There’s nothing like a full-blown academic controversy to expose the blinkered self-absorption of much contemporary scholarly debate.
In September, former Hong Kong-based journalist Bruce Gilley, now an associate professor of political science at Portland State University in Oregon, dared to publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal suggesting that Western colonialism may not always and everywhere have been an entirely bad thing, and that its history may hold important lessons for developing countries today.
The firestorm of criticism was excoriating. Gilley was accused of everything from historical revisionism to Trumpism. He was charged with violating the principles of free speech and with “further brutalising those who have suffered under colonialism”.
One rebuttal began simply: “A white racist scholar … has published an article with the title The Case For Colonialism.” It went on to equate Gilley’s essay with Nazism and genocide.
Half the journal’s editorial board resigned in protest and the editor retracted the paper after receiving “serious and credible threats of personal violence”.
It is fair to say that Gilley’s article is deeply flawed. But so are those advanced by even the more sober-minded of his critics. And both are equally guilty of ignoring the topic that should be at the centre of any contemporary debate about imperialism.
Gilley’s assertion that Western imperialism was not wholly bad should hardly be controversial. Even many of the staunchest independence campaigners – Mohandas Gandhi in India for example – acknowledged the merits of the education they received from their imperial masters.
But his claim that the “civilising mission” of Western countries “led to improvements in living conditions for most Third World peoples during most episodes of Western colonialism” is highly debatable. Tell that to the indigenous populations of the new world devastated by smallpox and syphilis introduced from Europe, the North American tribes displaced by incoming colonists, or the Herero and Nama peoples of South West Africa all but exterminated by their imperial overlords.
And his contention that “European colonialism appears to have been highly legitimate” is absurd. It was legitimate as far as most – although not all – of the imperial rulers were concerned. The ruled were never consulted, but many – although not all – clearly considered it illegitimate, as demonstrated by frequent armed uprisings throughout the history of imperialism.
Finally, Gilley’s argument that Hong Kong provides a shining example of the good qualities of colonial governance is hardly new. But his suggestion that the territory could provide a template for “creating new Western colonies from scratch” in Africa is simply a non-starter. The West has no appetite for any such enterprise. Nor does Africa.
But if Gilley’s arguments are flawed, those of his opponents are intellectually feeble. Some attack Gilley’s article as offensive, insisting it should never have been published, especially in an academic journal that should be “an intellectual venue for anti-colonial thought”.
Typically his detractors are outraged that anyone should have broken ranks with the prevailing academic orthodoxy. Unfortunately, to an outside observer, their criticisms simply expose the dishonesty and intellectual poverty of that orthodoxy.
For example, one academic rejects Gilley’s arguments on the grounds that “empirical research clearly provides the facts to prove colonialism inflicted grave political, psychological and economic harms on the colonised”.
Empirical research does nothing of the kind. It has no way to measure political or psychological harm. And the economic data for the imperial possessions of past centuries is far too sparse to allow any pretence of empirical analysis. This is nothing but a naked attempt to misappropriate the language of rigorous natural scientific inquiry to lend a spurious cloak of legitimacy to what is often little more than anecdote and opinion.
But the real problem of both Gilley’s essay and the spate of rebuttals that followed its publication is that they ignore the increasingly obvious reality that imperialism is not solely a phenomenon of the past, as they assume. It is very plainly ascendant in the 21st century.
Admittedly, the imperial project of the “Washington Consensus” to impose Western economic systems on much of the developing world via the International Monetary Fund and World Bank has been in retreat for the past 10 years. And the US imperial enterprise in Iraq was an expensive failure.
But the European Union – at heart an attempt to recreate the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne – continues to advance, despite the hiccup of Brexit. And the drive by Western economies to impose unwanted systems of governance on developing countries by tying aid to onerous and often impossible conditions of compliance is as strong as ever.
Above all, however, there is the emergence in recent years of China as an increasingly expansionary neo-imperialist power. China, of course, has always been an empire. But these days it is actively expanding its influence. The Belt and Road Initiative of president Xi Jinping is simultaneously an attempt to spread Beijing’s political influence across the world and an effort to secure markets for China’s exports and for the capital surpluses those exports create.
In other words, China today is doing pretty much what the serried ranks of anti-colonialist academics in the West so ardently condemn the European powers for doing in the 19th century.
The similarities are growing more apparent by the day. In Pakistan, for example, politicians are increasingly critical of the exploitative nature of the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which obliges Islamabad to borrow heavily from China to fund Chinese state companies to buy Chinese materials to build infrastructure that mostly benefits China, while loading Pakistan with debts that threaten to crush local economic activity.
And as China funds ever more projects in foreign countries, it will find itself ever more closely dragged into their internal affairs, and increasingly the arbiter of their domestic politics.
That much should have been evident to everyone last month, when Beijing gave the nod to the military coup in Zimbabwe, where China is the biggest investor.
In short, China is treading a well-worn imperial path. But it seems both the apologists for imperialism and its critics are too busy bickering over their differing interpretations of history to notice what is going on right in front of their noses in the world today. ■
Tom Holland is a former SCMP staffer, who has been writing about Asian affairs for more than 20 years