As the representative of Her Majesty’s Government in Beijing entered the room through the tall, heavy doors, he was met with a sight of imperial splendour. At the far end of the glorious room were two comfortable chairs facing down the room, separated by a marble table on which sat a huge vase of flowers.
The Chinese government representative was seated impassively on one chair while, to his left, a harsh wooden bench stretched down the side of the room, occupied in strict hierarchy by various government functionaries numbering about 15.
The British minister took his seat in the other chair, his view of his counterpart blocked by the flowers, while his rather smaller contingent of officials began to occupy the parallel wooden bench, and not in any hierarchical order.
And so the ceremony began – two formal speeches, which had been agreed between the parties beforehand, delivered to the mute officials on either side rather than to each other. Nobody else was allowed to speak, clap or express themselves in any way. The formal signing of a document would follow.
All very much what you would expect from an event held in the Qing dynasty, which was finally deposed in 1912. Except this was 2013, and I was the British minister.
China’s historical claims on Tibet and Taiwan
The emperor’s new clothes are being worn by the hard-nosed apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party and in ways that go far beyond, and are far more significant than, the superficial conduct of ceremonies.
To understand the current Chinese government mindset, you need only look back to the days of the emperors. There is nothing new about Xi Jinping’s “One China” policy.
For at least two centuries prior to the revolution in 1911, China spuriously laid claim to the independent country of Tibet. It was a claim Britain never recognised, and we were in a unique position to judge, being the only Western country to have been in Tibet prior to 1911 and throughout the period leading up to its illegal annexation by China in 1959.
In 1904 Britain and Tibet signed the Lhasa Convention, which was followed by the bilateral Simla Convention of 1914. China was nowhere to be seen. In 1940 Hugh Richardson, representing the British government, was the only Westerner present at the enthronement of the Dalai Lama. Until 1959 Tibet had its own government, its own foreign policy, its own currency, its own stamps. No amount of rewriting of history by the Chinese regime can change the historical facts. We were there in independent Tibet.
Yet, because it has tumbled down from the days of the emperors that China as an entity should include Tibet and Taiwan, that is the template that today guides Xi Jinping’s clique. The boundaries were set in stone a very long time ago, and today’s or tomorrow’s Chinese government will never rest until the “One China” of the emperors has been achieved. Neither the passage of time nor the advent of modern concepts such as self-determination can be allowed to change the destination. It is non-negotiable. If that in due course means a military invasion that is what will happen.
Meanwhile, with a 19th-century colonial mindset, the Chinese have muscled in to claim virtually the whole of the South China Sea. They claim land that is clearly not theirs, islands which are Japanese, land which is Indian.
For the Chinese government, Taiwan is the last major piece in the imperial jigsaw. Tibet has been occupied, Hong Kong and Macau reclaimed and suppressed. Taiwan is next. It won’t matter if the whole world objects and applies sanctions. Unifying the country, as the Chinese government sees it, cannot be trumped.
In Xi Jinping’s own words, “We will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China”.
There is a story that in 1968 the then Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, replied that it was too early to tell. He probably thought he was being asked about the student unrest in France at the time, rather than the uprising of 1789, but it has gained credibility as a story precisely because it is believable. The Chinese do think long term.
But alas it is not simply a question of boundaries. With the arrogance of Imperial China there is a deep intolerance of any variation from the Han Chinese norm. At one end, this is reflected in the attempt to squeeze out other tongues such as Cantonese, spoken in Hong Kong and south-east China, and Tibetan. At the other end are prohibitions and punishments that arguably constitute genocide.
Uyghurs who attend mosques are now classified as “terrorists”, a description also applied to the Dalai Lama, who has spent his life advocating non-violence.
Uyghurs are arrested for having long beards and not drinking alcohol or eating pork, Tibetans for displaying traditional prayer flags and having a picture of the Dalai Lama.
Why does the Chinese regime behave in this extreme way? I believe part of it comes from the Imperial arrogance of the government. But there is also a deep-seated insecurity from Imperial days that they are vulnerable to non-Han influences. And they especially fear that any relaxation of their iron grip will be fatal.
Xi Jinping has said, “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken”.
What can the democratic world do? Only hold the line until some distant day when the Chinese government mindset changes. Judging by history, that is not going to be any time soon.