Haunted by History

What did 1997 mean? On 1 July that year the People’s Republic of China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. China’s senior leadership and British government ministers and officials took part in a punctiliously choreographed midnight handover ceremony. Rain poured down, and tears were shed for all the reasons that tears might be shed: sadness, joy, fear, confusion, or relief. The departing Governor stepped aboard the British royal yacht Britannia just after midnight and sailed away. The Union Jack had been pulled down at midnight, the five stars of China’s flag raised in its stead, and the colony’s own standard was at the same time surmounted by that of the new Special Administrative Region. Other symbols of colonial rule were being removed as midnight passed, and many had already been superseded by 1997. In Beijing there were fireworks in Tiananmen Square. A digital clock that had been placed in front of the Museum of Revolutionary History, and which had been counting down the days and seconds since 1994, reached zero. Crowds chanted as the seconds ticked down. A century of humiliation had been ‘washed away’ as the rain fell in Hong Kong.

There had been other ways of looking forward to this moment than the clock. (This was one of several; there was one at the Hong Kong–Shenzhen border, and another in Beijing at the ruins of the Yuanming Yuan, the old Summer Palace looted and burned down by French and British troops in 1860.) One that had stuck with me was a music video that seemed to be endlessly repeated in 1994 on a satellite music channel – itself a phenomenon that was bewildering for a visitor to China – and that I had watched in a Shanghai hotel room. A young woman faced the camera, strumming a guitar. Her name was Ai Jing, and at the age of twenty-four she had a hit across and beyond the Chinese-speaking world with a catchy song, ‘My 1997’. It takes the form of a jaunty folk riff periodically interrupted by passages in a Chinese opera style, in which she narrates her journey from Shenyang in the far northeast, through Beijing, to Shanghai’s Bund and down south to the border with Hong Kong. Visually the film makes the same shifts from past to present. But the song is about the future: ‘when will I be able to visit Hong Kong?’ she asks from Guangzhou. It is a cheeky song, lamenting at once a Hong Kong lover, but Hong Kong itself as a lover, perhaps, certainly as a future for the Chinese. The song and video’s celebratory climax presents a sensual longing for urban freedom and modernity. On the cover of the CD itself Ai Jing was photographed in Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong bar district. ‘What is it like? What are Hong Kong people like?’ Ai asks. In the years before the handover of the last significantly sized British colony, the Chinese government was sponsoring academic research and film-makers. In these endeavours it was making Hong Kong the focus for a celebration of China’s new strength, and a reminder of past weakness and humiliation. Culture still mattered; it was no less a political sphere than it had been in the most hectic days of the Maoist era, or even during the more cosmopolitan republic. So Ai Jing’s song deftly struck the right political notes, and subverted them. Her 1997 was not about national humiliation, but about personal liberation.

Late colonial Hong Kong had boomed as a British imperial city was transformed into a global capitalist hub. The disputes between the British and the Chinese diplomats continued almost up to the last moment. Signs of that old treaty-port world remained in abundance after the formal symbols of British power were removed, but many of the new expatriates of the 1990s and after were looking north, waiting for China, diving in whenever opportunity was opened up, finding partners, and chasing ancient fantasies of unlimited China markets. For the Chinese government the question was how to manage it all, and how to bring the foreign back in without re-creating the past, and without surrendering sovereignty and dignity. Reclaiming Hong Kong was a grand affirmation of its triumph over history. The handover was a substantial exercise in political theatre, but it was also a landmark in the growing economic freedoms enjoyed by Chinese. After 1949 the city had inherited Shanghai’s modernity. High-rise Hong Kong provided an alternative vision of China’s present, and its soon-to-be-realized future. The return of Macao in 1999 was also accompanied by much fanfare, but the earlier return in 1997 was made significantly more important as a symbol, as its roots lay not in the Ming Dynasty but in the nineteenth-century British assault on China’s sovereignty.

