How China’s Past Made it What it is Today

How China’s Past Made it What it is Today

In an article for BBC News, Professor Rana Mitter shows five ways how China’s past has shaped the country into what it is today. The author’s premise is that in order to understand how China approaches such issues as internet censorship, trade or foreign policy, we must look into the country’s past. 

Key to understanding China today is looking into the past, and Mr. Mitter writes specifically about the country’s past in relation to trade, trouble with neighbors, information flow, freedom of religion and technology.

Concerning the issue of trade, Mr. Mitter writes, we must consider that there was a time that China was coerced into trade. Today, when the West asks China to open its markets, China is reminded of that part of its past.

At present, there’s a squabble between China and the US concerning whether China gets to sell its goods to the US, while its own markets are closed to products from the US. 

However, there was a time when China had little say concerning its own trade. After 1839, when the British fought China in the Opium Wars, the Imperial Maritime Customs Service controlled taxes on goods coming into China. Although officially part of the Chinese government, the customs service was a British institution controlled by a British official, the first of whom was Sir Robert Hart. He later became China’s inspector-general of Customs, and though he was an honest man who helped earn money for the country, the fact that the British controlled customs for over a century is still a sore point for China.

Six centuries ago, things were quite different. Under the Ming Dynasty,  Admiral Zheng He toured the world with seven magnificent fleets showing off China’s power in East Africa, South East Asia, and what is now Sri Lanka, for trade, and for bringing exotic new items back to China, such as a giraffe. Admiral Zheng fought battles when necessary, and once bested one of Ceylon’s kings. However, the admiral’s ocean trips are unusual in that they were backed by the Emperor, unlike most of trade done for centuries afterwards, which was unofficial.

When it comes to troubles with neighboring countries, Mr. Mitter writes that it has always been China’s policy to keep the peace with the nations at its borders, which is why China is very cautious when it comes to North Korea.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un recently made an unexpected visit to Beijing, but China’s troubles with neighboring invaders are recorded as early as 1172, when the Jurchen, a group of people from the north, suddenly came into the scene, causing the nobility at that time to scatter across the country. This happened after a lengthy and awkward alliance between the Jurchen and the ruling Song Dynasty. The Jin Dynasty replaced the Songs, who ended up ruling in the south, but eventually the Mongols overpowered both the Songs and the Jins.

Both the neighboring Mongols and the Manchus invaded and conquered China, but used the exact ideas and principles that the Chinese themselves lived by. Yes, China’s neighbors have been sometimes crossed their borders and taken over, but they, as Mr. Mitter writes, “embraced and exercised Chinese values just as effectively as the people from whom they took them.”

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With regards to internet censorship of material that is politically sensitive, in China today people who speak up are in danger of getting arrested, or perhaps, even worse. This is one of China’s age-old problems, as the people who have written China’s history more often than not, were led to write what they thought the government wanted to hear.

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However, Sima Qian, the “grand historian” of China, was quite different. He wrote, in the 1st Century BC,  in defense of a general who was bested in battle. The emperor felt snubbed by this, and as punishment, Sima Quian was castrated. However, his legacy is very important indeed.

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His book, Records of the Grand Historian, painted a less than rosy picture of historical figures, utilized oral storytelling to determine actual occurrences, and indeed used various sources. This opened the way for other writes to later provide more accurate historical accounts, instead of self-censorship, provided they were willing to take this risk.

In China today, religion is more tolerated than in the days of the Cultural Revolution of Chairman Mao, although historically speaking, experiences in the past make China wary of movements based on faith that might possibly grow exponentially and therefore threaten the government. 

China has historically been relatively open to religion. Empress Wu Zetian of the the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century welcomed Buddhism  to counter the rigidity of Confucianism. During the Ming Dynasty, the court opened its doors to Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit, showing a interest in the western science that he brought.

But other events in China’s history have shown the danger of religious movements. A man named Hong Xiuquan, who claimed to be the brother of Jesus, started a rebellion in the late 19th century. During the Taiping rebellion of 1864, some 20 million people were killed in a bloody civil war that had its roots in the promise of bringing divine peace to the country. 

In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion started, with peasants putting to death Christian converts and missionaries, whom they deemed traitors to the nation.

From then until today, China has had to walk a fine line between religious tolerance and the threat that religion may be a threat to the government. 

And finally, technology. It is one of modern China’s goals to become a global technological hub. It is now one of the world’s most advanced countries in the area of big data, voice recognition and artificial intelligence (AI).

Millions of people all over the world have chips made in China in their smartphones. The majority of those who work in the factories that produce these chips are women. And though they are exposed to unimaginable working conditions at times, they are also finding their niche in the industrial market economy.

This harks back to a century ago, when women began to work in factories in the Yangtze delta and in Shanghai, to make cotton and silk threads. Work was taxing and dormitory conditions spare, but the women received salaries for the first time, and began to enjoy a degree of independence. 

Mr. Mitter concludes his article noting how China has transformed in a short span of 25 years into the second largest global economy, yet at the same time, is “the most important country to push back against what had seemed like an inevitable tide of democratization.” Future historians are sure to be fascinated with the different aspects of China’s rapid development, and where the nation is headed is yet unknown.


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