Re-repeating History’s Mistakes

Far too often, humans are reminded of historic parallels to current crises that could have been avoided. War is repetitive, but is it necessary? The past may just be the best indicator of the future.


A country is devastated by civil war. The rebels are unified by their religious beliefs and conviction that the regime is corrupt and oppressive. The national government is weak, but still retains the support of the country’s elite, who in turn see the rebels as zealots and fanatics.

The rest of the world watches and waits, unwilling to support a regime most of the international community considers outdated and despotic, and not yet ready to support rebels whose ideology and motivations remain poorly understood.

Syria, 2016? No. China, 1860.

The Taiping Rebellion began in Guangdong and Guangxi in the early 1850s. The movement’s leader, Hong Xiuquan, was a member of a Hakka clan, from the hills of Guangdong. After failing in his attempt to join the scholar-elite, he suffered a nervous breakdown. In his delirious state, Hong had visions, which he later interpreted to be the Christian God and Jesus coming to Hong, urging him to cleanse the world and take up arms against the Manchu rulers of the Qing Empire. By 1851, he had over 100,000 followers. Two years later, in 1853, Hong and his armies captured the city of Nanjing and established their own state. The legal code was based on Hong’s interpretation of the Ten Commandments.

In his delirious state, Hong had visions, which he later interpreted to be the Christian God and Jesus coming to Hong, urging him to cleanse the world and take up arms against the Manchu rulers of the Qing Empire.

Hong’s rebellion against the Qing Empire caught the international community off guard. On one hand, the foreign powers were frustrated with the Qing court and its refusal to agree to additional trade concessions for foreign merchants in China. On the other hand, nobody really knew what Hong believed or wanted. A few Western missionaries claimed that this was an opportunity for China to Christianize and embraced the idea of Hong toppling the Qing regime. Others questioned Hong’s unorthodox view of religion (he thought he was the son of God) and the implications for trade and diplomacy in having a puritanical theocracy ruling China.

Foreign consuls and merchants in Guangdong and Shanghai soon grew concerned about the economic disruptions caused by the civil war and worried about the subsequent chaos and instability, should the regime fall. Better a weakened regime beholden to foreign powers, they argued, than a popular movement of true believers. They urged a general policy of neutrality.

Professed neutrality didn’t stop the foreign powers from invading the Qing imperial capital at Beijing and burning down several of the emperor’s palaces. The 1860 Anglo-French Expedition—being the culmination of the Second Opium War (1856-1860)—stopped a duck’s foot distance from inducing a full-on regime change in Beijing; it was still a body blow to the court’s prestige. The dynasty would never recover.

Meanwhile, 1000 kilometers away, British, French and American mercenaries were training and arming units to fight on behalf of the Qing regime against the Taiping rebels in the areas around Shanghai. The merchant community in Shanghai, as well as overseas firms dependent on the Chinese trade, funded militias to support the Chinese provincial armies who were battling to reclaim the Yangtze River basin from the Taiping.

There are, of course, differences between Syria now and China then. The Taiping were not fighting in a proxy war. The Taiping had their quirks, but they were not international terrorists. They lacked both the desire and the ability to cause damage in other countries.

Nevertheless, there are important lessons from China for the present situation in Syria.

In both wars, the foreign powers failed to truly understand the nature of the revolutionary movement. The foreigners waged war against the regime, even as they opposed efforts by private interests to aid the rebels against the same regime. Ultimately, by siding with the regime, the foreign powers became tainted by association. History textbooks in the PRC today remember the Taiping as peasant heroes. As young men, both Mao Zedong and Sun Yat-sen idolized Hong Xiuquan and resented the role the foreigners played in propping up Manchu rule for their own economic and strategic interests.

By 1864, the rebel movement was defeated mostly by internal forces, but a government weakened by war with the foreign powers, and rapidly losing its mandate to rule, was unable to muster the political or economic resources needed to undo the damage caused by the nearly 14 years of civil war. Many parts of China were still feeling the effects of the Taiping war into the 20th century. One wonders how long the recovery in Syria and Iraq will take once the guns and bombs are finally silenced.