China: Using history as a mirror

December 31, 2018 14:17
President Xi Jinping has pledged that China will work with others “to build a lasting peace, common security and common prosperity”.  But China must first win the trust of other countries.  Photo: AFP

For more than a thousand years, the Chinese have used history as a mirror so as to learn lessons and not to repeat mistakes and have urged other countries to do the same thing. In that spirit, it may be appropriate to look back at China’s history over the last century.

A hundred years ago, China experienced the May Fourth Movement of 1919, during which students protested against decisions made at the Versailles peace conference, which brought an end to World War I.

China was on the side of the Allies, having contributed 140,000 laborers. However, at Versailles, Britain, France, the United States and Italy agreed that Germany’s concessions in Shantung, instead of being returned to China, would be transferred to Japan.

Thousands of angry students gathered in Tiananmen Square. The initially orderly protests turned violent and several officials were beaten up and their homes burned down. 

These events morphed into the new culture movement that saw intellectuals and students calling for the jettisoning of “Mr. Confucius” in favor of “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy”.

Amid the intellectual ferment, the Communist Party of China was born in 1921. The party promised democratic rule if it gained power.

In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established. It created a monopoly on power and got rid of the legal profession and the independent judiciary.

In 1959, New China marked its first decade by unveiling the 10 Great Constructions in Beijing, including the Great Hall of the People and the Beijing Railway Station.

Largely unknown to the outside world at the time, 1959 also marked the first year of the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961), in which tens of millions of people starved to death owing to the mistaken policies of the misnamed Great Leap Forward launched by the Communist party.

Also in 1959, an uprising in Tibet was crushed and the Dalai Lama began his long exile in India.

The year 1969 stands out as marking military conflict with the Soviet Union at the height of the Sino-Soviet split. This paved the way for a rapprochement with the United States in the 1970s, with President Richard Nixon visiting mainland China in 1972.

In 1979, China and the US formally established diplomatic relations. That year also marked the beginning of China’s “reform and opening up” drive, which resulted in rapid economic development for four decades.

In spring 1989, there was a mass protest movement in Tiananmen Square as demonstrators protested against corruption and called for democracy. Troops put down the uprising, which resulted in a major downturn in the US-China relationship as western countries imposed sanctions on China. Domestically, however, China’s economic reforms continued with stock markets opening in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

China’s relations with Taiwan took a nosedive in 1999 when Lee Teng-hui, the island’s first popularly elected president, said in an interview that relations between Taiwan and the mainland were “state-to-state relations” or at least “special state-to-state relations” rather than relations between two parts of one state. Beijing cut off dialogue with Taiwan for nine years, until Ma Ying-jeou became president.

Ten years ago, in 2009, Beijing’s integration into the global economy was apparent when the financial crisis in the west resulted in the laying off of 20 million migrant workers in China. Meanwhile, China made its largest investment in a foreign company, with Chinalco investing US$19.5 billion in Rio Tinto in an attempt to secure supplies of metals and minerals for the growing Chinese economy. That year, a new gas pipeline was opened linking China and Turkmenistan in another step to ensure resource security.

What will 2019 and the coming decade bring to China and the world?

Last month, President Xi Jinping pledged that China would work with others “to build a lasting peace, common security and common prosperity”.

This will not be easy. China first will have to win the trust of other countries. Given its track record both at home and abroad, this will require patience and hard work.

Domestically, the forced incarceration of Muslim Uighurs and the crackdown on religion as well as on human rights lawyers and activists have put it in poor odor with the civilized world.

Externally, the world will remember the way it bullied South Korea over the latter’s installation of the THAAD anti-missile system. China has arrested two Canadian citizens and appears to be holding them as hostages after the arrest in Vancouver of a Huawei executive as a result of a US extradition request.

These actions render hollow repeated Chinese promises of supporting international rule of law.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.