China views the west with a barely disguised chip on its shoulder. And not without reason.
One of those reasons stands behind a locked gate on a trendy lane in Rockbund, Shanghai's art deco district. The British Supreme Court for China and Japan is an unassuming two-storey colonial building from which British judges handed down some of the worst indignities of what China calls its "century of humiliation", from the mid-19th century until the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
While the Middle Kingdom was never a full-blown foreign colony, "foreign devil" forces did rule chunks of vital port cities such as Shanghai. Old resentments die hard, especially in a culture with 5,000 years of history .
So the legacy of western colonialism lives on in the memories of mainlanders and in the British court, symbol of a century of extraterritorial foreign justice in China.
Douglas Clark, a Hong Kong barrister, has written what he calls a "living history" of that court, and its American counterpart, complete with period cartoons, sepia photos and salacious judicial details.
From love spats to interracial warfare, Clark's three-volume tome, Gunboat Justice: British and American Courts in China and Japan (1842-1943), chronicles one of the saddest chapters in Sino-western relations: the bit where foreigners set up courts that sometimes let their citizens get away, literally, with murder.
Under treaties China signed in the 19th century, most foreign nationals were exempt from Chinese laws. These extraterritorial courts stepped in whenever they committed crimes against each other, or locals. He chronicles the case of a Malay seaman who murdered his Chinese wife, an opium-addicted prostitute who pawned all his clothes. And that of the Indian foreman at a British shipyard, who killed a Chinese colleague after the latter "broke wind" and committed an unspecified "revolting act" over their meal.
These contemporary court reports seem to have been precursors of Judge Judy, reprinted in local papers for entertainment value. "The century of humiliation is not just propaganda. We foreigners gloss over it, but foreigners lived completely immune from Chinese law," Clark says as he takes me on a walking tour of extraterritorial justice in Shanghai. "Every single day (it) reminded Chinese people they were not sovereign in their own land."
The tour includes the British court, followed by one of the city's most picturesque colonial landmarks, the customs house on the Huangpu River. It is here that Clark reminds me that two of the leading revenue-raising officials in China during the extraterritorial period were British: Sir Robert Hart was inspector general of Chinese customs for nearly 50 years, from 1863 onwards; and Sir Richard Dane monitored the Chinese collection of salt tax and its remittance to foreign creditors in the early 20th century.
Chinese who wanted justice against foreigners during that period had to argue in a court that used not only foreign law but also a foreign language and foreign customs. The testimony of Chinese witnesses was sometimes discounted on the grounds they weren't Christians, and defendants were often let off lightly for injuring or even killing local people — on the grounds that they were worth less than foreign ones.
This is the kind of thing, says Clark, that "forms the cornerstone of how many Chinese, and particularly the Communist party, see the world". He notes that "foreigners — to this day — are seen as trying to split and weaken China".
It might be worth recalling this history next time we are minded to lecture Beijing about legal reform, or for that matter about the chip on its shoulder. The west may have forgotten all about what happened in those courtrooms. But China has 5,000 years of collective memory, remember?