Re-imagining empire: ‘great(er) China’ and ‘global Britain’
PREM PODDAR and CHRIS SINHA
‘Armenian radio is asked "Is it possible to predict the future?" Answer: "Yes, that is no problem: we know exactly what the future will be like. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing".’
– Geoffrey Hosking relating an anecdote from the imaginary ‘Armenian radio’.1
TWO or three decades ago, it was commonly assumed by influential western intellectuals that a newly re-energized global capitalism would, through a process of modernization brought about by the creation of new markets in ‘emerging economies’, bring with it a convergence around the world of social systems, cultural norms and popular lifestyles. Modernity would increasingly have a common face, moulded in the image of western liberal democracy. Today we see this as wishful thinking. Although the narcissistic ‘West is Best’ narrative continues to be vigorously propagated by western think tanks and international institutions, it is increasingly threadbare and ever more explicitly contested. Nowhere is this contestation more evident than when it comes to China and the West.
At the same time, ironically, we are also witnessing a convergence of politics and governance in many countries, but not the one imagined by the prophets of universal liberal democracy. The rise of strong-man politics, in countries of the Western Alliances and their adversaries alike, is not only intensifying international tensions, but also laying bare similarities between the national-popular ideologies on which governments such as those of Modi, Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Trump were elected.
In this article, we focus on two countries whose leaders are not usually included in this gallery of revanchists and racists: Britain and China. We are naturally aware of the disanalogies between these two countries. Britain is a liberal democracy, while China is an authoritarian one-party state. Britain is a declining power, while China is a rising one. Despite these differences, however, the versions of national populism propagated by Boris Johnson and the UK Conservative Party, and Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party, have a key narrative thread in common: the centrality of Empire and its history.
In both cases, the narratives are deployed both in discourses for domestic consumption, and on the world stage as proclamations of a unique virtue that can serve as a model for emulation by others – ‘Global Britain’ and jia guo tianxia. The latter polysemous expression can mean ‘the [Chinese] national family’ or ‘the world community’, in each case having a strongly normative sense of harmony, duty, benevolence, order-under- authority.2
Ared thread? Empire and the central kingdom – Since1949, a prominent theme in the CCP’s presentation of Chinese history, both to the Chinese people and to the world, has been the depiction of China as a victim of imperialism, encapsulated in the unequal treaties forced by western powers upon the Qing dynasty, the opium wars, the destruction and sacking of the Old Summer Palace by British and French troops, the ‘concessions’ of the territory of Hong Kong and urban quarters of Shanghai, the atrocities inflicted by the Imperial Japanese Army on Nanjing and other cities, and the long and ultimately victorious war of resistance against Japan.
The lesson of this history has been endlessly repeated – China must never again allow itself to be humiliated, and to prevent such a repetition of the calamities of the past, the nation must unite behind the party. At the same time, it has been assiduously emphasized that China, unlike the West and Japan, has never in its long history sought overseas territorial domination. All this is true enough, but it leaves unexamined China’s own imperial history, and in particular the story of the onward march of dominance, through both conquest and assimilation, of the Han majority over other peoples, including (but not only) those living in China’s vast border regions.
China is far more ethnically and linguistically diverse than would be gleaned from most commentaries. The Ethnologue database is cited as listing around 300 living non-Sinitic languages, not counting the multitude of non-Mandarin Chinese dialects,in the territory of the PRC.3 The Chinese government currently recognizes, as a result of a cumulative process starting in 1954, 55 shaoshu minzu (ethnic or national minorities).4 The list has never been exhaustive, has not been updated since 1979, and updates do not include revisions of existing ethnic categories. The ‘one group-one language’ assumption means that official estimates of linguistic diversity (the best marker of ethnic identity) are woefully inadequate.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, efforts to preserve minority languages through use in education were both policy and, in many cases, practice, and at least the policy commitment continued well into the 21st century. Although it is difficult to establish an unambiguous current position, this seems no longer to be the case. Especially in regard to the large and vital Mongolian, Tibetan and Uyghur communities, there have been intensifying efforts at cultural and linguistic Sinicization,5 accompanied in the case of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang by serious documented human rights abuses.6 The already fragile integrity of smaller ethnolinguistic minorities, mostly living in remote rural areas, has been undermined by depopulation and local school closures as a result of urbanization and consequent internal migration. China’s diversity, like that in much of the world, is in crisis, and ongoing shifts in the way that the CCP projects national identity are part of this crisis.
