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Europe and China – two opposed traumas

Otto Kolbl

The traumatizing events of the recent or remote history of a community will remain engraved in the collective memory. They can heavily influence the way in which the people see themselves, their country or their relation with other cultures. It is quite striking to see to what extent the historic traumas which influenced Europe and China are radically opposed. This fact has certainly contributed to the communication problems which these two cultures face nowadays.

The event in recent history which has most severely affected Europe is without any doubt the emergence of the fascist regimes in the 20ies, 30ies and 40ies of the previous century. During this time, a whole series of extremely authoritarian regimes like the Nazi regime in Germany, the fascist regime in Italy or the Franco regime in Spain imposed their ideology onto the population with an iron fist. Later on, during the Second World War, a coalition of these countries under the leadership of Nazi Germany even imposed their ideology to other countries, generally without asking their permission.

China: a century without a government worth its name

On the opposite side, China has been traumatized for more than a century (1839 to 1949) by regimes which were totally incapable of managing or even controlling the country. Between 1839 and 1860, the two Opium Wars severely undermined the trust of the population into their government. Relatively small British expeditionary corps have been able to force the enormous imperial army to its knees, while at the same time shelling and looting many coastal cities.

Two opium smokers in Shanghai, around 1870. Photo: Virtual Shanghai.

Two opium smokers in Shanghai, around 1870. Photo: Virtual Shanghai.

In this way, Great Britain and by repercussion the other colonial powers present in China got the right to flood the Chinese market with opium. This drug produced from poppy is generally smoked and has got effects similar to morphine and heroine, which are elaborated from the same raw material.

The thousands of tons of opium thrown every year on the Chinese market by the British traders and the even larger quantities produced in China as a consequence of this forced liberalization caused terrible destruction within the society. According to some estimates, one third or even up to half of the adult male population in some regions was addicted, with an even higher percentage in the upper social classes. The trauma which persists up to our days is therefore caused not only by the perceived humiliation of a military defeat, but maybe even more by the fact that the regime was totally unable to protect the civil population from its devastating consequences.

The loss of trust into the regime allowed the emergence of the Taiping sect, vaguely inspired by Christian ideas. During the 1850ies and 1860ies, thanks to its army showing a really divine motivation, it was able to control parts of China during several years. The civil war which followed cost the lives of up to 20 million people, according to some sources.

An opium den in Shanghai, around 1890. In the upper class, drug addiction was even more widespread than in the population in general. Photo: Shanghai Municipal Police.

An elegant opium den in Shanghai, around 1890. In the upper class, drug addiction was even more widespread than in the population in general. Photo: Shanghai Municipal Police.

The Boxer uprising 1900-1901 was also initiated by a religious sect, this time based on Chinese traditions, in particular Taoism. Its objective was to throw the colonial powers out of China, but the only practical consequence was a bloody Western repression against the members of the sect and the population suspected of supporting it.

In 1911, the monarchy finally broke down. It was replaced by the Republic of China, at first under the rule of Yuan Shikai, a former general under the monarchy; he was in turn overthrown in 1916. As a consequence, the country plunged into total chaos. The commanders of the imperial armies in the different provinces simply declared independence; they were soon followed by other self-claimed warlords. A great part of China experienced a situation close to what we could see in Afghanistan a few years ago or nowadays in Somalia: warlords repress the population and wage war against each other, financing their activities through drug dealing and looting.

In some regions, the nationalist regime under Chiang Kaishek has been able to establish some kind of administration from 1928 on, but the Japanese invasion (Manchuria in 1931, from 1937 on a great part of the rest of China) did not really make things easier. Moreover, his concept of governing excluded many services which Sun Yatsen, the founder of the party, had promised to the population, like land reform and general access to health care and education. In many regions, the warlords retained power by nominally recognizing Chiang Kaishek as head of state. Needless to say that during the whole period, the colonial powers did whatever they wanted in total impunity: especially Japan flooded China not only with opium, but also with morphine and heroine produced in Europe, and local opium production flourished again.

The communist regime under Mao Zedong was the first one who was able to set up an administration capable of restoring order after one century of chaos, with only one exception: during a three year period at the beginning of the cultural revolution (1966-1969), the Red Guards, created by Mao Zedong, tried to impose an "integrist" version of communism and plunged the country again into a short period of chaos.

Europe: the era of totalitarian governments

In Europe, the Second World War has also caused huge destruction. However, this destruction was generally not caused by chaos, i.e. the absence of the State, but much more by the overwhelming presence of a tyrannical administration. As soon as a government took control of a territory, its administration followed.

Of course the war seriously undermined some basic services. Even food production and distribution suffered, but there was no famine: as soon as the availability of a basic commodity began to be problematic, it was rationed, guaranteeing to everybody a minimum supply.

The unique famine of this time took place in the Soviet Union, but it was not due to the absence of the state, but rather to too much of it: in the 1930ies, the Soviet state had decided to squeeze the farmers like lemons in order to extract as much capital as possible from them for a forced industrialization. The collectivization which was supposed to be the tool for this task caused a famine where tens of millions died.

The totalitarian states of that time imposed a strict control of the media and other information. In Nazi Germany for example, many people knew about the extermination camps and that military operations were not going according to plan. If this kind of information could have been spread further, the population might have started to question Hitler's projects. But since the media were tightly controlled and subject to censorship, Hitler could go on with his folly up to total military defeat.

Chaos and totalitarianism from the point of view of the human rights

If we consider the situation in fascist Europe within the framework of human rights, we can describe it as a massive violation of the civil and political rights, for example of the freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, the prohibition of torture.

