Asia

All Under Heaven: China Reconstructs its History

In October 2018, I wrote an article for The Australian titled “Kowtowing to China Will Only Lead Us to Hong Kong”. Since then, of course, not only has the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong been extinguished, along with the safeguards of an independent judiciary system, but Beijing has made its move on Australia. This has taken many forms, although the so-called shadow trade war which followed the Morrison government’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 looms largest in our minds. None of this has prevented Kevin Rudd criticising Scott Morrison for being “hairy chested” in his attitude to Xi Jinping. If only the Coalition government got “the balance right”—or spoke to Beijing with “respect”, as New Zealand’s Trade Minister Damien O’Connor advises—Australia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could return to an era of strategic partnership. Bill Hayton’s The Invention of China (2020) is a very good place to start in any serious response to the likes of Rudd and O’Connor.

While the organising principle of the Chines Communist Party (CCP) in the post-Mao era has remained Leninist, the ideology of the Party has undergone a dramatic transformation. The dogma that brutally bound the PRC together during the era of Mao (1949 to 1976) was egalitarian collectivism. One of the many cruel features of Maoism was the officially sanctioned outbreaks of millennialist psychosis, including the 1949 to 1953 Land Reform Movement (estimated between 2 and 3 million killed), the 1958 to 1962 Great Leap Forward (estimated 40 to 45 million) and the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution (estimated 20 million). Maoism, though obviously harrowingly homicidal, nevertheless possessed a centripetal force that required the people of the PRC to direct themselves inwards towards the centre of all things—the Great Helmsman. Afterwards, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist-Leninism might have been a welcome respite from Maoist madness, and yet the new market reforms could not be counted upon to bind the population as one standardised body in fealty to the CCP. What, then, would be the ideological glue to hold the PRC together if not Marxist-Leninist-Maoist thought?

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The most valuable aspect of Hayton’s The Invention of China is that it provides us with insight into how the Party has, over the past forty years, progressively stitched together a new totalitarian ideology. We could call it imperialist-Leninism. This despotic worldview binds the people of the PRC together in a racialist form of nationalism that, once again, directs them towards the centre of all things—in this case, General Secretary Xi Jinping, elevated to the status of “Helmsman” by the CCP’s Central Committee as recently as last October.

The latter-day CCP ideologues have discarded some of their old Marxist standbys and borrowed heavily from the canards of reformers and revolutionaries living in the final decades of the Qing Great-State. These intellectual rebels devised racialist and Social Darwinist myths about a long, uninterrupted history of “Chinese culture” that has no connection to reality. The great conceptual innovation of the Party in the post-Mao era, according to Hayton, has been to build on these century-old fabrications to create a racialist nationalism that conveniently intertwines notions of “China”, “the people”, “the government”, “the nation-state” and “the Party”. Or as Xi Jinping put it in the closing speech of the 2018 National People’s Congress: “The Communist Party will always be the backbone of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation.” This worldview has become so persuasive and pervasive in the PRC that slating the Party is now tantamount to betraying the Chinese people. Joseph Goebbels, if he were still amongst us, would be impressed. In the most pointed passage in The Invention of China, Hayton has this to say:                               

What should we call this new political ideology, one that features a single “core” leader, insistent demands for natural homogeneity, intolerance of difference, rule by party not by law, corporativist economic policies, a focus on discipline and an ideology based on tactical exceptionalism—all backed up by a massive surveillance state? China’s Communist Party has long talked of building “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Xi Jinping now seems more interested in building “national-socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Hayton does not claim to have written a book of original scholarship, but The Invention of China is nevertheless a powerful work of synthesis, brilliantly drawing on the latest historiography of “New Qing History” and “Critical Han Studies”. Both these schools of thought, Hayton points out, are not “addressed with candour inside the People’s Republic itself” but are pursued, if they are pursued at all, at universities in North America, Australia, Europe and Japan. The Chinese State Council (China’s ostensible government) does not sanction these relatively new and contrarian ways of viewing the history of their country. That is hardly surprising given that the findings of New Qing History and Critical Han Studies undermine the CCP’s mantra that its claims to exceptionalism are underwritten by an unassailable patriotic spirit built on the superiority of 5000 years of unbroken Chinese civilisation.