Borders, badlands and brigands: The Han civilizing mission – We cannot summarize here two millennia of uneven expansion of the Han and subsequent Chinese imperial dynasties, and the establishment of the continuing Han ascendancy.7 Our focus, rather, is on the ideological anchoring of this ascendancy in the notion of a benign civilizing mission, and the way in which this has been brought again into focus by the prominence of current discourses, both assimilationist and outward-looking, that we can call a ‘turn to tianxia’.
Turn to tianxia – The classical Han worldview was predicated on a characterization of the non-Han in terms of degree of both spatial and cultural distance from the central kingdom, zhongguo.8 Those non-Han groups, whether conquered or conquering, who were able to be ‘cooked’ into normative conformity were assimilated. The ‘raw’ resisters were beyond the pale,9 and remain so to this day in the popular imagination. Minzu beliefs and customs, including systems of marriage and kinship, were sometimes regarded as offensive to heaven, and their resistance was stigmatized as outlawry.
These stereotypes persist – you can still hear minzu men talked of as thieves and bandits, and minzu women as lewd seductresses. The PRC constitution of 1954 explicitly repudiated Han suprematism, and implicitly limited the assimilationism of the concept of minzu ronghe ‘ethnic fusion’, by asserting the equality, unity and mutuality of all ethnicities. The communist vision of ‘progress’ inherited, however, many of the assumptions of the ‘backwardness’ of minorities, as well as the generalized backwardness of rural life. The human cost of the Great Leap Forward, collectivization and the Cultural Revolution are well known, and these impacted all groups in Chinese society.
At the same time, just as the current CCP leadership’s proclamations of its world-historic achievement in lifting millions from poverty should not be dismissed as mere propaganda, it should be acknowledged that real gains were made by at least some minzu. One of the authors recalls a conversation with a woman in her nineties in a minzu village. When asked what she recalled as most significant in her long life, she declared that it was the agrarian reforms that bestowed landholding rights on women. The other recalls a Tibetan ex-lama in Shangrila (erstwhile Gyalthang, now rebranded as a tourist destination), who returned from India, stressing the importance of economic advances for the Khampas in what was once Kham.
The ‘turn to tianxia’ of the past few years, under Xi Jinping, involves a repudiation domestically of the moderate pluralism that previously informed Chinese policies towards minorities, in areas ranging from relative political autonomy to linguistic and reproductive rights. In its place is an assertion of the primacy of national unity and of a single Chinese identity. This unitary identity is envisioned by some scholars as extending back into the deep history of Chinese civilization and classical Chinese thought, which is held (in a view attributed to one of China’s most distinguished historians) to be ‘unique in world history for its coherence, continuity and distinctiveness.’10
This exceptionalist evocation of Chinese history and culture provides an ideological buttress both for appeals to patriotic sentiment, and for the re-imagination of the political geography of a new jia guo tianxia, in which China is the central core of nations under heaven. ‘Great(er) China’ (da Zhonghua), which finds geo-political and economic expression in the yi dai yilu ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, can be seen in this perspective, as both a hegemonic project, and an idealized cultural model for the rest of the world.
The exceptionalist historical narrative is not the only intellectual support for the ‘turn to tianxia’. The term renlei mingyun gongtongti (a community of destiny for mankind, now inscribed in the 2018 Constitution) is also central to China’s self-presentation, invoking interdependence between civilizational traditions, mutual learning and accommodation, and possibly hybridization. It has been seen as heralding a ‘Chinese Renaissance’ in which China is ‘a receiver of external ideas and practices but also acts as an emitter.’11
This more pluralistic version of the ‘turn to tianxia’ is itself buttressed by an alternative perspective on the history of China, emphasizing influences flowing from centuries of globalization, and the significance of intercultural encounters in the formation of a Chinese culture and a Chinese nation conceived in a context of diversity.12 It is possible to view, in an optimistic light, exceptionalist jia guo tianxia and pluralist renlei mingyun gongtongti as complementary faces of the new vision of tianxia. This would be consistent with the importance of complementarity in the history of Chinese thought – and we should not forget that there is a long tradition in China of synthesizing different schools of thought (as, for example, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism).
However, the recent history of Chinese politics, both domestic and foreign, suggests that the ‘one unique culture, one history’ perspective is currently in the ascendant. In our view, the dominant ‘turn to tianxia’ narrative can be seen as articulating a coherent conceptual complex that profiles the following key ideas and values. First, that China is, and always was, constituted as a cultural, political and philosophical unity. Second, that the CCP leadership embodies, in the present and for the future, this unity. Third, that this unity extends through the entire territory of the PRC and beyond, to also encompass the Chinese diaspora. Fourth, that challenges to this unity of diverse kinds, cultural, religious, feminist, linguistic, whether or not they are explicitly political, are challenges to both party and nation, and are unpatriotic. Fifth, that other nations should both respect these unitarian values and their embodiment in the party. Sixth, that this complex of ideas/values is the basis for a coherent, peaceful and prosperous international order at the centre of which is China.
