The high-profile East Asian voyage of the United Kingdom’s carrier strike group has passed its apex: After flying the flag in Japan, the mailed fist of Britannia’s 21st century naval arm is poised for the homeward cruise.
From London’s perspective, points have been made.
The potent new super vessel, HMS Queen Elizabeth, has, since leaving Portsmouth on May 1, made the rounds of friendly ports, drilled with friendly fleets, promoted the concept of rules-based freedoms and made the case for stronger ties with Asian partners. And it has demonstrated that the Royal Navy, deploying naval air projection capabilities that it lacked for five years, is back in the big league.
From Beijing’s perspective, points have been taken.
The post-imperialist force opted not to challenge the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, with provocative maneuvers in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait or East China Sea. Even so, its joint drills with multiple nations on China’s maritime periphery, many of them at odds with China, suggest that Washington’s aim for a naval “coalition of the willing” is gaining traction – with the UK a particularly willing player.
Seen through the prism of the PLAN, these may be concerning developments. Seen through the prism of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, they provide useful domestic ammunition in a state where history is alive, well-disseminated and connected to the present.
Toned down though it was, London’s gunboat neo-diplomacy stirred memories convenient for President Xi Jinping’s CCP – for opium-trading, gunboat-wielding Brits kicked off China’s “Century of Humiliation.”
That period is central to state messaging that references the weaknesses of the past in its clarion call for a muscular new China. And the messaging is central to a widely noted conundrum of today’s China: The world’s second largest economy and military power remains acutely sensitive to historical wrongs.
Ironically, much of the content of that messaging is echoed in the UK, where historical reinterpretations are in full swing, focusing unflinchingly on Britain’s many and bloody colonial depredations.
Doubly ironically, any such process of harsh historical introspection is impossible in a China where foreign predation is widely trumpeted, but where the CCP’s own deadly history is uneasily airbrushed out of the national narrative.
China’s foes, historical and contemporary, unite
As the focus of an information war where history is deliberately merged with geopolitics, the British carrier’s voyage is not just about the Brits.
While the United Kingdom was China’s premier-league villain in the 19th century, its aircraft carrier’s ultimate destination was Japan – China’s deadliest enemy of the 20th century.
And perched on the Queen Elizabeth’s flight deck were F35s stealth fighters manned by pilots from the United States – China’s key 21st century rival, and the closest ally of both Japan and the UK.
China’s historical messaging cannot be dismissed as mere propaganda, for it is grounded in very real past events that connect to the present – most notably, a 21st century world where China is dueling the US for global hegemony.
That duel may explain trends currently at-play in a China which has realized that President Donald Trump was no aberration: His successor in the White House Joe Biden, continues anti-China policies.
The CCP is currently taking down powerful businessmen and cracking down on consumer-focused tech firms, while promoting strategic industries and even railing against un-macho male role models in popular entertainment.
One analysis: Beijing is building a fortress China by shifting society and economy into confrontation mode, while decoupling it from global dependencies.
Certainly, the cynical political principle of “generating enemies abroad to generate solidarity at home” could prove handy to Xi as he gears up to win an unprecedented third term as president next year.
‘British bastards’ and the ‘Century of Humiliation’
In current affairs, the West fires multiple accusations at China. Human rights violations in Xinjiang! Suppression of rights in Hong Kong! Threats toward Taiwan!
But to the discomfiture of jingoistic Britons – and to strategists in Tokyo and Washington – China can claim to be more sinned against than sinner on the broader scoreboard of historical reckoning.
“When it comes to historical psychology, what the CCP is educating its kids in is ‘The Century of Humiliation’ – that is the phrase they repeat over and over again,” Lee Seong-hyon, a visiting scholar at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University told Asia Times.
The century ended in 1949, when the CCP took full control of Mainland China, but had started in 1839, when the First Opium War was initiated by the UK.
Seen in this light, “The British are bastards!” Lee said.
Indeed, it is difficult to paint British policy in 19th century Qing Dynasty China as in any way principled
Then, as now, Britons were great drinkers of tea – a Chinese plant whose cultivation had been a closely guarded trade secret, and which would only be farmed in British India from the 1840s. Chinese refused to accept British goods in return for its tea, demanding silver. That left British merchants and London facing long-term depletion of bullion reserves.
Aggressive British merchants opted to rebalance trade by shipping opium into China. When Qing officials responded to imports of what was known to be a dangerously addictive drug by seizing opium shipments, the trade war ended. Real war erupted.
