Heroes and villains
SCMP August 8, 2005
No matter whether events were 60 or 600 years ago, the facts of history
are forever seen from different national and moral perspectives.
One man's hero remains another's villain. Take the Hiroshima and
Nagasaki atomic bombs which ended the Pacific war in August 1945,
or the voyages of Zheng He which began in 1405.
The victors of 1945 have recently been celebrating the anniversary
of the defeat of imperial Japan and its expansionist designs in Asia.
That's fine. Some have also taken the occasion to burnish their nationalist
sentiments through recollections of Japanese barbarities. In China's
case, this zeal contrasts with a continued cover-up of those of Mao
Zedong and the Communist Party.
What has been largely avoided by the victors is the question of the
legitimacy of mass slaughter of civilians as the way to win wars. That
issue should be relevant at this time, given our obsession with terrorism.
The brutal fact is that Japan was terrorised into surrender by the
targeted, wholesale destruction of its cities and civilian populations.
Such terror tactics against civilians were not, of course, new. Nanjing
was an example in some ways. The conventional bombing campaigns against
London, Rotterdam, Dresden, Hamburg, Tokyo and the like, similarly,
were intended to sap the national will to fight. They failed; civilians
declined to surrender.
Hiroshima succeeded because the new weapon was of an altogether different
dimension - and Japan had nothing to threaten in return. One can argue
that the bombs killed fewer people than continuing the war by conventional
means. But it is hard to argue against the proposition that terror
won. I expect Osama bin Laden would extract a few concessions if he
really did have his finger on the button of simultaneous nuclear strikes
on New York, London and Riyadh.
As for Zheng, he has been receiving an adulatory press, achieving
a fame which 600 years later far outshines that of the emperor who
sent him on his travels. He is being widely celebrated as a great explorer
and navigator whose seven voyages took him to almost every port between
the Philippines and East Africa, bringing Chinese goodwill and civilisation.
(Claims that he reached America make for good tales but appear to have
no foundation in China's records of his voyages. It is hard to imagine
that they would have ignored a discovery of lands hitherto unknown
to Chinese and European navigators and map makers).
There is no doubt that Zheng was a remarkable man. But these were
military expeditions, not voyages of scientific inquiry. They were
the equivalent of a carrier battle group with a large contingent of
marines. Their primary objective was to ensure Chinese dominance of
trade among the petty states of Southeast Asia and the Java-based Majapahit
empire. Zheng's voyages created the tribute system by which those wishing
to trade with China had to submit to its authority. Those who refused
were subject to "regime change", by force when necessary.
Ming-dynasty China was not looking for territorial expansion overseas
- not even to Taiwan. It was busy enough on land expanding into Xinjiang
and Yunnan , and attempting to dominate northern Vietnam. But for the
best part of 100 years, it desired to control seaborne trade and hence
needed to ensure that states wishing to trade knew their place. The
era left a legacy of Chinese ethnic and commercial presence which survived
the Ming's decline and the west's rise.
It is certainly possible to see the era of Ming naval hegemony as
being beneficial, fostering trade throughout the region. That is a
view which certainly appeals to a China celebrating Zheng and seeing
today's outward-looking, trade-oriented policies as a reflection of
Ming glory. But do not be surprised if the lesser states of the region
do not agree.
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