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Big deal

The Treaty of Nanking was signed 170 years ago and, although its anniversary won't be marked by many, its legacy remains highly charged in the post-colonial era. Stuart Heaver reports

 

                                    

 

 

 

The 170th anniversary of the treaty that ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain and set it on a very different path to that of the rest of China falls on Wednesday.

In the year that Hong Kong celebrates the 15th anniversary of its reunification with the motherland, you might think few residents would take any notice, given that it was so long ago.

The Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842 to mark the end of the first Anglo-Chinese opium war, may inspire a glimmer of interest in a few diehard reactionary expatriates propping up the bars of the city's more traditional private clubs, you might think, but not with anyone else.

Well, you'd be wrong.

Phoebe Tang is a 23-year-old history student at the University of Hong Kong. She was born and raised in Hong Kong and she and two friends took part in the mass rally held on July 29 against the government's plans to introduce national education.

"THE TREATY IS VERY IMPORTANT because it set Hong Kong on its path to becoming this great city," says Tang, in a sweltering Victoria Park, during the rally. She would like to see the treaty commemorated with exhibitions across the city but admits few of her contemporaries would be marking the anniversary. "People are generally not aware of this anniversary but they are aware that we got a lot from the British period, even if we don't actively commemorate it," she says.

Few would want to return to British colonial rule, she says, even if that were possible, but "there has been a surge of increasingly positive views of the British role among young people following the economic downturn and greater police repression".

Fluttering above the thousands of umbrellas held aloft as shelter against the intense afternoon sun are distinctive blue flags bearing the familiar lion and dragon emblem.

What on Earth are colonial-era flags doing at a protest about education policy in modern Hong Kong? It is even more puzzling when you note that the protesters appear to be under the age of 40 and many are parents with young children in strollers. Surely, nobody cares about the colonialists or their influence in the region any more.

"Oh China cares," replies Tang, with a knowing smile.

In Beijing, the Treaty of Nanking is still resented deeply by the Communist Party as an unequal agreement that marked the start of the nation's "century of shame". Instead of being a footnote in the history books, the treaty and its legacy have become so loaded with nationalist and political baggage that many in official positions seem to prefer not to talk about it.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department will say only that there is a full account in the Museum of History and that no special events and exhibitions are planned. No less than five Chinese University history professors were approached for this article.

Only one would comment.

"It is a very difficult question that you ask ?a very sensitive question," says Professor Ho Pui-yin, after having laughed about the reticence of the others. "Hong Kong and its identity are still closely related to the events of the 1840s."

Another academic who is prepared to offer a view is John Carroll, professor of history at HKU and author of A Concise History of Hong Kong. "The [treaty and the] story of the opium wars are part of the founding myth of the People's Republic of China," he says.

According to Carroll, the legitimacy of the Communist Party is founded on its role as the defender of the Chinese people against foreign imperialist aggression.

"The CCP has always seen itself as having ended foreign privilege in China and with it the century of shame.

"With China changing so quickly now, the CCP needs to hold on more than ever to its claim of having ended imperialism," he says, explaining why the treaty and events surrounding it remain such a touchy subject. "It uses the [opium] war to try and foster patriotism."

Some historians have suggested that the end of colonial Hong Kong threatened the party's legitimacy because it was no longer the vanguard in the struggle against imperialism and oppression. That job is done; now it is reliant on delivering tangible economic prosperity.

So how should patriotic Hongkongers commemorate the treaty in modern, reunified Hong Kong? Should we calmly acknowledge the quirk of history that meant this small corner of China developed a character of its own and celebrate the difference? Or should we solemnly commemorate the bloodshed caused by an imperial aggressor who forced an unequal treaty on the Qing dynasty and started a century and a half of colonial oppression?

"I think it's safe to say that Hong Kong people could see the treaty in both ways," says Carroll.

The Treaty of Nanking (or at least a copy if it, displayed in a glass cabinet - the original is in the National Archives Office in London) is presented in both ways at the Museum of History, in Tsim Sha Tsui. The curators have steered a path through any political controversy with skill and diplomacy. The museum explains that the treaty itself contains 13 articles in all but it is section three that declares "the island of Hong Kong to be possessed in perpetuity by Her Britannic Majesty, her Heirs and Successors".

Perhaps in the pursuit of balance, the cabinet containing the treaty is sandwiched between a memorial stone column dedicated to Lord Napier, Britain's first superintendent of trade in China, and an imposing statue of Commissioner Lin Zexu. Lin was the incorruptible official who implemented a ban on the illegal opium trade and is now revered as a hero of the conflict and China's (and possibly the world's) first drugs tsar.

