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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Looking for Asian connections during the colonial period: reconfiguring from the “inside” and “outside”

Christopher Goscha

Texte intégral

1April 2006

2It is rare in international relations and colonial studies to talk about Asian connections during the colonial period. Colonial history tends to concentrate on a specific colonial state or on the relationship between the “coloniser” and the “colonised”. Most international historians also focus on the colonial states during this period, which were the sovereign entities at the time (the Dutch Indies or French Indochina). They then fast forward to 1945 to resume Asia’s part of the story with the onset of decolonisation. In both cases, connections among the different colonies in Asia are disappearing. While 1945 is most certainly a crucial date, the jump from the 19th century colonisation of the region to its decolonisation in 1945 is problematic for those interested in tracking intra-Asian connections like myself. What is most problematic is that it implicitly assumes that the “colonisers” somehow locked the areas that were colonised in Asia into an imperial time warp and that nothing of real importance occurred among Asians until the sovereign states emerged with decolonisation.

3And yet Asian views of the world, of their place in it, and of their relations with each other did not simply “pick up” where they had left off in the 19th century. Nor did “traditional” pre-colonial relations simply resume in 1945 as if nothing had occurred during a hundred years of colonisation. Much occurred among the areas that were colonised in Asia during the colonial period. After all, revolutionary China and Vietnam, which emerged after World War II, were very different from the Qing and Nguyen dynasties that had collapsed at the turn of the century. The same could be said for the Indians, Indonesians and Burmese who were taking over post-colonial states in 1945. Moreover, these leaders were not always strangers to each other; they had often met during the colonial period.

4Over the last few years, I have used the case of French Indochina to look for ways to study how areas that were colonised in Asia continued to interact with one another in the “inside” of the colonial state and the “outside”, that it is to say, in Asia and beyond. In 1995, I published Vietnam or Indochina? Contesting Concepts of Space in Vietnamese Nationalism (1887-1954), in which I attempted to understand how the colonial period led the Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians to engage in fascinating debates over the reality of Indochina as a colonial and ultimately, national endpoint. As Benedict Anderson once asked, “if the Javanese could assume that the colonial model became ‘Indonesian’ in 1945, then why could the Vietnamese or Cambodians not become ‘Indochinese’?” The answer was that many Vietnamese almost did, but hardly any Cambodians or Laotians were ready to imagine such a thing. In 1999, I switched the approach to consider how the Vietnamese opposition to the French rule in Indochina pushed anti-colonialists out of Indochina and more deeply into the Asian region. In doing so, they made a series of new intellectual, cultural and revolutionary connections with other Asians in the world outside. Whether viewed from the inside or outside of the colonial world, what struck me was the degree to which Asians continued to engage with each other in spite of, if not because of the fact that they were colonised. It all depends on where one looks.

5In this short essay, I would simply like to suggest certain places where we might look in order to locate Asian connections during the colonial period. One way of doing this is to consider how areas that were colonised in Asia forged links “outside” the colonial states and thereby taking part in major historical upheavals in the region. The second possibility is to take a closer look at what was happening on among the “colonised” Asians residing within the colonial states.

6Ideas matter to all of us. In a time of great change, this is particularly true. Obviously, the acute pain that many Asian patriots felt upon seeing their countries being taken over did not just go away with colonial promises of “modernity”, “protection” or “civilisation”. For most, the challenge was now how to change the idea of an independent nation that was imagined into a reality, especially in light of the military superiority of the West. Only the Japanese and the Thai were able to create a link between states and nations, often imitating the Western powers that had threatened to take over them. For the colonised, however, the situation was much more difficult. Did one march with the coloniser towards “modernisation” and perhaps even “decolonisation” or did one take up the patriotic struggle to achieve the nation first by force? The answers to such questions were not always easy and the process was perhaps more complicated than some anti-colonial writers would have us believe. After all, Ho Chi Minh applied to the École coloniale in France in the hope of modernising his country in collaboration with the French. When he boarded the ship for the city in 1911, he was travelling in a colonial order. No one knew – not even Ho Chi Minh, “the enlightened one” – that the French Republican promises to “free” the colonies would turn out to be empty words. Ho’s journey was but one of many such Asian journeys at the time.

