China Standoff: A Creepy Echo From the Past

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Contrary to some of the grander theories about historical causation, even the complacency of a superpower can be severely challenged when something small goes wrong. The emergency landing of the damaged United States spy plane on Hainan Island after an aerial collision with a Chinese jet has reminded us once again how important an apparently small accident can be. Though we cannot at this time be sure exactly what debates are taking place in Beijing over the stranded plane, the dead Chinese pilot and the United States crew, we can be sure that at the heart of the discussions there is a certain complacency that China is, once again, able to impose its own view of reality on the foreigners' blundering ways.

The last time something rather like this happened was over 200 years ago. Then it was Great Britain that was the superpower, flexing its muscles across the globe, and imposing its sense of its own destiny on the world. China, however, was proving stubborn, intensely aware of the vulnerability of its borders and equally self-conscious about its prestige. The reigning Qianlong emperor, as part of the process of expanding and consolidating China's borders, had also restricted trade with the Western powers to a small perimeter outside the city walls of Canton. The British chafed at this limitation, and sought a wider zone of commercial operations. They also sought, in vain, to pressure the Chinese into accepting Western norms of law, both with respect to the law of the sea and to protection of property and persons.

The formative moment in the development of Sino-British relations came in 1784. In that year an elderly gunner on a British vessel, the Lady Hughes, was ordered by his captain to fire a salute in Canton harbor. He did so, but failed to notice a Chinese lighter loading cargo in the vicinity. The explosion from the ship's gun seriously injured three Chinese on the lighter, two of whom died shortly afterward from their wounds. The Chinese authorities, in accordance with Chinese law that "a Native of this country having been killed... whether by accident or design," the person responsible must stand trial, ordered that the gunner be handed over to them. Though the foreigners trading there protested, pointing out that this was clearly an accidental homicide, they were forced to give in by the Chinese imposition of a total trade boycott and an impressive show of force. After a long delay while instructions were sought and eventually received from Beijing, the gunner was executed by strangulation. Trade resumed, but the cost was high: as one foreign merchant wrote, the choice they faced had been a grim one. They were forced to regain Chinese favor either by "a submission that must be disgraceful; or by the use of force, which however successful, must be productive of very serious calamities."

From that time on, the British decided to follow the option of force rather than submission in dealing with China. in the two "Opium Wars" of the early and mid 19th century, the British not only won the right to sell opium (grown in their Indian territories) inside China, but also established the system of low-tariff "Treaty Ports" — of which Shanghai swiftly became the most successful — along with the principle of "extraterritoriality." This stipulated that foreigners committing crimes on Chinese soil or in Chinese waters would be judged by the laws of their own countries rather than by those of China. The United States benefitted from all these provisions, as did the other Western powers and Japan.

Not surprisingly, getting rid of these humiliating proofs of foreign military and jurisdictional superiority became a central preoccupation of Chinese nationalism. Much of 20th-century Chinese history is the story of China's attempts to regain control over its tariffs on foreign trade, to eradicate the treaty ports, and once more to compel the foreigners to be tried according to Chinese law

In the early 1940s, these long-cherished goals were attained, and the foreigners once more compelled to see China in its own terms rather than in theirs. The Chinese communist government inherited these gains, and is certainly not likely to ever yield them up again, unless confronted with overwhelming force. Their pride demands that they call the shots, not only in normal situations but also in such accidental or even freakish encounters as that which has just occurred. For the United States to fail to understand this would be a serious mistake. Like the British, they are learning that sometimes things just happen in a way that gives the advantage to the other side. But unlike the British, the current world situation does not give them the option of employing massive force in a attempt to rectify an accident of history.

Jonathan Spence teaches Chinese history at Yale. His latest work, "Treason by the Book," has just been published by Viking.