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Are China's memories of the Boxer Rebellion 120 years ago keeping Beijing from being open, transparent and cooperative? (Nikkei Montage/Getty Images and Xinhua/Kyodo)
China up close

Haunted by a phantom, China fights a modern-day siege

Bitter memories of Boxer Rebellion make virus compensation a non-starter

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- In the heyday of the Qing dynasty, the emperor who was credited with stabilizing China after years of war eventually came across a seemingly intractable foe, malaria.

Having contracted the mosquito-borne disease, Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722) pursued all avenues for an effective remedy but to no avail. His condition only worsened.

By chance, a French Jesuit named Jean de Fontaney, who was part of a Christian mission to China, had some quinine, a magic bullet for malaria, and presented it to the ailing emperor.

The emperor made four ministers try the drug first to make sure it was harmless before taking it himself. The drug kicked in, and he was fully cured.

The jubilant emperor then granted Fontaney and his colleagues permission to build a church within the imperial palace. The Church of the Saviour, Beijing, was completed in 1703.

This tale, borrowed from "Beijing Rekishi Sanpo (History Walk)," a book by Japanese scholar Kenichi Takenaka, tells a wonderful anecdote of international cooperation saving a Chinese ruler from certain death.

Beijing's Tiananmen Gate stands where the imperial palace used to be. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Unfortunately, it does not apply today. The reality of international politics involving China is extremely harsh. China's rapid rise and President Xi Jinping's aggressive foreign policy are partly to blame.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on China to disclose information about the initial stages of the novel coronavirus outbreak. French President Emmanuel Macron has said that it would be "naive" to believe official accounts provided by China.

Lawmakers in the U.S. are seeking compensation from China for the suffering that the virus has caused.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump and Macron reportedly agreed during a telephone conference on the need to reform the World Health Organization, which faces continued criticism of being pro-China.

The chorus of criticism has reminded Chinese people of a historical event that took place 120 years ago.

"It is like a modern-day Eight Nation Alliance," one Chinese person said. "They are blaming China for everything. What is the true reason for this encirclement?"

"There must be a huge conspiracy behind the move to demand compensation from China," said another.

The original Eight Nation Alliance was a military coalition of foreign powers that pushed into the Qing dynasty in 1900 to liberate Beijing's foreign legation district, where foreigners and Chinese Christians had sought refuge from anti-Christian, anti-foreign rebels in a fracas that came to be known as the Boxer Rebellion. The "boxers" were Qing dynasty-backed rebels who were practiced in martial arts and thought they were impervious to foreign weapons.

One of the battlefields was the Church of the Saviour. Westerners and local Christians holed up in the sanctuary, waiting for rescue forces, as the angry Boxers attempted to break in.

In the end, the boxers were not invulnerable, and the eight nations -- the U.K., U.S., Germany, France, Italy, Russia, Japan and Austria-Hungary -- defeated the rebellion.

Under the Boxer Protocol, signed in 1901, the Qing government agreed to pay damages to the eight foreign nations plus Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain, who were also involved.

The amount of the damages was 450 million taels of fine silver, several times more than the Qing government's annual budget of the time. The Qing government eventually agreed to pay the huge amount over a 39-year period.

The obligation was passed down to the newly established Republic of China after the 1912 fall of the Qing dynasty. Including interest payments, the amount of the damages nearly doubled, sowing the seeds of a deep resentment that is remembered even by later generations.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have angered China.   © Reuters

Today, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the names of the eight countries show a frightening coincidence. The one-time recipients of fine silver have suffered the most human and economic losses from COVID-19. The European nations of Italy, Spain, France, Germany and the U.K. went into lockdown one after another. The U.S., Japan and more recently Russia have struggled to contain the outbreak.

Australia and New Zealand, who were not part of the Eight Nation Alliance, have joined the new encirclement criticizing China, conservative commentators in Beijing say.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for an independent on-site investigation in China by public health experts to see what happened there. According to Australian media, he has conveyed the need for such a probe to foreign leaders such as Trump, Merkel and Macron.

New Zealand has expressed support for Taiwan's participation as an observer at the WHO's annual meeting, which is to begin on Monday. Taiwan succeeded early on at keeping the virus at bay.

Alarmed by Australia's and New Zealand's calls, China has launched an all-out counterattack.

According to an Australian grain producers' group, China is considering an import tariff of as much as 80% on Australian barley. China has also filed a strong protest with New Zealand.

Among China's international friends is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has lauded President Xi Jinping for his "victory in the war against the unprecedented epidemic."   © KCNA/Reuters

Xi has been busy telephoning other foreign leaders in a bid to break the international coalition against China. But many recipients of these calls lead small countries with limited global influence.

One leader Xi talked to raised international eyebrows. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un congratulated Xi for his "victory in the war against the unprecedented epidemic and strategically and tactically controlling the overall situation," according to Korean Central News Agency. It came just after Kim made his first public appearance after a long interval, ending weeks of speculation about his health.

Meanwhile, China looks confident of winning over at least one Eight Nation Alliance member, Italy.

Italy is the only Group of Seven major industrialized country to have participated in the China-led Belt and Road Initiative. Xi's signature infrastructure-building project is designed to create a massive economic zone from China to Europe.

Chinese opinion leaders are confident Italy is not part of the "new" Eight Nation Alliance. They are relieved that China has successfully driven a wedge in the camp of the Free World, which is often critical of China.

Another reliable partner for Beijing is Russia, which is eager to join hands at every opportunity to counter the U.S. During their recent telephone conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Xi to cooperate within the framework of BRICS -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- including on anti-coronavirus measures.

But Russia itself has seen a sharp increase in the number of new infections, and Brazil and India are under states of emergency.

A woman walks past a placard showing a handshake between China and Italy in Milan.   © Reuters

For Chinese people who study history, the parallels between China's current situation and what happened at the dawn of the 20th Century are clear.

The Boxer Protocol was an unequal treaty that recognized the right of foreign powers to station troops in China. Many believe it precipitated the fall of the Qing dynasty.

The memories are bitter.

But China today is the world's second-largest economy, and a global power that is feared by others. It cannot continue to be haunted by the phantom of an Eight Nation Alliance that causes it to lash out at other countries with angry criticism and retaliatory measures for perceived slights.

China needs to imaginatively think about its next bold move. Can it become a country that is open, transparent and cooperative? The world watches closely.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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