"The main point, I suppose, is that because Hong Kong is now part of the PRC, the museum must come up with a history that works for Hong Kong and the PRC.

It's not an easy thing to do," says Carroll.

The museum refers to the Treaty of Nanking as a "watershed" and that's about as far as it is prepared to venture in terms of the legacy. There is no examination of the trade in illegal narcotics that funded the new colony, the racial discrimination in early colonial Hong Kong, the lack of Chinese representation or the social costs of opium addiction.

"If you say bad things about the British or colonial government then it becomes easy to say bad things about SAR and PRC governments. It's much easier for them just not to be critical at all," says Carroll.

A short ferry trip north up the Pearl River to Humen, in Guangdong province, takes you to the impressive Sea Battle Museum, built in the 1990s. The contrast in historical style with our Museum of History could not be starker. Here there is clear evidence of the party using the opium war to foster patriotic fervour.

According to the official guidebook, the museum "combines commemoration, education and recreation into one, is an important part of the base of Humen Fortress patriotism education [sic]".

On entering the building, which rises like a space-age cathedral in a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, the preface - written in Chinese and English - reads: "The British colonialists directed their aggressive target to China, attempting to open the door of China by contemptible means of armed invasion and opium smuggling ?The conspiracy of the British bourgeoisie was smashed by Chinese success in banning opium."

And there are several references to Hong Kong, including a special exhibit dedicated to the reunification titled: "The handing back of Hong Kong avenges the 100-year insult at China."

In the "Anti-British fighting of the Chinese people" section of the museum, there is a life-size Madame Tussauds-style reconstruction of the Battle of Humen featuring a Chinese soldier in a blood-stained singlet kneeling on a prostrate British invader, throttling him with his left hand while his right is raised, about to land a violent blow for national pride.

The museum seems popular and on this visit there is a squad of smart People's Liberation Army recruits energetically marching up and down the promenade outside the exhibition halls with a huge red national flag being waved before them.

As the guidebook makes clear, this is not just history, this is patriotism (or patriotic) education - and taking a dim view of the British role in the opium wars is an important component of it.

In Julia Lovell's highly acclaimed book Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China, she argues that the party invented patriotic education in the crisis following 1989's Tiananmen Square crackdown to bring young people into line. Quite miraculously, patriotic education embraced the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the opium war, in 1839, to convince the shocked population that the party was still the country's saviour from evil imperialist plots and claim that it was the West that had organised the ill-fated student demonstrations that summer.

"The opium wars birthday extravaganza was the start of one of the Communist Party's most successful post- Mao ideological campaigns: patriotic education," writes Lovell. In 1994, the People's Daily described patriotic education as a crusade designed "to boost the nation's sprit, enhance its cohesion, foster its self-esteem and sense of pride".

This education includes talking up the achievements of Chinese, stirring films, feel-good sing-songs, compiling lists of heroes and, of course, endless references to the century of humiliation inflicted by foreign imperialism.

So, is the national education proposed for Hong Kong - curriculums are set to become compulsory at primary level in 2015 and in secondary schools a year later - an amended version of the system that has proved so successful for Beijing on the mainland? The question returns us to baking hot Victoria Park.

"There is not a huge difference between the two," says Tang, as she and her friends shuffle forward with the crowd, edging towards the government offices in Admiralty, "although I have not yet seen any anti- Western content in the national education curriculum," she admits.

"People in the United States are not taught to love the Democratic Party and children in England are not taught to love the queen," says Tang. "And they are certainly not assessed on it."

Just a short distance from Tang, a young man is waving a lion and dragon flag. The symbol has been adopted by the Hong Kong City-State Autonomy Movement, which is out in force.

"We don't want British rule again but we want to return to those glorious days," says Mason Ma Yi, a mathematics teacher in a local government school, of the group's choice of flag.

So will his group be commemorating the Treaty of Nanking?

"I didn't know about the anniversary," he says, "but I do know Hong Kong was founded by the British and not by China."

What is his objection to a little Chinese culture and history being incorporated in the school curriculum now that the British are long gone?

"The Cultural Revolution killed most of the culture in China. Only in Hong Kong and in Taiwan can you still see Chinese culture," says Ma. "I don't need a lecture from the Communist Party in how to be Chinese. I am Chinese," he adds defiantly.

The Education Bureau website offers some fascinating teaching resources to assist staff grappling with the demands of the national education initiative. These include, "Web resources of Chinese folk songs", "Military summer camp for Hong Kong youth", "National flag raising in school and understanding of the national anthem" and, of course, "Celebration of reunification and an understanding of the national situation in China".

