Guest Notes

China notes

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

Ducking Peking

ASoviet-era joke had someone visiting the part of the commu- nist bureaucracy which issued permission to move your place of res- idence. The official barked: ‘place of birth’? ‘St Petersburg’. ‘Current place of residence?’ ‘Leningrad’. ‘Proposed new place of residence’? ‘St Peters- burg’.

Many post-colonial countries have shared with the com- munists an enthusiasm for renaming places. And one of the areas where our elites’ post-imperial anxi- ety has revealed itself most clearly is in their enthusiasm to embrace such changes. When the Khmer Rouge established its monstrous tyranny in Cambodia in 1975, our diplomats couldn’t wait to demonstrate their coolness by referring to the country by the regime’s name ‘Kampuchea’. Our establishment was also quick to embrace India’s renaming of Bom- bay as Mumbai – soon to be appalled when, after the 2008 terrorist attacks, the city’s police chief referred to the city consistently as Bombay. Visitors to Vietnam from Balmain and Carlton don’t understand why everyone outside officialdom in South Vietnam’s former capital city suddenly becomes surly and hard of hearing if they signal their political correctness by referring to it as Ho Chi Minh City.

Our foreign policy establishment similarly didn’t wait long to go along with the Burmese mili- tary regime’s renaming of the country as ‘Myanmar’. Imagine its horror when the newly-elected Abbott government directed that because the name was associated with grave human rights abuses we would go back to calling it ‘Burma’. What would they think of us at ASEAN or UN meetings? An early decision under the Turnbull govern- ment reversed the decision.


All these were cases of countries renaming themselves or their cities. Acceptance of that is often inevitable, even if things associ-ated with the original names always seem fixed forever – think Persian carpets, Bombay bloomers, Madras curry, Ceylo- nese tea and Siamese twins.

The Chinese communist regime’s demand, starting in 1979, that we stop saying Peking and Can-ton and instead start saying Beijing and Guandong was different from these cases and unprecedented. It was comparable to the Germans suddenly insisting that we start calling Munich München or the Russians demanding we call Moscow Moskva. China’s justification was that the new names it insisted on more accurately indicated their pronunciation in Mandarin. Despite the audaciousness of the demand, the English-speaking world steadily capitulated. In 1986, the New York Times announced that it would switch to ‘Beijing’. Every other major US newspaper and news magazine soon fol- lowed suit. Britain was a bit slower. The Guardian didn’t change until 1988, the BBC until 1990 and, ironically, the now consistently leftist Independent resisted longer on the magnificent grounds that it wasn’t inclined to do what it was told by the Chinese government. The Times stuck with ‘Peking’ until 1997 when, accord- ing to the Irish Times, its correspondent in China was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and told co-operation would be withdrawn if the Times didn’t stop using ‘Peking’. It surrendered.

The saga highlights how particular- ly susceptible the English-speaking world is to pressure based on political fashion. Apart from a few hold-outs like Peter Hitchens, all English-speakers now refer to China’s capital as Beijing. By contrast the continental Europeans almost universally don’t. They continue with the names they’ve always used: Peking, Pékin, Pechino. Even China’s sometime friend Moscow hasn’t capitulated. Unsurprisingly, neither has Tai- wan. According to China’s rules, Taiwan’s capital should be Taibei, not Taipei. But China is so confident that grovelling English-speakers will bend to their demands, however weak their logic, that they don’t bother to tidy up their own inconsistencies over the issue. The capital’s most prestigious tertiary institution is still Peking University. The three let- ter code for flights to China’s capital remains ‘PEK’. And there’s been no Chinese campaign to rename Peking Duck or Pekinese dogs. The main rea- son the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, never deviated from using Peking was apparently that it irritated the Chinese communists. And what better time would there be to highlight our displeasure with the regime and to drop the Beijing kow- tow than to switch back to Peking in response to its latest thuggery and threats? But of course our elites still have too much invested in the relation-ship with China ever to allow that to happen.

This capitulation to China, like the reaction to the Black Lives Matter anarchy and the rest of the woke agenda, shows how supine the English-speaking world has become in the face of opponents determined to force us to accept their agenda. Authorities in Democrat-run parts of the US stand by as anarchists trash memorials of any whites before our era. Will enough Americans resist the argument that George Washington was a slave owner, so their capital shouldn’t continue to be named after him? Liverpool erases the name of its greatest son, the great reforming prime minister William Gladstone. And Boris Johnson responds with weak ambivalence: ‘leave our heritage broadly in peace’. Australia commendably hasn’t tolerated vandalism to historic monuments as seen in the US and the UK and yet there hasn’t been much assertiveness from the Morrison government about the need to defend our history,either. Meanwhile, Australia’s Green-Left continues questioning the legitimacy of European settlement, encouraged by their heroine, Jacinda Ardern, who now routinely refers to her country as ‘Aotearoa New Zealand’.

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Mark Higgie is The Spectator Australia’s Europe Correspondent

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