Ai Jing’s video lingers in the mind, but there were orthodox cultural projects launched before 1997 that were intended to resonate widely as well. In one way the most mainstream of these was a big-budget film, The Opium War, which premiered with a showing for senior government leaders in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 9 June 1997, and which was described by its director, the veteran Chinese film-maker Xie Jin, as a ‘special gift for the motherland and the people … to ensure we and our descendants forever remember the humiliation the nation once suffered’. Hong Kong’s Shanghai-born incoming senior leaders – Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa and Legislative Council President Rita Fan – attended the Hong Kong premiere three days later. The film had already been endorsed by no less a figure than Deng Xiaoping’s successor, the Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin, and patriotically minded backers had put up the funds. Group bookings by government and other official and party units produced a good deal of the receipts. Hong Kong’s origins in the conflict over the opium trade and in the British bid to seize ‘the entire East … the Nineteenth century’ mattered most in this retelling (and the ambition was put into the mouth of Queen Victoria). The film was by some measure the most expensive then yet made in China. Its script delivered a more nuanced understanding of the British position than might have been expected; however, the significant point is that ultimately the project was not rooted in Hong Kong’s present but in China’s past. Hong Kong was not what its people had made it by 1997, and what they might make it afterwards, but was to be remembered as an historical act of theft, with its origins in a squalid criminal enterprise and the weakness and chauvinism of the Qing.

It was not in fact the first time in modern Chinese history that a retrocession had been commemorated with a film about the Opium War. The earlier occasion had been the premiere of the 1943 Japanese-sponsored Chinese movie Wanshou liufang (Eternity), screened in Nanjing for the benefit of collaborationist president Wang Jingwei. That, too, had been an officially directed project, and it was released to mark the handover of the International Settlement to the quisling Shanghai Special Municipality on 1 August 1943. At the very least this coincidence of rituals demonstrates the centrality of nationalism and anti-imperialism to all twentieth-century political projects in China. The Chinese Communist Party and Wang Jingwei, once allies, later the bitterest of opponents, played tunes from the same narrow repertoire. This is not to suggest any equation between the CCP and Wang Jingwei’s regime, but to highlight the centrality of these issues of humiliation in understanding the competing forms of nationalism that have emerged in modern China.

Over the next thirty years the world that Ai Jing’s song laid claim to was brought to China. The state enterprises that her lyrics mention her father working in have folded, and have been broken up for scrap like those ships that were the fuel for the first foreign business established in China. These enterprises were swept aside by the massive programme of renewal and economic development that began with those contentious reforms in Guangdong province in 1979. Economic growth brought profound social and cultural transformation that is still unfolding, and there are now bar districts like Lan Kwai Fong all over China. Hong Kong is still very different, providing a distinctive modern Chinese culture with different values; but like Macao it is also partly irrelevant to the story of change in China itself. A quarter of a million foreign nationals live in Shanghai, for example, which has hungrily embraced all the trappings of its ambitions to be a world-class city, and all the greyer and darker ones too. Only the rickshaws are missing from the streets.

There are plenty of those in the museums, however, for the past is bigger business than ever in China. An estimated 10,000 ‘Red Tourism’ sites and half a billion visits to them in 2011 accounted for one-fifth of all Chinese domestic tourism. Heritage initiatives with little political flavouring have also made progress in the generally unequal battle with the bulldozer and property speculation. Some of this apparent political elision is striking: Tianjin’s former Italian concession was revamped as the ‘Italian-style scenic district’ after 2004. In this case an Italian colonial enterprise now serves as an example of cosmopolitan heritage style. The repackaging of the colonial as the cosmopolitan is now quite common. It serves the purpose too of stressing continuities over time despite China’s shutdown during the Maoist era. The iconic modern skyline in China is still Shanghai’s. Its high-rises were the stuff of the movies viewed across the nation in the 1930s and 1940s, and this persisted. But now the vista representing Shanghai in its room at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing is of the Pudong skyline, across the river from the Bund. To appreciate this, which thousands of tourists from all over China do every day, one needs to turn one’s back on the old Bund and its buildings, on the British Consulate, the headquarters of Jardine Matheson and Co., the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, Sir Victor Sassoon’s Cathay Hotel, the North China Daily News Building, Yokohama Specie Bank and the Shanghai Club.