It is hard not to recall the passage from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four that states "he who controls the past controls the future and he who controls the present controls the past".

The treaty as represented by the lion and the dragon and adopted by Ma and his colleagues now symbolises the battle for control of the past and perhaps also signifies the identity crisis suffered by young people in reunified Hong Kong.

"That's the problem we have. We don't really have an identity but our love for Hong Kong can be reflected in our protests," says Tang, as the huge crowd engages in enthusiastic chanting.

The youngest member of the Autonomy Movement at the national education protest is 13-year-old schoolboy Conn Lee. He is proudly waving his flag and his glasses mist over with the effort in such intense heat.

"I want to be a Hongkonger before I am Chinese," he says.

So while the Treaty of Nanking is at the centre of the patriotic education campaign in the post-Tiananmen mainland, it has become a symbol of opposition to what objectors see as the cheap hybrid version of patriotic education about to be introduced in Hong Kong.

Perhaps the treaty's lasting legacy is that it leaves many people of Hong Kong with an identity crisis they are struggling to resolve and a sense of pride in their distinctiveness, which they fear isn't being respected by Beijing.

Either way, with those blue colonial-style flags being waved energetically by demonstrators at mass rallies, the treaty appears to be leaping out of the margins of the history books and onto the front pages of news media.

Maybe Professor Carroll should have the last word on how best to commemorate a historical event now weighed down with so much political and emotional baggage that it dominates the relationship between Hong Kong and the rest of China.

"Do we need to commemorate it at all?" he asks. "It's maybe not the answer you might expect from a historian but I guess the real question is how we decide what to commemorate, and why?" In a Hong Kong where many young people are struggling to define their post-colonial identity, where Beijing is trying to redefine its authority and where the Education Bureau seems determined to introduce a controversial programme of national education, those might be the most important questions of all.

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF WAR

The Treaty of Nanking, signed on board British ship HMS Cornwallis on August 29, 1842, ended the first opium war (1839-1842). The war was fought between the British empire and Qing-dynasty China, in a dispute rooted in trade, diplomacy and drugs.

The hostilities were painfully one-sided; ancient weaponry, poor communications and under-equipped soldiers proved no match for battle-hardened British forces fighting with the best technology of the day. The treaty is regarded by the Chinese as an unequal agreement forced on it by the British, who were determined to open China to free trade. The war was not universally supported in Britain, either.

The treaty contained 13 sections, including the designation of five new treaty ports and the payment of considerable reparations to Britain. It was section three that ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain, although the island had been a de facto possession of the British since January 1841, when HMS Sulphur landed troops at Possession Point, now a charming park at the end of Hollywood Road.

With neither side content with the outcome of the treaty, increasing friction resulted in the second opium war (1856-1860).

 

CLASH OF CIVILISATIONS

Debates about the rise of the modern West (and the corresponding decline of the East) remain a fertile source of historical polemic. Such oppositional historiography - the idea of a head-on clash of civilisations, with a clear winner and loser - seems to hold a perennial appeal in terms of both its simplicity and its drama of antagonism. Last year, historian Niall Ferguson - in his book titled Civilisation: The West and the Rest - brought the subject back into sharp media focus. "The rise of the West," he argued, "is the pre-eminent historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ. It is the story at the very heart of modern history. It is perhaps the most challenging riddle historians have to solve."

The old school contended that somewhere in the early modern period a progressive and free-trading Europe surged ahead through innate superiority of character and government, while ancient superpowers such as China turned complacently in on themselves. A newer, post-colonial school places the "great divergence" rather later, arguing that until 1800, the Chinese empire largely kept up with Britain, the most prosperous of the European economies. Early in the 19th century, however, Britain began to nose ahead, through sheer good fortune. Easy access to coal and Caribbean sugar fuelled the steam-power and workforces of the industrial revolution. New World calories, timber and silver (paying for tea, coffee, textiles) in turn liberated millions of European arable acres for other productive purposes, permitting the industrial revolution to generate firepower that, by the 1840s, was trouncing the great non-European conquest empires.

