Europe and China – Factors of Mutual Understanding


Geopolitics: enmity, rapprochement, concrete political or military decisions besides straightforward interests are often based on perceptions and influenced by the (lack of) understanding of the counterpart. That is what call the geopolitics of perceptions which is probably more important than we think. It is true in the Sino-European relations that have a long history.

What would we see if we took a quick look at China’s few thousand years of history? A vast country with a sophisticated culture, which for thousands of years was miles ahead of the rest of the world both in terms of wealth and intellectual achievements. A people that gave the world porcelain, gunpowder, paper, the compass, steel-making and the printing press. A country that managed to protect its territory from invading barbarians for long centuries. A country that at one time considered itself so developed and perfect that it sealed its doors off to the outside world, much to its own misfortune. But, one day, China’s splendid isolation was disturbed as men from the faraway continent of Europe appeared. More and more arrived on bigger and bigger ships guns. Even the most knowledgeable of the European had a limited understanding of China and its people at that time. David Hume considered non-whites (including the Chinese) to be inferior peoples. Immanuel Kant believed that the Chinese race was a mix of Hindi Indians and Mongols.

Zhongguo or ”Central Kingdom”, i.e. the middle of the universe — this is what China is to the Chinese. Surrounded by devils: black devils in Africa and dog-headed big-nosed ones in Europe. Social autism and a tendency to isolationism, which caused China’s 19th-century decline, have always been characteristic of this great nation, the most ancient of all living cultures. Chinese culture has had an impact on all of Asia for thousands of years and since the Middle Ages (the European “Middle Ages” that is) on Europe too. China, as is so often the case, only looks homogeneous from a distance. There may be no borders, but this continent of a country is just as diverse genetically, linguistically and culturally as Europe. In the light of its heterogeneity and size, it is even more amazing that China is the oldest political unit in the world.

One of the secrets is that the elite exercising political control has always been the sole holder of all wealth, law and justice. The political function has always dominated the way Chinese society is organized. There have never been separate religious, economic or military elites as was customary in Europe. Political power is the absolute power in China, and the one and only focus of this political power is the state. This is something we must keep in mind when assessing today’s China with its malformed democracy and uncompromising immense state projects. In China there is hardly any public opinion, there are only decisions and implementation. The Himalayas keep China conveniently closed off from the West and India. Westerners must accept that China is different from our Indo-European cultures: the way it sees the world, politics, arts, law and religion is completely different. God and property are sacred values in the West — not in China. We seek the truth, the moral, the punchline, all of which are worthless to a Chinese. Westerners and Indians divide the world into categories; the Chinese see the world as dynamic, accidental and symbolic. How postmodern, one might say, using a Western term.

The relationship between China and Europe has always been shaped by two factors. The first one, distance, proved to be insuperable for a long time but was surmounted with the help of modern technology and improved transport. The second one, trade, remains a central element of Sino-European relations. Trade links between the two continents can be traced all the way back to early Christianity. The volume of goods transported on the famous Silk Road showed a considerable imbalance from the beginning and all Rome could offer in return were precious metals and valuables. This trade imbalance has always been present, but today is caused by China’s role in the global supply chain rather than by its self-sufficiency.

Even a “What you need to know”-type abridged version of Chinese history would run longer than the New Testament, so I will only pick out a few interesting episodes. During the rule of the Yuan Dynasty (which was of Mongol origin) from 1271 to 1368, travel to China became easier as the areas between China and Western Asia were mostly controlled by Mongol khans. The gates of China opened to foreigners. Kublai Khan even sent his envoys to Pope Clement IV with a request for a hundred Christian missionaries to promote Christianity and Western sciences among the Mongols. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo was probably the best-known foreign visitor ever to set foot in China and Mongolia. He arrived in 1275. On his account, when the 21-year-old was led to the Khan, he offered his services to the great Khan, who accepted, eventually rewarding the young Venetian with senior administrative posts. He spent the next twenty or so years under Kublai Khan. Marco Polo was appointed a member of the Khan’s Privy Council in 1277 and for three years he was a tax inspector in Yanzhou. In his book on his epic journey, Marco Polo describes a flourishing, developed and wealthy China handed down from the late Song dynasty and yet unspoiled by Mongol rule.

