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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

West must grasp how China views its past

July 2, 2011

June 30, 2011 7:49 pm

By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing

The Communist Party of China celebrates its 90th birthday on Friday with all the pomp and ceremony that befits the unchallenged rulers of a rising superpower. But behind all the congratulatory rhetoric over national rejuvenation there is a worrying Chinese view of history and international relations.

In honour of the birthday, museums across the country have prepared exhibitions to explain the party’s “glorious history” to the masses and each one opens in roughly the same way.

“Since British invaders launched the opium war in 1840, the western capitalist powers came one after another to China and China was thus reduced to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society,” reads the introduction to the exhibition at the site in Shanghai of the 1921 founding of the party.

Visitors to these exhibitions or readers of Chinese history books would be outraged by the wickedness of western imperialists and inspired by the heroic triumph of the Communist party as it finally threw off the yoke of foreign oppressors.

But in all the exhibitions and official history books there is barely a mention of the vicious decade-long Cultural Revolution or the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward, which is estimated to have caused the deaths of 45m people.

These and other glaring omissions in China’s recent history and the fixation on the crimes of foreign aggressors have been described by some Chinese academics as akin to nurturing the nation’s youth on “wolf’s milk”.

The narrative of national humiliation underpins China’s relations with the west to this day and, while it is seen by the party as a way of deflecting criticism against itself, it can also rebound on Chinese leaders if they are perceived as too soft on foreigners.

During his visit to Britain this week, Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, was too polite to mention the opium wars directly.

But for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of China’s official history the message was clear as he rebuked Britain for “finger-pointing” and “lecturing” Beijing on its human rights record.

In a joint press conference with David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, he talked of China’s 5,000-year history in which the country had been exposed to untold sufferings (at the hands of imperial powers, led by Britain, was the unspoken implication).

“This has taught the Chinese never to talk to others in a lecturing way, but to respect nations on the basis of equality,” said Mr Wen.

Senior Chinese officials in London even said Britain’s concern over human rights violations in China meant the UK was now viewed less favourably in Beijing than Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

Such threats are hard to take seriously when one looks at Beijing’s recent record of placing relations with various countries in diplomatic deep-freeze.

Germany and France have been seen in the past few years as the most hated former imperialist powers after their leaders agreed to meet the Dalai Lama or criticised China’s harsh crackdown in Tibet.

Australia and the US have also been accused by Beijing of “hurting the feelings of 1.3bn Chinese people” and Japan, which invaded China in the 1930s, is perennially guilty of the same. The thing about fostering xenophobic nationalism is you have to keep stoking the flames with fresh humiliations and, as China becomes increasingly powerful and assertive in the world, the enduring Chinese sense of humiliation could lead to dangerous diplomatic mis-steps on all sides.

While Beijing needs to take a hard look at its own portrayal of history, diplomats, politicians and ordinary citizens in the west should also understand the historical and political prism through which China views the world so they can better deal with its rise.

Any Chinese student can probably tell you the dates and details of the opium wars and the ensuing “traitorous unequal treaties” that allowed the west, led by Britain, to carve off chunks of Chinese territory.

But most students in Britain and elsewhere have only the vaguest idea of that tumultuous history.

Mr Wen alluded to this imbalance after watching a performance in Stratford-upon-Avon of Hamlet, one of his favourite plays: “It made me wonder whether the foreign friends cherish as keen an interest in China’s history and theatre as I have for Shakespeare.”

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