The truth about China's century of humiliation

July 19, 2017

Frank Ching

CHINA'S leader Xi Jinping, in a July 1 speech to mark the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover, brought up the Opium War, under which a victorious Britain wrested Hong Kong Island from "a weak China under corrupt and incompetent feudal rule".

To underline China's humiliation, he pointed out that the British sent a mere 10,000 troops and were able to defeat the Qing dynasty, which boasted an 800,000-strong army. The British triumph, he said, was followed by China's defeat by other countries "which were far smaller in size and population".

This narrative, of course, is that of China's century of humiliation which Mr Xi and the Communist Party love to tell. Today, they offer the "Chinese Dream" of national renewal, whose realisation will see China return to its state of greatness, before the West arrived on the scene.

This is a great story but is it true? Can China's decline be blamed on the West?

There is little argument that 1,000 years ago, during the Northern Song dynasty, China was the most prosperous country in the world, richer than all the countries of Europe.

But by the 19th century when the Opium War occurred, China was the sick man of Asia. How did it happen? Many believed it was the industrial revolution that propelled the West ahead of China.

But a recent paper casts a new light on this topic. The paper was written by three scholars, Stephen Broadberry of Oxford University, Hanhui Guan of Peking University and David Daokui Li of Tsinghua University.

They focused on GDP per capita, a new approach, and found that Chinese GDP per capita fluctuated at a high level during the Northern Song and Ming dynasties before trending downwards during the Qing dynasty. China's slide downhill lasted for centuries.

In the abstract of their paper, the scholars state that "China led the world in living standards during the Northern Song dynasty, but had fallen behind Italy by 1300". That is to say, the zenith of China's glory was short-lived.

What this study shows is that China had begun a long process of decline since before the Ming dynasty, a process that continued for 600 to 700 years before the West appeared on the scene. That is to say, China's decline was due to internal factors and began very early, in the 13th century.

Mr Xi may well be partly aware of this. After all, he pointed out that the British prevailed in a war where they were outnumbered 80 to 1 by Chinese troops. This could only have happened if China had already suffered a long period of internal decay.

Of course, the Communist Party can still talk about national rejuvenation, but it should put foreign intervention in its proper perspective. Sure, China was a victim of western imperialism, but this was simply the last straw on the back of a dying camel.


China itself by the mid-19th century had gone through centuries of misrule and the humiliation it suffered was at its own hands.

Instead of stirring up hatred of foreigners by talking continually about a century of humiliation, China should look deeply inside itself to see what the problems were with Chinese institutions, past and present, which caused the rot within.

Certainly, one of China's serious problems, identified by Deng Xiaoping after he gained power, was its self-imposed isolation. According to him, China isolated itself from the middle of the Ming dynasty to the Opium War, a period of 300 years. It was not coincidental that that period also marked China's steep decline.

Today, China is again turning inwards. To be sure, China's interests have spread all over the world. But it is using sovereignty to erect a wall to silence the rest of the world where human rights are concerned.

When Liu Xiaobo lay dying, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke to Chinese officials about the Nobel peace laureate, only to be rebuffed. China's foreign ministry spokesman said: "Relevant UN officials should strictly abide by the UN Charter's purposes and principles, should respect China's judicial sovereignty and not interfere in China's internal affairs."

China boasts that it has signed more human rights conventions than the US. Surely Chinese officials know that by signing such conventions, China would open itself up to questions from UN officials and those of other countries.

Since the only other time a Nobel peace laureate died in prison was in Nazi Germany during the 1930s, the Communist Party must expect questions, comment and condemnation. It can't hide behind the cover of sovereignty.

The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. Follow him on Twitter, @FrankChing1.