How the Century of Humiliation Influences China’s Ambitions Today

Fall of an empire: matchlock-wielding Qing infantry battle British forces at the battle of Chinkiang during the First Opium War.

Tom Harper

The rapid economic and military ascent of China has been one of the major geopolitical developments over the past four decades, with the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping entering its 40th anniversary this year. This has seen China go from a ramshackle, quasi-feudal empire into one of the Great Powers of the 21st century. [1] What has been the driving force behind this push has been China’s historical experiences, most notably those of the 19th and early 20th centuries, known to the Chinese as the Century of Humiliation (百年国耻), where China lost both its territory and its prestige to the imperial powers of the day. [2] These experiences have also been a tool in China’s relationships with the wider world as well as a unifying force within China, the legacy of which persists in the light of current tensions.

Imperial Twilight

The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the dismantling of the Sinocentric order that had dominated much of East Asia by the industrial European empires. Part of this development was a result of China falling behind the Western powers technologically, a question explored in Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence (2000) .[3] The influence of these experiences has become apparent in recent years with the controversial Made in China 2025 plan, which claims that “the rise and fall of world powers has proven that without strong manufacturing, there is no national prosperity” and that China can only become a world power by “building internationally competitive manufacturing”.[4] This plan initially shows how China’s past experiences have guided its strategies, in this case, the desire to avoid falling behind the Western powers.

The roots of the Century of Humiliation have often been traced back to China’s defeat in the First Opium War between 1839 to 1842, when Hong Kong was ceded to the British Empire as a treaty port.[5] The conflict would demonstrate the common pattern of the 19th century with the Qing dynasty surrendering territory under a series of unequal treaties imposed on China after being defeated by militarily superior nations. This saw the loss of parts of northern China to the Russian empire and Formosa to Japan after the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895.

With the loss of territory came a loss in faith in the Qing dynasty, seemingly losing the quasi-mythical ‘Mandate of Heaven’ which was used both to justify autocratic imperial rule and to overthrow it, with the dynasty’s twilight years characterised by invasion from without and discord from within. [6] The loss of these territories would provide the basis for China’s territorial disputes which persist to this day.

China’s losses also raised the question of how to modernise the empire, with these defeats seemingly discrediting the old Confucian norms that had governed the empire for centuries. [7] This was expressed through the nationalist revolutionary Sun Yat Sen’s desire to return to ‘the China that once was’ and to regain the ‘lost lands’ taken by the imperial powers. Sun’s vision served as the roots for China’s push for a greater international standing, a quest that is still ongoing, as recently demonstrated by Xi Jinping’s call for a ‘Third Revolution’ aimed at furthering China’s role just as the ‘Second Revolution’ of Deng had furthered China’s economic development.

China Stands Up

The last phase of the Century of Humiliation was characterised by the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 to 1945 and the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 with Mao’s Communist Party of China defeating the nationalist Guomindang of Chiang Kai Shek. [8] The end of this era was demonstrated in Mao’s declaration that China had ‘stood up’ in his speech announcing the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a fact that China’s successive leaders have often sought to further demonstrate to the wider world.

During Mao’s tenure, the legacy of the Century of Humiliation played a notable role in the nascent PRC’s foreign relations. This was notable in the case of Beijing’s interactions with the post-colonial world, which was characterised by ideological and military assistance to the anti-colonial movements of Africa and Asia, such as aiding the Viet Minh during their war with France until 1954 and the Angolan UNITA battling the Estado Novo regime of Portugal during the Portuguese Colonial War of 1961 to 1974. [9]

China’s experiences of imperialism were utilised to further China’s ties with the developing world and to justify Chinese policies in the Global South, most notably in the Three Worlds Theory (三世界理论) which advocated Chinese leadership of the Third World based on shared experiences. [10] While China’s bid to become the vanguard of communist revolution in the developing world was of limited success, these experiences would provide the basis for further Chinese influence after the Cold War, which illustrates how they became an integral tool in Chinese foreign policy.

Imperial legacy: Confrontation between Chinese and Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island, 1969.

The legacy of China’s humiliation also influenced China’s ties with the superpowers of the Cold War, most notably in Beijing’s fraught relationship with Moscow. This was demonstrated in the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960, where the territorial issues of the 19th century alongside ideological disagreements played a role in Beijing’s break with Moscow. These tensions also escalated in the undeclared Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969. The legacy of China’s experiences in this case served as the roots of the tensions between China and the wider world as well as being a foreign policy tool, an aspect that would persist in Chinese foreign policy after the Cold War.

China’s Quest for Status  

With the shift in emphasis from communism to economic development, China’s communist rulers needed a new purpose to unify the nation. This came in the form of cultural nationalism, which coincided with the utilisation of China’s past achievements as a source of national pride. [11] The conclusion of the Cold War saw the re-emergence of the contentious Sino-Japanese relationship, with nationalist anger being provoked by developments such as the controversial New History Textbook (新しい歴史教科書) of 2005, which played down Japan’s wartime atrocities as well as the visits of several senior Japanese politicians to Yasukuni shrine where several Class A war criminals such as Japan’s wartime leader, Hideki Tojo, are commemorated.

