Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination, by Robert Bickers

Jonathan Mirsky on a complex history of a country struggling to regain control of itself

May 18, 2017
Chinese temple

Robert Bickers, a University of Bristol-based historian, here offers a history of imperialism in China from which new readers will gain some understanding. However, advanced undergraduates, research students and historians of China over the past 200 years will know that this story has been well explored in Western sources, most notably The Cambridge History of China, a multi-volume series published from 1978 onwards. Bickers does not mention that series in his discussion of sources, nor is there any citation of Chinese writings in his footnotes.

He is right to emphasise straight away that during the past 30 years there has been a great emphasis in Beijing on the decades of imperialist shame, and that this was accompanied by the regime’s territorial claims over land and sea that were so extensive that the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and the US joined in an international outcry.

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Chinese resentment is more than 30 years old, however, and Bickers recalls that Chairman Mao observed (wrongly) that Hong Kong was lost the year he was born, and exhorted younger generations to get it back. The author ably sketches discussions involving Beijing, Taiwan, Macao and Hong Kong, and shows that from the time of Chiang Kai-shek’s flight to Taiwan in 1949, and until the 1980s, Taiwan was both a “police state” and a repository of the traditional culture that had come under attack on the mainland or been largely eradicated. (I was a student on the island for four years in the mid-1950s, and I think that Bickers describes the situation accurately.) He does well, too, to show how egotistical and badly briefed Margaret Thatcher was in her debates with China’s leaders, Deng Xiaoping in particular.

But to my knowledge there was little or no connection in either Taiwan or Hong Kong between what was known about the exploitative past and a desire for reunion with Beijing. That remains true in Taiwan, although there is now official contact between Taipei and Beijing. As for Hong Kong, Bickers rightly notes that its last governor, Lord Patten of Barnes, who was hated by Beijing, was very popular there precisely because he stood up to mainland derision and contempt. But it was clear that even in the final months before the handover to China in the summer of 1997 – and I had been in Hong Kong for many years at that point, up to and including Lord Patten’s departure – there was meagre enthusiasm for the takeover, and the resistance to what was to come has marked the years that followed.

There have been many demonstrations in China against foreigners and foreign powers in recent decades – most often, as Bickers writes, against Japan, which was despised for the violence of its occupation of China from the late 1930s. I was present for many such outbursts, lightly disguised as popular uprisings but in reality organised by a government that usually cracks down on truly spontaneous demonstrations. Bickers omits to mention the weeks in Hong Kong during the spring of 1989 before and after the Tiananmen killings, when hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Hong Kong people demonstrated against Beijing.

There is no sign that Bickers ever discussed with ordinary Chinese, especially in rural areas, how they felt about imperialism. My usual experience was that it was the exploitation by their own government that most enraged them. Indeed, Bickers’ final words on the validity of “popular” Chinese agitation against imperialism warn that while we must study it, “we don’t need to believe it”.

Jonathan Mirsky was formerly associate professor of Chinese, history and comparative literature at Dartmouth College in the US, and former Far East editor of The Times.

Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination
By Robert Bickers 
Allen Lane, 576pp, £30.00 
ISBN 9781846146183 
Published 30 March 2017

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