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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