In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra turns his attention to the other side of the story: to attempts by Asian thinkers (in Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Turkey) to rebuild their cultural and political identities after collisions with the imperialist West. His account begins in the first half of the 19th century, with the West already approaching ascendancy in East Asia, India and the Muslim world. It spans Asia's steady disillusionment with Western modernity through two world wars, then ends with the rise of China, India and global Islam, and the much-rumoured decline of the West. Too often, Mishra has argued elsewhere, these non-Western voices have been mute in Anglophone accounts of the East-West clash, as if intellectual dynamism and creativity had lain solely with the modern West. Asian state-builders such as Sun Yat-sen are mocked (or ignored) for their jarring juxtaposition of admiration for the West with passionate, anti-colonial patriotism. Successful Asian leaders tend to be seen as relevant only to their immediate contexts: men such as Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Minh viewed as cunning military strategists rather than as political thinkers with bigger ideas that might traverse regions and eras. Moreover, Mishra has no time at all for big, broad-brush accounts of Western success contrasted with Eastern hopelessness. Instead, he is preoccupied by the tragic moral ambivalence of his tale. There is no triumphal sense of "Eastern revenge" against the 19th century's "white disaster", but rather one of self-doubt, inconsistency and virtuous intentions gone badly wrong.

Mishra sets the scene for Western hegemony with Napoleon's 1799 invasion of Egypt, then moves swiftly through the "slow battering of India and China" with trade wars and opium. Europe's dramatic scramble for control of the non-Western world prompted 19th-century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville to wonder at how "a few million men, who a few centuries ago, lived nearly shelterless in the forests and in the marshes of Europe will, within a hundred years, have transformed the globe and dominated the other races".

The trauma of this collision exposed some of Asia's most educated, thoughtful men - Persia's Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China's Liang Qichao, India's Rabindranath Tagore - to an unprecedented crisis of intellectual, moral and spiritual confidence. This was a conquest "which left its victims resentful but also envious of their conquerors and, ultimately, eager to be initiated into the mysteries of their seemingly near-magical power". From the Ruins of Empire gives eloquent voice to their curious, complex intellectual odysseys as they struggled to respond to the Western challenge. All were forced to look far beyond home-grown traditions: Liang attacked Chinese antiquity as an internal cancer and wrote paeans to Washington and Napoleon; al-Afghani was one of the first Muslim thinkers to realise "history was working independently of the God of the Koran"; Tagore became internationally renowned for his English-language poetry (he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1913).

Yet all three of them, in turn, were disappointed by "Western civilisation" and turned back to native resources. Al-Afghani reinvented himself as a religious zealot to forge a potent blend of nationalism and pan-Islamism, advocating violent struggle against the West. To the end, however, he remained capable of searing criticism of fellow Muslims and conscious of the perils of Asian tyranny and fanaticism: "The entire oriental world," he once said, "is so entirely rotten and incapable of hearing the truth … that I should wish for a flood or an earthquake to devour and bury it."

Buried in an unmarked grave in 1897, he was reclaimed as a great Muslim patriot by Iranians and Afghans after the second world war.

Liang's youthful worship of the West's parliaments and newspapers faded in middle age into melancholy observation of the "gratuitous Western vandalism" that climaxed (in his own lifetime) in the first world war.

Tagore, who developed a tendency towards Eastern mysticism in later years, was at the same time well-attuned to feelings of colonial humiliation; in 1919, he relinquished his British knight-hood in protest at the imperial ad-ministration's massacre of protesters in north India.

Luminous details glimmer through these swaths of political and military history: the Indian villagers who named their babies after Japanese admirals on hearing of Japan's epochal defeat of Russia in 1905; the curious history of the fez, a deliberately reformist piece of headgear that became an international symbol of Muslim identity; the touching naivety of Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, so convinced that American president Woodrow Wilson would make time to meet him in Paris in 1919 that he hired a morning suit for an encounter that never happened; Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru's Anglophone father, rumoured to have sent his shirts for dry-cleaning in Europe.

There are shocking reminders of the double-dealing hypocrisy of the great powers during the first world war and at the Versailles peace conference: the squalid secret treaties agreed between Britain, France, Japan and Italy; the exclusion of many non-European peoples from the conference; the racist jokes openly cracked by the Australian and British prime ministers. The betrayal of racial equality at Versailles opened the door to an Asian move towards communism.

The book concludes by tracing the painful legacies of Asia's responses to the West: Japan's near-genocidal pan-Asian revenge for earlier imperial slights; Maoism's disastrous pursuit of a post-imperial modernity; the violent anti-Westernism of global Islam. Despite widespread Western admiration for the contemporary Asian miracle, Mishra sees in China a country in which some "stand up, while most others are forced to stand down, and the privileged Chinese minority aspire for nothing higher than the conveniences and gadgets of their Western consumer counterparts". He hails India as a democracy in which "numbers of the disenchanted and the frustrated" are growing, along with a huge sense of hopelessness among landless peasants. And to those who read China's and India's embrace of capitalism as a comforting sign of their reconciliation with Western ways, he offers a warning. Environmental apocalypse, he anticipates, will be the final consequence of these centuries-old collisions between Europe, America and Asia: "the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic". Guardian News & Media

 

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