Books in brief: Out of China by Robert Bickers

"A sequel to The Scramble for China, Robert Bickers’s new book offers a history of westerners in 20th-century China"
April 11, 2017
Out of China by Robert Bickers (Allen Lane, £30)

In April 2016, the Chinese state marked its first National Security Education Day with a public education campaign. Cartoons pasted over the underground depicted a Chinese woman called “Ms Li” being courted by a handsome, red-haired Caucasian. In the final picture, public security officers expose her suitor as a spy, and a weeping Ms Li is charged with handing over “state secrets” to this scheming westerner.

The campaign broadcast the state’s ongoing suspicion of the western presence in China—a suspicion that extends back some 180 years, to the beginnings of British gunboat diplomacy in the country. In contemporary China, public reminders of past and present western plots to undermine the country provide crucial political legitimacy to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which portrays itself as China’s saviour from rapacious colonialists.

A sequel to The Scramble for China, Robert Bickers’s new book offers a history of westerners in 20th-century China. In their conscious echoes of celebrated accounts of European imperialism in Africa, both titles express Bickers’s ambition to raise British consciousness of the modern history of imperialism in China—to equate its impact with that much better-known story of western interference.

The book begins with China’s bitter disappointment at the betrayal of its interests at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, recounts the unstable mix of stentorian racism and chancing ambition that characterised the inter-war European and American presence in China, then sketches the exclusion of westerners during the Mao era (1949-76). Bickers also evokes the diversity of Chinese attitudes to foreign influences: the resentment of interference; the fascination with cosmopolitan modernity. This detailed account valuably reconstructs the west’s recent malfeasance in China, and also challenges the simple, propaganda narrative that the CCP tells about its deliverance of China from colonial aggressors.