Issue 15: The History of Britain and China: How the Past Leads to the Present

By Jane HO (ELED Year 4, 2013-2014)

China was once referred to as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’, which, albeit offensive, quite aptly illustrates the power of China then. Britain, on the other hand, has always been one of the most influential powers in the world. It stands as a strong and civilized nation, and the presence of an independent judiciary system guarantees its democracy. It therefore comes as quite a surprise to many nowadays, including the Chinese people themselves, that China has become arguably the world’s leading power, while Britain has seen its fair share of crises and troubles. By looking at some episodes in contemporary history, we may catch a glimpse of how the past is still influencing the current status of the two nations.

The history of British Parliament dates back to 700 years ago, a time when democracy around the world was still budding. Today, the Parliament has become a relic of the good old days. The amusing picture of the two sides of parliament members bashing each other and pointing fingers may resemble a ludicrous soap opera. Still, this is democracy that some people can only dream of. Although the hereditary principle for the House of Lords is essentially undemocratic, the House of Commons is democratically elected by voters and entitled the right to veto government policies. The division of powers among government, parliament and monarchy, the emergence of political parties and even the coalition system running right now are all illustrations of democracy. In China, the one-party system practically says it all – there is no parliament or pointing fingers in the literal sense. The Chinese Communist Party rose to power in 1949, and it has remained in power ever since. Despite the utter failure of several social campaigns and movements, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the party managed to stay intact. One has to wonder how. In Britain, if the government does not live up to people’s expectations, the party in office is often voted out in the next election. It is a testament of how the will of the people prevails. This ‘will’, simple as it is, may be the very essence of democracy. If people only take to the streets to boycott Japanese imported goods but never to protest against bad government policies, chances are the people would not vote for another government if there ever was one.

Britain might be democratic in its national affairs, but it is notoriously less so when it comes to claiming territory. British colonial history is famous and infamous at the same time, as the merits and demerits of what has been done in its numerous colonies can hardly be weighed. Take Hong Kong, a former British colony, as an example. Britain made full use of Hong Kong’s favourable geographical location to do business and trades. The education system, improved infrastructure and a fair legal constitution are undisputed contributions of British colonization. In other places such as India and Australia, however, the colonial history is not as glorious. While the issues of slavery and repression of people should be fairly evaluated, the official authority has yet to acknowledge any harm done in its colonies. The act was claimed to be promoting democracy and establishing civilized law and order, but this sugarcoat was not nearly convincing. While Britain has withdrawn herself from military invasion, China rises to become a great power in recent years. Its military rise is the most concerned of all, despite the government’s rhetoric that it would be a peaceful rise.

Territorial expansion is a means of battling for national glory, which often gives rise to national identity. In Britain, there is a crisis in preserving national identity in view of the establishment of the European Union (EU). It is only natural that the national identity in Britain should be referred to as Britishness, though there are even disputes regarding what exactly Britishness is. What makes it a matter of urgency is the Scottish independence, which is only one referendum away. In this case, historical reasons may adequately explain the decline in Britishness in recent years. The vulnerability of the nation, much of which can be attributed to the disintegration of the empire and the dying out of colonial influence, has left the British with much less to be proud of. The question is: if the constituent parts of Britain become independent, will Britishness be wiped away? While nationalism is about ‘what is’, Englishness seems to be illustrated by ‘what is not’ – it is not Scottish; it is not Welsh; it is not European. The question of ‘what is’ remains unresolved. In contrast, the well-defined ‘Chinese-ness’ (or Chinese nationalism) is on a remarkable rise, which corresponds to the rise of China. For this, government propaganda should take the credit. It has been promoting a sense of patriotism characterised not only by the love for the nation, but the love for the party as well. Confusing the two can be dangerous, as speaking against the party can be taken as a betrayal of the nation. And in no way should a party represent a nation. China boasts thousands of years of civilization, and this is where the root of ‘Chinese-ness’ should lie. It is one thing to sulk over the failures and disgrace in contemporary history; it is quite another to dismiss them. What a shame that ‘Chinese-ness’ is being nurtured by creating a seemingly harmonious present rather than reflecting on the past.

Britain and China both have challenges to face and truths to hide. If history teaches us something, it is that nothing can maintain the status quo forever. Perhaps, what most people care of is a place where they are proud of – her past and her present.

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