But even when backs are turned the memory is kept alive. On 1 October every year, China’s national day, city officials in Shanghai gather on the north end of the Bund at what is still called a park, although little trace of anything much like one remains. What dominates the site now is a ‘Monument to the People’s Heroes’ that was unveiled in 1993. Three granite pillars lean together at the top to form a three-sided obelisk reaching 60 metres into the air. They represent the ‘eternal glory’ of the ‘people’s heroes’ who died in the liberation war, in revolutionary movements more widely since the 1919 May Fourth Movement and since the Opium War. In a sunken area around its base are seven bas-relief friezes depicting key incidents in the revolutionary history of the city down to 1949, culminating with students dancing the yangge in Shanghai’s streets in May 1949. For some decades prior to 1943 another much less imposing obelisk stood close to this very same spot, a memorial erected in 1866 to the foreign officers of the Ever Victorious Army, the unit led by General Gordon that supported Qing forces in the battles around Shanghai against the Taiping. The city’s histories, like all of China’s, overlay and echo one another. And not far away you can read the twentieth century’s changes on what was formerly the China headquarters of the British company Imperial Chemical Industries. Shorn now of the allegorical reliefs with which it was adorned on its unveiling in 1923, its own name is just still visible, and so are huge sets of Cultural Revolution slogans running down the building, wishing long life to the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao. It now houses a securities firm.

The annual ceremony at the memorial on the Bund is of fresh vintage. Recently the event commenced early in the morning with the playing of the national anthem by a military band, while the participants stood in contemplative silence. Then, without a word, the Shanghai Party Secretary, the Mayor and representatives from other official organizations stepped forward to lay wreaths in front of the obelisk. So the ceremony itself echoes another, the one that took place annually from 1924 to 1941, and then again from 1945 to 1948, on 11 November, Remembrance Day for the Allied dead of the world wars. That took place at the other end of the former International Settlement Bund, in front of Shanghai’s tall war memorial. This is a powerful testament to the reach of imported practices and forms, and their acculturation – including the ceremonial silence, and the playing by a military band using European instruments, of a national anthem indebted to Western musical forms, and indeed to the very idea of a ‘national anthem’. The concrete forms of memorialization – those obelisks – are linked in a similar way. But none of these are any less authentic facets of modern China and modern Chinese culture. Most of Shanghai’s tourists do not pay any homage at the memorial, despite the fact that it is a ‘patriotic education base’. Most do not even really visit that end of the promenade: the blindingly neon-lit Pudong skyline at night is the draw instead. Such is the pervasiveness still of the humiliation narrative that they hardly need to, for the stories it tells remain at the heart of the nationwide system of patriotic education.

Reactions to bilateral and other disputes that unfold or erupt today are still nearly always addressed through the prism of the past, or they are about that past. There were violent street and online protests during the Chinese-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands in 2012, which were inflamed by its coincidental timing with the anniversary of the Japanese Kwantung Army’s attack on Manchuria on 18 September (usually simply ‘918’ in Chinese). The islands themselves are another legacy issue from the longer history of territorial disintegration in the nineteenth century: ‘No longer learn from Li Hongzhang,’ shouted demonstrators in Nanchang, echoing Deng Xiaoping’s curt rejoinder to Margaret Thatcher over Hong Kong. ‘Never forget National Humiliation; Remember 9.18; Recover the Diaoyu islands’, ran another slogan. Since 2000 controversy over demands for the repatriation of artefacts looted from the Yuanming Yuan in 1860 has also gathered tremendous momentum. And over forty years after Prime Minister Tanaka’s incompetent first apology, and the 1972 Sino-Japanese joint declaration, Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s official statement in 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Sino-Japanese War was closely read, and sharply criticized for its perceived inadequacies in Chinese and others’ eyes. The sullen and resentful language of the text was a mark not only of Abe’s own conservative politics and revisionist leanings, but also of a wider exasperation in Japan with the never-ending war. For China the past is becoming more important. And what’s clear in all of this is that the Chinese state is now often playing catch-up, struggling to keep abreast of the popular nationalism that it has nurtured and encouraged, and which runs riot in social media, on foreign university campuses and sometimes in Chinese streets. The state needs to be agile, for its perceived inadequacies in defending China’s honour have frequently diverted popular hostility towards it and away from Japan.

