You don’t have to look far to be reminded of Scotland’s relationship with China. Just up, towards the Kowloon skyline and the MacLehose Trail.
Sir Murray “Jock the Sock” MacLehose was Hong Kong’s longest-serving governor (1971-1982) and the last prominent Scot to leave his mark on Chinese terra firma. After the neglect of successive English governors, he modernised with signature Scottish unitarian zeal the colony’s byzantine public services, ushering in new eras in education and housing, building new towns, promoting Chinese civil servants and weeding out corruption (though he later regretted not having introduced democracy). Scores of similar no-nonsense Scotsmen – missionary Dugald Christie (see page 23), banker Thomas Sutherland, civil commissioner James Stewart Lockhart, the Summer Palace-sacking Earl of Elgin, James Bruce and Chinese court tutor Reginald Johnston, to name a few – left their tartan footprint on Hong Kong and China over the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Through their roles as agents and managers of the British empire, Scots helped extend trade and commerce, medicine and education as well as banking and finance in China. They played an important role in the growth of China’s economic infrastructure, including railways and shipping,” says historian Ian Wotherspoon, author of The Scots and China, 1750-2000: Issues, Ideas and Identities.
Scots brought their brand of religion, too. “Many Chinese Christians today trace their faith back to these early Scottish missionary pioneers,” says Wotherspoon.
THE BOND BETWEEN BAMBOO and thistle, initially forged on the narcotics trade, is a peculiar one, and looking down from Arthur’s Seat, my view point across Edinburgh, just weeks before Scotland’s historic independence referendum (which takes place on September 18), I spot the city’s university and Royal College of Surgeons amid the classical architecture.
From these revered seats of learning (the university is currently home to hundreds of Chinese students) went a-trading enterprising, profit-hungry graduates William Jardine and James Matheson. Steeped in the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment (Matheson was an admirer of Adam Smith’s moral philosophy and political economy), they firmly believed open trade could benefit all humankind – including those in the stubborn Middle Kingdom.
Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop.
“Did not the laws of nature oblige all people to mingle freely with each other,” asked Matheson, rhetorically, as he looked upon China and its rejection of the barbarians’ way of wheeling and dealing in a fastchanging world.
He became chairman of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in China, the members of which – men from the Canton business and missionary communities – set about changing the obstinate mindset of the Chinese. Under Matheson’s charge, the society produced literature – cheaply printed books, pamphlets and periodicals – in Chinese to help introduce the history, geography and cultural achievements of Europe, America and the rest of the world.
As it was, canon-blazing gunboats flying the British flag achieved what propaganda and dialogue failed to do. Yet, despite this brutal introduction, a prickly affinity exists between one of the world’s smallest nations and its largest, in terms of population.
Tellingly, in each there is a desire to regain their former glory and pre-eminence in the world, an ambition to exist independent of another sovereign’s interference and to be unburdened by colonial hangovers.
As Scotland prepares for its vote on independence, it is once more looking east for trade opportunities, inspiration and a reliable friend.
And despite the century and a half of bitterness towards Western imperialism during which Scots led by example, China displays a mutual respect for Scotland’s ingenuity and offerings.
But there is caution weaved in with the friendly smiles and doublepalmed handshakes of Chinese government officials. Beijing is extremely wary of Scotland’s quest for self-determination, worried about what inspiration – if any more were needed – a successful “yes” vote might give Tibetans, Uygurs, Mongols and (whisper it) Hongkongers.
If the most peaceful, successful, democratic, unified states in world history can’t keep it together, what chance has China, with its 56 ethnic groups and centuries of territorial bust-ups and political implosions?
The invitation to interview Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop on such matters was a refreshing gust of open government and transparency; imagine such overtures from London or, especially, Beijing! Such have been the rebuttals, rejections and silence over the years when requesting comment and interviews from Chinese officials, one rarely bothers to inquire anymore. Telephone calls made to the Chinese consulate in Edinburgh and the embassy in London for comment on bilateral relations past, present and future draw nothing more than the expected result.
The English side do little better; gruff, impatient PR staff getting back after deadline and with fallow statements.
