China travels and travails
Rana Mitter reviews The China Journals and The Colour of the Sky After Rain
The memory of the Indian empire lives on in the British popular imagination, more than seven decades after the former colony gained independence. In contrast, the historical legacy of Britain’s century of imperial presence in China, from the treaty of Nanjing that handed over Hong Kong in 1842 to the end of “extraterritorial rights” in China in 1943, is close to zero. This means that Britons who have taken a professional interest in China are unusual.
In the academic world, they were usually termed “sinologists”, a term which combined respect with an implication of eccentricity. In the business world, most investors and traders assumed China was simply closed after Mao came to power in 1949. These two books tell the stories of rather unusual figures: a historian of Europe who nonetheless became fascinated with China, and a businesswoman who moved fast through the door into China when it reopened in the era of Deng Xiaoping. Both throw fascinating light on a relationship which may become one of the most important that Britain develops in this century, yet is still very little understood.
The historian was Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Chair at Oxford from 1957 to 1980. Although he wrote mostly on Europe, Trevor-Roper developed a strong interest in China, influenced by the monumental work Science and Civilisation in China by his Cambridge contemporary Joseph Needham.
In 1965, Needham and a former diplomat, Derek Bryan, founded the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU), an organisation that sought to provide information about a still largely impenetrable country. Needham and Bryan were highly sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party, but realised that they would need figures with a wider range of political views to give SACU any real influence. Trevor-Roper, who was strongly anti-communist, was hardly an obvious recruit to the organisation, but accepted the invitation because of his regard for Needham’s scholarship.
It was through SACU’s offices that Trevor-Roper went on a study tour of China for three weeks in September and October 1965. His fellow-travellers (so to speak) were a microcosm of the competing worldviews of postwar Britain: the playwright Robert Bolt (author of A Man for All Seasons), the trade unionist Ernie Roberts, and Mary Adams, one of those public figures who collected roles ranging from director of BBC talks to deputy chair of the Consumers’ Association. Trevor-Roper’s diary of that visit has been edited, with supplementary documents and a brilliantly readable introduction giving context, by the historian Richard Davenport-Hines.
The trip was not a success. Trevor-Roper’s admiration for traditional Chinese culture was fulfilled when he visited the Forbidden City, where he was “bowled over” by the “huge, Cyclopean red bastion contrasting with the exquisite palace buildings above it.” His impressions of Mao’s China, a year before the Cultural Revolution broke out, were rather less favourable.
Trevor-Roper had agreed to come on the basis that he would have a chance to talk to Chinese historians, but from the first day, most of the group’s time was taken up on organised tours where people were lined up to parrot phrases about the defeat of imperialism and the glories of Chairman Mao’s thought. Yet it was the attitude of his companions, Roberts and Adams, that really riled Trevor-Roper. After the former had “unctuously compliment[ed] the Chinese on their liberal policy in Tibet,” Trevor-Roper realised that “my English colleagues are as great an embarrassment as the Chinese bigots.”
Eventually, Trevor-Roper could bear no more and demanded to return home early, to the dismay of the SACU bigwigs. Back in Britain, he demanded that SACU explain the sources of its funding, which seemed mysteriously to increase after representations to the Chinese embassy. In response, SACU’s council decided to deselect Trevor-Roper from its governing council; they succeeded, but only by a few votes. Trevor-Roper was left in no doubt that SACU was a “front-organisation” for the Chinese Communist Party.
Reading the diaries with more than half a century’s distance, it is clear that the People’s Republic lost a chance for a sympathetic hearing from a figure who was willing to see what Mao’s China was really like. Trevor-Roper had no time for communism, Chinese or otherwise. Yet when Robert Bolt asked him why he was willing to serve in SACU, he replied that “I fear a kind of McCarthyism.” In the atmosphere of the Cold War, when the US had no relations with China and Britain only very limited ones, he feared that the West would choose to see China as a sullen, monolithic giant, rather than a country of hundreds of millions of individuals and a long history.
Trevor-Roper admired some of the social transformation that he saw, saying of the regime that “its social achievement is extraordinary,” but noting that “on the other hand, the intellectual prison house that it has created is terrifying”. When he was finally taken to meet scholars at Peking University, four senior Chinese scholars were placed in the room, but only one spoke. Trevor-Roper’s frustrations came in part from an awareness that there was a more liberal, scholarly voice still alive in China, but that he had little chance of accessing it in a country that would, a year later, turn to the madness of the Cultural Revolution.
Yet after Mao’s death in 1976, China changed beyond recognition as Deng Xiaoping opened its borders and its markets to the outside world. Tessa Keswick was one of first Britons to venture to China in that period, having married the head of the prominent firm Jardines.
Keswick’s status gave her access awarded to very few foreign firms, and this enables her to be frank about the deep ambivalence that lies at the heart of the historical relationship between Britain and China. Jardines, she points out, was a “key player in the opium trade of the nineteenth century,” but it was also one of the first firms to be allowed back into China during Deng’s reforms precisely because it was seen as a firm that had had a long commitment to the country.
Her witty account shows that today’s China has respect for many aspects of British life, including its business instincts and education. But the warmth is not unconditional. One wry vignette describes a former Chinese prime minister hinting that he wants a quieter hotel suite before he can think about offering business licences, leading to the entire hotel being rearranged in a hurry to suit his needs; one can imagine Lord Elgin or Sir Harry Parkes making similar demands a century earlier in Beijing. The story and others like it suggest a Communist Party seeking gently to avenge Opium War-era slights, keen to trade but also to make sure that a diminished Britain knows its place.
Trevor-Roper and Keswick have been unusual Britons in their willingness to engage with China in the late twentieth century, and their books are compelling accounts of how deep the gap in understanding between the two countries remains. In the late twentieth century, this gap made little difference to Britain. But in the era of Huawei, Hong Kong protests, and the Belt and Road Initiative, ignorance of China is no longer an affordable luxury.
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