It is scarcely surprising that a rising economic and political titan such as China should both express and anchor its renewed confidence in a renewed and distinctive historical narrative. China is hardly the only, and far from the first, country to proclaim its uniqueness and to view itself as a model for other nations (think only of the ‘City on the Hill’ of American exceptionalist rhetoric). And we would reject an equation of the ‘turn to tianxia’ that we describe above with the idea of a Chinese strategy for ‘world domination’, so beloved of febrile western imaginations, which motivates the discourse of ‘containment’ of China.
That discourse stems from the perceived threat of the rise of China to an international order based on US military and economic hegemony. Our point in this article is emphatically not that. We suggest, rather, that the conceptual complex of modern Chinese jia guo tianxia is one that converges, in its emphasis on historical, national and political unity under a single authority, with concurrent developments in other international actors.
Readers of Seminar won’t have to look far to find echoes of at least parts of this idea/value complex in the Hindutva ideology and the BJP practice of governance of India. We turn now, however, to the examination of the current configuration of history and politics in another country whose leadership would doubtless recoil in horror at comparison of their government with that of China: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Global Britain: an island all at sea? The British Empire, like the Dutch, was global, mercantile and maritime. Unlike the Dutch Empire, which it had surpassed by the end of the 17th century, its metropolitan heart was an island. The significance of this geography cannot be over-emphasized. It is central to key narratives that, like all semi-mythic narratives of imagined community, both bind and blind the nation. That since the Norman invasion of 1066, no invader ever conquered the English – but the Glorious Revolution of 1688, that put William of Orange on the English throne, is known in Dutch as De Glorieuze Overtocht or ‘Glorious Crossing’, since it was accomplished as a result of an invited invasion from Holland to save England for Protestantism. That England stood alone against the Nazi threat in 1940 – but it did so with the human and material resources of the largest and, despite the costs of the First World War, still the richest empire the world had ever seen; and from mid-1941, in alliance with the Soviet Union.
Empire was central to British identity and much of British experience until at least the end of World War II – which still, 75 years on, is referred to as ‘the War’. Generations of soldiers, administrators and their wives served in far-flung reaches, across expanses of sea patrolled and commanded by the Royal Navy. The ruling class was inculcated with the virtues of leadership, of imperial subjects of diverse colours, religions and languages. Loyalty to Empire was expected equally of all – although this was the only equality Empire conceded, since subjecthood and rights were framed in terms of a rigid hierarchy of race, class and gender.
The Empire was expected ‘pre-War’ to last at least another century, but its end came ‘gradually, then suddenly’, as Ernest Hemingway said of one of his character’s bankruptcy.13 The emblematic moment was the Independence (and catastrophic partition) of India. Even so, the ideology of empire continued to inform education (all those places still coloured red on school atlases), entertainment, broadcasting and (naturally) representations of monarchy, throughout the 1950s.
Then, just as suddenly, empire apparently ceased to exist in the self-image of Britishness, intruding only as an elided background to its human freight of Commonwealth immigrants who came to Britain to fill labour shortages in the new National Health Service, in transport and in manufacturing; then, later, the violence of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. Immigrants’ stories, and the stories of countless colonial subjects who served the Empire militarily, are now, finally, being told.14 But the actual history of Empire disappeared from education and public discourse in Britain. Instead, the nation (at least, its white majority) treated itself to a comforting myth of the uniquely benign nature of British colonial rule (‘not like those others …’), with a heavy admixture of resentment (encouraged by the right wing media) of ‘them’, the immigrants of colour, the ones who came to ‘scrounge off the state’.
On 1 January 1973 Britain joined the Common Market. This was hailed by some, and regretted by others, as a turning point – the Brits were perhaps becoming Europeans, leaving behind, with some nostalgia and with some relief, the baggage of Empire, which in subsequent decades receded even more into the background of national consciousness. But the repressed has a habit of returning. Britain had never decolonized itself, and the legacy of disavowal remained: ‘Habits of thought, from the most inconsequential practices of everyday life through to the most highly formalized systems of philosophical abstraction, still reproduce inherited and often unseen colonial mentalities.’15
After the Maastricht Treaty of 1993 introduced European citizenship and freedom of movement, resentment towards ‘them’ found a new target in migrants from ‘Europe’. This was mixed into a heady brew, of mockery of ‘Eurocrats’ who wanted to straighten bananas and ban the British banger, of falsified statistics about how much British money went ‘to Brussels’, and topped off with an emotive call to ‘take back control’ – of borders and of British waters. After a referendum in 2016, and a resounding victory by Boris Johnson in the election of 2019, the UK left the European Union on 31 January 2020.
