China and India use history as an excuse for all sorts of abuses

Apr 04, 2019

NOWHERE MORE than in Asia do states and their rulers tend to think they represent not just, say, defined territories or peoples with a shared language, but rather whole civilisations, often cosmically ordained. Strongmen running Central Asian states erect monuments to themselves as heirs to nomadic empires. In Cambodia the autocrat, Hun Sen, collects titles such as “Illustrious Prince, Great Supreme Protector and Famed Warrior” in conscious emulation of the former god-kings of Angkor Wat, the jungle complex which itself was built to represent the centre of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. And in Japan next month a new emperor will be enthroned who is supposedly a direct descendant of Emperor Jimmu, whose reign began in 660BC and whose illustrious ancestors, in turn, include the goddess of the sun. Just being a simple nation-state is not always enough these days.

No country plays up the idea of representing a civilisation more than China does. Visitors to Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound in Beijing, are rarely spared a lecture on how, uniquely, China is an “ancient civilisation with over 5,000 years of history”. Although that is an exaggeration, a continuous Chinese state has existed, by and large, since the Qin empire unified a number of warring states in 221BC. It has shaped China’s awareness of itself—and how it expects others to...

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