HistoryBits: China

HistoryBits: China

Bits and Pieces of History

Society

Society/Building Blocks

Certain of the most enduring aspects of China’s social orientation took form in the early dynastic states of Xia, Shang, and Zhou. The prosperity of China’s economy remains rooted in its agriculture. Its obsession with flood control harks back to the efforts of King Yu of the Xia dynasty… and remains one of the present regimes most urgent priorities. The tributary nature of its trade with the outside world began with the Silk Road commerce of the Shang dynasty, and helped the Chinese to form the view that the world comes to China, and not the other way around. This was when China began building walls to seal China off from the barbarians to the north, helping to form China’s insular view of itself as the “Middle Kingdom.” The written language which became China’s greatest unifying influence had begun to unite north and south China back then. And the Zhou dynasty first articulated the Mandate of Heaven in justifying its overthrow of the Shang. Above all, Confucianism and its obsession with maintaining social order was a product of the turbulent times of the Zhou dynasty, and its written classics became—and remained until modern times—the basis of its bureaucracy.

Society/Contact with the West

Contact with the West was feared because if its possible destabilizing influence on society, thus risking the Mandate of Heaven and the fall of the regime. Also, China had no understanding of the West (largely because of its refusal–as the Middle Kingdom and self-styled center of the universe–to engage the outside world), and typically, where ignorance reigns, so do fear and hatred.

Society/Food

The incredible genius that the Chinese have long demonstrated in the culinary arts must have something to do with their long history of recurrent famine. As they say, the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit.

Society/McDonalds

Imagine regarding a Big Mac as something no less exotic in Chinese eyes than jellied snow toad in ours! I’ve long suspected that the Big Mac’s “special sauce”—it’s main mystique–is basically ketchup, mayonnaise, and pickle relish, but the mystique of the Big Mac for the Chinese consumer probably lies more in the nature of the fast food business itself. For the Chinese, eating has often been a rather ritualistic social affair; the incredible genius that the Chinese have long demonstrated in the culinary arts must have something to do with their long history of recurrent famine. (As they say, the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit.) The Big Mac, on the other hand, is the fruit of Western technology and efficiency and represents the very stuff and substance of our consumer-driven legerdemain.

Society/Nushu

Women in Chinese history have often proved themselves not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least have had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its countless complications (war and more), and exert themselves in more subtle ways. How ingenious, then, that women would develop a separate scheme of writing that would preserve those powers from prying male eyes!

Society/Bird Flu

The response of the Chinese regime to both the SARS and bird flu epidemics has been typically totalitarian, thinking “out of sight, out of mind.” The problem is that in this era of globalization—with the transparency brought by the Internet and dirt-cheap telecommunications—there is no keeping anything out of sight any longer. China, whether Beijing like it or not, is irretrievably a part of the global community, and the regime must soon come to realize that events in China are no longer purely its business.

Society/Sacred Versus Scientific Societies

Much of the story of encounters between East and West should be understood in terms of an encounter between “sacred societies” and “scientific societies.” Eastern societies for the most part belongs in the former category, while most Western cultures occupy the latter. Sacred societies can be characterized by their reverence for nature, their belief that man should live in harmony with his environment, their subordination of earthly and temporal concerns to divine will, their different concept of time, their love of tradition, their mysticism. Scientific societies, on the other hand, live by reason, objective reality, and their belief that man must be master of his environment, and worship progress, wealth, and material comfort. Both sacred and scientific societies have something to learn from each other: rationalism enables man to fulfill his creative potential, while mysticism and the sense of the sacred would teach us that man must make his way in the world without ruining his environment and riding roughshod over his fellow human being; either approach by itself leaves much to be desired. Western man is clearly in need of the metaphysical perspective that Eastern disciplines like Taoism and Buddhism afford, since for all of our worldliness, material gratification, and technological prowess, we still don’t seem to understand that the measure of gratification in life is meant to be more than who dies with the most toys.

