Waiting at the London City Airport for a flight to Reykjavik, I was watching, on my iPad, The Last Emperor, a biopic on Puyi – from his ascent to the Chinese throne as an infant, to his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Communists. A middle-aged Chinese sitting next to me, I noticed, resembled the film’s emperor – the same form and stature, the same face and expressions, the same round spectacles. It could have been Puyi dressed in casuals, not the gaudy plumage of a monarch or a grim uniform of a prisoner. With glowing eyes and a puzzled look, I said to him: “You look just like The Last Emperor”.
Roaring with laughter, he said: “To you guys, all us Chinese look the same.”
“That’s what Mao said to Nixon too – that all Americans look the same,” I chipped in. And then we got talking. I don’t recall his name – but it wasn’t Chow Mien or Chop Suey. He was a history professor. For the rest of the journey, we were engrossed in a most enlightening conversation, though he did most of the talking.
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‘Why Does India Consider China Its Enemy?’
“Why does India consider China its enemy – when we should be natural allies?” he asked. “You evaluate missiles in terms of their ability to hit far-flung Chinese cities. Any regional or global initiative we take, you view it with suspicion. You aggressively campaign against our Belt and Road (BRI) project, and even boycott meetings of the forum. We develop seaports in Asia and Africa with trade in view – while you are establishing a naval base in Indonesia as a strategic hedge against China. The entire narrative in your media and political circles projects China as a fiery dragon that is going to devour you. That is a huge misunderstanding.”
Caught on the back foot, I argued that China was always needling India. It was building a road under the BRI through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir; blocking India’s moves to give the terrorist tag to Masood Azhar (before finally coming around); and showing large swathes of Indian territory as China in its maps. Not just India, the entire world fears China’s military and economic domination.
Britain’s War on China
“Ah! After having plundered us for 350 years, the world now fears us! China has never been an expansionist power. On the contrary, it has been a victim of expansionism. For 2,300 years, from 700 BC to 1600s, we kept building the Great Wall to defend ourselves from the nomadic tribes and the Mongols. Yet, in 1644, the Manchus, a different ethnic and linguistic group – invaded us from the northeast and ruled over us as the Qing Dynasty for almost 300 years, imposing their culture on us, reducing us to slavery.
“Then the British kicked open our doors and ruined China through opium.” Opium produced in British India was smuggled into China by British merchants. China had prohibited import, cultivation and smoking of opium since 1800. In March 1839, Chinese authorities seized over a million kilos of opium from British ships and dumped it into the sea.
Britain declared war on China. For two years British warships and 20,000 soldiers, including 7,000 Indian troops, attacked China’s southern and eastern coasts, occupying Canton, soundly defeating the ill-equipped Chinese, forcing them to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 and extracting USD 21 million as indemnity.
China was compelled to give away Hong Kong and four more ports that were not subject to Chinese laws. Shipments of opium from Bombay and Calcutta trebled within a decade. Encouraged by the British victory, France arm-twisted China into lifting the ban on Christian missionaries who scampered into the vast interiors, spreading western ideas.
European Domination Over China
Soon, Britain and France ganged up, demanding more ports, stationing their representatives in Peking and granting unlimited access to the missionaries. When China did not relent, they again resorted to gunboat diplomacy. Canton was occupied, and the Chinese Viceroy kidnapped and taken to Calcutta, where he died.
The Europeans entered Peking’s neighbouring city of Tianjin. With the enemy at his doorstep, the Chinese emperor Xianfeng accepted all their demands.
However, when he dragged his feet at ratifying the agreement, the Europeans came back with a larger force that entered Peking. The emperor fled, and the population followed. The French, who had taken time out from colonising Vietnam, arrived first. They looted the Summer Palace. The British troops joined the plunder. Lord Elgin, the British ambassador, ordered that the Summer Palace be burnt. The fire raged for days, enveloping Peking in black smoke. Over 200 palaces, temples, pagodas and gardens were razed.
Even Japan – China’s Buddhist Neighbour – Plundered Them
“It was not only the Europeans. Japan, our Buddhist neighbour, had been taking aim at us. In the 1870s it seized our Liuqiu Islands, and tried to invade Taiwan, a part of the Chinese empire,” continued the professor. “Japan also invaded Korea, a vassal state of China. When we intervened militarily, we suffered one catastrophic defeat after another on land and sea.”
Mortified at the prospect of the Japanese Army marching into Beijing and overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese emperor, Guangxu, accepted the Japanese-dictated Treaty of Shimonoseki, ceding Taiwan, the islands of Pescadores, the Liaodong Peninsula in south Manchuria – and payment of 200 million taels – as indemnity.
Japan returned the Liaodong Peninsula to China for thirty million taels. China now owed Japan 230 million taels – which was four times Japan’s annual revenue! This was the beginning of the end of China.
To pay the indemnity, China had to borrow from the West, under crippling terms.
All the custom duties were raked towards Japan. Taxes were increased. Provincial governors were given targets to contribute. They, in turn, squeezed the population.
Germany Flexes Muscle; Russia Threatens China With War
Germany demanded Jiaozhou Bay in Shandong Province. When China snubbed the demands, German warships cruised up and down the Chinese coast, waiting for a pretext to use force. The opportunity arose when two German missionaries were murdered in Shandong. It gave the German ruler of the day, an opportunity to flex his muscles. The German ships arrived in Qingdao and gave the Chinese garrison 48 hours to vacate. The emperor directed his governor not to fight and accept Germany’s terms. The Germans acquired the strategic port on a 99-year lease.
