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China and the West

The origins of modern China can be traced back to the 1911 revolution, which finally put the ailing Qing dynasty out of its misery.

China's archaic and increasingly anarchic Celestial Empire was extinguished by a new generation of revolutionaries, both inspired and repulsed by the West. These Chinese nationalists saw that a weak and feudal China locked into the past by a succession of insular Emperors had become prey to the economic and military power of modern countries such as Britain, France and the US.

Ironically, it was the very depredations of the western powers throughout the 19th century that fatally weakened China's ruling elite and allowed the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen, to inspire the 1911 movement and turn the nation into a republic.

But if China's leaders today see parallels in their determination to at least match the US and Europe's collective might, they are not telling.

Instead the nation nurses its sense of historical grievance to this day and Britain is cast as one of the worst villains of the piece.

Up until the 1830s foreign trade for China had been confined to the remote city of Guangzhou where foreign businessmen traded, while China's elite looked on with a barely concealed mixture of contempt and condescension.

Classed as "barbarians", westerners had no diplomatic status in China and the few foreign delegations that were granted an audience with the emperor were expected to prostrate themselves or "kow-tow" before the throne. The mainly British entrepreneurs in Guangzhou could offer little of real value to the Chinese while they exported vast quantities of silk and tea to the West.

In an echo of today the British were acutely aware of this looming trade deficit and decided that the best way to balance the books was to sell opium to the Chinese masses despite the fact that it was illegal and fostered an army of addicts. When the Chinese authorities put a stop to this in 1839 the British decided to teach the Middle Kingdom a lesson. By the end of the First Opium War in 1842 the British had forced the Chinese to hand over Hong Kong, accept the opium trade and pay out substantial war costs. Just 14 years later the Second Opium War was started by Britain, on largely bogus grounds, and culminated in the sacking of the Emperor's exquisite palaces in Beijing. In 1860 The Convention of Peking ceded more land around Hong Kong to Britain, increased compensation, opened up China's ports to the West, and legalised the opium trade.

But if China is right to denounce imperialism it should remember that it too is an empire. Both the indigenous people of Xinjiang province, in the far west of China, and Tibet believe that they are subject to Chinese imperialism and suffer terrible human rights abuses. In Taiwan large swathes of the electorate denounce what they perceive as China's imperial arrogance and military adventurism. Against this backdrop the ghosts of China's emperors would appreciate the irony of human rights activists slating British and European governments - eager to secure a slice of China trade - for kow-towing before their successors in Beijing.

For both East and West, then, history has a habit of repeating itself.

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