St Andrew’s House, where Hyslop has her office, is easy to spot. It sits just beyond Edinburgh’s main thoroughfare, Princes Street, on the southern flank of Calton Hill. It’s a grand 1930s art-deco edifice that, in its prime, yodelled ambition and modernity.
I wait in the foyer, where a pop-art Andy Warhol-inspired portrait of Rabbie Burns – celebrated poet and Scotland’s favourite son – stares down on the glass security gates.
“Sorry, the minister is running late. She’s been handing out medals at the Commonwealth Games [in Glasgow],” says a young aide who I take to be on the cusp of the referendum’s eligible voting age of 16.
Once medals have been fixed around the necks of their rightful owners, I am led along hushed corridors and into a sizeable room with brass-edged glass doors and a long conference table.
“We’re very keen to talk to Chinese media,” says Hyslop, as I take my seat.
Covering most of one wall is a huge photo of a boy aged no more than five. His face fills the frame and he is clearly of Chinese lineage, his brown eyes wide, bright and optimistic as he beams a smile as wide as the Firth of Forth. Azure blue and an argent white diagonal cross have been painted on his face – a youthful, unblemished Scottish Saltire full of hope and innocence and multiculturalism; it’s a far cry from the fearsome warrior paint daubed on Mel Gibson’s version of William Wallace and you would need a brave heart not to admit to being struck by the image.
“That’s an apt photo,” I remark, as I open my notebook.
’The view of Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat.
“I think the relationship between Scotland and China is the strongest it’s ever been,” says Hyslop, “certainly with a devolved government now established.” In 1998, the Scotland Act gave a certain amount of power to the Scottish Parliament.
Hyslop has been twice to China, in 2008 and 2010, she says, and her Scottish National Party (SNP) boss, First Minister Alex Salmond, has visited four times since taking office in 2007. Many more trips are planned, she says.
“Each time we go there we are building up relationships. I’m very conscious that you have to build up a longer-term relationship with China and that’s what we’re focused on, internally and externally.”
She proudly boasts that Scotland has five Confucius Institutes: “The one in Edinburgh is considered one of the best in the world.”
Such is her enthusiasm for these Beijing-backed cultural centres I suppress the urge to ask, “Best at what exactly?” because few know their true role; espionage, academic subversion and cultural armtwisting have been among the accusing guesses.
But Hyslop is in full flow, listing the positives of what she and the incumbent SNP administration hope is a special relationship between Edinburgh and Beijing. She says, with some delight, that she produced the “refreshed China Plan”, a paper outlining a five-year programme of engagement with Beijing.
Four guiding principles “will underpin all of Scotland’s dealings with China and against which success will be measured”, the paper states.
“Securing Sustainable Economic Growth”, “Respect for Human Rights and the Rule of Law”, “Understanding of Culture” and “Increasing Scotland’s Influence” are highlighted in bold.
The paper, which will be unaffected by the referendum result, outlines how the SNP intends to double the number of Scottish companies, based on 2010 levels, with access to China’s markets by 2017. A 50 per cent increase in direct exports to China by the same year is also desired, as is the doubling of the number of major Chinese investors in Scotland.
All impressive stuff – but Hyslop insists Scotland’s future engagement with China is not just about signing trade deals and investment swaps.
It’s also about promoting Scotland “as a concept” and doing so “within Scottish principals”.
Dr Dugald Christie (far left) with staff and patients at the hospital he founded in Manchuria.
As the referendum demonstrates, Scots live by a strong democratic tradition, craving acute individualism and independent thought.
Edinburgh was, after all, known in the 18th century as a place where middle-class professionals and intellectuals flocked to think freely and to ponder the free will of man.
Independence might not come – the latest polls suggest that, despite a “yes” surge, the “nos” will carry – but the Scots’ desire for self-determination is as strong as its double-malted drams. And it’s unstoppable.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Scots will enjoy more devolution because the three main political parties south of the border have offered tax-raising and -spending powers as a sweetener to stay in the union: so-called devolution max.
For good reason, many in the world look upon Scotland with admiration, lauding its strong traditions and principled stands, and its quest for autonomy via the ballot box. Indeed, Scotland’s renowned education system – one of the sectors Edinburgh is keen to push in China – was born out of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment movement, and its 21st-century curriculums continue to champion rational thinking, utilitarianism and volition.