This is quite the opposite of the situation in China, where violations of the civil and political rights by the governments (or the warlords) were of course systematic. However, many more people died because nobody was able to provide a minimum of stability and security. Under these conditions, the authorities could not even think about providing the basic infrastructure necessary to sustain human life or access to food, medical care and education. On the contrary, since both the local and the national administration were financed partly through taxes on opium trade, it was in their interest that as many people as possible were supplied with the deadly commodity.

One article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in particular is hardly ever quoted in the Western media; only the Chinese government tries from time to time to publicize it, but without much success:

Article 28.

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

This right exists only in the Declaration, it has not been made more precise and concrete in one of the Covenants. Therefore, it is difficult to criticize a government for "violating" it. However, there is no doubt that in 1948 the international community estimated that order is necessary for human people to live in dignity. The "international order" had been destroyed in almost all the regions on earth by a certain number of fascist regimes. On the other hand, "social order" has never been a real problem in Europe during the last centuries, whereas the chaos which pervaded China for one whole century has ever since been engraved in the collective Chinese memory.

We can easily understand that for example the concept of "police state" has got another connotation in the two cultures. In Europe, it reminds us the totalitarian regimes of our recent past, which plunged the whole continent into the horror of war and racial persecution. In China, a strong state is to some extent considered as a necessity in order to prevent the country from relapsing into chaos again.

On the other hand, the rights which do not limit the prerogatives of the state, but imply a positive responsibility, are strongly emphasized in China. This relates mainly to the economic, social and cultural rights, i.e. the right to food, access to health care, education and to a certain level of social security.

The development in China since the coming to power of the communist regime has also relativized the importance of the civil and political rights in the eyes of a majority of the Chinese population. Mao Zedong had no way of coming to power without the massive use of military force: the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kaishek was largely supported the by USA, and there were simply no elections after the first years of the Republic. Even after the defeat of the Nationalist armies, Mao had to conquer the territories held by the different warlords by force. The latter had recognized the Nationalist government only against the promise that they could go on ruling over their territory without too much meddling from the central government.

With his policy based on defending the rights of the poor people, Mao would necessarily meet a tough resistance from the traditional elite. For example, the land redistribution in 1949 and 1950, the first big project of the new communist government, could in no way be achieved in accordance with the right to a fair trial: there were simply not enough justice courts available for this huge task; nor had the Chinese government any money to spend for compensation in accordance with the right to property. Despite this, the expropriation of the big landowners was absolutely necessary in order to allow a huge majority of the population to escape from poverty.

In the following years, the communist party had a tendency to become a new "ruling upper class" which was at times more busy defending its own privileges rather than the interests of the population. Therefore, a good deal of the communist repression, which is quite often in contradiction to the rule of law, has been directed against party members, e.g. for corruption. One of the best examples of this "internal repression" is the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards, young idealists fanaticized by Mao Zedong, terrorized not only the old cultivated elite, but also communist civil servants whose "revolutionary élan" was not satisfactory. Still now, corrupt government officials are executed on a regular basis and many more are sent to prison.

The fast economic development in the last decades is still another example. It is based on an industrialization process and a real estate boom unlike anything seen before. Almost all the cities and villages have been demolished and rebuilt in roughly 30 years. In the cities, apartment blocks built on the rubble of the traditional one or two floor buildings were the only possible solution which could improve the overcrowded living conditions and make enough living space available to the whole population. In the countryside, enough space had to be found for the factories necessary to industrialize a country of 1.3 billion. Everywhere in the country, roads, highways, railroads, dams, irrigation and transport channels and other infrastructure had to be built. If all the necessary expropriations had to be done according to the rule of law, with an independent estimation of the value and the possibility to appeal to a higher court against every decision of the administration, development would have stopped before it even started.

Are human rights in conflict with one another?

This does not mean that the human rights as a whole are relativized; they remain at the center of all the efforts to modernize the country. However, the recent experience acquired when trying to apply them to the situation in China havs led to the emergence of a consensus within a large majority of the population that the various human rights are quite often in conflict one with another.

Applying the right to a fair trial in a country which does not (yet) possess an efficient judicial system can easily lead to an unacceptable level of insecurity or even destabilize the whole system. Respecting the right to property can prevent the land redistribution necessary to social progress and economic development.

Even freedom of expression and democratization can be in conflict with many other human rights, as recent events have shown. The reforms in the former USSR, which were followed by a breaking-up of the country, have lead to the breakdown of the economy and of social welfare, to an explosion of organized crime and to a total loss of prestige on the international scene. This resulted in a trauma not only of many Russians, but also of many Chinese, because of the fear that something like that could happen in their country too.

Traumatisms, a dimension we must take into account on both sides

It is not difficult to understand to what extent some traumatizing events in the recent history of China still influence the way in which the past, present and future of the country is perceived. The same thing is true for the West: fascism which is still present in our memories, and our media will refresh our memory on a regular basis in order to avoid this kind of events to happen again.

Of course China has suffered a lot under the Japanese occupation, which we tend to associate with Hitler's mad expansionism. However, if we look at these events through the eyes of a Chinese, it is not that easy any more to make the difference between the Japanese expansionism and European colonialism. Japan has not really invaded an independent and sovereign China; it has rather contested the control of the Western powers over China and other Asian countries.

This can explain why our media have got problems to understand the Chinese trauma: it was only partially caused by common "enemies", at least part of it was caused by European colonialism, a chapter which is still painful for us.

Realizing that our way of seeing the world is not based on rational criteria but rather on traumas specific to our region is of course not easy. However, the correspondents of our media in China should be able to have an "outside look" not only at China, but also at their own culture and history, so that they can explain to us the deeper reasons for some "cultural differences". Unfortunately, if we look at how our media report about China, it is quite obvious that they project our own traumas onto that country without even reflecting about the legitimacy of this act (see our article Europe and human rights – the history of a silent amputation).