Society/Cave-Dwelling

The more progress we make, the more we inevitably seem to come around to where we started. The Chinese have a wonderful idea with cave-dwelling, one that saves lots of money on construction costs and climate control, to say nothing of the mortgage! Seriously, I suspect that the farther we reach back into time, the more sophisticated the civilizations we’d uncover if only we could. For us to believe that history is a linear progression from the primitive to the present is a massive conceit. In fact, I imagine that future civilizations may well come to de-emphasize technology to the point where life again resembles the simplicity of certain ancient civilizations, and that with technology, the less intrusive, the better.

Society/Ethnicities

From the time when the Qin emperor Shih Huang-di standardized axle lengths on horse-drawn carts and the Han decreed its measures to standardize the written language throughout the empire, to the brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, China’s rulers have long been obsessed with achieving and enforcing uniformity and consensus in a population that is not only the world’s largest but historically one of its most fractious. The lesson of that history is that anything less than consensus invites disruption and beckons the Mandate of Heaven, with its dreaded consequences for the incumbent regime. China’s traditional response to barbarians of any stripe—whether Mongols, Manchus, Muslims, or Tibetans, has been to absorb them, and its present-day policy of populating China’s farthest-flung dominions with waves of Han Chinese settlers gives the lie to its official tolerance of minorities and to the regime’s absurd celebration of China’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

Society/Urbanization

I have no doubt that whatever China chooses to apply the talents and energies of its 1.4 billion people to, it will become the world’s best at. I note that China is today using that same plan to assimilate outlying areas like Tibet and China’s far northwest, areas that previously had been autonomous (and sovereign in the case of Tibet) and populated chiefly by minorities. Siberia would be natural, given the demographic disaster that’s decimating Russia these days.

Society/Migration

The proliferation of migrant labor is symptomatic of the severe challenges posed to China’s leadership by under-employment and the widening gap between urban prosperity and rural destitution. How best to keep people employed and—hopefully—prosperous? With a population of 1.4 billion to keep a lid on, the present regime understands well from the lessons of history that if society comes undone, the people will regard it as having lost the Mandate of Heaven–the right to rule. The dread of social chaos is no less acute today than it was 2,000 years ago (and so often since then).

Society/Minorities

For the matriarchal and Buddhist Mosuo to have survived in the patriarchal and Confucian Chinese ethos suggests that certain minorities might still hold their own against the advance of the Han Chinese cultural tide.

Society/New Year’s

The Chinese calendar, replete with both celestial and terrestrial creatures and their personalities might seem destined for the dustbin of irrelevancy. Nonetheless, in order to understand the culture of a people, one must understand the cultural canons that shape their worldview, and nowhere in the Chinese calendar does there open a better window on their worldview than New Year’s. The New Year rites of ancestor worship reflect the pre-occupation of the Chinese with how best to keep body, soul, and society in proper working order in this life; if anything, ancestor worship almost attains the status of a religion—the Chinese view being that ancestors inhabit a realm from which they are able to assist their earth-bound families, so long as they are properly revered and their needs tended to diligently–a very pragmatic point of view geared towards earthly prosperity. As for the new luck that comes with the New Year, centuries of adversity have taught the Chinese that he exists at the whim of fortune, knowing that in a country so densely populated as China, human life is the most expendable of commodities, and that his earthly existence can be cut off at any time by flood, famine, banditry, bad government and rebellion. It would seem that he is therefore preoccupied with it, and that much of the Chinese consciousness thrives in the twilight zone of the ethereal, the mystical, and the fateful.

Society/Olympics

The 2008 Olympics were intended to formalize China’s entry into the first rank of the community of nations after many, many years as the Sick Man of Asia. Prestige, form, and appearances count for considerably more than substance and sincerity with the Chinese, and while they may hope to put a whole new face on things with the Olympics, the fact is that unless they come to terms with the pervasive social unrest-–the thousands of riots and public protests that have occurred in the last couple of years throughout China against all kinds of things: unpaid expropriation of land, corruption, unpaid wages–that accompanies its transition to a market economy, China’s Olympics may ultimately come off as as just so much diplomatic theatre.

Society/One-Child Policy

Chinese women have come a long ways, but in the fashion of three steps forward, two back. The one-child policy means that with fewer children to care for their aged parents, the burden falls more and more on… you guessed it. Ultimately, that may prove to be a more effective brake on population growth than the one-child policy per se, since (if Japan is any guide) women will simply refuse to marry if all they have to look forward to later in life is the burden of caring for her husband’s parents. Just a theory.