Is that it, then, is Brexit ‘done’? Far from it. In the world of realpolitik, Britain faces a quandary: to bend to the geopolitical priorities of its most powerful ally, the United States, and join in the policy of containment of China; or to adapt to the changing reality of a world in which a resurgent Asia, with China at its heart, dictates its economic imperatives.16 ‘Global Britain’ is the expression of this quandary, not its resolution. To generate the illusion of resolution, it is likely that we will see a repeated replay of the Brexit song-and-dance: a perpetuum mobile of ‘taking back control’ while denouncing those who would call into question the newly minted sovereignty of Global Britain, or doubt the organic cord that binds it to the glory days of the world-bestriding, benevolent British Empire.
Foremost among these doubters are those who question the benign slant of the exceptionalist story of Britain’s empire – the commemoration, for example, of white saviours who abolished slavery, while forgetting the slave-ownership behind so much present-day inherited wealth, and suppressing the history of slave revolts.17
Boris Johnson’s government has repeatedly attacked the movement for decolonization, whether of the curriculum in higher education,18 or of the monuments celebrating imperial conquest and wealth that prominently occupy many urban spaces. These attacks are not merely verbal, they also take the form of changes in law to reduce the powers of local councils to remove plaques and monuments. The justification for this is that we ‘shouldn’t try to rewrite history’, a line most recently trotted out by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson after Oxford’s Oriel College, in what Williamson called a ‘balanced decision’, rejected in May 2021 a report that it had itself commissioned, recommending the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes; because (he tweeted) ‘we should learn from our past, rather than censoring history.’19
The official Party of Opposition, the Labour Party, veers between ducking away from the Right’s ‘culture wars’ (which they think they can never, anyway, win) as being a distraction from ‘real politics’; and awkwardly donning the uniforms and waving the flags that will prove to voters their patriotism. Unfortunately for them, the blending of ‘Get Brexit Done’ with attacks on ‘Wokeness’ has proved as fruitful for the Tories as proclamations of patriotism have proved fruitless for Labour. The culture wars are not a distraction from politics, they are the actual content of the New Right politics of imperial nostalgia combined with authoritarianism.
Despite continual hailing by right wing (and not so right wing centrist) commentators of Boris Johnson’s ‘libertarian instincts’, his political practice is one of ruthless imposition of conformity and crushing of dissent. This is a clear pattern that has been evident from his purging from the cabinet of anyone unsupportive of his hard line on Brexit, through his attempt in 2017 to ‘prorogue’ (dismiss) Parliament, to the unprecedented powers granted to the police in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill now going through Parliament.
Although ‘[i]n theory, there is an abyss between nationalism and imperialism’ to use Hannah Arendt’s insightful words from 1951, ‘in practice, it can and has been bridged.’20 Colonial independence was not the end, but the beginning of a fatal embrace between a spectral British Empire and a United Kingdom showing ever-increasing signs of disintegrating. The more that the material benefits of Brexit are revealed as being for most people21 illusory, the more the ‘real’ British will be identified with those who participate in, or at least go along with, incantatory invocations of ‘Global Britain’, and the more dissenters will be pilloried and, if necessary, prosecuted.
So, what of history? We have argued that the reimagining in the present of nation, and of the place of nation in the world, in both Britain and China, draws on histories and representations of Empire. We have tried to point out some commonalities between these two cases, while not denying their differences. We return, in conclusion, to the wider theme of this issue of ‘Seminar’, Editing History, and in particular to the rhetoric of the opponents of decolonizing history and the public spaces of discourse and of memorialization. Their claim (as exemplified by the twitter feed cited above of Gavin Williamson) is that the practice of decolonization is editing, or editing out, history: we should not try, they say, to change the past.
Of course, the past, its facticity, cannot be changed. But what is suggested by the anti-decolonizers is that the past’s own representation of itself (as if that were possible), and the past’s representations of its past (that is, old histories), are as immutable as the bygone events themselves, as set in stone as the statues that embody those representations. This denial of the possibility of the present’s representation of the past (that is, history with a historiographical sensitivity) to explore new meanings in the past demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of history as an exercise in meaning-making for its (our) own time. We need only ask: Who is really censoring what and whom?
