China's Two Distinct Centuries of Humiliation

  Previous  |  Next  

Tuesday March 18, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Anyone who has been in Asia for any length of time cannot avoid having heard China's oft-repeated canard of its "century of humiliation." It's an ironic canard that usually comes up to defend China's current hegemony. The century referred to, of course, is the 19th Century when foreign powers from the Opium Wars on up to the Boxer Rebellion pressured the weakening Manchu Qing government to open treaty ports and to allow them spheres of influence within major Qing cities. The irony increases when it is used to garner sympathy and it works until one begins to examine more closely the surrounding details. And here the anomalies begin.

In the 19th Century, China was a part of the Manchu empire, an empire, which also included Tibet, Mongolia, Xinjiang and even a portion of Taiwan. At that time a frequent cry of the Han Chinese was "Overthrow the (Manchu) Qing and restore the (Han) Ming." It was an understandable cry, the cry of a conquered people seeking independence, but lost in the utterance was a corresponding fact namely that different cries were being uttered at the same time in Tibet, Mongolia, Xinjiang etc. They too wanted to regain independence from the Manchus, but their own independence. As previously independent nations who were never part of the Ming, they would hardly want restoration of the Ming if that meant their falling under the Han Chinese.

More anomalies follow. Purposely ignored by Han proponents is a different humiliation, the painful humiliation that many Han leaders had eagerly switched sides to be part of the conquering Manchus. How could so few Manchus have otherwise conquered so many "loyal" Ming Han? Looking further between the lines of "overthrow the Qing, restore the Ming" is another twist. The oppressed Han in effect were saying we despise the Manchu because they conquered us and so embarrassed us; but we also feel humiliated because while other foreign nations in the 19th century are now taking advantage of the weakening Manchu kingdom, we still remain under their yoke.

The irony deepens when the Han 1911 revolution finally happened. That revolution for all practical purposes remained stillborn; it became an attempt at democracy that never really succeeded. It's true the 1911 revolution destroyed Qing rule, but a period of warlords and competing Leninist parties in a Civil War followed. Further, those squabbling Ming proponents decided that while they had overthrown the Manchu Qing, they still wanted to keep all the other lands that the Manchus had conquered, namely Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia. Those people were not allowed to regain their original freedom; instead they belonged under the Han yoke. Put another way, the Han ended their Manchu humiliation but they sought to continue the humiliation of the Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians. Only Outer Mongolia would escape because it had an ally in Russia.

Examined closely, the proposed "century of humiliation" in actuality now serves as a distraction to effectively cover up and mask China's 2nd century of humiliation, the Twentieth Century. What most do not want to admit to and/or face is that over a century has passed since Sun Yat-sen's wish for a "government of the people, by the people and for the people." That's 100 years and no progress has been made. True, there is a new government, but after a hundred years, China has only replaced an emperor with an oligarchy and landowners with business tycoons. China did emerge from a Confucian agriculture based society to now become the "factory of the world." But how deep is its progress?

Sixteen of the top twenty polluted cities in the world are in China; was that statistic true during the Qing era as well? Wealthy privileged landowners are gone; privileged business tycoons and their princeling sons supplant them. Progress? The oligarchy has proved it can move quickly both in Tiananmen Square and the Olympics but it still harbors the belief that transparency is not necessary. Its "benevolence" and care for progress should be taken for granted and trusted just like that of past emperors. If this is supposedly China's century, why then do snakeheads still exist? What is their flight saying?

The past 100 years of suffering in China have basically been China's doing; foreign powers cannot be blamed for the power struggles of wannabe emperors within. More was destroyed in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution than anything ever done to the Summer Palace by foreigners, who shoulders that humiliation? The great helmsman Mao? The destruction he wrought still cannot be faced because he supported the myth of the eternal return of the Middle Kingdom. Mao's great famine, don't talk too openly about that. That Mao is responsible for some 30 million Chinese deaths much more than the 10 to 20 million estimated of Chinese killed in the war with the hated Japanese; ignore that as well.

Can current corruption be rooted out by the fiat of the Politburo? Without transparency and rule of law there is little chance of that. Simple fiats will not change the inner soul of the people. Does anyone remember when Mao outlawed prostitution the "invention of the West?" How long was it eliminated for? Did Mao and those around him practice what they preached? The new century of humiliation continues right now in China. Sun Yat-sen is honored in the breach but his wishes are ignored; the people have no more say in replacing the oligarchy than they did in replacing an emperor. Is a new Dream of the Red Chamber being created?

China's neighbors are becoming more aware of is its hegemonic ambitions, so what does this mean for a democratic Taiwan? China's 19th century of humiliation is present here only in the minds of some Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) waishengren that recently fled here. The humiliation that Taiwanese need care about is how they recently had to suffer 40 years of White Terror and martial law under those same waishengren and that some of them still want to bring Taiwan under the "benevolent humiliation" of China's oligarchy. Think about it.