So much we think we know about China, including its very name, was fabricated by reformers and revolutionaries during the latter stages of the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912) or, as Hayton refers to it, the Qing Great-State. He calls it the Qing Great-State because the subjects of Qing emperors, like the subjects of the Ming emperors and every other dynastic ruler before them, had no concept of loyalty beyond “allegiance to the ruler”. It is a challenging idea to grasp for someone raised on the notion of a nation-state, but no less difficult to grasp than the idea of a nation-state for those identifying themselves in terms of loyalty to a dynastic ruler. Zhang Deyi, an emissary for the Qing Great-State in Europe and North America, wrote this in his diary in 1871:

After decades of East-West diplomatic and commercial interactions, [they] know very well that my country is called Da Qing Gua [Qing Great-State] or the Zhong Hua [Central Efflorescence] but insist on calling it “China”, Zhaina, Qina, Shiyin, Zhina, Qita, etc … Zhong Guo has not been called by such a name over four thousand years of history … I do not know on what basis Westerners call it by these names!

The reason why Westerners wanted to call it by those names, maintains Hayton, is because they understood a specified country in terms of “a piece of land” whereas Zhang Deyi made sense of his own country only when he “invoked its ruling dynasty”.

In other words, the Qing Great-State, like the Ming Great-State before it (1368 to 1644), was not a nation-state in the European sense. There was a fuzziness about territorial boundaries on the part of the Qing Great-State when it came to negotiating with rival empires. This was not a matter of being flexible or benevolent—quite the opposite, in fact. The rulers of the Qing Great-State believed they governed “all under heaven” (tianxia) and all who dwelled beyond their realm were more-or-less uncivilised. Thus, there was a reluctance to demarcate boundaries with the emissaries of the encroaching Russian empire for two reasons. First, the very act of state-to-state negotiations (as in the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk) implicitly conferred on Russia a status inappropriate for “barbarians”. Second, being overly specific about boundaries had never been necessary because all of the Qing Great-State’s neighbours paid an annual tribute in order to secure important trading privileges and, of course, to avoid invasion by the armed forces of the regional behemoth. The number of tributary states, thirteen in 1796 and still extensive even in the latter stages of the Qing Great-State, is testament to its imperial ambitions in Central Asia. They were no less than Russia’s from the north and Britain’s from the south (that is, India). In summary, the Qing rulers, like the Russians and the British, also played the Great Game.                             

Hayton exposes the fraudulence of the CCP’s Hundred Years of Humiliation formulation in a number of other ways, the following anecdote included. Back in March 2014, when Chancellor Merkel was hosting President Xi in Berlin, the Germans decided that a Prussian reproduction of a copy of a French map presented to Qing Dynasty Kangxi Emperor in 1718 might be the ideal gift for the General Secretary of the CCP who had everything. They were not to know that the PRC delegation would be horrified by their map. Why? It omitted the states and territories that later added to the Ming-era empire, encompassing Tibet, Mongolia, Manchuria, Xinjiang and Taiwan. Beijing’s state-run media rescued the situation in their own totalitarian way by reporting Merkel’s gift-giving gesture while surreptitiously replacing the 1718 French drawing with an 1844 British version which incorporated Xinjiang and Tibet within the Qing empire’s frontiers. The Qing rulers might have been on the defensive over the last half-century of their rule, but at their height they were as avaricious as any other imperialist power of the time. The salient point here is that the imperialist-Leninists in Beijing continue to rule over what were previously five separate realms.

The Hundred Years of Humiliation concept began as a call to patriotism for a people or peoples who had never been patriotic. A person’s loyalty was for the existing dynastic ruler, not for a place on the map. Nevertheless, some will argue—as Xi Jinping’s regime does—that what differentiates China from the rest of the world and makes it superior is a 5000-year-old civilisation that originates with the mythical Yellow Emperor. Only this is a fantasy, counters Bill Hayton, in the chapter titled “The Invention of Chinese History”. Take the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368) for instance. The accepted or polite view, especially when speaking with a CCP apologist, is that China’s superior 5000-year-old civilisation survived Pax Mongolica intact because the Mongol rulers were themselves utterly transformed by China’s superior (and uninterrupted) civilisation. Hayton disagrees: “The Mongols named their Chinese administration the ‘Yuan Dynasty’ in order to make it more culturally acceptable, but it was not a ‘Chinese’ state so much as an Inner Asian great-state.” The Mongols left their stamp on this East Asian region in a multitude of ways, including uniting the territory for the first time in four centuries. To put it bluntly, as Hayton does, “China”—as we broadly conceive it—is in no small measure a legacy of the Mongols.

