Book dealers who sold an historical work by Liu Qikun are threatened with punishment under the National Security Law.
That the writing of history should be controlled by the Chinese Communist Party is a matter of course in Mainland China, but is new in Hong Kong. Book dealers there discovered that such is the case when CCP-controlled media started attacking this week a book on the Boxer Rebellion by Liu Qikun titled “The Eight-Nation Alliance Was a Righteous Army,” published in Taiwan by Taiwan Times Culture Publishing Company, and sold by the Taiwanese-owned Eslite chains of bookstores in Hong Kong.
Pro-Beijing legislators intervened, claiming that the National Security Law forbids distributing in Hong Kong books whose vision of history is regarded as incorrect by the Chinese Communist Party, and referring to Party-approved manuals of history that present an opposite view of the Boxer Rebellion as normative. Eslite pulled the book off the shelves, but pro-CCP legislators and media insist that its local managers in Hong Kong should be punished.
Liu Qikun is not a professional historian, and his college degree is in computer science. He is part of a family of distinguished Beijing intellectuals, and moved to Canada in 1988. Besides working in computer software development, he has acquired a reputation as an independent scholar.
The title of his book is deliberately provocative, but Liu’s theory about the Boxers is not new. Liu maintains that the Boxers were terrorists and criminals, and that if the “Eight Nations” had not intervened against them, they would have killed millions. While Liu acknowledges that the war had catastrophic consequences, and mentions (perhaps without giving enough details) that foreign troops also committed atrocities, he insists that the Eight Nations’ intervention was in principle “righteous” and “humanitarian.”
Foreign readers may not be entirely familiar with the Boxers. In fact, “Boxers” was a nickname for the members of the Militia United in Righteousness, a xenophobic and anti-Christian movement that was born in Shandong in the last decade of the 19th century, and extended to other areas of China. In 1897, they started attacking churches and killing both foreign missionaries and Chinese Protestants and Catholics. By the end of 1900, more than 30,000 Christians had been killed by the Boxers.
Protests by the Christian churches led to the diplomatic and then to the military intervention of Western powers, united in the Eight-Nation Alliance, including the U.S., UK, Russia, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, Japan, and Italy. Japan participated because Boxers in Beijing had attacked its embassy, as they did with other foreign embassies. The Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain were not part of the Alliance, but their troops also became involved in the conflict. Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was initially hostile to the Boxers, but later changed her mind and in 1900 supported the movement and declared war to all foreign powers.
Within the Qing government of Empress Cixi, many believed that the Boxers were protected by the spirits and invulnerable. Cixi praised the Boxers as “the imperial government’s loyal children,” and believed they would be able to assert Chinese autonomy from all kind of Western pressures. On her order, the Boxers rose to “support the Qing, annihilate the West,” which became the movement’s main slogan.
“Annihilating the West” meant to annihilate everything related to “Western” influence and culture. The Boxers killed Western men, Western women, and Western children, claiming they were authorized to do this by the Qing government. Chinese who had converted to “Western” religions were not spared from death either. Western goods and properties were all destroyed.
The Boxers killed foreign missionaries, foreign merchants, foreign engineers, Chinese Christians, and their families. They burned churches, destroyed railways, burned railway stations, cut wires, removed electric poles, destroyed bridges, attacked schools, smashed hospitals, destroyed post offices and machines, sank ships, burned Western pharmacies, robbed banks, and attacked newspaper offices. The Boxers raided dwellings, killed people, and set fire to entire villages. For a time, Beijing area and other parts of China were shrouded in a “red terror” (as the Boxers had red scarves on their heads and red belts around their waists) comparable to the Cultural Revolution.
After a war that made more than 100,000 victims, the foreign powers defeated China and the Boxers. The Eight Nation Army was also responsible of atrocities, and the massive executions by foreign troops of Chinese civilians believed to be Boxers is still a painful memory in China.
On September 7, 1901, Empress Cixi agreed to a peace treaty known as the Boxer Protocol. China had to accept the presence of foreign troops on his soil, the execution of several officers regarded as responsible for the rebellion, and the payment of a “Boxer Indemnity.” The latter was to be paid to the foreign powers that had participated in the war in installments in 39 years, and amounted at $333 million of that time, a sum some historians believe would be equivalent to $61 billion today.
It was justified as compensation for the victims among foreign expatriates and merchants, and Christians and believers from foreign and Chinese religious groups, as well as for the huge expenses foreign nations went to in sending their troops.
In Chinese textbooks, the Boxer Protocol is described as an “unequal treaty,” which humiliated the nation and forfeited its sovereignty. The Boxer Indemnity is described as a mark of national shame. This incident has always been used by the CCP as a valuable tool of “patriotic” education, to stir up nationalist hatred against Western countries.
Liu’s book is mostly a detailed account of Boxer’s atrocities and argues that, without foreign intervention, they would have escalated to apocalyptic dimensions. It may downplay the violence against civilians by foreign armies. The question, however, is not whether Liu’s historical theories are accurate. It is that Hongkongers are now told that historical discussions will be decided by the intervention of the police and the National Security Law, and that the only acceptable historical books are those in line with the CCP manuals.