December 11, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

In 1859 the soon to be patriarch of humanitarianism, Jean-Henri Dunant, watched on as Emperor Franz Josef of Austria and Emperor Napoleon III of France fought the Battle of Solferino. The fighting lasted only a single day, and as the battlefield quietened Dunant descended from his vantage point overlooking the town in order to document the scene left behind. His accounts of soldiers suffering unaided long after the fighting was over became the impetus for the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Geneva Conventions – the institutionalisation of moral standards for warfare.

From this outset, humanitarian morality has always existed as a paradox, as a rejection of our innate tendency towards violence, as a refusal to surrender to our tendency to ignore the plight of others. An expression of universal compassion in response to the misery and suffering of others, a yearning to embrace our humanity, after we have witnessed our capacity to be inhumane.

As such, it is therefore incongruous that China, as a nation that prides itself on being the centre of global civilisation (the ‘Middle Kingdom’), has consistently refused to accept that it has a moral obligation to participate in global humanitarian missions – even going so far as to claim, counterintuitively, that such missions are intrinsic moral violations, regardless of their circumstances.

This is an intransigence that might finally be changing!

Perhaps more than any other prominent power, China still sees the principle of state sovereignty and its corollary, the non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, as sacrosanct, as inexorable standards of international life. It is easy to see why this is the case!

The modern narrative of Chinese nationalism is defined by a single word – Humiliation! A constant stream of military defeats and foreign occupations, comprising the Opium Wars, the loss of Hong Kong, the Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895, the Boxer Rebellion, the concession of Shandong Province to Japan in the Treaty of Versailles, and Japanese occupation during the Second World War, defined China’s pre-communist era (1842-1949). Chinese nationalism is a collectivisation around a history of victimisation and shame.

Incidentally, the unwavering reverence still afforded to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party is in large part due to the role they played in emancipating China from foreign occupation. They have become symbols of Chinese re-emergence, they ended the ‘century of humiliation’.

With this history, China have been understandably reticent about facilitating or even condoning foreign interventions, regardless of any moral imperative that may be present.

During the break-up of the former-Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s, as Serbian forces executed a campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing that included the reintroduction of concentration camps in Europe for the first time since the Holocaust, the international community was rightly criticised for seeking to avoid their moral responsibility by procrastinating over the details of intervention – a response described by Professor Thomas Weiss as “collective spinelessness”. So when the conflict re-emerged four years later in Kosovo, the relative speed of the NATO-led intervention, combined with the successful outcomes of halting the Serbian military build-up, enforcing a peace accord and convincing the United Nations to temporarily administer the region, was widely heralded as the high-water mark for humanitarianism.

For very different reasons, it was also a defining moment for China, a moment that would announce the distorted moral benchmark by which they had come to judge all international behaviour.

Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan quickly decried the Kosovo intervention as a violation of Serbian sovereignty, as a human rights violation, and as “the new gun-boat diplomacy”, a reference to the British invasion of China during the Opium Wars.

Further still, the accidental destruction of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade due to a mapping mistake was branded as “hostile intent” and a “war crime”. While the Chinese casualties of the bombing were idolatrised as the “three martyrs”, across China US embassies were attacked, US flags were burnt in the public displays, and popular nationalist songs were quickly produced that held such lyrics as “NATO is a group of thieves…NATO is the nemesis of peace”.

China had set their international standard – a dual standard.

Firstly, embodying the spirit of John Quincy Adams, China would be a nation that “respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own”, therefore it would never “go abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”.

And secondly, when humanitarian interventions would occasionally proceed in the absence of Chinese assistance and despite Chinese objections, the professed moral motivation would never be trusted. Such interventions would be ill-disguised exercises in ‘shadow imperialism’ – what John Paul Sartre described as “honeyed words” in order to supply “alibis for our aggression”.

Without question, humanitarian intervention has a fraught history: a history of deceptive application, hypocritical implementation, and operational limitations. It was after all, a humanitarian ethic that Hitler espoused as justification for the invasion of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland in 1938, and more recently the self-professed justification for Russia’s invasions of South Ossetia and Crimea.

But the misappropriation of a principle should not discredit the principle itself. Humanitarian intervention is always best vindicated by its absence. The poignant example of this was Rwanda, where Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), Canadian Major-General Romeo Dallaire, estimated that as few as 5000 adequately trained international troops would have been enough to halt the violence. Instead, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 912 reducing UN troop numbers from 2558 down to 270. The international community watched passively as 800,000 people were killed, 500,000 women raped, half the country’s total population displaced, and neighbouring countries dragged into the ethnic conflict in only three months of fighting.

International inaction in Rwanda had scarred our collective conscience in way that misappropriation never could. Through its absence, the moral value of humanitarian intervention became irrefutable.

Yet China seemed to be unaffected by such a visceral lesson, and continued to behave as if they held no moral responsibility to human suffering beyond their own borders.

