History repeats itself, but one may not always play the same role. Between the once “humiliated” Middle Kingdom and the once “sun never sets” British empire, things are very different now, and at the same time, strikingly familiar.
“It’s been more than 100 years, and it’s finally our turn!” That’s how many Chinese netizens reacted to the events before and during Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang’s 3-day UK visit.
First, there were reports about how Chinese officials threatened to cancel the trip unless Li was granted an audience with the Queen. Then came a piece from China’s pro-government tabloid Global Times which called Britain an “old, declining empire” that has to resort to “eccentric acts” to hide its embarrassment over its declining power: “Britain’s national strength cannot be placed in the same rank as China now, a truth difficult to accept for some Britons who want to stress their nobility.” Lastly, the two countries agreed on a £14bn trade deal, which includes cooperations that will allow Chinese companies to own and operate a nuclear power station and to help build high-speed rail lines in the UK.
It all sounds like yet another story of an arrogant China forcing their way through with cash. But some 150 years ago, Britain was at a similar position.
It was Qing Dynasty when China was de facto governed by Empress Dowager Cixi, a female like the Queen. After their colonial demands were refused by the Qing government, British-French forces marched into Beijing, looted and burnt the Imperial Summer Palace.
And believe it or not, a top politician and diplomat in charge of negotiating with foreign forces at the time was also surnamed Li – Li Hongzhang, who held a position similar as a prime minister today.
The railway construction part, in particular, reminds many Chinese of the British empire and its East India Company. In late Qing, nearly all railways in China were financed, built and operated by western powers. For example, the first rail line in Beijing was built by a British guy in 1864.
The Railway Protection Movement, a political protect against the Qing government’s plan to nationalize local railway development projects and transfer control to foreign banks, was a direct reason why the Wuchang Uprising was possible, which triggered a nation-wide revolution that eventually overthrew the Qing Dynasty.
Today, too, there are oppositions within the UK against the deal with China, though for very different reasons. The parallels, however, are good enough for many Chinese netizens to make fun of the situation.
“The PM happily announced to the Queen: ‘Your Majesty, the foreigners are going to help us build rail lines!’ Another politician cried out loud to the Queen: ‘Your Majesty, the proposed rail line will cross key landmarks and mess up the entire feng shui. We shouldn’t approve!’” One netizen 青三依旧在 imaged what might have happened in Qing Dynasty some 150 years ago, or earlier this week in London.
Many netizens called the visit “the work of the wheel of life”, with China and Britain swapped their positions.
Referring to China’s Boxer Rebellion, an anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement at the end of the Qing Dynasty and the later intervention by the Eight-Nation Alliance, one netizen 宫尼玛二世 imaged what could happen to Britain today: “The recession has led to mass layoffs. British unions start to organize waves of strikes, protesting against immigration and foreign-made products. Strikes soon escalate into violent clashes and political crisis. China, working together with 7 other nations, decide to send troops to the UK to fight the rebels.”
Some even joked that “it’s time for China to sneak in drug dealers.” Apparently, many Chinese netizens feel proud of what their country has achieved economically. They surely nodded when Global Times called China an “emerging power,” and Britain a “declining empire”.
But for the rest of the world, the question is: Will China become the new East India Company?