China’s Apartheid

In an article in the People’s Daily, China’s ambassador to South Africa between 2001 and 2006, Liu Guijin, is quoted as saying of Nelson Mandela,

“He once told me that when he was in prison he and his fellow inmates used to celebrate China’s National Day, which falls on Oct 1. They painted Chinese flags on their hands secretly, to encourage each other to fight and achieve success like the Chinese people.”

At first this may seem somewhat of an odd thing for Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates to do. An achievement by the Chinese was something that somehow encouraged them; was seen by them as somehow aspirational – what had been achieved in China was, for them, a goal in South Africa. What’s behind this?

The Treaty of Nanking (1942) which concluded the First Opium War between China and Britain was the first of a series of Unequal Treaties that saw China ‘opened up’ and over 80 Chinese cities effectively governed by foreign powers, ranging from all the major European powers and the USA, to Japan and even the Free Congo State. Independent judiciaries, police forces and taxation developed in these cities, although they were nominally still parts of China. It was colonization on the cheap!

The comparison with South Africa under Apartheid comes in the way that Chinese were second class citizens (or even persons no gratia) in their homeland. In just the same way that Black South Africans could not live in certain areas, so native Chinese were not allowed to live in certain areas of Treaty Ports, The humiliation was compounded by what is known as ‘extraterritoriality’ in which the citizen of a foreign power was not subject to Chinese law, but rather the law of their country of origin. Under this system, for example, an American in Shanghai was immune from prosecution by the Chinese authorities, but instead (should he or she even be brought to account) would be handled by a judicial system set up by the Americans.

The oppression of Chinese people in their own land is perhaps most famously depicted in Bruce Lee’s ‘Fist of Fury’, in which he is refused entry to a park in Shanghai, being shown a sign which reads, “No dogs and Chinese”. The point is (from a Chinese perspective) pushed home very forcibly by the depiction of Japanese being given free access.

That such a sign may never have existed is a moot point. The regulations posted at the entrance of the Public and Reserve Gardens in Shanghai stipulated “1. The gardens are reserved for the foreign community,” and, “4 Dogs and bicycles are not permitted”.

It wasn’t until the 1940’s that all Treaty Ports reverted to Chinese control, and the extraterritoriality ended. With the founding of the People’s republic on the 1st October 1949, the last vestiges of foreign oppression in China were ended, and as Mao is famously quoted as saying on proclaiming the establishment of the People’s Republic, “The Chinese people have stood up!”

The final piece of the puzzle in understanding the link Mandela makes between South Africa and China comes in the foreign policy of China during Mandela’s struggle in South Africa. Since the Asian-African Bandung Conference of 1955, China had promoted itself as a champion of national liberation, and supporter of oppressed peoples around the world.

China had overcome a form of apartheid and subsequently openly supported the liberation of oppressed people around the world. This may be seen as simple rhetoric or communist propaganda from a Western perspective, but clearly, to those fighting their own national liberation, such as Mandela in South Africa, China’s experience and accomplishment was something to draw encouragement from.

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