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Britons: an offensive Nation PDF Εκτύπωση E-mail
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Συνεννόηση για Δράση - Απόψεις
Συντάχθηκε απο τον/την Χρήστος Μπούμπουλης (Christos Boumpoulis)   
Παρασκευή, 04 Αύγουστος 2017 02:44
Britons: an offensive Nation
David Cameron should not have worn that poppy in China
Chinese officials apparently asked the UK delegation not to wear Remembrance Day poppies because they were a symbol of China's humiliation at the hands of Europe in the opium wars. To comply would have been good manners
I don't doubt David Cameron's sincerity in gently lecturing his Chinese hosts today about the importance of political freedom, the rule of law and a free press in sustaining a stable and successful society. But and but again. Those Remembrance Day poppies say it all.
It's not that Cameron is wrong. I agree with the main thrust of what he is saying and what many other western leaders have said on similar trips to Asia where they try to combine business opportunities with advice on how authoritarian Asian political regimes might be improved.
Barack Obama, himself America's first Pacific president, has been doing the same sort of thing this week on his way to the important meeting of the G20 in Seoul, which is itself a reminder of how the world is rapidly tilting south and eastwards. Remember the G7? White guys plus Japan?
Funnily enough, Obama and Cameron's hosts won't see it quite that way, not least because they have their own value systems and priorities – often much older than ours – and because most of them were exploited western colonies within living memory. They learned a great deal from the experience, the bad as well as the good.
The ailing Chinese empire was big and indigestible enough to avoid that fate, though it was touch and go for a while during the century of humiliation that ended only after the Communist party seized power – and kept it.
That's where those Remembrance Day poppies come in, the lapel poppies sported by Cameron and his team of coalition ministers on newspaper front pages – including the Guardian's, which cropped Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, from the toast-sharing shot.
Chinese officials apparently asked them not to do it because the poppy is a vivid symbol of China's humiliation at the hands of the European powers. "We informed them that they mean a great deal to us and we would be wearing them all the same," a British official explained.
Oh dear. That sounds pretty priggish. I have no wish to reopen the Jon Snow no-poppy controversy, which has kept overpaid columnists in work all week – and Tania Branigan sets out a few further examples of double standards in today's paper.
But surely no better example of residual western arrogance combined, oddly enough, with a hint of Maoist conformity (exactly what Snow was complaining about), could be offered than the sight of our chaps all wearing their poppies in Beijing?
To Chinese officialdom, whose collective memory goes back 2,000 years further than Whitehall's, the poppy speaks of the two opium wars forced on them by the British empire when – then as now – Britain had insufficiently attractive export products with which to offset its imports from China – but unlike now had the military means to address the deficit.
In the 1830s tea was the main Chinese export via Canton. But the Chinese, deeply introspective and arrogant in their own way, rejected UK manufacturing goods, then at their global zenith. So the East India Company exported Indian opium for both medical and narcotic purposes, 900 tons in 1820, 1,400 by 1838.
The Qing empire restated its ban and was ignored by both British and Chinese merchants, despite the imposition of the death penalty for trafficking. (Little wonder that they ignored British pleas for clemency when a British citizen was sentenced to death for drug trafficking last year.)
In 1839 an official delegation from Beijing succeeded in getting the British superintendant at Canton to hand over 20,000 chests of opium, which were destroyed. "Why ban it at home, but sell it to us?" Queen Victoria was asked in a letter, so Jonathan Fenby records in The Dragon Throne (Quercus, £16.95).
But after the burning of a temple and the murder of a Chinese man by British sailors, both sides dug in. In the name of free trade – did Cameron mention this to the Chinese students, I wonder? – in 1840 the Brits seized a rocky island called Hong Kong, blockaded the Pearl – and later the Yangzi – rivers and sent in troops.
No match for modern European firepower, the Chinese had to settle and the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing became the first of the many "unequal treaties". The British got Hong Kong and smaller islands, ports were opened, compensation paid for the lost opium, missionaries allowed into China, foreigners relieved from trial by Chinese courts. France and the US piled in behind. In 1856-58 the process was repeated with the same results as the west penetrated the interior.
Cameron's college audience in Beijing will know all this stuff just as British kids know about the wickedness of Hitler and the ambitions of Napoleon or Phillip II of Spain – all pluckily thwarted by you know who.
Whether they know that their own insular leadership still didn't grasp that the barbarian foreigners were not "no more important than dogs or horses" but – however briefly – rulers of the world is more doubtful.
When Japan was forcefully opened up a few years later it got the point and modernised so fast that its empire defeated a quasi-European power, Russia, within 50 years. In 1894-95 Japan also defeated China and joined the G7 pillage, gradually taking over much of the country until stopped by nationalist and communist armies in the 1940s.
In the circumstances, if I knew all that but still wanted to sell Rolls-Royce engines and the rest to my hosts I think I'd have put my poppy to one side for a day or two even if it did upset the Daily Mail or Sun. After all, Rupert Murdoch has been kowtowing to Beijing to promote his business interests for decades.
A conciliatory retreat would have been both good manners and shrewd tactics, a small gesture to a proud and sensitive political elite whose economic and political power is accelerating fast. The rise of China is going to be the story of our lifetime – and we'd better get used to it.
It doesn't help either that similar western arrogance in the handling of the global banking system sustained a car crash in 2007-09 that angered the west's Chinese creditors mightily. A big trade and currency row is brewing at the G20 summit – one that might seriously damage our lives as much as the opium wars damaged Chinese ones.
The poppy skirmish was one we could have done without.
The Britons' indifference about the damage they cause to the lives of the members of any decent Nation defines the unique kind of relationship that, any decent Nation could maintain, with them.
Christos Boumpoulis