A century later, China has closed its doors to Western humanism

British philosopher Bertrand Russell was favourably impressed when he visited China a century ago. More than just advancing business and trade, he saw an opportunity to engage with and positively influence Chinese thinkers of the day. Hong Kong commentator Chip Tsao looks at the evolution of UK-China relations and the reasons why hopes that China would develop along a certain trajectory may have all been dashed.
A Union Jack and a Chinese flag on a pole with security cameras in front of a portrait of late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen gate in Beijing, 31 January 2018. (Jason Lee/REUTERS)
A Union Jack and a Chinese flag on a pole with security cameras in front of a portrait of late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen gate in Beijing, 31 January 2018. (Jason Lee/REUTERS)

Go online and one will find many clips of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK five years ago. At the time, the British government rolled out the red carpet in more ways than one: Prince Charles had a meeting with Xi at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel where the latter was staying, and there was a grand reception at Buckingham Palace where Xi got to spend the night. British PM David Cameron accompanied Xi to a pub where they had a drink and met the locals, after which they visited Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City Football Club.

Britain wanted to use a cultural offensive on the Chinese leader, hoping to open the eyes of firmly Marxist China a little bit. Both sides signed commercial deals worth £40 billion, but there was no follow up on how many of these documents were put into effect.

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Xi Jinping with David Cameron and Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero. (Twitter/@MCFC)

Fast forward a few years, and UK-China relations are apparently frosty. The US President has asked the UK to expel Huawei, and said that it will not share intelligence unless national security is a priority in the UK’s communications network. The golden era of China-UK diplomacy is no more — looking back on the past few years, would the UK government feel amused or humiliated?

Among the Western civilised world, Britain has the longest history of relations with China... But right now, it is also Britain that has messed up the most in its diplomacy with China.

This current state of affairs is because the UK has been greedy and short-sighted in its diplomacy this century; it has lacked an understanding of China and the world, and has cocooned itself or even dug its own grave when it comes to globalisation.

Among the Western civilised world, Britain has the longest history of relations with China. The East India Company carried out trade with China; Britain's first envoy to China George Macartney met with Emperor Qianlong; British missionaries left eyewitness records of the Taiping Rebellion; Welsh Baptist missionary Timothy Richard and Scottish missionary James Legge became established sinologists. Among the Western civilisations, Britain probably had the most complete archives and records of this country in the Far East.

But right now, it is also Britain that has messed up the most in its diplomacy with China.

Chummy UK-China relations a thing of the past?

Since the time of the Blair administration, Britain has wanted to bring British capital into the China market — it is all about money. Admittedly, for three centuries, British diplomacy was centred on trade and profits. In its relations with other countries, it had no intention of spreading Western civilisation to other countries unless it took over that land and established an “empire on which the sun never sets”. Then, it set up a “legislative council” and “executive council” — council seats were given a semblance of the British system, where power was concentrated in the governor, but it made good use of educated locals by nurturing them into elites to carry out indirect governance. On the French-colonised Indo-China peninsula, France was teaching French language and culture, and knew less about trade than the British and Dutch. After all, the French are like the Portuguese — romantic Latin types who are after a life of leisure.

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Lord Macartney Embassy To China 1793. Macartney's first meeting with Qianlong. (Wikimedia)

Then again, Britain is not so shallow as to reduce its relationship with China to just “money”. Over the past centuries, Britain’s diplomacy with China has not been just at the government level, but has involved companies like the East India Company; it has also made use of its colony of Hong Kong and its temporary base at Weihaiwei (a port city in eastern Shandong which was leased to the British between 1898 and 1923). More importantly, British academics and intellectuals have contributed to UK-China relations.

Bertrand Russell impressed by what he saw of the Chinese

In 1920, following his visit to the Soviet Union, British left-wing philosopher Bertrand Russell received an invitation from Peking University (PKU) to teach in China for a year. In October of that year, Russell and his group arrived on a ship at Shanghai. Meanwhile, the British government had instructed its envoy in China to keep an eye on what Russell said in China. At the time, Russell was a leftist who felt that Britain would go the way of the Soviet Union, and the British Conservative government was afraid that Russell would criticise it. It was said that the British envoy was ready to take action — once Russell was found making “offensive” remarks in Shanghai, it would ask the Republic of China government to expel him.

PKU students idolised Russell, and started a society and monthly publication named after him.

Russell spent his first few days in China meeting China’s intellectuals in Shanghai with his interpreter, 28-year-old US-educated linguist Chao Yuan Ren. Russell went on to the Hangzhou and West Lake area, followed by Nanjing, then continued by boat on the Yangtze River to Wuhan to attend a conference on education. In Hankou, Russell met the American philosopher John Dewey, who had been invited to give a series of academic lectures in China. As these two thinkers discussed academia and poured out their thoughts, China’s intellectuals and university students listened and were filled with hope for the future.