The Travels of Marco Polo became a medieval bestseller, but readers did not take the book altogether seriously, nicknaming the traveler Marco Milione and his book Il Milione (The Million, probably hinting at the number of lies told). Just like modern readers, his contemporaries were skeptical about Marco Polo’s writings, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the works of Arab and Persian travelers of the time. An armchair scholar or a great traveler, undoubtedly he left his mark on European geography, literature and history. But Marco Polo was only the first of many Europeans who made the long trip to China. Still under the Yuan Dynasty, Pope Nicholas IV sent Giovanni da Montecorvino as a Roman legate to the Great Khan, and he was consecrated as the first archbishop of Peking in 1307. Mongol emperors, who never had an unclouded relationship with the Chinese they governed, had the habit of appointing foreigners to public office, opened China to foreign traders and allowed — sometimes even promoted — all kinds of strange new religions. The Yuan era was the last period of the Empire when China was not characterized by introversion. From the 15th century on, China practically sealed off its gates to the outside world.

Portuguese vessels first landed in China in 1514, followed by the Spanish in 1543 and the Dutch another five decades later. European missionaries tried for centuries to gain a foothold on Chinese soil. One of the most successful missionaries was the Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, who traveled around China disguised as a Buddhist monk before settling in Beijing in 1601. The Chinese were usually more interested in European technological innovations than spiritual dogmas (yet another Chinese trait we consider contemporary but in fact one with a very long history), and the Jesuits were happy to satisfy their curiosity. Ricci, who took the time and energy to learn about Chinese culture, introduced several technological novelties, among them the watch. He ended up being named the patron saint of Chinese watchmakers. Until the 19th century, Jesuits fulfilled an important cultural mission in the Chinese court, playing a vital role in the promotion of Europe’s cultural, scientific and technological achievements.

Between 1500 and 1800, China had a significant impact on the modernization of Europe. From the beginning of the 16th century, there were continuous and direct relations between Europe and China. Geoffrey Hudons labeled this period “China Besieged”, by which he meant that European nations drew a cordon around China both by sea and land but were never able to conquer it. In fact, European traders were restricted to a handful of ports, and although the Jesuits brought with them a superior knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, resulting in a more accurate calendar, European presence never left a lasting mark on the Chinese mentality.

The impact was much more significant the other way around: Europe was more influenced by China than vice versa. The reports of the Portuguese and Jesuits on China’s achievements in standards of living, urbanization, technology and governance had a major impact on Europe at the time of the Enlightenment. Leibniz and Voltaire, two key thinkers of the Enlightenment, were greatly influenced by Confucianism and Chinese philosophy. The philosopher Leibniz praised the Chinese for their efficiency in adapting ethics and politics to practical life. Voltaire was impressed in particular by the secular nature of Confucianism and by the absence of clerical influence within government. However, many idealized the example of China in their fight against the ancien regime. Similarly, in the 1960s, Western student movements adopted the rhetoric of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in their protests against the establishment.

China was not only used as a model in fighting the existing order; some Chinese ideals were used as a basis for new theories. One example is Francois Quesnay, who in the 18th century started out from his theory on ”natural order” and — influenced by Chinese philosophy — arrived at his economic doctrine of laissez faire. Others, such as Rousseau, were more critical of China. Nevertheless, China’s influence on the European continent at the time is unquestionable. The import of porcelain and tea established new social customs; the cult of Chinese products bred the fashion of chinoiserie, which spread from the affluent to the rising middle classes. Europe’s admiration for China stemmed from its perceived superiority but, by the end of the 18th century, people’s enthusiasm for all things Chinese faded due to the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and China’s resistance to change.

It took several decades from the arrival of Portuguese vessels on the Chinese coast to establish serious trading links between Europe and China. In 1699, England set up a trade representation in Canton in South China, which became and remained the center of Chinese-Western trade for centuries. Despite earning a hefty profit from customs duties levied on goods going through the port of Canton, China tried to restrict and control foreign trade as much as it could. England, on the other hand, wanted to boost trade and gain more access to Chinese markets and ports. A British embassy sent in 1793 to the court of the Emperor was given a welcome befitting a barbarian king’s envoy offering submission, their gifts were considered as “tribute,” but the Emperor refused to listen to British demands. Apart from trade restrictions, Britain had another problem with China. While the West wanted tea, silk and porcelain from China, it had little to offer in return. European merchants had to pay in silver, the only commodity the Chinese would accept. As a result, a lot of European silver was ending up in Chinese pockets. China was one of the world’s biggest economies. (Curiously, history repeats itself: two hundred years on, the trade balance between China and the West looks uncannily similar. The West buys what China exports. It is not accidental that China had accumulated trillions of dollars in reserves by the beginning of the 21st century.) By the 1820s, however, the flow of silver to China was reversed as Britain found a product that tickled China’s fancy: opium. With contraband opium Britain could finally reverse the trade deficit and get its silver back.

