The titles of books often reflect the state of world. Thus The Scramble for China and India Conquered relate to the history of China and India. Then there is World Order, that traces the history of ancient civilisations of Bharatvarsh’s riparian Himalayan system and the thriving Chinese agrarian culture, centred around valleys and basins of twin rivers Hwang Ho and Yang-se-Kiang. And, though unconnected, there’s a new book on our western neighbour: Talibanisation of Pakistan. No laughing matter, though!
Going back to China, the narration of a few 19th and mid-20th century “situations” would reveal from where Beijing has struggled to emerge in the 21st century. “He was insistent as his nine-year-old brother, Wu’er, had gone missing a week previously... He (Zhang Zhixi) knew — as all China knew — that (Western) foreigners were paying Chinese agents to kidnap children.” Why? Zhang would say: “They (foreigners) would gouge out his eyes.” That is what foreigners did to the Chinese: they “gouged out Chinese eyes” and used them “to make medicine with”; (and) used Chinese hearts for the same purpose. They needed Chinese bodies to make medicines, and established orphanages and children’s homes, tricking people into placing children in their care, and in those homes the children were killed. “Or they paid kidnappers to seize children from the streets... and they killed them.”
Understandably, a Chinese backlash in Tianjin on June 21, 1870 killed 21 Europeans, including French, Russian, Italian, Belgian and Irish nationals. A widespread campaign erupted across China against foreign missionaries as the “death rates in Catholic orphanages and foundling homes were notoriously high”.
Fast forward to 1931, in the decade between the 20th century’s two World Wars: China was still terrorised by foreigners as it was gripped by chaos, killings and extreme diplomatic humiliation and indifference. Branded as the “Sick Man of the Far East”, the Chinese had nowhere to go except to curse their fate. They also blamed all foreigners, including the League of Nations (the United Nations’ predecessor) for not standing up to external terror, which put its existence in peril, like Poland in Europe, that had ceased to exist as a nation state for 124 years, from 1795 to 1919.
The seeds of decay had, however, been sown much earlier, as the 1911 revolution had left China prey to internal dissension. By 1919, Canton seceded to become completely independent of the government in Beijing, which nevertheless had a rather tenuous and shadowy control over the rest of the country. As civil war broke out over the whole of northern and central China in 1922, it was also closely bound up with a number of special privileges for subjects of foreign powers operating across Chinese territory. Also, the swathe of land of “leased territories” of China to Western powers virtually amounted to it ceding sovereignty to foreigners, at least in those areas.
Given this background, it is hardly surprising that Japan took full advantage of Beijing’s sorry internal state to conquer Manchuria, the northeastern province. As Japan had acquired the right to maintain a 15,000-strong force since the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 for the “protection of the South Manchurian Railway”, Chinese action to reclaim their own land, pride and sovereignty were expected. But that is exactly where things went wrong for China and everything went right for Japan.
To make matters worse, the international community too not only failed to take a stand against acts of war and blatant “foreign-origin terror” on Chinese soil, but gave a miserable demonstration of its collective failure to uphold its lofty principles and laws for which the League of Nations was purportedly created. In reality, the Japanese campaign had been “carried through without regard to the embarrassment of the Council of the League of Nations, which had been in almost continuous session during this time”.
Although normal procedure was followed to “find out facts, fix responsibility and give recommendations”, the most significant feature of the report of the League of Nations was “the skill with which it avoided any pronouncement which might have entailed the application of sanctions under Article 16 of the Covenant” of the League on Japan. It “pointedly recited the obligations of the covenant... but abstained from drawing the conclusion that these obligations had been violated by Japan”.
Chinese morale was understandably shattered as seen from its delegate’s pathetic wailing: “China cannot be expected to admit that the operation of treaties, covenants and accepted principles of international law stops at the border of Manchuria.” This was in 1933.
Since then, 83 years have passed. What is the situation in the 21st century? Quite the opposite. China is the world’s second largest economy, with exchange reserves over $3 trillion, an unprecedented strong military and “nationalist” government, but its attitude continues to be enigmatic and ambivalent over Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism. In addition to Beijing’s obduracy in East Asian waters, its benign indifference to India’s emphatic demands to take a tough call on Islamabad’s role in terror makes things complicated and adversarial. Having itself been a victim of foreign terror on its own soil in the 19th and 20th century doesn’t seem to have left any impact on the inscrutable China of the 21st century.
Why? One doesn’t know for sure, of course, but a possible reason, though it is speculative, could be Hans’ elephantine memory of history. Both China and India have been peaceful, though “ignorant and indifferent”, neighbours for thousands of years. They met scholars, but never saw their soldiers in action. Yet subordinate Indian soldiers were found killing and looting Chinese cities under British commanders in the 19th century. Again, when the whole of China was under opium addiction, the British were the masterminds and Indians the producers and distributors under their London landlords.
That was in the past. What happened in 1962? Why did the Chinese attack India, the unresolved legacy of the border dispute notwithstanding? Why do the Chinese now say “let us do business; the border dispute can be resolved later”? Why did they not say the same thing in 1962? Again, the plausible answer could be contemporary economics. Few would match the Chinese ability to think fast and do their economic sums. And the Chinese (like their US rivals) realise their economics is through the terrorist geography of Pakistan, the consumer market of India and the violent history of Afghanistan.
Why are the Chinese ignoring Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism? Is it because they know that the terrorist elements constitute an integral part of the Pakistan Army, which is that country’s supreme ruler? Therefore, they cannot afford to antagonise the Pakistani Army. Are they afraid of the Pakistan Army’s jihadi links — with which it can act to snap trade, economics, territory, Xinjiang, Xizang (Tibet) through terror and sleeper cells? Is China resorting to remembering and invoking its own history for self-interest, while preferring not to remember or invoke the same history — serving the security of a foreign power? Can this be called the revenge of Chinese history?