Is the insistence that history must forever remain as already written (by the rulers) really a defence of freedom of thought, or is it something more akin to the worship of a holy writ, or a fetishization of frozen stones? We think so, and we believe that history is, and should always be, open to being reclaimed by those who have not heretofore been accorded the right to write and right it.
1. G. Hosking, ‘Memory in a Totalitarian Society: The Case of the Soviet Union’ in T. Butler (ed.), Memory, History, Culture, and the Mind. Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 115.
2. ‘Family Nation World’: ‘the world (everything under heaven) is made up of nations, and nations are made up of families. We care about our nation in the way we love our family.’ Thanks to Tian Zhen for this gloss. See, Q. Edward Wang, ‘History, Space, and Ethnicity: The Chinese Worldview’, Journal of World History, 1999, pp. 285-305; Zhao Tingyang, ‘Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept "All-under-Heaven" (Tianxia)’, Social Identities 12(1), 2006, pp. 29-41; W.R. Wendt, ‘House, State, and World: Fundamental Concepts of Societal Governance in the West and East in Comparison’, Asian Journal of German and European Studies 3(1), 2018, pp. 1-13.
3. Ethnologue is not fee-free to consult. For detailed information on specific languages and language families see https://glottolog.org/but this resource does not include country-by-country listings.
4. Although both ‘ethnic’ and ‘national’ are used to qualify ‘minority’ in official translations, the latter seems currently to be the preferred term.
5. https://pen.org/press-release/decision-ban-uyghur-language-xinjiang-schools-attack-minority-groups-linguistic-cultural-rights/; https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/03/04/chinas-bilingual-education-policy-tibet/tibetan-medium-schooling-under-threat; https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/04/china-mongolian-mother-tongue-classes-curtailed
7. ‘Han’ designates here a historically constructed, expansive and fluid, rather than rigid originary, identity.
8. Q. Edward Wang, op. cit.
9. ‘The position of a non-Han people in the hierarchy was determined by the extent to which they resembled mainstream Han culture. A similar standard was applied to arranging the non-Hans socially in this hierarchy. The Han Chinese often judged a non-Han people by their social behaviour. If the non-Hans showed a willingness to adopt the Han lifestyle, they were referred to by the Han Chinese as ‘cooked’ (shu), in contrast to the ‘raw’ (sheng) who resisted the Han influence’ (Wang, op. cit., p. 287).
10. Review by Peter C. Perdue of Ge Zhaoguang, What is China? Territory, Ethnicity, Culture and History, Harvard UP, 2019, London Review of Books, 20 May 2021, pp. 25-28. Other prominent proponents of Chinese exceptionalism and the ‘turn to tianxia’ are Ge’s colleagues at Fudan University, Zhang Weiwei (The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State. World Scientific, 2012) and TED-talk guest Eric X. Li, who is also a successful venture capitalist.
11. David Gosset, ‘From Chinese "Renaissance" to Community of Shared Destiny’, China Daily, 23 June 2018. https://europe. chinadaily.com.cn/a/201806/23/WS5b2 daa3aa3103349141de5ea.html
12. Hsu Cho-yun, China: A New Cultural History. Columbia University Press, New York, 2012.
13. The Sun Also Rises.
14. Akala, Natives. Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. Two Roads, 2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08vxt33; https://www.theguardian.com/commentis-free/2021/apr/25/britains-failure-to-honour-black-and-asian-dead-is-a-scandal-of-the-present-not-just-the-past
15. B. Schwarz, ‘Actually Existing Post- colonialism’, Radical Philosophy 104, 2000, pp. 16-24; Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain. Viking, 2021.
16. As Peter Frankopan pithily puts it, ‘[t]he age of the west is at a crossroads, if not at an end.’The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015, p. 519.
17. The wealth flowing from slave ownership also endowed Oxbridge colleges, although this remains under-researched (https://www. theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/30/cambridge-university-study-how-it-profited-colonial-slavery) and there is a deep reluctance to address this issue.
19. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-57189928; https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/may/20/cecil-rhodes-statue-will-not-be-removed-for-now-says-oxford-oriel-college
20. Graham MacPhee and Prem Poddar, ‘Nationalism Beyond the Nation-State’ in MacPhee, Graham and Prem Poddar (eds.), Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective. Berghahn Books, New York/Oxford, 2010.
21. Brexit will undoubtedly bring benefits for a wealthy minority, but this issue cannot be addressed here.