井底之蛙

11/6/2011

The good old days of empire

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:48 am

My local paper ran an editorial (version here) by Rich Lowry which gave readers more Qing dynasty history than they normally get.  As an American conservative his main point in the piece is that Europe is at last on the brink of collapse due to excessive state spending, just as the Lowrys of the world have been predicting for the last 50 years or so.1 He opens with a lament for the Good Old Days

One hundred and fifty years ago, no one could mistake the relative power of Europe and China. When the British defeated the Chinese in the First Opium War, they imposed an indemnity, took Hong Kong, and forced open more Chinese ports to British merchants. They demanded extraterritoriality for British citizens, exempting them from Chinese law. Other Western powers extracted similar privileges.

When this wasn’t enough, the British launched the Second Opium War after the Chinese seized a ship flying the British flag and refused to apologize. The French joined in, and the two together captured Beijing, and burned the emperor’s summer palaces for good measure.

This nasty episode is worth recalling against the backdrop of the Europeans’ begging the Chinese to help bail them out from their debt crisis. What would Lt. Gen. Charles Cousin-Montauban, the commander of the French forces who marched on Beijing, make of Klaus Regling, the commander of the European bailout fund who traveled to Beijing hoping for a helping hand? What would Lord Palmerston, who justified war against China as a matter of honor, think of Nicolas Sarkozy’s supplicating his Chinese counterpart for funds?

He does toss in that “nasty episode” line, but he is obviously lamenting the idea of white people dealing with yellow people as equals. He probably knows as little about Chinese history as he does about Greek bonds, but I would guess that even if he did know more about Palmerston’s ideas of honor he would still support them. In the case of the Arrow incident neither international law nor any other principle other than power were on the British side.2 Palmerston, of course did not care. Harry Parkes, a British official had made certain assertions about Chinese behavior and British power had to back him up. Those who questioned him in Parliament were traitors, motivated by

“an anti-English feeling, an abnegation of all those ties which bind men to their country and to their fellow-countrymen, which I should hardly have expected from the lips of any member of this House. Everything that was English was wrong, and everything that was hostile to England was right.”

In any case, an excuse to beat up on wogs was not be be missed, as Palmerston’s most famous quote on foreign policy shows.

“These half-civilised governments, all require a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order. Their minds are too shallow to receive an impression that will last longer than some such period and warning is of little use. They care little for words and they must not only see the stick but actually feel it on their shoulders before they yield to that argument that brings conviction, the argumentum baculinem

Why bring this up? Well in part because one just does not get much Chinese history in the Indiana Gazette. Also, I think we may see more and more of this. In the Chinese press people are always bringing up the past as a way of understanding present international relations and while as a historian I think that can be good, I also think it can be bad. Historical analogies are not just sprinkles on top of an argument, they are ways of helping you think, and in this case they help you think wrong. While you can’t understand China’s relationship with Britain or Japan without understanding the past, assuming that the Japan of today is that of the 1930′s, or that the U.S. of today is that of 1900 is not a good way of using the past. Likewise, as Americans talk and think more about our relationship with China the ‘lessons of history’ will come up a lot, and we will have to choose if we want a foreign policy that will “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all” as Washington put it, or if we will follow Lowry in admiring Palmerston and that other great Englishman, Lord Voldemort in assuming that “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”

 

 

 

  1. I don’t know about Lowry, but some of the prominent early American Neo-Cons started out as Trotskyites, which may have helped them write all these explanations for why reality is not matching their theories. []
  2. J.Y. Wong’s Deadly Dreams: Opium and the Arrow War (1856-1860) In China deals with this at great length. []

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