Within a week of this, Russian warships arrived at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, and threatened war.
In March 1898, China signed away Port Arthur to the Russians for 25 years. In 1860 Russia had carved off a huge chunk of China and then again in the 1880s it attempted to take over the Ili region of Xinjiang.
Britain and France further extended their footholds in China. Britain leased Weihaiwei, added Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territory to its Hong Kong colony for 99 years. France got hold of Guangzhouwan for 99 years. By 1898, all the strategic positions on the Chinese coast were under the control of foreign powers. Meanwhile, America introduced the Chinese Exclusion Act that discriminated against Chinese immigration. All this bullying embittered the Chinese against the westerners.
Anti-Colonial Feelings, China’s ‘Boxer Rebellion’ – And Chinese Defeat By 8-Nation Alliance
Anti-colonial feelings led to the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Chinese martial art gangs laid a siege on the embassies. Their initial success prompted Empress Dowager Cixi to declare war on the foreign powers.
The Eight-Nation Alliance, comprising of America, Austro-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia launched a joint invasion of China, defeated the Imperial Army, and arrived at Peking on 14 August 1900.
Unrestrained loot of the capital and the surrounding countryside followed. Suspected Boxers were executed. The Boxer Protocol of 7 September 1901 provided for the execution of government officials who had supported the Boxers, provision for foreign troops to be stationed in Peking, and approximately USD 10 billion at today’s silver prices to be paid as indemnity to the eight nations involved.
Then Japan, occupying Korea and Manchuria, began to sink her claws deeper into northern China. With a weakened monarchy, local warlords and bandits proliferated in the provinces. The last emperor of China, an innocent juvenile fleeing the rebellious combined armies of the Kuomintang and Communists, was installed by Japan as the puppet head of Manchuria or Manchukuo. Ninety million acres of land was seized in north and central China for resettling 400,000 Japanese immigrants.
Japan’s Opium ‘War’ in China
As early as 1933, Japan had used opium to fund its war in China.
It imported two million ounces of opium and encouraged cultivation of poppy. They gave themselves the legal monopoly over the sale of opium and established opium dens with hostesses. Manchurian opium production, worth USD 300 million, was Japan’s most important source of war funding. Five percent of the population became opium addicts.
Not all who resisted Japan were executed. Some were taken to Harbin and interned in the Japanese 731 Bacteriological Unit where 3,000 Japanese scientists produced 300kgs of bubonic plague germs every month. Experiments were conducted on the arrested Chinese freedom fighters. Some were skinned alive.
Under the Labour Control Law, 2.5 million men were subjected to do “voluntary work” in mines and on military projects – without pay. Due to the savage working conditions, they died like flies. According to official Japanese statistics, 251,999 miners were killed and injured in these mines between 1916 and 1944.
Even after the Japanese defeat in World War II, China found no rest.
The Korean War started. America, after having eliminated the population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with their atom bombs, began to drop “germ bombs” on Korea and northeast China.
‘We Never Want To Be Weak Again... But We Aren’t A Warlike Nation...’
The Chinese history professor told me, “It is the Communists, for all their faults, who brought unity and stability and rebuilt the nation from ashes. Over a billion people have been freed from poverty, disease and hunger. Within fifty years China had become an economic superpower. Our military modernisation is only to defend ourselves – so we never again get dominated and exploited. We are not a warlike nation... You mentioned us showing Arunachal Pradesh as a part of China. We had occupied the entire state during the 1962 war – but we withdrew, didn’t we?”
“... Loss of territory has always mattered most to the Chinese; there are historical reasons for that feeling. We may keep border issues alive but do not seek a military solution. But we never want to be weak again,” he continued.
“What about the Spratlys Islands in South China Sea? Building artificial islands far away from your borders – isn’t that expansionism?” I asked.
The professor continued, “In my opinion, it is more of an ecological disaster. American – as well as Indian – think-tanks keep writing about cutting China’s oil supply lines in event of war. It is true that 80 percent of our fuel supplies come from Middle East and Africa. And if plans are being hatched to disrupt our supplies in case of some ‘imaginary’ war, we also need to protect our interests. Moreover, we are building new islands – not capturing anyone else’s territory. America has almost 800 overseas military bases – Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, to name a few. Why are they not called expansionists?”
‘India and China Need to Collaborate More’
“Sir, America is trying to play India against China. We must not fall into this trap. Cold War with the Soviets has ended. Now they (US) are creating a new one against China, ” I said.
“India and China need to collaborate more. We have a shared culture. Our schools must teach each other’s history. Being big players in global trade, we should bid jointly to keep down the international prices of imported natural resources. These border issues are nothing compared to the immense gains that can be achieved from closer China-India ties,” said the earnest man.
“Building military muscle is defensive in nature – to protect our borders and commercial interests. All these talks about us encircling nations, forcing them into debt and then dictating their political agenda is false propaganda meant to tarnish our image. Chinese expansionism is a myth,” said the professor, his eyes flashing with the fire of his thoughts.
I changed the subject to Chinese cuisine. However, the professor’s thoughts are worth the attention of thinking people, and I have tried to convey them with all the sincerity I can muster.
(Akhil Bakshi is the author of Arctic to Antarctic: A Journey Across the Americas. This is This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)