Anniversaries of battles and bloodshed offer chance for reflection: Lam Woon-kwong

Time to remember the fall of Tianjing, the battle of the Yellow Sea and the first world war

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 3:59am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 January, 2014, 3:59am

This year should be one for serious reflection.

It marks the 150th anniversary of the fall of Tianjing - now Nanjing - capital of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, effectively ending a 14-year civil war (1851-64) that nearly overthrew the Qing dynasty.

It was China's first grass-roots rebellion that adopted a totally foreign idea: the Taiping rebels were Christians who advocated the abolition of Confucianism. They destroyed temples and ancestral halls, and tried to turn China into a Christian state.

The civil war brought horrific consequences. More than 20 million soldiers and civilians died, and the richest provinces were ravaged - more than 600 cities were left in ruins.

The fact that the Manchu rulers had to rely on their Han generals to save their throne paved the way for local warlords to split the nation immediately after the 1911 revolution that ended the Qing dynasty.

This year also marks the 120th anniversary of the battle of the Yellow Sea. That was a major naval contest between the Qing empire's Beiyang Fleet, a modern navy built up during the 30-year self-strengthening movement, and the Imperial Japanese Navy, modernised under the Meiji restoration.

The outcome was catastrophic for the Qing court, which saw its entire Beiyang Fleet annihilated. Taiwan and its neighbouring islands were ceded to Japan - a direct cause of the present-day Sino-Japanese conflict over the Diaoyu Islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands - and the humiliation effectively ended the Manchus' mandate to govern.

Above all, 2014 will be remembered worldwide as the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war (1914-18), which brought unprecedented devastation to human lives and civilisation.

The four years of fighting led to nearly 40 million casualties, two-thirds of which were in the military, thus wiping out almost a generation of male youths in Europe.

The war brought down four major empires, with far-reaching consequences. The fall of the German empire created a power vacuum, later filled by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, aggressors of the next world war.

The fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire left behind a political mess in eastern Europe, the effect of which was still to be seen in the 1990s during the Yugoslav wars. The fall of the Ottoman empire led directly to the stand-off in the Middle East.

The fall of the Russian empire gave rise to the Bolshevik revolution, which subsequently affected the communist revolution in China and eventually led to the cold war.

In her brilliant new book on the war, Margaret MacMillan recounts how the European powers stumbled into a conflict that could have been avoided.

This year will also be an important one for Hong Kong. We are to decide on the implementation of universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017. It may also be a dangerous year for the world, if tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over the Diaoyus are not resolved amicably. We can only hope that our political leaders will reflect seriously on history, so peace and human progress may remain sustainable.

Lam Woon-kwong is convenor of the Executive Council