So how, if Scotland votes “yes”, will the SNP deliver and measure the success of its four guiding principles? Especially, how will it uphold “Respect for Human Rights and the Rule of Law” during its dealings with China?
Murray MacLehose arrives in Hong Kong in 1971.While there might be a meeting of minds between Beijing and Edinburgh on how to increase investment in remote parts of their respective countries (Hyslop says China’s “go west” policy is similar to the Edinburgh government’s drive to help Scotland’s struggling rural communities), Beijing’s human rights abuses and absence of the rule of law must have prime advocator of free will David Hume spinning in his 18thcentury tomb, which is located down the road from St Andrew’s House.
As Hyslop answers I feel as though I have been transported to the 3rd Ring Road in Beijing, and a Chinese foreign ministry briefing.
“We don’t discuss with them their internal politics and their internal governance,” she says.
I say I have heard such cop-outs somewhere before, and mention that at the dinner party I attended the night before, the referendum was dividing friends and families – but all were in agreement that Scotland should stand up for human rights elsewhere in the world.
Hyslop issues a small sigh of resignation.
“You can only try and change and persuade people if they’re willing and interested to learn, or understand, and you can only do that if you’ve built a relationship in the first place,” she says. “So part of what we’ve been doing in the last seven years is to establish that relationship, which is our China Plan. We hope that – not just for China but for other countries – we can show how you can have a peaceful democratic process that leads to constitutional change, if that’s what the people want.”
The people of Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong and other ethnic minorities, as well as many mainland Han, want similar peaceful democratic processes, and many of them will be watching what happens on September 18. What’s the potential independent Scottish government’s message to them? “We have a civic way of dealing with issues. Human rights are important to us. We have produced our Scottish National Action Plan for Human Rights just recently. But again, if we’re trying to influence other countries, we do so by mutual understanding, dialogue and debate. The last thing you can do with any country is lecture them without engaging with them. You will not make any effect,” Hyslop says.
Maybe, but Scots are among the many becoming frustrated with the West’s largesse and kowtowing towards China when it comes to human rights abuses.
“Our social and cultural values, our democratic values may be different from China, but they’re also different from the United States. We’re different from the rest of the UK, funnily enough, which is one of the reasons why we want independence,” says Hyslop.
A woman wears a kilt with a print of the Scottish flag, in Glasgow.“The important thing is you don’t lecture or dictate or expect other countries to observe everything that you hold dear. But we also expect mutual respect, and that mutual respect is a strong foundation for how we would work with other countries – even if we have different understandings.
“We Scots are exercising democracy in a way that other countries aren’t. But we’re not seeking to lecture other countries.”
An ethical foreign policy is “a nonsense because the world is not an ethical place”, goes the argument. The moral highroad is full of bumps, switchbacks and nasty precipices. Hypocrisy potholes are unavoidable.
Salmond was placed in an awkward position when China’s most prominent exile, the Dalai Lama, visited Scotland in 2012. Although not a government-sponsored trip, the Dalai Lama was received at the Scottish Parliament, and opposition leaders and human rights activists urged Salmond to meet the Nobel Peace Prize winner. But too much money was at stake.
Via its ambassador to Britain, the Communist Party pressed Salmond not to meet the Dalai Lama. Fearing such a meeting would threaten Chinese investment in Scotland just as he was trying to convince sceptical Scots he can make friends with the world and influence the powerful, Salmond placed pragmatic Scottish boardroom realism before lecture-hall idealism and Beijing received the assurances it sought.
The snub drew flak not only from Salmond’s critics but supporters, too. But if he was expecting the Chinese to thank him by backing his party’s independence bid, he was greatly mistaken.
When questioned on Scotland’s independence referendum during a recent trip to Britain, Premier Li Keqiang said he wanted to see a “united United Kingdom”.
“I believe that the United Kingdom can stay at the forefront in leading the world’s growth and development and also continue to play an important and even bigger role for regional stability and global peace,” Li said, in June, at a joint press conference with Prime Minister David Cameron, in London.
Hyslop listens wearing a stony expression as I recite Li’s union backing. I ask if she thinks, given the premier’s remarks, Beijing feels threatened by the referendum.
“I think he was being diplomatically polite to his hosts,” she says.