7The global nature of colonialism set the Asian community into motion in new ways. Anti-colonialism, nationalism and the quest for “modernisation” intertwined at the beginning of the 20th century, sending thousands of Asians on new journeys in search of new ways of putting their countries back on the map of nations. The Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Burmese and Indians began forging links, not through diplomatic delegations linking their respective capitals (as they did not have nations), but on the “outside”, in the independent states of Thailand, Japan, nationalist China and increasingly so in imperial capitals in Europe and the United States. Ho Chi Minh first met Zhou Enlai in Paris in the early 1920s. In 1927, during the meeting of the Anti-Imperialist League in Brussels, the Indian and Chinese anti-colonialists joined forces to publish a joint declaration exhorting each country to revive their “millennial” relationship in order to “stand up again” in the world. In 1939, during his trip to China, Nehru imagined an Asian Federation with China and India at its centre. Tagore visited Indochina after World War I, while the Vietnamese such as Bui Quang Chieu travelled to India to learn more about the Indian Congress. These intra-Asian links during the colonial period deserve further study, as they were a part of creating new perceptions of the region and the world.

8Japan’s victory over the Russians in 1905 was an important turning point in this wider Asian colonial history. In that year, Japan claimed victory over the Russians. News of this “Asian” victory over a “white” power spread throughout the region, not just in Western colonial capitals where it provoked fears of the yellow peril, but throughout areas that were colonised. Asians from China and India, Vietnam and Indonesia, and even as far away as Egypt set sail for Tokyo to study the “Meiji miracle”. Meiji had shown that it was possible to “modernise” without having to be colonised. Certain major ideological justifications of the West’s domination of the rest had thus been called into question, not least of all the Eurocentric racist ideas of Social Darwinism and civilising missions. Although Japan was to profoundly disappoint Asian nationalists until its military defeat in 1945, the year 1905 nonetheless brought the areas that were colonised in Asia together in new ways and give rise to new exchanges, connections, contacts and ways of thinking. Thousands of Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese students were studying there. Phan Boi Chau and Sun Yat-sen met in Japan. The Vietnamese were not the only ones to create a “Dong Du” (Travel East) programme to train their young national elites in Japan. The Koreans had one too.

91919 is another date that brought the colonised together on the outside. The importance of Versailles for understanding Western international history is well known; but 1919 was also a turning point in how the colonised saw the world and their place in it. World War I was the first global conflict that the world had seen, due to colonialism. The Japanese had joined the allies against the Germans in the Far East, while hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians and Africans fought on European battlefields. The colonised, having been subjected to a colonial system, were linked to this war. In exchange for their sacrifices, however, colonial nationalists expected something in return. The end of World War I and Wilsonian promises of self-determination held out hope that things could change. Colonised elites from across the world watched carefully as the “Great Powers” sat down in Versailles to rework the international system. Ho Chi Minh was by no means the only one to send petitions to allied leaders asking them to extend self-determination to the colonies. The Korean, Chinese and Indian communities, which were colonised, were all there. Nor was Ho alone deep in disappointment when Wilson’s promise of self-determination was effectively limited to decolonising decaying empires in central Europe rather than those outside of Europe.

10At the same time, another important development took place. In 1919, the failure of the Great Powers to address the colonial question led many Asian nationalists to turn to more radical means to achieve independent nation-states. This coincided with another major shift resulting from World War I, the October Revolution in 1917 and the creation of the world’s first Communist state and a Eurasian one at that, the Soviet Union. Lenin linked the colonial issue to a wider internationalist Communist struggle against capitalism. Imperialism was, in his words, the “highest stage” of capitalism. This link remains well known. What is important here is that Leninism appealed to so many in the colonial world by offering a cogent explanation of colonial domination and by laying on the table an alternative blueprint for national liberation and modernisation. It held out the promise of a new international order, a revolutionary one, in which the colonised would have a major role to play. The USSR went further in 1919 when it created the Comintern to support, guide and finance Communists throughout the world, with the colonial part of it receiving considerable attention. In doing so, it also incorporated a wide range of Asian nationalists into its revolutionary channels moving across the globe. When the revolutionary Chinese and Vietnamese communities came together in 1950 they already knew each other from these revolutionary anti-colonialist networks. Ho had collaborated with Zhou Enlai in southern China in the mid 1920s and again in the late 1930s. Thanks to support from the Comintern and the Chinese Communist Party, hundreds of Vietnamese nationalists studied in southern Chinese revolutionary schools until 1927. Vietnamese Communism itself was born outside of Vietnam, in the colonial port of Hong Kong in 1930. The nature of the relationship between Communist China and Vietnam in 1950 was thus very different from the “tributary” ones linking the Nguyen to the “Middle Kingdom”. Again, much went on during the colonial period.

