The Union Jack is lowered minutes before midnight on June 30, 1997, during the Hong Kong handover ceremony. Photo: Robert Ng

ReviewBook review: Out of China – from Shanghai to Hong Kong’s handover, an incisive analysis of West’s meddling

Once a schoolboy in Hong Kong, historian Robert Bickers sheds light on Chinese nationalism and the roots of its ‘rage’ in a work that ranges across politics, classical art and popular culture in a conversational tone

Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination

by Robert Bickers

Allen Lane

Bickers’ book is incisive and matter-of-fact.
Western commentators regularly complain that China doesn’t always seem committed to “international norms”. Robert Bickers’ new book, Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination, helps explain why: “international norms” were used for a century to justify encroachments on Chinese sovereignty.

This story is hardly unknown, of course, and it’s worth asking why it bears repeating. One reason, perhaps, is just because out of sight leads to out of mind. Another reason might be that when accounts of foreign interference are limited, as they can be, to the opium wars and some bad behaviour in the concessions in Shanghai, it is easier to hold that these relatively isolated incidents are so far in the past that they should not have any bearing on relations today.

“The era when China was subject to foreign invasion … has been over for seventy years. Is it not simply history, done and dusted with now?” asks Bickers, entirely rhetorically, in his introduction.

Bickers’ 400 pages paint a picture of almost universal and continual disingenuousness and obliviousness by Western powers and individuals; it might be deadening if he were not such a talented writer. Bickers doesn’t even start his account until 1918 – well after the opium wars, the burning of the Summer Palace and the Boxer reparations – with the end of the first world war, a year when a modern China had considerable reason to believe that it would join the community of nations as an equal; but realpolitik reigned at Versailles and the Chinese were sold out to the Japanese.

Bickers covers everything from politics and war to classical art and popular culture, Shanghai to Chongqing, Hong Kong and Shamian Island, extraterritoriality to the “yellow peril” and runs up to the late 1997 handover of Hong Kong. None of this would have the effect it has were it not for the quality of prose.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: AFP
The tone is conversational; rigour is conveyed with simple words. Bickers has an innate sense of rhythm. The pages of events, names, descriptions and explanations roll along, the commentary all the more trenchant for being stated matter-of-factly.

While the British and Americans take centre stage for the most part, other (European) countries are covered in some detail as well. Bickers in particular devotes not inconsiderable space to the Soviet presence in China after the establishment of the PRC, drawing parallels to previous “foreign experts” and extraterritoriality until the Soviets were themselves ejected some years later. Although Bickers discusses Japan, the country seems not to be quite the point of the book.

The China dream is grounded in this story of an unrelenting Chinese nightmare. We need to acknowledge that
Robert Bickers

China’s own multiple failings in this period apart, it is hard to read Out of China as a Caucasian and not end up embarrassed. As salutary as that reaction may be, it is not in fact Bickers’ objective, or at least not his primary one.

“Nationalism matters in China,” he writes in the introduction, “and what matters in China matters to us all.” He is as concerned about the uses to which China puts the narrative, or their version of it, which Bickers calls “partial, self-serving and incendiary”.

Bickers notes a new nationalism characterised by anger. “Being effectively equipped with the facts might help us understand the roots of that rage.”

When mentioning Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2012 promise of a “China dream”, Bickers writes that “the China dream is grounded in this story of an unrelenting Chinese nightmare. We need to acknowledge that, and understand it, but we do not need to believe it.”

Asian Review of Books