What does China’s trade war with the United States have to do with the Boxer rebellion a century ago?

  • State news agency commentary lauds failed uprising but online commenters are quick to counter
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 11:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2018, 2:43pm

A Chinese state media “rallying cry” in support of a failed uprising against “foreign aggression” more than a century ago fell flat online, with many internet commenters ridiculing the official narrative.

In a commentary on Tuesday night, Xinhua lauded the 1900 Boxer rebellion as a key element in the “anti-imperialist patriotic movement in China’s modern history”, saying it “showed the determination of the Chinese people to unite to resist foreign aggression”.

The Boxers, practitioners of martial arts and known as yihetuan in Chinese, spearheaded an uprising against the Japanese and Western powers in northern China, killing missionaries and Chinese Christians and destroying property deemed to be Western.

They believed they could withstand bullets and were supported by the Qing government but were defeated by a coalition of eight foreign powers.

The commentary’s description of the Boxer movement is in line with the narrative taught in the Chinese education system, where high school history textbooks frame the rebellion as “a brave battle with the aggressor” and an attempt to “prevent a plot by foreign powers to divide China”.

The commentary did not appear to be tied to any anniversary and it was not clear what prompted it.

But a historian said the article seemed to be an attempt to rally patriotism as the country grapples with slowing economic growth and a trade war with the United States.

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However, a flood of commenters were quick to criticise the official line.

“Come on, it’s already the 21st century. We already know that you cannot win a battle when enemies are armed with guns and you only have bare hands. We know the Boxers’ black magic does not work. The key for China’s development is still about technological advancement,” one commenter said.

Another WeChat user said: “The true way to love China is to learn the best from the West and make China better, not by pouring dog’s blood all over yourself and believing that you will be become bulletproof.”

Liu Siyao, a prominent historian online, said the Boxers did not have a positive reputation among internet users, with the movement “often associated with blind opposition to everything foreign, ignorance and arrogance”.

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Jilin University finance professor Li Xiao said the Boxers’ way of thinking remained an influence today, as commentators urged the country to strike back in the trade war with the United States “at all costs”.

“In today’s era of economic globalisation, in an era of economic development and deepening reforms, what do they meant by ‘at all costs’? Should we return to the era before the reform and opening up?” Li said.

“Shall we, the Chinese people recognise the huge gap between China and the United States with a cool head and continue to learn from the United States with humility, or stick to the anti-American path of populism, like the Boxers?”

Nanjing University deputy research fellow Li Yuehua said Boxer-like sentiment surfaced in some domestic media at the start of the trade war, with calls for the country to fight an epic battle.

“But after the ZTE incident, they were muted,” he said, referring to the Chinese telecommunications giant that was almost brought to its knees by US threats to cut off access to some technology.