Friday, August 16, 2013

The Trauma of Colonialism?

Two rich, glorious civilizations were humiliated and brought to their knees
Manjari Chatterjee Miller writes of India and China in his New York Times column on The Trauma of Colonialism,
their lands lost and borders redrawn, their people forced to endure barbarous cruelty and suffering. Today this bitter remembrance plays out in subtle but important ways in the international arena. 
All fine and good to speak of Asian (as well as African) "sensitivities," "humiliations," and "bitter remembrance" due to "foreign interference", but stirring our heartstrings should not allow us to forget using our brainwaves and remembering some pertinent facts.

Saying, for instance, that
India and China were victims of an extractive colonialism that drained away national wealth
allows us to forget that whatever wealth those regions enjoyed went to the palaces and to the other playgrounds of the kings, the shahs, the emperors, and other members of the various localities' respective aristocratic élites. The truth is that few among the majority of those regions' citizens — the common Han farmer, the common Mughal peon — suffered, or even saw their daily life change drastically (in one way or another), from the "bitter" and "traumatic" "humiliation" of their overlords being foreign-looking white men born in the West rather than members of their own race.

For much of their history, indeed, recent and otherwise, the Chinese at least have suffered far more at the hands of their fellow citizens and of their leaders in Beijing. Remembering, for instance, the (admittedly shameful) Opium War of the 1840s allows the Chinese to forget the 20 million people slaughtered during the Taiping Rebellion 10 years later at the hands of their fellow Chinese countrymen. Remembering Mao Zedong "proudly" declaring that "The Chinese people have stood up" allows us to forget, or to minimize, that never did more Chinese people lose their lives and liberties, that never did more Chinese people endure more "barbarous cruelty and suffering", than under the helm — and because of the policies — of Mao himself.
Westerners would do well to keep these sensitivities in mind
concludes Miller, the author of Wronged by Empire (Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China), but that doesn't mean that Westerners (nor indeed Chinese subjects and Indian citizens themselves) should willingly blind themselves to historical facts nor, in certain cases at least, to the hidden agenda of government officials' "principled" outrage.

• Related — Chinese Outrage: Humiliations' Hidden Agenda