As President Xi Jinping sat between Kate Middleton and Queen Elizabeth II at a Buckingham Palace banquet in October, the memory of the razed Old Summer Palace seemed far away. The destruction of the palace, though, once seemed impossible to forget.
On October 18, 1860, British forces burned the Old Summer Palace (圆明园) to the ground. The palace, located northwest of Beijing, was built under emperor Qianlong in the second half of the 18th century and its lakes, gardens, and ornate decorations were powerful symbols of Chinese rule.
Nine days earlier, British and French forces had looted the palace and the precious art it housed. The British army returned without the French to destroy the Old Summer Palace.
Greg M. Thomas, professor of art history at the University of Hong Kong, explained, “The French ambassador and general refused to participate in this destruction on the grounds that the palace was an important cultural monument and its destruction exceeded the military aims of their mission.”
The British had no qualms about setting fire to the palace. The ambassador wanted to punish the emperor for the death of European prisoners and to scare the emperor into fulfilling the terms of the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin. For three days, the British army destroyed the palace complex. The Chinese emperor surrendered, and the Second Opium War drew to a close.
The Old Summer Palace is a somber reminder of Western subjugation. This foreign invasion led by the British in the 19th century began China’s “century of humiliation.”
A century and a half later, British Chancellor George Osborne declared at the Shanghai Stock Exchange, “Let’s stick together to make Britain China’s best partner in the West. Let’s stick together and create a golden decade for both of our countries.”
That is not to say the Chinese have forgotten the past. Kurt Campbell, CEO of The Asia Group, a strategy and capital advisory group, dealt closely with Chinese officials during his tenure as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
“One of the party storylines that has been effectively and relentlessly promulgated by Xi Jinping and his team is the idea of the ‘the century of humiliation,’” said Campbell.
“It is undeniable,” he continued, “that at the core of that is frankly British efforts and Britain’s role in various aspects of China’s bad years, bad century—the Opium trade, the division of Hong Kong and of new territories.” Nevertheless, Campbell explained, “somehow they disentangle that long history with that of modern Britain.”
The turbulent history may even unite the countries. Odd Arne Westad, ST Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations at Harvard University, clarified, “In a strange kind of way, the conflicted history creates a sort of link between the two countries.”
Though there remains resentment in China toward Britain over past imperialism, there is also, Westad believes, “a certain sense of closeness because many Chinese know more about Britain than they know about many other Western countries.”
If any resentment exists, it has been put aside in their new venture. There is certainly good reason for both China and the UK to cooperate with each other.
For China, engagement with Western countries is an essential part of its development. From the British perspective, engagement with China means investment and job opportunities. Xi’s state visit to the UK this October was the first Chinese presidential visit in ten years. UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced that Xi’s week in the UK had secured “up to £40 billion” worth of trade deals. It is no wonder that Osborne has said that Britain should “run towards China.” Included in the agreement was everything from a £6 billion deal with a Chinese business for a new British nuclear power plant to plans for a Legoland park in Shanghai.
In addition to stronger economic ties, the British government has pledged £7 million to fund a cultural exchange program with China. The UK will send precious landscape paintings from the Tate, a prestigious art museum in London, and handwritten manuscripts by Shakespeare and Jane Austen to be put on display. The program will also fund performances from the Shakespeare Globe and the National Theatre of Great Britain in China.
Nick Machaud, Director of Arts and Creative Industry of the British Council China, believes that culture is “the starting point for conversation, as it provides an insight into the aspirations, expressions and even the popular frustrations of a country.” By bringing Chinese and British people closer culturally, the British government hopes to strengthen political ties.
The British government advertises the cultural exchange program as a means of forging a closer economic relationship with China.
“We know that the more cultural interactions people have with a country, the more likely they are to trust that country. The more they trust that country, the more likely they will want to visit, study [in] or do business with the UK,” explained Michaud.
Though the new cultural exchange program may be an important step in building trust between the two countries, it will not be the first cultural interaction Britain has had with China
“It all started with porcelain,” said Nixi Cura ’88, Program Director of Arts of China at Christie’s Education, an arts education program run through
Christie’s Auction House in London. Cura explained that porcelain china first came to Britain when the Dutch plundered Spanish and Portuguese ships that carried products from China and sold the items at auctions in Europe. Porcelain was always on the ships because it held spices and tea, for which there was huge demand in Europe.
Many other Chinese objects arrived in Britain for the first time after military looting. For example, after the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, “Thousands of undocumented art objects were carried home by soldiers and have remained in private collections, occasionally appearing for sale at auctions,” said Thomas.
During the looting of the Old Summer Palace, one British general spotted a small white Pekingese dog, which he proudly brought home as a gift to Queen Victoria. The queen affectionately named the dog Looty after the manner in which he came to England. For Stacey Pierson, professor of Chinese ceramics at the University of London, Looty represents British attitudes towards China in the 18th century.
“On the one hand it is patronizing, but on the other it shows desire for Chinese things,” she reflected.
“It begins with conflict,” Nick Pearce, Head of the School of Culture and Creative Arts at the University of Glasgow, explained, “but it does develop into a genuine interest on the part of people who collect these objects to gain a greater understanding of Chinese artistic traditions.”
As a result of this interest, Britain became home to many of the best Chinese art collections in the world. Stacey Sloboda, author of Chinoserie and associate professor of art history at Southern Illinois University, said Chinese goods first became popular in 18th century Britain. British taste for Chinese objects “helped British consumers understand their relationship to the wider world,” Sloboda described.