As with the Cold War, China also utilised its experiences of imperialism to further its objectives in the developing world. While economic objectives have replaced ideological ones, Beijing was able to capitalise on its shared experiences to further cultivate its relationships with the local elites, most notably in the African states. [12] This was furthered by the perceived lack of a contentious imperial legacy that has blighted the European nations in the African states, which has enabled China to eclipse them.

The legacy of the 19th century also hangs over China’s current relationship with Russia. While these ties have been less contentious than the Sino-Soviet relationship, with discussion of a Sino-Russian push against American geopolitical advances, the territorial disputes from this period remain alongside a shift in the power dynamics of the relationship. [13] This has been apparent in Russia’s sparsely populated Far East region, where an influx of Chinese businesses and migrants have given rise to fears reminiscent of the Yellow Peril, most notably in the perception that the region’s Chinese population will outnumber Russians and turn the Far East into a part of China. These fears have been exploited by nationalist demagogues, most notably Vladimir Zhirinovsky, often labelled as the Russian Donald Trump, whose Liberal Democratic Party of Russia made electoral gains in the region at the expense of the ruling United Russia party. This was attributed to the backlash against the proposed lease of 2.5 million acres of farmland to Chinese farmers for 99 years, which is eerily reminiscent of the lease of Hong Kong, which has been another part of the unfinished legacy of China’s humiliation.

Unfinished business? Handover Ceremony of Hong Kong to China, 1997 .

In recent years, the Century of Humiliation has also been invoked with the current Sino-American trade tensions. This has seen the comparison of the recent American demands to the unequal treaties previously imposed upon China to further nationalist sentiment and to unify China. Alongside the perception that the tensions are an American move to prevent China’s rise, this has been a tool to further China’s resolve, which has been underestimated by Washington, making the trade conflict far from being ‘quick and easy’, as Trump infamously claimed it to be.

The Century of Humiliation has been an important part of China’s international relations and has shaped China’s perception of its role. It has also been both the driving force in China’s push for greater status and a means to further Chinese foreign policy objectives, the results of which can be seen globally. China’s ascent demonstrates how the legacy of China’s humiliation continues to have wide-reaching consequences as China plays a greater role in our lives.

Dr Tom Harper is a researcher specialising in China’s foreign relations.   He received his PhD at the University of Surrey.

———-

[1] Orville Schell and John Delury Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, London, Abacus, 2013

[2] Stephen Platt New Domestic and Global Challenges 1792-1860 in The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016

[3] Kenneth Pommerantz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2000

[4] State Council of the People’s Republic of China, Made in China 2025, 8th May 2015 (http://www.cittadellascienza.it/cina/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/IoT-ONE-Made-in-China-2025.pdf)

[5] Stephen Platt Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, London, Atlantic Books, 2018

[6] Jonathan Spence God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuqian, London, W.W. Norton & Company Ltd, 1996

[7] Peter Zarrow Restoration and Reform 1860-1900 in The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016

[8] Philip Jowett China’s Wars: Rousing the Dragon 1894-1949, Oxon, Osprey Publishing 2013

[9] Zhang Feng Chinese Hegemony, California, Stanford University Press, 2015

[10] King C. Chen China and the Three Worlds: A Foreign Policy Reader, London Routledge, 2017

[11] Ady van den Stock, History and Historical Consciousness in Contemporary China: Political Confucianism, Spiritual Confucianism and the Politics of Spirit in Interpreting China as a Regional and Global Power London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

[12] Patrick Mazimhaka, China and Africa: An African View in The Morality of China in Africa, London, Zed Books, 2013

[13] Michael Burleigh, The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: A History of Now, London, Pan Books, 2018

2 thoughts on “How the Century of Humiliation Influences China’s Ambitions Today

  1. This is a thoughtful and useful article, but it would have been helpful to highlight the extent to which China itself was responsible for its plight during the so-called Century of Humiliation. The country was wracked with wars and rebellions that were sparked by internal tensions. Notably, the Taiping Rebellion, during which the West supported the Chinese government, was one of the most destructive events of the 19th century anywhere in the world, leading to a huge loss of life and infrastructure. The death toll is estimated at 20-30 million. The Western powers were opportunists, feeding on the opportunities offered by Chinese decline, rather than being the causes of that decline. Blaming the West, in this case, is a deliberate attempt to divert attention from China’s own responsibility and to claim unwarranted moral high ground.

  2. China rejected equal treaties with other countries when it was powerful. So when their power was gone it got what it wanted unequal treaties. It is a bit unfair only to blame the west. Japan did managed to become a more or less modern country with almost equal treatment from the Western Powers who were quit willing to make agreements on most subjects.

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