11The creation of colonial states did not cut Asians off from the region and the world, nor did it freeze historical interactions on the “inside”. My point is that colonialism rerouted and recast intra-Asian contacts in new ways. This was the case in French Indochina, the Dutch Indies and British Malaya, where the dynamics of the colonial states increased Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian immigration across borders in order to set the colonial states into motion. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese people were brought to work in colonial industries and plantations throughout colonial South-East Asia. The Indians and Vietnamese worked as bureaucrats in Burma and western Indochina, respectively. Colonial powers thus created new legal categories for those who were colonised in Asia. These categories were defined according to an ethnic, cultural, religious, economic and even civilising criteria (for the Japanese for example), but rarely was it thought out in “national” ways. These were, after all, colonial states. Local leaders were no longer in control of key matters of immigration, law and social integration. The colonial powers were.

12Throughout my research, however, I noticed that questions of immigration and colonial law sparked heated debates among the colonised during the colonial period. In French Indochina, for example, numerous Lao, Khmer, Vietnamese, Indian and Chinese colonised elites engaged each other in fascinating exchanges about the place each group held – or did not want to hold – in the French Indochinese colonial state. Laotians and Cambodians contested the special status that allowed the Vietnamese to live and work in western French Indochina that is in Laos and Cambodia. Similarly, colonial Vietnamese nationalists regretted not being able to control the Chinese immigration and pleaded with the French to break up the “congregations” in order to turn the Chinese into the “Vietnamese” (or to deport them). In the 1930s, the Cambodians asked the French to allow them to “Khmerise” the Vietnamese community living in colonial Cambodia. Without going into detail here, let us consider the similarity of these two intra-Asian debates during the colonial period and their potential importance for broadening our understanding of colonial Asia. According to a Vietnamese colonial nationalist regarding the Chinese “problem” in 1919:

“It is the Chinese congregation as it is and functions that poses the problem. This particular organisation, which creates a state within a state, is the original mistake for which we, the indigenous people, are paying the price today while waiting for the French to suffer its consequences, as much as, if not more than us. […] Within the organisation of the congregation, the French government, for its own state of peace and convenience, abdicated a part of its power to the head of the congregation who is said to be elected. As long as the taxes are paid in and public order is not threatened, the Chinese have the right to take care of their own problems among themselves; they have their own justice system, schools, budget, houses, clubs, associations, goods and in short, they make up, thanks to the will of the French government, independent states. […]”

13A decade later, the Cambodians turned the tables on the Vietnamese, who held a separate legal status in Cambodia. A Cambodian writer asked the French to allow him to use modern law in order to turn the Vietnamese into good little Cambodian “nationals”:

“The institution known as the Indochinese Union, the equivalent of the annexation of Cambodia by the Annamese, is detrimental to our nation’s future. If the Annamese countries and our own belonged to different masters, for example, the former to the Netherlands and us to the French – our border in the East would have survived and the Annamese would have been able to stride across it without dealing with endless passport formalities. I am convinced that the generous French people will not let such a situation continue for long in Cambodia, something that they would have never allowed in France. If not, then [France] will have to answer to history. Those who hold the levers of power should put themselves in our shoes in order to govern us. They should make an effort to khmerise all Asians who are not Khmers, which is about a third of the population! In short, the French should give us at least the impression of a having a national government.”