By the end of the 19th century, China was no longer a remote, mysterious land sealed off from the outside world. With the help of its merchants and missionaries the West had penetrated the Great Wall. In the 19th century; China underwent a shock therapy of social, economic and intellectual changes and was repeatedly humiliated ignominiously by Europeans. A series of military defeats and embarrassing treaties delivered a serious blow to China’s national pride and traditional worldview. The disdain for foreigners shifted into anti-European sentiment and mass xenophobia. The most extreme example was the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. This popular uprising by the “Righteous Fists of Harmony” — called Boxers in the West — was a violent anti-imperialist, anti-Christian movement triggered by Western expansion into North China. The rebel leaders called for the death of all foreigners and Christians in the country. They went as far as murdering the German envoy, who was on his way to the Empress dowager. The rebels laid siege to the Legation Quarter in Beijing, where foreigners sought refuge. The poorly armed Boxer rebels were unable to break into the compound, which was relieved by European, Japanese and US troops, which quashed the rebellion. Under the terms of the Boxer Protocol, the West exacted enormous war reparations from China. Chinese customs duties and salt taxes were enlisted as guarantees of the indemnity, and the Legation Quarters occupied by foreigners were removed from Chinese jurisdiction.

In the second half of the 19th century, China went on the defensive against European aggression. One of the most shameful and sordid episodes in European history was Britain’s illicit opium trade, which happened with the tacit agreement of the Crown and generated fabulous profits. Some historians suggest that the British East India Company conducted extensive market research to find a moneymaker that it could offer in exchange for Chinese silver. They chose opium, which had been widely used in China as an analgesic drug for centuries, and using the same methods as drug cartels in the 20th century, started “pushing” opium and gradually built up the illicit drug trade. Opium consumption spread quickly throughout China, opium parlors proliferated, and by the 1830s drug trafficking was a major business. The East India Company, with its monopoly on opium production in India, had a nearly limitless supply, exporting 200 chests in 1729, 20,000 chests in 1860 and 100,000 chests in 1873. The Chinese government tried to curb the opium trade and the outflow of silver. A newly appointed Imperial commissioner confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of contraband opium in a large-scale crackdown in 1839. In response, the British blockaded the city of Canton and the First Opium War broke out. Faced with the superior British fleet and army, China was defeated and forced to sign an ignominious peace treaty in 1842. The Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain and opened five key ports to British trade. With a series of unfair and unequal treaties the colonizing powers managed to open almost a hundred Chinese ports and over thirty concession zones. Still, the West could never take full control of this vast country, let alone make it an exclusive colony of a single power. Instead, the rival colonial empires each established their own areas of interest on Chinese territory.

Western powers, in particular Britain and France, exploiting the weakness of the Chinese Emperor and enjoying the support of Russia and the USA, launched a military campaign against the Chinese government, which became known as the Second Opium War (1856-60). Unable to resist the advancing British and French, the Chinese negotiated yet another Treaty. The Treaty of Tianjin, among others, opened additional ports to foreign trade and required China to pay considerable war reparations. Until the reparations were paid in full, Western powers would occupy the city of Tianjin and another two ports. As a result of the opium wars, China lost much of its sovereignty to foreign powers. The once great and proud Chinese Empire was forced into semi-colonial status.

To the Chinese the Opium Wars marked the beginning of long years of humiliation and exploitation by foreigners. This is the period where we find the roots of China’s mixed feelings towards the West: on the one hand, they admire the developed Western economy and technology as well as the achievements of Western civilization; on the other hand the idea of the “colonizing white man” especially British sends shivers down their spines and stirs animosity towards the West as a whole. When I visited the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 2014 my Chinese counterpart made a half-funny remark on his English interpreter, saying that “she speaks a very good English but she still needs to learn the American accent, as we prefer it to the British one around here.”

In the 19th century, Europe brought extensive and rapid changes to a country that had been stable for thousands of years and whose society, economy and culture had been used to slow, gradual change. Europe first knocked on the door, but China being reluctant to let the newcomer in, Europe kicked the door open. At the turn of the 19th century, China’s agriculture, which employed 80% of the 400-million strong population, still used ancient technology and obsolete methods. As the country’s population grew, the area of farmed land remained unchanged. Farming technology too was unchanged, well behind the times. Rural communities were largely self-sufficient, capable of producing little marketable surplus. These economic circumstances considerably limited urbanization and industrialization. What China was unable to do on its own, Europe did for her: the Chinese economy was in these years largely built with and therefore dominated by foreign capital. The banking system, shipping companies, railroad construction, mining, and certain industrial sectors, such as iron and steelmaking and textiles, all owed their birth to Western investment. The Chinese elite had to decide how much of the old China it could try to keep and how much of the West to accept for the sake of modernization. It remains a disputed question whether China would have been able to modernize itself without the West and whether the West fulfilled a mission by modernizing China or simply destroyed the old China.

