Protocols of Public Rage
Spence, Jonathan, Newsweek International
The recent attacks against the United States Embassy in Beijing are mild compared with earlier assaults on diplomatic enclaves in China. In 1900, the entire diplomatic neighborhood in Beijing was held under siege for months by antiforeign insurgents known as the Boxers, working closely with regular Army troops of the Qing dynasty. A massive eight- power foreign expeditionary force fought its way to the Chinese capital and raised the siege. In 1927 Chinese troops forced their way into the Soviet Russian legation in Beijing, rounded up Chinese communists who had taken shelter there and killed them. In 1967, during the most fervent antiforeign phase of the Maoist Cultural Revolution, the British Embassy was gutted and burned. In each case, the Chinese government acquiesced in violence spearheaded by others: anti-Christian Boxer rebels in 1900, anti-communist warlords in 1927 and radical Red Guards in 1967. Today it seems to be students taking the initiative, but with far less alarming results.
The roots of these attacks lie in the broader history of antiforeign protest in China, which is as diverse as the history of anti-Asian feeling in the United States. From their earliest encounters with the Chinese, Western traders, missionaries and diplomats faced local discontent and hostility, often leading to fatal confrontations. Catholic missionaries and their converts suffered arrest or martyrdom in the 1620s, the 1660s and the 1700s, before their religion was formally banned by the emperors. Western traders confronted Chinese restrictions on their activities in the 18th century, but lost their opium stockpiles, their elaborate commercial houses, and almost lost their lives in the antiforeign agitations in Canton during the early 1840s. (It was at this time, in desperation, that the British seized the nearby island of Hong Kong as a temporary trading and military post.) In 1856, British diplomats sought to reopen treaty negotiations with the Qing, but were arrested and killed along with their retinue near Beijing. In reprisal, Lord Elgin burned the imperial summer palace to the ground. Outbreaks of deadly violence plagued Western missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, throughout the remainder of the 19th century.
Such incidents had a complicated mix of causes. On the Chinese side, they often sprang from exasperation with foreign arrogance, as they did again this month. Anger at those Chinese who connived with the foreigners to exploit their fellow Chinese has also been a major factor. The threat posed to treasured Chinese social and ethical values by foreign institutions, material culture and ideologies was also an underlying theme. By around 1890, to confuse the issues further, the swiftly modernizing Japanese were seen as having joined with Westerners in their race to exploit China economically.
One further paradox, which many commentators have spotted in the recent violence, is that outrage against foreigners often went along with intense admiration for many elements of foreign societies. …