Why the UK Must Teach More Chinese History

Zheng He, the eunuch admiral.

Tom Harper
University of Surrey

The Sovietologist E.H. Carr once asked “what is history?” in his book of the same name. It is a question that may need to be asked again in light of plans by Oxford University to introduce exams in non-Western history. Such a move is cast against the background of the apparent backlash against the traditional notions of imperial history as symbolised by the protests over the philosophy courses of the School of Oriental and African Studies for focusing on European thinkers at the expense of Asian and African philosophers.

These Oxford initiatives should not be considered as merely simplistic, politically correct gesture politics. Instead, with the rise of the Eastern powers, most notably China, it has become imperative to reconsider the limitations of the current Eurocentric curriculum. As the influence of China grows, so too does its historical experiences with imperialism, as epitomised by Xi Jinping’s utilisation of China’s imperial past as a source of national pride. In order for UK universities to stay afloat in changing waters and to cast off the shackles of their Eurocentrism, they will need to start placing a greater emphasis on Asia – and China, in particular. Continue reading “Why the UK Must Teach More Chinese History”

China’s New Silk Road: Central Asia and the Imperial Legacy of the Great Game

The Lion Eyes the Bear. Punch cartoon from 1878 by John Tenniel reflecting Anglo-Russian paranoia in Central Asia.

Tom Harper
University of Surrey

In the vein of its rich history in Central Asia, China’s quest for economic development has seen it return to the region that was once spanned by the Silk Route. While Central Asia has served as the cross roads between Eastern and Western civilisation for centuries, it also once provided the chessboard upon which the Great Powers of the past had battled each other for land and influence. In sum it is one of the most strategic regions of the world, whether it be the Great Game of the nineteenth century or the superpower conflict of the 1980s.

In line with the power politics of the past, the region has seen a new Great Game where today’s strongest nations compete for the region’s natural resources.[1]  With the close of the twentieth century, Central Asia re-entered the spotlight as a result of the War on Terror and, more recently, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路). In light of these developments, the imperial struggles of the past two centuries take on a new importance, as they continue to influence the perceptions of China’s return to the region. These perceptions, real or imagined, have fuelled the struggles of the Great Powers in the region and China’s involvement is simply the latest chapter in a centuries long struggle. Continue reading “China’s New Silk Road: Central Asia and the Imperial Legacy of the Great Game”

China’s Neo-Imperialism in Africa: Perception or Reality?

The imperial powers carving up China
China the Victim: The imperial powers carving up China.

Tom Harper
University of Surrey

Where once China sought communist revolution, it now seeks global economic expansion. As a result, the African continent has been one of the major areas of Chinese foreign economic investment. Numerous studies of China’s Africa policy have appeared in recent years, a number of which accuse China of exploiting resource rich African states or behaving like an imperial power in the continent, most notably Peter Hitchens’s assertion that China is building a ‘slave empire’ in Africa [1].

These views on Chinese policy also reflect the changes in the perceptions of China in the Western mind. The crude stereotypes of the Yellow Peril that dominated Western culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have given way to a fear that China will follow in the West’s imperial footsteps. In other words, the legacy of imperialism underpins today’s perceptions of China’s foreign policy as well as Chinese identity.

Chinese engagement in Africa illuminates the influence of the imperial experience. The initial form of Chinese policy in Africa came as ideological and military assistance to the various anti-colonial movements of the 1950s in their struggles against the once dominant European empires that had been ravaged by the Second World War. During this period of decolonisation, Beijing formed strong ties with a number of African nations that would become increasingly important to Chinese economic goals once the Cold War subsided.   Should these goals be seen as neo-imperialism? Continue reading “China’s Neo-Imperialism in Africa: Perception or Reality?”