Moreover, “China”—again as we broadly conceive it—is also a legacy of the Qing Great-State, one of the more rapacious empires in history. One of the reasons that Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, to name but three territories, are claimed by today’s imperialist-Leninists in Beijing is only because at an earlier time grasping Qing rulers pinched them. All three territories regained various degrees of independence only after the clout of the Qing Great-State waned. No rationalisation of European or Japanese imperialism is required to make the point that the territorial expansiveness of the PRC profits from the imperial ambitions of the Qing Great-State. Rather than allowing ourselves to be lectured by the likes of President Xi Jinping about the Hundred Years of Humiliation, justice would be better served if we spoke up about the Seventy Years of Humiliation for Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchurians and Uyghurs, along with the Seventy Years of Threats against Taiwan. The PRC is an imperialist state built upon the vestiges of an earlier imperialist state. Thus, when Mao Zedong ordered military forces into Tibet and Xinjiang in 1950 to enforce martial law it was less an act of liberation than occupation. All the brutality that has followed from that time, the ongoing oppression of the Tibetan people and the re-education camps in Xinjiang, has the tint of genocide.  

The term “China”, Hayton contends, has no likely etymological connection to the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BC) and Qin Shi Huang (of the Terra Cotta Warriors). The country might as well have been dubbed Cathay or some other arbitrary name because, as Zhang Deyi explained, that was not how the people of the Qing Great-State or the Ming Great-State or the Song Great-State (960 to 1279) referred to themselves. Hayton suggests that the words zhong guo, as in Zhongguo, the term used by both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong for China, refers to the particular culture of a given dynasty and not, as nationalistic historians in China would argue, “a continuous state across three, or even five, millennia”. Hayton maintains that a better translation of Zhongguo would be centre-of-the-world rather than middle kingdom “since it is really a description of a political hierarchy between ‘us’ on the inside and ‘them’ on the outside”. Here is the etymological origin of Xi Jinping’s imperialist-Leninist vision of a “shared future for mankind”.   

This brings us to the subject of Great Han Chauvinism. Sino-nationalism, according to Hayton, began with a small group of influential reformers and revolutionaries in the latter stages of the Qing Great-State. Nationalism was posited as the answer to the indignities meted out to the Qing Great-State by European powers and Imperial Japan, from the Opium Wars (1839 to 1842 and 1856 to 1860) to the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) and beyond. Unfortunately, the would-be reformers and revolutionaries found their political inspiration in the racialism and ethnic tribalism popular in various European nations and Japan in the late nineteenth century, many of them informed by the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer. While it was true that a Manchu elite, the rulers of the Qing Great-State, went to great lengths to distinguish itself (as the qi) from the rest of the population (min), it was not as if the rest of the population were racially, or even linguistically, one people: “But by maintaining their separate and privileged status as qi, the Manchu elite created the conditions for a race-based revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century.” China’s turn-of-the-century revolutionaries took the survival-of-the-fittest racialism of Spencer, with its discriminatory generalities about the white race, the yellow race and so on, and re-purposed it for their own chauvinistic awakening.   

There was at least some attempt by the 1912 revolutionaries to acknowledge that the subjects of the Qing Great-State had not been one indivisible race. Though maintaining the myth about the homogeneity of the Han, at least the republic’s new flag, consisting of five stripes, red for the Han, yellow for Manchu, blue for the Mongols, white for the Hui Muslims and, lastly, black for Tibetans, recognised five ethnic groups/nations (minzu) in the mix. Sun Yat-sen, influenced by both turn-of-the-century European notions of race-based nationalism and America’s “melting pot”, opposed the five-striped flag but lacked the authority to disallow it. He envisaged the new republic melding the ethnicities of what had been the Qing Great-State into one people (Zhonghua Minzu). He died in 1925 but his one-state/one-people dream endured. Once Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang (literally Nation Party) achieved a semblance of countrywide power after capturing Beijing in 1928, the five-striped flag was replaced by Sun Yat-sen’s mythological Blue Sky, White Sun and Wholly Red Earth. The PRC, founded in 1949, accepted many of Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek’s conceptual and etymological innovations, including the one about “China” being Zhonghua (People’s Republic of China = Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo).

Mao’s CCP opportunely accepted these fables of the late Qing Great-State reformers and revolutionaries: Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Tibet were, and had always been, integral parts of Greater China. That said, the strictures of Marxist-Leninism meant that Mao’s regime designated “their” Mongolia as Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Tibet as Tibet Autonomous Region and Xinjiang as Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the quintessential hybrid Maoist/post-Maoist, accepted that Hong Kong be ascribed as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, as long as it was recognised as a part of the People’s Republic of China. Hayton notes that Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, an acolyte of Zhou Enlai and the kind of CCP kingpin one can almost respect if not endorse, believed that the peoples of the “autonomous” regions of the PRC would be better served if Beijing left them, as much as a one-party state can permit, to their own devices. The radical departure of Xi Jinping’s ultra-nationalist belief-system from his own father’s views is telling.