Britain, armed with steam gunboats, professional troops and field artillery, routed China in the First Opium War (1839-42). Unequal treaties were signed, Hong Kong was ceded and British success encouraged other foreign powers to grab a slice of China.
The Second Opium War (1856-60) saw an Anglo-French force fighting far deeper into China. Qing forces were again routed, and the dynasty’s Summer Palace – a dreamy masterpiece that blended architecture with landscaping – was sacked and destroyed in retaliation for the torture of British captives.
Then eight powers, the UK prominent among, intervened in China to suppress the proto-nationalist Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). Yet again, Chinese arms were humiliated. The “Middle Kingdom” – home to one of the world’s greatest civilizations – had been reduced to “The Sick Man of Asia.”
Subsequently, Imperial Japan would replace Imperial Britain as China’s deadliest enemy. After seizing Manchuria in 1931, Japan invaded China proper in 1937. A brutal war, marked by Japanese atrocities including the Rape of Nanjing and the biological warfare of Unit 731 would kill an estimated 14-22 million Chinese.
After Japan’s 1945 defeat, the Chinese Civil War was won by Mao Zedong’s communists. That victory automatically pitted Beijing against Washington, which replaced a shattered Japan as national enemy number one.
In 1950, in a stunning turn of the hinge of history, Mao’s troops would radically alter China’s global image and avenge their nation’s past humiliations at British hands.
With its shock intervention in the Korean War, China routed the US-led UN Command – with the British as the second-largest foreign contingent – in North Korea. Subsequently, in South Korea, the Chinese incurred on the British Army the bloodiest defeat of its post-1945 history: The Battle of the Imjin River in 1951.
But if the “sleeping dragon” awoke in Korea under Mao, it has become a “global dragon” under Xi. Today’s China – with its huge industrial base, global infrastructure investment portfolio and world-class military – stands in stark contrast to the humbled Qing.
Despite this multi-dimensional renaissance, an acutely prickly national victimhood narrative still has currency.
Remembering a dark past
In state media, gunboat diplomacy and the Opium Wars are favorite references, while the heft of today’s PLAN has been gleefully compared to Britain’s much reduced naval prowess.
Last July, editorializing on Royal Navy plans to sail for East Asia, state-run tabloid Global Times asked its readers: “Is the UK….going to launch a new opium war against China?”
The paper warned, “It is not the 19th century anymore….China’s military forces are developing rapidly – China’s navy has grown by the equivalent tonnage to that of the whole Royal Navy over the past five years.”
More was to come. “The current rickety Royal Navy has repeated problems in training and equipment,” Global Times jeered last December. “Does any rational military mind think this rust bucket fleet can threat China militarily?”
Indeed, across state education and historical site signage, the anti-British message is reinforced.
For example, the site of the Summer Palace – burned masonry, stone-dotted lawns, weed-choked ponds is a hugely popular tourist attraction. As a topic, it “constantly resurfaces in Chinese popular films, angry social media debates and furious rows about international art sales” of looted items, according to the BBC.
“In general, you could say almost all countries weaponize history,” said Lee, who mentioned Seoul’s endless disputes with Japan over its colonial depredations, and how the Afghan Taliban has used a history of resistance to foreign occupiers to its advantage.
“But I think in China, there is a qualitative difference,” Lee continued. “The degree of imbuing that national narrative into people’s psychology is much more severe in China, it is almost part of the way Chinese people see themselves. It is not just a national identity. it has become a personal identity issue.”
This may explain the many “history wars” raging between proud-but-highly-sensitive Chinese and other netizens on global platforms like YouTube.
“With China, the formerly colonized not only come out from under the boot of colonization, but became a powerful country,” said Michael Hurt, who teaches cultural theory at Korea National University of the Arts. “A country like China can push back against dominant narratives in the UK or US and say, ‘We are going to teach this – and fuck you!’”
Emotive media messaging connects old foes with the issues of the day and China’s current global rival, the US.
“Japan’s Unit 731 is still regularly mentioned in state media in the counter narrative to Covid-19, and that raises the issue of the Japan-US alliance,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security consultant and China specialist.
Moreover, media are “bundling together the UK with the US” in regard to a recent US freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, he said.
Much of this nationalistic pushback is visible in popular culture. Take the most successful Chinese cinematic genre in the wider world: kung fu film.
The genre’s first international hero, Bruce Lee, in his classic “Fist of Fury” battled evil Japanese, but in what was perhaps the film’s most iconic scene, smashes an English-language sign he encounters in a Shanghai Park: “No dogs or Chinese allowed.” Even today, the sequence remains one of the most powerful pieces of anti-colonial cinema.
