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Borrell’s Kowtow diplomacy

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
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Borrell’s Kowtow diplomacy

In 1816, British diplomat William Amherst set sail for the court of China’s Qing dynasty to endeavour, once again, to extend Britain’s commercial interests in the Far East.

Knowing that his compatriot George Macartney had failed to secure a series of lucrative contracts in 1793, including such shameless requests as the establishment of new British ports in China, a permanent embassy in Beijing, and the yielding of a small Chinese island for British use, Amherst was curious as to how best to play the very delicate and cultured art of the foreign diplomat in China.


Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

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His Majesty’s government in Westminster informed Amherst to follow the example of Macartney in 1793, in which the latter had refused to engage in the culturally-venerated ‘kowtow’ ritual, where an individual is required to kneel in front of a superior, bowing their head to the ground.

Despite the Dutch, Russians and the Portuguese ceding to this procedure as part of diplomatic engagements with the Emperor, the British considered the custom slavish and degrading. As a result, Macartney had reportedly refused to conduct the ritual during his audience with the Emperor, and instead opted to drop to one knee.

Amherst’s requests in 1816 were wholly more modest than Macartney’s had been. The British were now merely seeking the establishment of a representative committee in Beijing with access to the Emperor, as well as the opportunity of trading and communicating freely with the Chinese in Canton.

However, almost as soon as British ships docked at the River Peiho, Chinese officials had pleaded with Amherst to conduct the ritual when meeting the Emperor.

Initially, Amherst had adopted an apathetic air to the whole kowtow scandal, and he eventually became resigned to the fact that the custom would have to be performed at some point. That was, until George Staunton, Britain’s second Commissioner on the trip, got wind of Amherst’s plans.

For Staunton’s part, this was personal. As a young boy, he had accompanied the 1793 delegation alongside his father, as a page. Macartney’s resolve in 1793 not to perform the kowtow should not be compromised by Amherst’s resignation to submit to the Chinese demands, Staunton thought.

After much debate, Staunton’s position prevailed. Amherst was refused entry into Beijing, and the British diplomatic mission to China in 1816 was declared a failure.

Fast-forward to the modern day and on Thursday evening, the EU’s highest-ranking diplomat in Brussels, Josep Borrell, brought back to the fore the hazardous play of Western relations with the Far East, which had been exposed with such humiliation as part of Britain’s diplomatic ventures to China at the time of Amherst and Macartney.

Last week, it had been brought to the attention of Chinese officials that the diplomatic arm of the European Commission, the European External Action Service (EEAS), of which Borrell heads, had been preparing a paper levelling a series of accusations against Beijing for attempting to peddle disinformation in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.

“It’s clear and evident that China expressed their concerns when they knew that the document was leaked,” Borrell said on Thursday, speaking to MEPs in the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

However, he denied that Brussels had ‘bowed to pressure’ from the Chinese when the EEAS had eventually published a public version of the paper, which, while still accusing China of taking part in various state-sponsored disinformation campaigns, had decided to employ less of a reproachful tone.

For Borrell, he seemed to have taken umbrage with the New York Times’ application of the phrase ‘bowing to heavy pressure,’ in an article which highlighted the differences in language between the two documents. The Spaniard said that this misnomer brings back historical connotations of Macartney’s 1793 experience.

“The choice of words used by those that criticize European Union, saying ‘bowing to pressure’ has a clear historical resonance,” he said.

“A British diplomat in the 18th century went to China at the beginning of the two worlds getting in touch before the Opium War. And he failed, due to his refusal to kowtow.”

What Borrell is insinuating here is revealing in terms of the EU’s attitude to diplomatic relations with global superpowers.

If Macartney’s failure in 1793 was due to his reluctance to kowtow, then has Borrell himself failed in his diplomatic relations with China, if he too has refused to ‘bow’ into Chinese demands? Is the act of ‘bowing’ to such requests in geopolitical contexts such as these therefore regarded as a diplomatic ‘success’?

The Chinese and the British could never find common ground on the specific act that Macartney had performed at the feet of the Qianlong Emperor in 1793. Back in England, it was implicitly agreed that Macartney had never, and would have never, submitted himself to such an act of humiliating obsequiousness.

The Chinese remembered things differently and had in fact sought to persuade Amhert in 1816 to kowtow, on the grounds that Macartney would never have obtained an audience with the Emperor if he wouldn’t have conducted the ritual.

Despite this geopolitical wrangling for truth, our knowledge of the event is extended by an illuminating account made by the hand of the 12-year-old page boy George Staunton.

Recalling the meeting between Macartney and the Emperor in 1793, Staunton wrote in his diary that on entering the Emperor’s tent, “we went down and bowed our heads to the ground.” However, the words “to the ground” were later crossed out.

Whether or not such explicit revisions will emerge from the bowels of the EEAS, proving Borrell’s own ‘bowing’ to the Chinese, remains to be seen. But this at least is certain: China will prove to be as much of an enigmatic bedfellow for Borrell, as it was for Amhert.


Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every Friday, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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