After that, Russell went north to Beiping (Beijing), where he gave a series of five talks attended by 1,500 PKU students. The talks included topics such as mathematical logic, philosophy, and social structure, as well as idealism, causality, and relativity, and stirred great interest among China’s academics. PKU students idolised Russell, and started a society and monthly publication named after him. Russell’s soon-to-be-second wife Dora Black spoke on society and women’s rights at Beijing Women’s Normal University.

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Peking University, September 2020. (Peking University Facebook page)

The two had a busy schedule in China, with six days of lectures followed by sightseeing of ancient sites in Beijing. Russell even went to Baoding, a tier-two city in Hebei, and his hectic schedule led to a serious cold; he ended up in hospital with acute pneumonia. After his illness, he went to Shanghai, and decided to return to Britain via Japan and Canada.

Russell’s eight-month tour of China gave him an excellent impression of the country. By contrast, he did not have a good impression of the Japanese, whom he felt were unethical and rude, and not as courteous as the Chinese.

On his return to Britain, Russell wrote the book The Problem of China, where he wrote that China’s administration was poor and it should turn to socialism.

... the socialism that Russell believed in was not accepted in Conservative-ruled Britain, but it did not mean that it was bad to talk about it to the Chinese.

Russell’s comments had nothing to do with the British government, who did not stop him from going to China, because they knew that even if Russell was an enemy of the Conservatives and the upper classes at home, there was room for his ideas to spread in China.

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Bertrand Russell in 1957. (Wikimedia)

This was Britain’s open approach to diplomacy with China a century ago. Besides money, the British naturally felt that improving the ideas of China’s intellectuals was a good long-term plan. Of course, the socialism that Russell believed in was not accepted in Conservative-ruled Britain, but it did not mean that it was bad to talk about it to the Chinese. Russell’s socialism was also different from communism — it happened that the May Fourth Movement had occurred the year before, and the Chinese Communist Party would be officially formed in Shanghai the year after.

Russell also wrote an essay “British Imperialism In China”, published in a leftist magazine, in which he harshly criticised the British government for its imperialist policy towards China.

Russell was representative of the left-wing intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s. He previously stood against conscription and opposed British civilians joining the army and participating in World War I, and was removed from his teaching post in Trinity College at Cambridge. Given that Ireland was also caught in a domestic uprising to break free of the United Kingdom, Russell was a troublesome character for the British government. However, his passport was not confiscated, nor was he disallowed from leaving the country.

Russell saw the Soviet Union for what it was after just one visit, but he did not see that Soviet communism had already begun to take shape in China.

When the October Revolution of 1917 broke out, Russell was excited, as he thought it would help to end World War I. Later, in May 1920, he visited Soviet Russia with a British Labour delegation as an observer, where he met prominent persons including Lenin, Trotsky, and Gorky, and also saw the sights in Russia.

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Lenin and Trotsky celebrating the second anniversary of the October Revolution, 1919. (Wikimedia)

But while Russell was optimistic when he arrived in the Soviet Union, he left with a distaste for communism, and even distanced himself from his socialist friends from then on. Perhaps because his visit to the Soviet Union burst his bubble, Russell shifted his focus to what was then the Republic of China.

Today, everything between China and the West is about technology and trade, with no humanism.

Russell saw the Soviet Union for what it was after just one visit, but he did not see that Soviet communism had already begun to take shape in China.

The Chinese government not only hosted Russell, but also hosted playwright George Bernard Shaw about a decade later. At the time, the exchanges between China and the West were not just about technology and business management, but mainly about humanism.

China’s rejection of humanist values

Today, everything between China and the West is about technology and trade, with no humanism. And unlike a century ago, China today is more strongly rejecting Western humanist values, which Russell and Shaw championed.

It is also no coincidence that the UK and US are acting like they are awaking from a dream.

British politicians and diplomats have shrunk from what they were a century ago to even the Queen becoming a super broker, which is quite a laughable transformation.

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Patrons watch Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressing the nation in London on 22 September 2020. (Justin Tallis/AFP)

This is the centenary of Russell’s visit to China, and the end of the dream of the golden age, with major rifts such as the British National (Overseas) issue relating to Hong Kong.

How China has changed and whether it has improved or otherwise over the past century is clear to all. British politicians and diplomats have shrunk from what they were a century ago to even the Queen becoming a super broker, which is quite a laughable transformation.

After Russell returned to Britain, he was appointed a member of the Boxer Indemnity committee, and participated in the remittance of indemnity to China to support the building of schools. If Russell was alive today and saw Buckingham Palace opening its arms to money, and China closing its doors against Britain’s ideas and values while infiltrating the UK and US with money and technology, how would he feel?

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