His successor, Jackie Chan – who has announced his intention to join the CCP – has played an intrepid investigator who hunts down items looted from the Summer Palace.
A current hit film franchise based (very, very loosely) on Lee’s kung fu teacher, Yip Man, has featured a parade of foreign villains. The first in the series was a thuggish British boxer – aided and abetted by a corrupt British colonial cop.
And of course, the Ramboesque “Wolf Warrior” action movies – which feature US villains – have lent their name to assertive Chinese diplomacy.
Granted, this is hardly the entirety of Anglo-China relations. While political, security and diplomatic relations are tense, there are significant upsides in both trade and national image.
This May, China replaced Germany as the biggest exporter into the UK for the first time since records began: Chinese imports hit GDP16.9 billion ($24bn) in the first quarter of this year, while imports from German fell to GBP12.5 billion. The same data set found that for Q1 2021, the UK’s exports to China were up by 6.2% to GBP3.9 billion.
Overall, China was the UK’s third largest trading partner in the four quarters to the end of Q1 2021, accounting for 7.5% of total UK trade.
Moreover, many aspects of Brand Britannia – modern Brand Britannia, that is – are positive in China.
“The general population in China will have been affected by the [historical] narrative,” said Neill. “But admiration of British culture is still prevalent.”
He cited the multiple branches of British prep schools established in China and the high worth accorded British brands. And a $2 billion hotel/casino complex “The Londoner” is being built in Macau modelled on the Palace of Westminster – complete with Big Ben and double decker buses – and with football/fashion icon David Beckham engaged in the project.
There may even be an emerging shared space when it comes to historical remembrance.
East and West meet – and diverge
Currently, the Anglosphere’s politics, academia and popular discourse are being convulsed by a renewed focus on past national misdeeds and their legacies. These misdeeds are primarily conquest, slavery and colonialism; the legacies are racism and other injustices embedded within today’s multicultural societies.
Much of China’s victimhood narrative gels with the emerging conventional wisdom that the UK was a far worse colonial actor than has previously been admitted beyond the narrow circles of historians and history buffs.
That admission stems from a process that combined the empowerment of minorities with new research and communication tools.
“Certain histories have always been repressed, but now the Internet is giving tools to access all kinds of resources – previously this would have taken much more academic prowess,” said Hurt, an African-American. “The focus on people of color who do not have power is part of the overall trend, and not only are professional academics going in that direction, ordinary people are coming into contact with academic works and concepts.”
Ironically, though many CCP heads may enthusiastically nod at the outcome of any research that puts the boot into uber-Imperialist Britain, state information control means that no such process is likely to take root in China.
In another irony, there are good reasons for the CCP to nip any such process in the bud.
“China is looking very carefully at the US and Europe, particularly at how the anti-slavery movement is working, as the toppling of statues is a touchy subject,” Neill said. “In 1989 there was a statue of Lady Liberty erected in middle of Tiananmen Square.”
All this means that while CCP messaging attacks – with considerable justice – historical aggressors, gaping holes dot its domestic narrative.
When it comes to Mao’s disastrous policies which killed millions – notably the rushed industrialization of “The Great Leap Forward” (1958-62) and its attendant famine, and the “Cultural Revolution,” (1966-76) and its attendant violence and vandalism – there is radio silence.
Today’s CCP prefers to point to the hundreds of millions of citizens it has lifted out of poverty, and the mighty state infrastructure and industrial base that have been created, post-Mao.
More recent killings of pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square, not to mention ongoing crackdowns on the Uighar ethnic minority, are airbrushed out of the national story. Yet the CCP cannot control the narrative entirely.
Older Chinese who lived from the 1950s-‘70s personally experienced the depredations of those years.
“Anything negative about that period is glossed over, it is the elephant in the room for everyone of that generation,” said Neill. “How this is discussed privately among those Chinese is a great question.”
And even youthful Chinese are being exposed to Tiananmen Square.
Teaching visual sociology to Chinese students in Seoul, Hurt showed a selection of iconic news images – including the famed shot of a nameless protester halting a tank column in Tiananmen. A Chinese student questioned the veracity of the image, given that she, a graduate of an elite Beijing institution, had never seen it before.
“I said, ‘It is very real, I watched this live on TV, now this is one of the most famous pictures in the world, so you may want to think about why you have not seen this before,’” Hurt recalled. “She said, ‘Ah – OK.’ She got it.”