“Mr Li also made the point that he would respect and recognise our choice … We will hold a consentive [sic], consensual, peaceful, constitutional referendum.
“Our changes and our experiences are different and just as much as we would not tell countries what they should do, because their experiences are different, then we expect them to recognise that Scotland’s position is quite unique in many different ways.”
If Beijing is worried about a rippling effect from a peaceful Scottish referendum (as it was by the violent Arab spring uprisings), it is not alone. Several European parliaments are twitching about how their ethnic groups might increase their respective calls for independence.
Catalonia, in northeast Spain, already enjoys a wide degree of autonomy and, until recently, few Catalans wanted full independence.
But Spain’s economic crisis has seen a surge in support for separation as many believe the affluent region pays more to Madrid than it gets back.
The Basque Parliament, representing people in three provinces of northern Spain, has lobbied Madrid for a referendum on independence repeatedly over the past 15 years, but the Spanish government has consistently rejected its appeals.
There are calls for greater autonomy from Flanders, the Dutchspeaking northern part of Belgium, with the Flemish wanting to push away from Wallonia, the French-speaking southern half.
Separatists in the north of Italy have long called for an independent state made up of several of the country’s wealthiest and most populous northern regions, sometimes referred to collectively as Padania. Veneto – a northern region of which Venice is the capital – has its own distinct movement for independence from Italy.
Brittany, in northwest France, has its own language, culture, cuisine and flag and has strong ties to other parts of Europe’s Celtic fringe.
’’’Protesters wave Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag in front of the central government’s liaison office on October 1, 2012, China’s National Day.
Another challenge to French sovereignty has come from Corsica’s 330,000 islanders.
And the Szekler people, a group of ethnic Hungarians living in Romania’s Transylvania, are also pushing for greater autonomy.
It is rumoured Madrid would seek to veto any request by Edinburgh to join the European Union if Scotland gains independence, fearing a domino effect at home. The whisper-filled corridors of Brussels are also wary. The EU was supposed to unite Europe’s diverse cultures rather than divide, after all.
Hyslop dismisses such anxiety.
“Actually, there’s nobody from the Spanish government who has said they would veto Scotland’s EU membership,” she insists.
She claims the European Commission’s president-elect, Jean-Claude Juncker, has “made it quite clear that he will not seek to interfere on issues of membership”.
“Besides,” she adds, “we’re also seen as pro-European. Just as much as we were progressive pioneers across the globe, we are seen similarly within Europe – long-standing Europeans of hundreds of years in terms of our connections, outward-looking internationalists, and that’s recognised by other European countries.
“So we are seen as a breath of pro-European fresh air. Our government and our [SNP] party have been the strongest across the UK in advocating a pro-European position. I’ve sat in the EU Council meetings on behalf of the UK, discussing how we should strengthen the cultural aspects of our relationship with China and other countries.”
Is the SNP concerned that the legacy of the British empire – opium wars, vandalism, occupation et al – and Scotland’s role in it might taint its future relationship with Beijing, or any of the countries colonised and governed by Scottish accents?
Wotherspoon says he fears “many in the current Scottish government are unaware of the lasting resentment” felt among many Chinese towards former colonial aggressors.
“I think we need to be upfront about our history, and the strengths and the contributions that the Scots have made internationally,” says Hyslop. “But we are also very conscious that not all of it was happiness for people, or it was a hardship.”
During the Commonwealth Games, a play called Emancipation Acts is proving popular in Glasgow – once the busiest port in the world and considered the British empire’s second city – as is the Empire Cafe, which is hosting a series of events, talks, walks, workshops and exhibitions that explored Scotland’s relationship with the north Atlantic slave trade, notes Hyslop.
“We’re being upfront about recognising that our past has lots of different aspects and the reach of the Scots was strong,” she says.
She pauses before continuing with what sounds like a cleverly constructed excuse, nudging with a sleight of the proverbial elbow some of the blame south of Hadrian’s Wall for past indiscretions.
“But we were the administrators. We were the military of the British empire. We ran the British empire to a great extent in many different ways,” she says. “But we also possessed a Calvinist ethic, and we championed the right of every individual to be educated.
