Editorial: When Suoguo will end

by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS

Dear reader,

for a period of 214 years during the last part of the Edo period, between 1603 and 1868, relations and trade between Japan and other countries were severely limited, and nearly all foreign nationals were barred from entering Japan, while the Japanese people were forbidden to leave the country. This period of “Sakoku” (鎖国,”locked country”, Mandarin pronounciation: Suoguo) was the isolationist foreign policy of the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate.

The policy was meant to support the power and control of the shogunate government over the whole country. There existed a “bubble” in Nagasaki for trade with China including a miniscule Dutch factory for the trade with Europe. Foreign ideological influence was meant to be kept from the population, with only a few scholars having access to Western scientific, technical and medical information. Liberalizing challenges to the sakoku policy developed several times, but were successfully suppressed.

The result of the ongoing isolation was a continuous economic and social weakening of the country. The isolation ended in 1853 with the arrival of the “Black Ships” under Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry of the U.S. Navy. His main mission was not, as the Japanese and American historian like to see it, the “opening of Japan”, but most importantly the establishment of a secure coaling station for American steam ships on their way to China, which had become more reachable after the integration of California into the United States in 1850.

China’s period of sakoku is nearing two years soon, a short time compared to the Tokugawa period. But in the fast-moving 21st century it may well make sense to compare a century in the 17th century with a year now.

One effect of the de-globalisation and de-internationalisation of China is for instance the departure of more and more foreigners from China. In Beijing and Shanghai the expat community has declined from about 300,000 to about 200,000 in the last ten years. Altogether less than one million foreigners live in China (excluding residents from Greater China), including African traders in Guangdong and Thai and Burmese near the border in Yunnan, the two provinces with the highest number of foreigners.

The number of foreign students in China is also falling and according to several surveys many major Western companies are planning to reduce or close their presence in China (and Hong Kong) after the end of the pandemic.

Sakoku resulted in a weakened Japan which in the end had to accept the adaptation of Western culture (like eating meat and Prussian goose steps). China itself flourished economically and culturally during its history in periods of openness like the Tang and Song Dynasty or when it was part of greater empires as during the rules of the Mongols and the Manchus.

There is some hope that China will learn from its own and from the history of its neighbor and end the sakoku of China sooner than later. Recently Wu Zunyou, the chief epidemiologist at China’s Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, during a conference in Beijing called China’s zero-tolerance containment policy a “magic weapon” to control the pandemic. However, he not only acknowledged that there were “some different opinions” toward the approach among the public, Wu also said that zero-tolerance containment and border restrictions were absolutely necessary for the coming months. “We must stick to it, at least through this winter and next spring,” he said.

“Different opinions”! Not often are we told that among the public some people have a different idea than the government. And: “For the coming months”, “At least until spring” – so not: forever! That sounds very much like another step into the direction of slowly preparing the Chinese public for an opening of the borders after Spring festival and Olympic/Paralympic Games.

As always, all best wishes from Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt and the entire COTRI WEEKLY team!