Western ideas breached the Great Wall of China way before the Opium Wars: this process began with the translation of the Bible and other religious texts into Chinese. However, the translation of Western literature into the local language only began on a large scale in the early 19th century. At this time the Chinese elite became interested in the West, its military, industrial and technological advances, as well as its philosophy, political institutions, social structures and literature. Various schools of thought sought to copy Western models and modernize the traditional system of Confucianism. China sought to modernize itself to be able to keep up with the European invaders. But it was too late; China was unable to lift itself out of trouble. It proved too feeble and had fallen too far behind the West for such a bootstrapping act.

Europe’s position in China was considerably weakened by the two world wars and reached its lowest ebb during the Cold War. With the Cold War over a reunified Europe and an ever-changing China were given a new opportunity to reshape their bilateral relations. However, a new breaking point appeared alongside the traditional geopolitical opposition: Europe and China had drifted apart ideologically in the wake of Communism’s victory in China.

We have seen that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Europe had a crucial impact on China. The key legacy of this period, which China refers to as “the century of shame and humiliation”, lay not so much in the military defeats and conquests as in the psychological and intellectual spillover effects. Before, the Chinese intelligentsia had always seen conquerors as barbarians who might have been superior in military terms but whose material and intellectual inferiority to Chinese civilization was unquestionable. In the wake of its defeats in the two Opium Wars, China realized that it faced an unprecedented historic challenge. Yet, the reasons behind China’s defeat were considered mainly technological; thus the solution was thought to be a better navy and improved weapons. The slogan, which held true for Mao’s China and continues to hold true today, is: modernization to the greatest extent possible in order to preserve the Chinese state and culture. In other words, changes necessitated by practical challenges are only accepted as long as they do not affect the core of the system.

Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. The Middle Kingdom was transformed into a Communist dictatorship. Chinese policy, however, has come a long way in the last fifty years. While Stalin was a real father figure for Mao, Khrushchev was simply a distant cousin. After Mao’s death, China began dismantling the ideological and economic walls built around it. During the Cold War years, between 1949 and 1989, Sino-European relations were shaped by ideological opposition as much as by the two sides’ links with the superpowers. The relationship between NATO member countries and China was primarily defined by US foreign policy. Accordingly, relations are best described as icy until 1971, when US-Chinese relations were normalized (and even started improving). From that point on, Europe made advances towards China, remaining careful not to upset its sensitive links with the Soviet Union. China wished to amend ties with Europe to bypass the US embargo, and later, in the ’70s and ’80s, to gain access to European civilian and military technology as well as to reinforce its position vis-à-vis the Soviets.

From the 1970s, political and economic ties developed steadily. European countries re-established diplomatic representations in China, which pursued the policy of the “Three Worlds”. In the Three Worlds theory Europe belonged to the Second World, the middle element between the two superpowers of the First World and the developing countries of the Third World. The aim was to align Europe against the Soviet Union. But the huge political and ideological gap between China and Europe was a natural obstacle to such strategic cooperation. Later, economic reforms turned China’s attention to Eastern European countries, whose new economies were more similar to its own than Western Europe’s. Nonetheless, China did recognize the danger that Eastern European economic reforms and Gorbachev’s perestroika posed to its political system. The increasingly close relations between China and Europe were cut off abruptly with the Tiananmen Square shootings in 1989. Europe was hoping that China would soon follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union and Eastern European regimes and the Communist system would dismantle. These sweeping political changes came as a shock . Once again, Europe and China became estranged. But the wounds healed rapidly and relations warmed up soon. The handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and of Macau in 1999 were symbolic. While China negotiated these handovers with the UK and Portugal, trade talks were conducted with the European Union. The years that followed marked a meteoric rise in trade relations. The EU became China’s number one trading partner and vice versa. But the biggest leap forward was that China relaxed its ideological rigidity as it entered the mainstream of global capitalism squaring the circle and reconcile capitalism and free markets with autocracy. In modern China, especially among the most dynamic social class of entrepreneurs, economic capitalism is no longer an obscene word; it is rather a model to imitate, the key to prosperity and progress.

Attila Marjan
Attila Marjan
Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.


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