Max Walden: Peaceful explorer or war criminal – Who was Zheng He, China’s Muslim symbol of diplomacy?


Excerpts from Max Walden, Peaceful explorer or war criminal – Who was Zheng He, China’s Muslim symbol of diplomacy?

“Chinese authorities’ exploitation of the great expeditions of Zheng He, a Muslim, for diplomatic and commercial gains — while interning millions of Muslims in the Xinjiang region — is the height of hypocrisy and shamelessness,” Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, told the ABC

“It also exposes the real goal of empire building and creation of vassal states along the Belt and Road route.”


Peaceful explorer or war criminal: Who was Zheng He, China’s Muslim symbol of diplomacy?

By Max Walden

Posted Sun 22 Sep 2019 at 3:15amSunday 22 Sep 2019 at 3:15am, updated Thu 14 Nov 2019 at 1:19pm

Key points:

  • Zheng He has been promoted as a symbol of China’s peaceful rise
  • His fleets sailed from China through South-East Asia, the Middle East and Africa
  • Some dispute the ‘peaceful explorer’ narrative and say he represents aggressive expansion

He was a six-foot-five Muslim eunuch who sailed from China to the coast of Africa. The greatest explorer you’ve never heard of.

Zheng undertook a series of epic voyages between 1405 and 1433, leading more than 20,000 men aboard a fleet consisting of more than 100 ships — easily the most advanced navy of its day.

While Zheng’s fleet showed off Chinese might and naval prowess, orthodox Chinese histories depict him as never engaging in gunboat diplomacy, rather developing friendships with foreign leaders.

“He did not occupy a single piece of land, establish any fortress, or seize any wealth from other countries,” China’s then-deputy minister of communications Xu Zu-yuan said in 2004.

“In the commercial and trade activities, he adopted the practice of giving more than he received, and thus he was welcomed and lauded by the people of the various countries along his routes.”

This is clearly how Beijing would like to be viewed internationally today, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy naming one of its ships the Zheng He.

But Philippine Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio claimed last month that historians had proven Zheng never came to the Philippines, and that his myth was simply part of China’s attempts to justify its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“I call this the fake history of the millennium, the fake news of the century,” he said.

Geoff Wade, an Australian historian focused on China’s engagement with South-East Asia, has argued that Zheng’s voyages represented a violent form of “maritime proto-colonialism”.

In the case of Vietnam, for example, Dr Wade has written: “There was invasion, occupation, the imposition of a military and civil administration, economic exploitation, and domination by a court in the capital of the dominating power.”

Ming rule of Vietnam is part of 1,000 years of Chinese domination of the South-East Asian country, which continues to anger Vietnamese nationalists to this day.

Dr Wade has written that the Zheng He voyages “involved the use of huge military force to invade peoples who were ethnically different from the Chinese, to occupy their territory, to break that territory into smaller administrative units, to appoint pliant rulers and ‘advisers’, and to economically exploit the regions sooccupied”.


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