Even King George IV bought Chinese porcelains in the 19th century to decorate Buckingham Palace, Thomas noted. Porcelain became a staple of British culture through tea drinking. Pierson said that the incorporation of porcelain china into British culture was the “turning point for China, itself, still seeming exotic. The people still seemed exotic, but the goods seemed less exotic.”
Today, the divide between China the place and Chinese goods still exists. Take, for example, a blue and white Ming dynasty vase. Pierson believes that while a British person would not immediately associate it with China because it is so common in the UK, a Chinese person in the UK would still seem foreign.
The new arts exchange program does not just aim to make each country’s culture less foreign to the other. It is also part of a larger effort led by David Cameron to court China.
The past several years have marked a significant shift in British policy towards the Chinese government. In 2012, Chinese officials refused to meet with British ministers after Cameron sat down with the Dalai Lama in London. The Chinese government’s tension with the Dalai Lama stems from competing claims for control of Tibet. The Dalai Lama advocates for a more autonomous Tibet, separate from Chinese influence.
Campbell explained that after the British met with the Dalai Lama, the Chinese government “immediately put Great Britain in the penalty block, isolated them and criticized them.”
“What that led to,” Campbell continued, “was a whole scale internal re-examination of China policy, and the government, for a variety of reasons—at the top of the list are commercial reasons—has decided that they’re going to do everything possible to make the relationship between Great Britain and China as strong as possible.”
The British Prime Minister has also received widespread criticism in the UK for his accommodation of the Chinese. In October, Labour Party Member of Parliament Paul Flynn said in Parliament that the government is acting “like a suppliant fawning spaniel that licks that hand that beats it.”
Cameron has since declined to meet with the Dalai Lama. In an interview with Spectator magazine in September, the Dalai Lama lamented Cameron’s shifting loyalties as a result of “Money, money, money. That’s what this is about. Where is morality?”
The British government has been widely condemned for advancing short-term economic interests with the Chinese at the expense of confronting the Chinese on their human rights record.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, characterizes the new UK approach as a “prosperity agenda.” That is, the UK has been “arranging a lot of international and domestic policy around purportedly the goal of economic prosperity,” she explained. Though it may sound like a positive agenda, Richardson believes that the British policy toward China has damaged the UK government’s reputation.
At a joint press conference with President Xi in October, Prime Minister Cameron argued that the stronger economic ties with China will enable the two countries to “have the necessary and frank discussions about other issues.”
Nevertheless, Richardson believes the UK’s accommodating behavior toward the Chinese government on human rights may not benefit the UK in the long term.
“It’s not clear how the UK thinks that being gentler on these issues is going to promote the kind of change in China that I think is sensible for it to become a better trade partner,” Richardson warned.
In July, the British government faced criticism when it denied Chinese artist Ai Weiwei an extended visa. Ai is an outspoken critic of corruption and human rights abuse by the Chinese government. In 2011, Ai was detained and interrogated in China without being officially charged with committing a crime. Ai’s art has gained prominence in Britain and Europe. Through his art, Ai has drawn international attention to human rights in China. Ai’s 1995 photo project in which he drops a precious Han dynasty urn is one of his most famous works.
The British government denied Ai’s request on the grounds that he had not disclosed a criminal conviction on his application. Ai argued that he had never been officially charged with or convicted for a crime. UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, personally apologized to Ai, and granted him his requested six-month visa.
Ai’s original 20-day visa would have expired just before President Xi was due to begin his official visit to the UK.
Richardson mused, “It’s possible that somebody thought it might not be a good idea to have him in the UK at the same time as Xi Jinping and tried to find a way to…prevent that from happening.”
Though Ai’s visa request was ultimately reviewed and approved, Richardson believes the episode was damaging for the British government. “Coming so close on the heels of [Chancellor] George Osborne’s really obsequious rhetoric and the British government saying publicly that it was only going to raise human rights issues in private, among others things, this really damages the common EU approach,” she continued.
Countries around the world will have to decide how best to respond to Britain’s accommodation of China.
“It is important,” Westad argued, “that the Chinese leadership is reminded that most of the rest of the world simply cannot agree with the kind of totalitarian state system that they have adopted.”
From the Chinese perspective, the British government’s “obsequious” behavior is encouraging.
The Chinese government realizes that “Britain is the United States’ closest ally, at least on a global level, and the fact that they’ve been able to get Great Britain to take a much softer line on cyber security and the South China Sea…I think the Chinese have to view that as a pretty effective foreign policy success,” said Campbell.
Nevertheless, China must weigh the risks of closer ties with the West. Though the relationship with the UK is beneficial economically, the Chinese government reamins concerned about possible social and political effects. As China interacts more with the outside world economically, it may be more difficult for the Chinese regime to have total control.
Young people in China will begin asking, “Why should we have less of a say about our future inside of China than other young people elsewhere?” Westad explained.
When Chinese people visit museums to see precious paintings and go to theaters in Beijing to watch Shakespeare plays, Britain will be closer to China than it has been since the beginning of the “century of humiliation.” Though the destruction of the Old Summer Palace was long one of China’s most vivid memories of the British, the UK now has the opportunity to share what it deems to be vital parts of British history and culture.
That China has embraced the nation that was the original source of its disgrace demonstrates its willingness to move forward. As the Chinese government starts to build new connections to Britain and the West, it may have to answer questions it has been able to avoid until now—from the international community and from its own people.
Meanwhile, British officials must consider just how far they are willing to go to accommodate the Chinese government, all while sipping tea from their fine china.