Much of Xi Jinping’s imperialist-Leninist ideology is based on a lie, starting with the legend of the Yellow Emperor. The PRC’s global “United Front” organisations are forever celebrating the Yellow Emperor. Western politicians, including our own, politely (and naively) participate in these ceremonies without understanding that the Yellow Emperor fantasy is a ruse by Beijing to justify its darkest inclinations. Thus, the CCP regime, as the vanguard of a superior and continuous civilisation that has its genesis in 2698 BC, reserves for itself a special exceptionalism on the global stage. The regime, as the standard-bearer of the indissoluble Chinese motherland, also affords itself the right to visit civilisational annihilation upon Tibetans, Mongolians, Uyghurs, Manchurians and, if given the chance, the Taiwanese. But it goes even further than that. Not only the non-Han minorities suffer at the hands of Beijing’s cultural absolutism. Dissimilar elements of the so-called “Han Race”, as much an invention of late-Qing Great-State revolutionary intellectuals as “China” and the “Chinese language”, are also homogenised or regularised.

The absence of a “Chinese language”—and the consequent need to manufacture one—demon­strates as well as anything that there has never been a unitary “China”. Mandarin, or Putonghua, is nothing more than the Beijing-ese dialect spiffed up to be the official language of the PRC. According to the Chinese linguist Lü Shuxiang, there are 2000 forms of “Chinese” spoken throughout the PRC, some 400 of them mutually unintelligible. The Qing Great-State had no need for a national language, asserts Hayton, because “there was no Qing nation”. The subjects of a Qing ruler, as we have noted, were not loyal to a piece of land but a ruling dynasty, with the latter speaking Manchu and everyone else communicating in the local vernacular. It was the turn-of-the-twentieth-century intellectuals who determined that a northern dialect—rather than Esperanto or some other tongue—should serve as the unifying language of a newly minted nation.

Hayton’s chapter “The Invention of the Chinese Language” tells the darkly humorous story of Beijing trying to stymie the Shanghainese’s native tongue: while teaching children to speak the local language is permissible, “teaching them to read it as a written language remains forbidden”. All of this is part of a tyrannical quest to mould the fictitious “Han Race” into one nation and one people with one core leader, reinforced by an unbroken lineage going all the way back to the mythical Yellow Emperor.                    

The worldview of the CCP, in both its Maoist and post-Mao incarnations, appears to have adopted the worst features of European notions of sovereignty and the most problematic qualities of the Qing Great-State. The PRC’s “sovereignty fundamentalism”, as Hayton calls it, invariably results in Beijing denouncing any outside attempt to penetrate the opaqueness of its actions. We have witnessed this in the Politburo’s lingering fury at the Morrison government’s call, in April 2020, for an international inquiry into the genesis of COVID-19. It was more than a year after the outbreak before Beijing reluctantly allowed a small number of scientists associated with the World Health Organisation to visit Wuhan. It is unlikely that the investigative team will be able, at this late stage, to make a genuine assessment of the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in spawning the pandemic. Beijing has no wish to be open and transparent about what it did or did not do. The CCP regime is putting up the same screen of impenetrability that it did during the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1962. Back then the outside world was given no opportunity to witness the death of 40 to 45 million people, all victims of Mao Zedong’s millennial madness, in one of the greatest cover-ups of the twentieth century. The PRC is a sovereign state. Foreigners have no business “meddling” in its internal affairs. It is the same story today with the “education camps” in Xinjiang or oppression in Tibet or the origins of COVID-19.

On the other hand, when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world and especially its neighbours, Beijing readily takes a maximalist position. In 1979, for instance, Deng Xiaoping ordered the People’s Liberation Army into Vietnam to “teach it a lesson”. As it happened, 25,000 Chinese soldiers soon died and, after Deng hastily declared victory, the remaining PLA forces fled back over the border. One of the reasons for the invasion, we assume, is that Beijing was annoyed with Hanoi for overthrowing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. It was perfectly reasonable, of course, for Beijing to intervene in Cambodia by aiding and abetting Pol Pot, but quite another for Vietnam, which had once made tributary payments to the Qing Great-State, to do the same. The PRC, to put it another way, has retained the fuzzy boundaries of the Qing Great-State when dealing with others, and yet the CCP adopts a policy of sovereignty fundamentalism to conceal its darkest deeds from the prying eyes of outsiders. It might have a cyber army of 100,000 spying on the world, not to mention agents interfering in the domestic politics of Australia (and everywhere else).