14One of the solutions that this Cambodian author put forward to the French was the need to detach Cambodia from the colonial Indochina, as the British had done in British India when they created a separate and colonial Burma. This is what a number of Cambodian colonial nationalists wanted. French colonial administrators scoffed at the idea. Yet when the French tried to rebuild Indochina after World War II, not only did they encounter fierce opposition to the division of “Vietnam” from Vietnamese nationalists, but they were also confronted by a strong Cambodian and Laotian nationalist opposition to all that was “Indochinese”. Between 1945 and 1954, immigration, law, and nationality were all fiercely debated and negotiated colonially and internationally, but these matters had already been discussed among Asians. Again, it all depends where one looks.

15Let me conclude by suggesting why intra-Asian colonial exchanges are worth factoring into the conceptualisation of a wider Asian history for the “colonial period”. Firstly, I would argue that in most cases the modernising and categorising nature of the colonial process itself had actually accelerated interactions among the different areas, which were colonised in Asia. New legal identities accorded by the European colonial states to the Indians, Chinese and Vietnamese for a variety of different reasons brought about new exchanges, many of which would become aspects of national and international contention once decolonisation transformed the colonial states into national ones.

16Secondly, these debates on colonial legal categories highlight the rich sources for studying what occurred among the areas that were colonised in Asia during the colonial period. Many of these debates were in the press, which served as the “unofficial” archives of the colonised. Without their own ambassadors, it was one of the rare places where they could engage with each other. It seems likely that similar debates and sources could be located in other parts of colonial Asia, such as in Indonesian/Dutch Indies and the former colonies British Asian Empire: Burma, Malaya, Singapore and India.

17Thirdly, these debates on legal categories point out the fact that the 1945 break between the “colonial period” and the “post-colonial period” may not be as sharp as we often think. These “Indochinese” colonial exchanges among the colonised demonstrate the extent to which defining the modern concepts of “nationality” and “citizenship” had already begun to make itself felt during the colonial period. The “Indochinese” debates show how the colonised had already begun to define national membership during the colonial period. Although their nations remained in their minds, these debates about who would belong to them one day were very real. Again, I would think that there would be similar intra-Asian and inter-colonised debates on legal categories and colonial citizenship in other parts of colonial Asia. The parallel between the colonial separation of Burma from British India and the Cambodian plea to be separated from the French Indochinese Union would be worth considering.

18Fourthly, the French colonial legal categories in Indochina, perhaps like those of the Dutch and the British, created racial, political and cultural divides. This, in turn, triggered the desire to “nationalise” certain groups or to exclude them. The study of these categories in particular and law in general may allow us to go further in understanding the construction of social barriers, mutual perceptions, and the mechanics of ethnic violence during the colonial period. As the idea of a nation rapidly developed in the minds of the colonised, privileged groups, the Chinese community in Vietnam and Malaysia or the Vietnamese in Cambodia and Laos found themselves being placed outside the national community and potentially at its nationalising mercy.

19Fifthly, these intra-Asian connections, both on internally and externally, suggest that it is perhaps time to move beyond the worn-out dichotomy in colonial studies between the “coloniser and colonised”. The problem is that most studies of the colonial period – even post-colonial and Saidian-inspired cultural studies – remain focused on this binary opposition and are surprisingly Eurocentric in terms of their sources and theoretical inspiration. With the notable exception of the Subaltern Studies school of thought based on Indian influences, few of the new “postcolonial studies” take an interest in on the links among Asians themselves during the colonial period. And yet it would be a theoretical and methodological pity to leave out this “intra-Asian” link between the colonised in the building of a more sophisticated understanding of colonial Asia. The possibility of developing analytical frameworks that cut horizontally among the colonised and not just vertically between the “coloniser” and the “colonised” would be an exciting prospect, all the while maintaining the link with the coloniser.

20In this way, a future colonial and international history of Asia would be less of an oppositional one than a “connected history”, to borrow Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s term for studying an earlier period. In order to “view” the complexity of colonial Asia, we need to reconfigure how we approach it. Here, I have simply tried to suggest a few new ways of looking at an old problem.

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