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Humiliating history feeds an obsession with race

Hong Kong Handover
"The Chinese people have stood up and will finally wash away a century of national disgrace." Thus does China anticipate the return of Hong Kong to "the motherland", an event which will purge "a national shame that cannot be forgotten". According to nationalist propaganda, 1997 marks the end of the country's "humiliation" by foreign powers. "When China becomes strong, nobody in the world will dare to bully us," a Chinese Communist Party magazine thundered recently.

The image of mainland China, humbled by foreign powers over 150 years and now reasserting itself, is one which requires constant reminders of past "humiliations" in order to inspire present-day patriotism.

Professor Lucian Pye, a Sinologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues: "It is a xenophobic nationalism, one lacking higher ideals, principles or visions. The test of nationalism is not just its capacity to mobilise people. Equally important is whether it sets standards that can govern the rulers."

Outside the mainland, Chinese nationalism is still be a powerful mobilising force. This was shown in last year's protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong against Japan's claim to the Diaoyu islands.

Modern Chinese nationalism has its roots among the late-19th century reformers who opposed the ruling Manchu dynasty and wished to unite the Chinese people against the foreign powers in China.

It presented an unashamedly racial view of what it was to be Chinese. Sun Yatsen, the father of post-imperial China in 1911, wrote in the Three Principles of the People: "The greatest force is common blood. The Chinese belong to the yellow race because they come from the blood stock of the yellow race. The blood of ancestors is transmitted by heredity down through the race, making blood kinship a powerful force."

Frank Dikotter, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, points out: "Chinese nationalism has been based on ideas of descent. The Yellow Emperor was a significant founding myth in Chinese nationalism at the beginning of this century; today references are more often made to Peking Man and other archaeological findings that are claimed to indicate that the Chinese have separate origins from the rest of mankind."

Mr Dikotter, author of a book on nationalism in China to be published next year, adds: "One does not become Chinese like one becomes Swiss or Dutch, since cultural integration (language) or political adoption (passport) are both excluded as means of becoming 'Chinese'."

This narrow definition has been keenly felt by Indian and Pakistani families in Hong Kong, many of whom have been resident for generations, but will not qualify for post-1997 Hong Kong passports because they are not ethnic Chinese.

Ethnicity is entwined with a tendency always to blame foreign countries. Patriotic instruction in China today dwells at length on the wrongs of the 19th century, the "Unequal Treaties" with Britain and the Japanese occupation. As part of the 1 July celebrations this year, a lavish mainland film, The Opium Wars, will have its premiere in China and Hong Kong.

China's obsession with historical injustice paradoxically may be linked to the fact that it was never truly colonised, unlike India and Indonesia. Mr Pye explained: "The treaty ports were a Chinese invention to keep the 'barbarian' cooped up. But the humiliation was that the Chinese flocked to the treaty ports, and prospered."

There is a parallel with Hong Kong, and China's threats against the British to open the border - enabling eager mainlanders to flood into the colony.

"Today you have more talk in China about the 150 years of foreign humiliation than in India, Indonesia, or Burma, for example. They have all been able to grow out of this, but China is somehow clinging to it," says Mr Pye.

The basis for a mature nationalism has fallen foul of political upheavals. Mr Pye argues: "You have had 40 years of the Chinese Communist Party denouncing as an abomination all that was great in Chinese civilisation. And now they turn round and wonder, what have we got left? Where are our ideals, where are our values? And there aren't any, except for a sort of racist instinct."

Mr Pye has little doubt about China's response if the Hong Kong transition does not go smoothly. "They will have to find scapegoats - and it will be Britain and the United States."