We can see this combustive mix of Qing Great-State imperialism, European-inspired racialist nationalism and sovereignty fundamentalism at work in Hayton’s chapter “The Invention of a Maritime Claim”. The Qing Great-State never made any actual territorial claim to the South China Sea, but to whatever extent the Qing rulers had any conception of the South China Sea, it was “theirs”; just as Nepal, Tibet, Korea or any other territory under heaven was “theirs”. During the time of the Republic of China (1912 to 1949), a few Chinese cartographers began making claims to atolls and suchlike that did not exist, or did not exist where they claimed they existed, and now President Xi, backed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy, is claiming the entirety of the South China Sea as a sacred and integral part of a continuous and superior civilisation that has its origins in the time of the Yellow Emperor. Add Beijing’s sovereignty fundamentalism to these absurdly ambit claims and we end up with a new law that commands the navy to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction” are “illegally infringed upon by foreign organisations and individuals” in the South China Sea.

By the end of The Invention of China, Bill Hayton’s description of Xi Jinping’s ideology as “national-socialism with Chinese characteristics” has become disturbingly credible. Andrew Hastie’s warning of two years ago seems more prescient than ever: “The new next decade will test our democratic values, our economy, our alliances and our security like no other time in Australian history.” The Chinese embassy, at the time, deplored Hastie’s depiction of the PRC as an echo of Hitler’s Germany: “History has proven and will continue to prove that China’s peaceful development is an opportunity, not a threat to the world.” Last year’s Sino-Indian skirmish in the Himalayas, the crackdown in Hong Kong, the internment camps in Xinjiang, Beijing’s shadow trade war against Australia and now the threat to open fire on Filipino fishing boats in the South China Sea surely suggests otherwise. Hayton’s book brings us closer to understanding the volatile dynamism of the imperialist-Leninist ideology underpinning Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”.

Daryl McCann contributed the article “Australia’s Refusal to Kowtow to China” in the January-February issue

4 comments
  • Harry Lee

    Yes, very good.
    Now, will a critical mass of Proper Australians do the following:
    1. Support and push governments at all levels to expunge Chinese influence in all sectors of Austrlian life?
    2. Push and support the Fed govt, with State and Territory govts also involved, to stop our (now fully degraded) universities bringing in CCP agents under the guise of credentialling (they are certainly not educating) “students”?
    And how to do this with a soon-to-be Fed ALP government and the ALP States and Territories all actively making sweet deals with CCP operatives?

  • Ian MacKenzie

    This review calls into question most of what I thought I knew about China, including if it is actually China but rather Zhongguo. Hayton’s “The Invention of China” is definitely going on my reading list.

  • Harry Lee

    Just as long as we keep in mind that China poses no military threat, not even to Taiwan.
    The main challenge is from the infiltration of CCP agents into Australian bodies that make decisions about Australian economic activity and control the anti-Westernist and/or badly informed propaganda that passes for education and news/opinion in this land.

  • Harry Lee

    For immediate purposes, and actually in perpetuity, the main things to know about China are these:
    China is on a hiding to nothing.
    It has similar, and often greater internal problems/costs of governance, admin and control as did the USSR, but does not have the fossil fuels of the Russians and their ex-empire.
    China’s landmass cannot feed its own 1.4bn people, not by a very wide margin.
    And the cost of producing food in China, per unit, far, exceeds the cost of producing food in the USA and Europe.
    To feed its peoples, China must sell increasing quantities of manufactured trash to Europe and North America. But demand from Europe is no longer growing due to Europe’s ceasing to have babies -babies that would grow up to be productive people who’d be nett creators of wealth and who’d consume manufactured things required from China.
    China’s banking/finance industry always teeters on the edge of collapse. It is devoted to keeping enterprises afloat, not to earn returns on invested capital. The mission of most of Chinese enterprises, of all kinds, is to keep people occupied, not to produce anything important for the longer-term.
    (This is a point that the ALP and Greenist people cannot understand is significant.)
    The current Chinese Plague has alerted other countries’ decision-makers, and people who push those decision-makers, to the dangerous risks of relying on China for anything positive/constructive/necessary to maintain the health and well-being of their non-Chinese people.
    China’s military strength resides in a large army that cannot be projected abroad. It could not even start let alone sustain an invasion of Taiwan.
    Of course, China will huff and puff. China is a Paper Tiger.
    China needs the rest of the world more than the rest of the world needs China.
    And most of the Chinese higher-ups know all this -which is why they huff and puff so loudly, so often.

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