x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A lesson about empire for the country that lost one

Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard and one of the most cogent of TV academics, has declared the end of the "western ascendancy" that has ruled the world since the 1500s.

Experts are lining up to proclaim that the next decade belongs to China. Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard and one of the most cogent of TV academics, has declared the end of the "western ascendancy" that has ruled the world since the 1500s. American hegemony, he believes, is doomed by three deficits - in manpower, in finance and in the political focus required to achieve long-term goals.

@body arnhem:China, of course, has these qualities in spades: a population of 1.8 billion, massive savings which it lends to the spendthrift US, and stable government under the Communist Party. Though this argument is well known to academics, it did not hit home to people in Britain - a country with some experience of the rise and fall of empire - until the execution in China on Tuesday of Akmal Shaikh, a 53-year-old Londoner who was arrested on entering the country with 4kg of heroin.

Mr Shaikh used to run a taxi firm, but his life went off the rails in middle age. He went to live in Poland, where he bent the ear of anyone who would listen about becoming an international pop star and bringing about world peace. A drug syndicate looking for a mule took advantage of his delusions and promised to get him a singing career in China. Mr Shaikh's family say he suffered from bipolar disorder and thus was not fit to appear at the 30-minute trial after which he was condemned to death. The British government made 27 representations to the Chinese authorities, including a phone call from the prime minister, Gordon Brown, to the premier, Wen Jiabao, to appeal for clemency.

All to no avail. The Chinese said it was their sovereign right to execute drug smugglers and asked why, if he was unfit for trial, the condition that rendered him mentally incapable had not been diagnosed before. He is thus the first European to be executed in China for 50 years. Coming so soon after the sentencing of the leading human rights activist Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison, the Shaikh case is the clearest proof that China feels no need to bow to western concepts of human rights. If there had been some equivocation in the past, particularly during the run-up to the Olympics, China now states openly what it believes: the interests of the party and the state trump those of individuals.

In their defence, the Chinese authorities brought up what seems like ancient and irrelevant history: the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s, when China tried to restrict British opium traffickers flooding the country with narcotics. This led to two armed conflicts under which China had to cede some of its ports to British traders, who enjoyed immunity from the Chinese courts. This disgraceful episode is hardly known in Britain but bitterly recalled in China. A Chinese newspaper linked the Shaikh case to the age of imperialism saying: "It brings back the black memory of the opium war started by the British more than a century ago that dragged our country through a lengthy nightmarish period."

It is plainly ridiculous to compare an imperial drive to create a market for opium - by getting the people of southern China addicted - with the case of a deluded middle-aged man duped by a drug gang. But the point to remember is that, while Britain has the luxury to forget, these events live on in China and shape the national consciousness. From the Chinese perspective, history shows that the weak are bullied and the strong make the rules. This lesson is guiding the leadership as the country grows in confidence and will continue to do so. For a 5,000-year-old civilisation, the events of the 1840s are the recent past.

The economic rise of China, of course, should really be called a resurgence. Until it missed out on the industrial revolution, it had the largest economy, the most efficient agriculture and the most professional civil service in the world. The arrival of British opium traders backed by British warships signalled two failures: an economic decline and a technological lag, particularly in the use of firearms, which made China unable to deal with the imperial powers for a century. But over the past 25 years China has surpassed in economic growth what Britain achieved in 1830-1900, though with fewer gunboats.

While the experts are sure that the coming decade belongs to China, few are willing to bet on what this means in practice. Will Chinese warships patrol the seas to ensure supplies of oil and raw materials for its growing industries, and food for its wealthy middle class? Or will the strains of running such a vast country with a collective leadership drawn from the Communist Party hamstring the country's development? The experts think the result will be somewhere in between.

What is certain is that China's history will weigh on its decision-making. The goal over the coming decade is clearly to restore China to its position as the Middle Kingdom, in economic, cultural and technological terms, after the sad decline of the 19th century. In pursuit of that goal, Beijing will not listen to public lectures on how it should behave at home. Ivan Lewis, the junior foreign office minister who was put in charge of upbraiding the Chinese this week, declared: "China will only be fully respected when and if they make the choice to join the human rights mainstream."

But even Mr Lewis knows that these are empty words. Britain is a big investor in China. And when Barack Obama, the US president, visited Beijing in November he came not to lay down the law, but as a debtor paying his respects to his banker. @Email:aphilps@thenational.ae