Immediately after the genocide, China, in direct violation of international arms embargoes, helped to resupply the Rwandan military. In 2008, as Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian government struggled to contain a popular uprising in Zimbabwe, China sold him the arms he needed to suppress the population. And rogue regimes such as Syria, Iran and North Korea receive constant protection, courtesy of the Chinese veto powers in the United Nations Security Council.

Yet, China’s amoral international peak came during their inexcusable support for Khartoum during the Sudanese civil war. Chinese arms sales to North Sudan increased by 137 times during the period 2001 to 2006, a proliferation that corresponded directly to exponential increases in atrocities committed upon South Sudanese population centres. The state-owned Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) closely followed this violence, providing the necessary infrastructure in order to exploit seized oil reserves, even going so far as to allow Chinese oil developments to be used as military launching-pads for further attacks.

The international history of modern China is defined by a self-imposed moral absenteeism. Yet this intransigent stance appears to be finally shifting. China has recently been undergoing a subtle, though still perceptible, sea change in its understanding of international moral responsibility. The Chinese are slowly becoming global humanitarians.

This is a process that has been significantly hurried along by two disparate events, a Japanese constitutional revision and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Recent Parliamentary approval for the amendment of Japan’s pacifist constitution sent echoes of trepidation through the international community – yet, no one was affected quite like China. The proposed amendment was itself fairly innocuous. It would allow Japan, where it could not before, to come to the defensive aid of allies, and importantly would allow previously forbidden participation in international humanitarian missions.

Due to its long history of Japanese occupation, such developments were always going to be emotionally charged for China, yet as spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Hong Lei reacted as expected by accusing Japan of “damaging regional peace and stability”; the hypocrisy on display was hard to stomach.

China was free to abandon the humanitarian arena, it was free to denounce its international moral responsibility, yet in doing so it had to accept that other states might seek to fill the altruistic void that they had left behind. China had themselves effectively created the circumstances that would justify Japanese constitutional reform. A valuable lesson had been learnt: by exiting the international stage, China had tacitly invited others to enter and assert themselves as global powers.

In 2008, the Sichuan province of China was struck by an 8.0 magnitude earthquake, killing 75,000 people and leaving another 5 million people homeless. China mobilised in a massive national effort combining government funding, military deployment, and a ground-swell of volunteers from across the country.

China did not appeal for international help, and it seems they did not expect it.

They were subsequently and palpably caught off guard when international funds began to flood in regardless. Over 160 countries offered combinations of both aid and resources, including regional countries with whom China had strained relationships including Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and importantly, Japan.

The decision over whether China would be an integrated member of the international community had been made for them. All future Chinese humanitarian efforts would now be judged, not by previous Chinese behaviour, nor by decades’ old conflicts, but rather by the present-day compassion that other nations had shown them.

As such, the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, a region of the world in which China has invested heavily in recent years, is fast becoming an epochal moment for Chinese humanitarianism.

Across 9 different countries, Ebola infections are closing in on 20,000, with death rates closing in on 7000. Whereas previously it might have left the region to its own devices, China has donated $123 million, the Chinese company Sihuan Pharmaceutical Holdings Group has supplied thousands of doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine, and troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been commissioned to build a 100 bed clinic to be staffed by 480 Chinese medical workers. This is to supplement the hundreds of Chinese aid workers who have already been deployed.

Although this commitment is still short of the resources donated by both the United States and the European Union, China is now preparing to deploy a further 1000 medical workers in order to fill a significant portion of the 4500 medical workers that the World Health Organisation says is still needed in order to contain the virus. This constitutes the largest ever overseas humanitarian aid operation that Beijing has ever undertaken.

However, if such developments are truly indicative of an underlying growth in Chinese humanitarianism, then the journey will likely not be an enjoyable one. Hypocrisy constantly undermines the best of humanitarian efforts.

The United States found themselves widely criticised for taking too long to intervene in Bosnia, and then subsequently criticised again for intervening when they did. Conversely, they were criticised for intervening in Somalia, then criticised with increased vigour for leaving prematurely. They have drawn criticism for not intervening in Rwanda quickly enough, and also criticism for intervening in Kosovo and Libya too soon. This is the burden of great powers, there are no easy choices, and no easy victories.

However, there are victories. The US response to Spanish atrocities in Cuba, British interventionism against the slave trade, the establishment of ‘save havens’ in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Tanzanian intervention in Uganda, India in Bangladesh, and international compositions in Sierra Leone, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Ituri (Congo), all represent best practice in the Just War tradition.

When such ethical interventions are undertaken, it is often due to the personal convictions of a few specific actors. After working closely with the French government, Public Intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy explained that the success of the Libyan intervention was reducible to a single factor, “the political will of one man, the President of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy”.

If Ebola in West Africa can be contained to current levels and millions of people subsequently rescued from suffering and death, it might similarly be reducible to a single factor – the political will of the Chinese President Xi Jinping.