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The rise of Chinese humanitarianism

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Monday, 15 December 2014

In 1859 the soon to be patriarch of humanitarianism, Jean-Henri Dunant, watched on as Emperor Franz Josef of Austria and Emperor Napoleon III of France fought the Battle of Solferino. The fighting lasted only a single day, and as the battlefield quietened Dunant descended from his vantage point overlooking the town in order to document the scene left behind. His accounts of soldiers suffering unaided long after the fighting was over became the impetus for the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Geneva Conventions - the institutionalisation of moral standards for warfare.

From this outset, humanitarian morality has always existed as a paradox, as a rejection of our innate tendency towards violence, as a refusal to surrender to our tendency to ignore the plight of others. An expression of universal compassion in response to the misery and suffering of others, a yearning to embrace our humanity, after we have witnessed our capacity to be inhumane.

As such, it is therefore incongruous that China, as a nation that prides itself on being the centre of global civilisation (the 'Middle Kingdom'), has consistently refused to accept that it has a moral obligation to participate in global humanitarian missions – even going so far as to claim, counterintuitively, that such missions are intrinsic moral violations, regardless of their circumstances.


This is an intransigence that might finally be changing!

Perhaps more than any other prominent power, China still sees the principle of state sovereignty and its corollary, the non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, as sacrosanct, as inexorable standards of international life. It is easy to see why this is the case!

The modern narrative of Chinese nationalism is defined by a single word – Humiliation! A constant stream of military defeats and foreign occupations, comprising the Opium Wars, the loss of Hong Kong, the Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895, the Boxer Rebellion, the concession of Shandong Province to Japan in the Treaty of Versailles, and Japanese occupation during the Second World War, defined China's pre-communist era (1842-1949). Chinese nationalism is a collectivisation around a history of victimisation and shame.

Incidentally, the unwavering reverence still afforded to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party is in large part due to the role they played in emancipating China from foreign occupation. They have become symbols of Chinese re-emergence, they ended the 'century of humiliation'.

With this history, China have been understandably reticent about facilitating or even condoning foreign interventions, regardless of any moral imperative that may be present.

During the break-up of the former-Yugoslavia in the early 1990's, as Serbian forces executed a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing that included the reintroduction of concentration camps in Europe for the first time since the Holocaust, the international community was rightly criticised for seeking to avoid their moral responsibility by procrastinating over the details of intervention - a response described by Professor Thomas Weiss as "collective spinelessness". So when the conflict re-emerged four years later in Kosovo, the relative speed of the NATO-led intervention, combined with the successful outcomes of halting the Serbian military build-up, enforcing a peace accord and convincing the United Nations to temporarily administer the region, was widely heralded as the high-water mark for humanitarianism.


For very different reasons, it was also a defining moment for China, a moment that would announce the distorted moral benchmark by which they had come to judge all international behaviour.

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan quickly decried the Kosovo intervention as a violation of Serbian sovereignty, as a human rights violation, and as "the new gun-boat diplomacy", a reference to the British invasion of China during the Opium Wars.

Further still, the accidental destruction of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade due to a mapping mistake was branded as "hostile intent" and a "war crime". While the Chinese casualties of the bombing were idolatrised as the "three martyrs", across China US embassies were attacked, US flags were burnt in the public displays, and popular nationalist songs were quickly produced that held such lyrics as "NATO is a group of thieves…NATO is the nemesis of peace".

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is a writer, academic, and the host of the Korea Now Podcast. You can follow Jed's work, or contact him directly at Jed Lea-Henry and on Twitter @JedLeaHenry.

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