The story of the world outlined in this book is on the whole not well enough known. It certainly lives on in saga, romance or thriller, or through cinema – J. G. Ballard’s autobiographical Empire of the Sun, mediated through Hollywood, for example. As we have seen, it was portrayed as romance back in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s, and this persists. But it is still too easily thought of as a sideshow, far away and involving people with whom there is little connection. In most cases there was always a profound asymmetry in relations: the West was always far more important in China than China seemed to be at home. As we have seen, this was not always in fact actually true, although it generally holds good. What it does mean is that a significant imbalance in knowledge and understanding persists. In 2011 I was invited to give a talk about The Scramble for China at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. It seemed wise to signal in advance that I could not provide much by way of enlightenment on contemporary policy. I did not know what the then CCP leader Hu Jintao thought, or much about climate change or healthcare initiatives. I was not to worry, was the response, leave policy to us, but we really need to know more about the history. Our recruits have learned little of it before they join us, yet the Chinese still talk about it all the time. Given how profoundly modern China has been shaped by its relationship with the United Kingdom, this was a telling admission.

They know this well in China, of course. And in which other state does a new leadership team, on the day that it is unveiled, change into more sombre clothing, and make a pilgrimage to a history museum? (What other state has so many history museums?) This is what Xi Jinping and the members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo did on 29 November 2012. The most powerful leaders in the land paid homage to the past through this visit to the National Museum of China, and its permanent display ‘The Road to Rejuvenation’ (the official translation of the Chinese Fuxing zhi lu). The design aesthetic in the first galleries is darkness. Art works and artefacts illustrate a stridently captioned narrative of China’s story of humiliation and weakness from 1840 onwards. But then comes the light, and in the second set of galleries a different aesthetic decorates a record of events and triumphs since 1949 (and in a discreet and selective way some disasters). The exhibition concludes, or at least did on my own last visit – when it was thronged with school groups assiduously taking notes – by paying homage to China’s space programme, and then with a display of mobile phones. The promise of a project that generates intense national pride, and the history of China’s economic growth and individual prosperity, are both framed in a story of release from the shame of the past. The promise at the end of the black tunnel of history is a smartphone.

The story of the foreign presence in China in the twentieth century, as much as in the nineteenth century or in any part of China’s modern history, is too important today to be left in the hands of the Chinese party-state and this approved script. Its sanctioned narrative is partial, self-serving and ultimately incendiary. A new nationalism in which angry demonstrators have been heard many times clamouring for war and for killing Japanese is pregnant with the potential for calamity. But this is not a Japanese problem alone. No nation complicit in the degradation of China after the 1830s – which includes most European states as well as the United States – is ultimately secure. Being effectively equipped with the facts might help us understand the roots of that rage. In this book I have aimed to show that world in all its complexity and all its contexts – and that word ‘complexity’ is no coy cover for nostalgia or an apologetics. The foreign presence in China in the twentieth century had more than its fair share of bigotry, racism, violence, greed, or simple callous indifference. This is on display in profusion in the National Museum of China. In that world, too, you can find collaboration, cohabitation, alliance and coalition. Many other voices also spoke for China and stood up for it against its enemies and against ignorance and prejudice overseas, and on China’s streets. This is all but absent in the displays in Beijing. There was also self-delusion and self-conceit, as well as genuine humanitarian concern and disinterested technical interest. This was a world in which the imperatives or norms of a world in which colonial power was exercised overlapped with (and helped shape) new forms of globalization and the movement of people, goods and ideas. It was a world in which people in China incorporated into their lives all sorts of innovations that came from overseas, and equally made their own new culture, promiscuously mixing all sorts of foreign ingredients and indigenous ones too. Chinese of all political hues and none worked with and against the unequal and unjust exercise of foreign political power in China and the treatment of China in international forums and organizations. The Chinese Communist Party holds no monopoly of nationalistic virtue, and it was itself complicit in the continued degradation of Chinese sovereignty in the 1950s.

‘The Chinese nation has suffered unusual hardship and sacrifice in the world’s modern history,’ said Xi Jinping in November 2012 at the end of his museum visit. Its people ‘have never given in, have struggled ceaselessly, and have finally taken hold of their own destiny’. Xi’s rhetoric then and since has promised a ‘China dream’, the ‘great renewal of the Chinese nation’ and individual aspiration, subsuming along the way the hopes of Ai Jing’s song ‘My 1997’. The China dream is grounded in this story of an unrelenting Chinese nightmare. We need to acknowledge that, and understand it, but we do not need to believe it.