyghur and Kazakh people. Xi Jinping’s oppressive regime has directed an onslaught against religion, tearing down Catholic churches, destroying sacred statues and crosses and replacing them with deified images of China’s President. Whilst it would be natural to suggest that the violence directed towards the Uyghurs follows a national purge of religion, the funnelling of Muslims into ‘vocational training centres’, reminiscent of the Nazi concentration camps, reveals that the motive is closer to outright genocide. Inside the ‘training centres’, sentences are given for a variety of ‘crimes’, on a point system that penalises Uighurs for owning a Qur’an, having too many children, speaking Uyghur or for speaking up against the treatment of other Uyghurs. In an even clearer sign that the Chinese government is yet again invested in tampering with eugenics, a campaign promoting the intermarriage of Uyghurs and Hans Chinese promises money for housing, as well as amenities such as a refrigerator.

Chinese scholar, Adrian Zen, was one of the first to report that the Chinese government were forcing Uyghur and Kazakh women to undergo sterilisation – an AP report in 2020 revealed far more detailed draconian measures that the government is taking to diminish its Muslim population. By interviewing women in Xinjiang, it was discovered that the Muslim women in the province are forced to undergo regular pregnancy tests, forced to have intrauterine devices implanted which prevent pregnancy, as well as sterilisations and abortions. Women reported being forced to swallow pills or be forcibly injected with unknown medication that made them feel severely unwell, later finding out that they were unable to produce children as a result. Dina Nurdybay, a Kazakh woman imprisoned in one of China’s ‘training centres’, witnessed a Uyghur woman having to recite a speech denouncing herself in Mandarin for having too many children in front of guards. Tursunay Ziyawudun, another Uyghur woman, recalled how she had been given undisclosed injections until she stopped getting her period, and during the process was repeatedly kicked in the stomach as part of the interrogations. China is in the middle of a mass genocide, and it says much for the power of the Chinese government that they can pursue this without real threat of global condemnation and consequences. 

What does it say of human nature that despite no excuse of ignorance of the violence and inhumane treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, nothing of meaning is done to denounce Xi Jinping’s malicious regime? The full details of the violence inflicted towards the Uyghurs is unlikely to be known until the distant future, due to fierce policy guarding and censorship, and China’s tradition of denying outright facts. But perhaps the most sinister and chilling truth lies in the reality that China launched a modern genocide against a Muslim minority within its borders, without genuine fear of consequence, without outcry from the Arab world in the Middle East, and without a concern for history’s dark past repeating itself. China’s position as a global economic powerhouse, and the world’s increasing dependence on the country has put a price on a promise to ‘never again’ relive the atrocities of the Nazi regime.