“I think perhaps that’s why the legacy of the Scots is more benevolent and indeed respected in some places, because of our belief in universal education, which again is revered and recognised.”
Hyslop’s aide reminds her she has to dash back to Glasgow for another Games ceremony. As we pack up I ask what she will be thinking if she wakes up on September 19 in an independent Scotland.
“We’ll be regaining a position that we held in the past. It was only in 1707 that the union was signed. In the great scheme of things – say 300 years of Chinese history – it’s a very short time. I think people might recognise that we are actually recovering our position.”
That type of sentiment goes down well in China, I say, as we turn our backs on the young Chinese brave-heart on the wall.
The minister and her aide laugh politely and flash ambiguous smiles, ones that remind you of expressions worn by Scotland’s acquaintances, old and new, over in Beijing.
Man on a mission
On October 6 last year, more than 200 doctors and senior officials of the Ministry of Health gathered outside a Shenyang hospital to unveil a statue of its founder, a Scottish missionary doctor who built the first Western hospital and medical school in Manchuria.
In 1883, Dugald Christie of the Scottish Presbyterian Church, established a small clinic which he called Shengjing, the historic name of the city. Today, it is one of the biggest hospitals in northeast China, with 4,750 beds and 6,300 medical staff. It treats 2.96 million outpatients a year and conducts 75,000 operations.
"Dr Christie had a deep feeling for the Chinese and brought Western medicine and Western pharmaceuticals to China," says Chen Xingzhe, a historian who has written a 440-page biography on the doctor. "In relieving the suffering of the people and promoting the modernisation of Chinese medical science, he earned the wide respect and love of the Chinese people."
Christie was born in Glencoe, in 1855, the son of a crofter and sheep farmer. During his childhood, he lost his parents and went to live with an aunt in Glasgow, where he worked as an apprentice in a trading company. He became a devout Presbyterian and decided to become a minister.
From 1877, the church funded his studies in Edinburgh, where he was an outstanding medical student. After graduation, he volunteered for missionary work. In July 1882, with his new wife, he set sail for China and landed at Newchwang, now Yingkou, in Liaoning province.
He went to Shenyang but found no Chinese willing to rent him a house; so he returned to Yingkou, where he spent a year learning Putonghua. In 1883, he returned to Shenyang, where he set up a free clinic specialising in the removal of cataracts. His fluency in Putonghua helped him win the confidence of people suspicious of foreigners in white coats with knives and needles.
In November 1887, he opened a hospital with wards containing 50 beds, a dispensary and a house for female patients, the first women's hospital in Manchuria. In 1896, a larger women's hospital opened and was placed under the direction of two Edinburgh-trained doctors.
In 1900, the Boxers burnt down the hospital; the Christies - Dugald had remarried after his first wife had died - had to flee to Yingkou and then Japan. They returned to Edinburgh to raise money and recover their strength. By 1902, they were back in Shenyang, where Christie opened a dispensary.
On March 5, 1907, the governor-general of Manchuria opened the Shengjing Free Hospital, built with money from Scotland, local donors and an indemnity for the destruction of the original building.
Then Christie turned his energy to building a college to train Chinese doctors. He raised money from Scotland, the government and local donors. He was helped by the Great Manchurian Plague of 1911, which killed 63,000 people and proved the urgent need for Chinese doctors.
The Mukden (Shenyang) Medical College opened on March 28, 1912, with Christie as principal. While other medical schools taught in English or Japanese, he insisted that Chinese be the medium: "Our college should be as Chinese as practicable. The foreign physicians have no desire to make these institutions permanently foreign but wish to hand them over ultimately to the Chinese themselves."
The first 20 graduates completed their course in 1917. In May 1922, two months after the third class graduated, Christie retired to Edinburgh. In 1924, the college accepted its first three female students - in Europe at that time, few universities allowed women to study medicine. Christie died in Edinburgh in 1936, at the age of 81.
In 1934, the college had its medical degree recognised by the University of Edinburgh. In 1949, it was merged into the China Medical University.
In 1969, following Mao Zedong's order to concentrate medicine in rural areas, the hospital moved to Chaoyang city, in the west of Liaoning province. In 1983, it moved back to Shenyang and in 2003, on its 120th birthday, it restored the name that Christie had given it.