Society/Pathologies

So much of the regime’s legitimacy depends on preserving political face, the reporting of China’s social pathologies is probably no less suspect than its economic statistics. The Chinese propensity for oppression and for gilding the lily points up a larger problem, being the inability of people in China to find their own voice—politically, socially, economically. But the pace of change is bound to pick up dramatically, thanks to the transparency brought by the Internet and the globalization of communications, finance (meaning: the reticence of Western businesses to invest in and partner with sweatshop economies), and technology. As the Internet, mobile phones, faxes, and satellite dishes enable Chinese to increasingly see how the developed world lives, and as they become wealthier and better educated, they’ll be more demanding of the same standard of living (and rights and opportunities) that the West enjoys.

Society/Plastic Surgery

A woman in today’s China might understandably regard the knife as an instrument of passage to a better world—either by doing herself in with it, or having herself fixed up with it in the hopes of garnering the attentions and good offices of a Sugar Daddy. Hopefully, the old boy would be not just well off but well along… thus rendering hypothetical the dread prospect of a mother-in-law—that ferocious guardian of her son’s honor and property (is there any more formidable force in the universe than a mother whose young is threatened?!), whose domain the poor bride might only inhabit at the old harpy’s constant displeasure. It’s all enough to make you wonder how the Chinese managed to propagate themselves into the world’s most over-populated nation.

Society/Public Health/AIDS

I’m tempted to think that even if the Chinese government was able to pocket but a few quid net of the public health costs of AIDS, they’d go for it; after all, this is the same regime that abets the harvest of transplant organs from executed criminals. Human life has never commanded much of a premium to pecuniary considerations in China, but with rising levels of public education, that can only change for the better.

Society/Public Health/Smoking

I’m tempted to think that even if the Chinese government was able to pocket but a few quid net of the public health costs of smoking, they’d go for it; after all, this is the same regime that abets the harvest of transplant organs from executed criminals. Human life has never commanded much of a premium to pecuniary considerations in China, but with rising levels of public education, that can only change for the better.

Society/Overseas Chinese

I suspect that the overseas Chinese are one of the world’s great success stories because once they escape China’s chronic plagues of government oppression, corruption, and civil chaos and people leave them alone, their natural talents and tireless energies thrive. The fact that the Chinese government is lightening up and encouraging people to get rich is why we’re seeing such exuberant growth in China today–think Taiwan time 500 or Singapore times a thousand, and you have some idea what’s coming!

Society/Public Morals

China’s ban on serving restaurant meals on the bodies of naked women recalls the anything-goes urban stew that was Shanghai in the pre-communist era. The Chinese have a long history of wild swings in social temperament, ranging from dissolute to draconian with predictable regularity. Lewd dining may be a harbinger of the social license that accompanies prosperity, which in turn paves the way for the excesses that eventually brings the Mandate of Heaven down on everyone’s head. Round and round we go.

Society/Face

Perhaps the Chinese are as obsessed with face because of their sensitivity to the humiliations that China—once the world’s grandest civilization–sustained at the hands of the West. China under the Tang dynasty had achieved the fullest extent of its empire, stretching from Korea to Sogdiana in Central Asia, and from Lake Baikal to Vietnam. With that, the tide began to ebb, until by the time of its encounter with the West, China was unable to resist the incursions of British opium and the Century of Humiliation that resulted. For all of its imperial splendor, the one thing that China was most deficient in was humility. Its early encounters with the West betrayed an insufferable arrogance toward the outside world. China was the “Middle Kingdom,” and it was for the world to come to China, and not the other way around. China had nothing but disdain for the technology of the West, thinking these things to be toys and trifles beneath the dignity of the Chinese court. When the military technology of the West was turned on China, it could not be so easily dismissed. China suffered a rude awakening and a hundred years of humiliations at the hands of the West, which opened China’s markets at gunpoint for its opium. China’s resentment of its humiliation formed the underpinnings of its response to the West well into modern times.

Society/Family

Some things will probably not change in the foreseeable future: family, most of all. In an agrarian society, sons not only provide needed labor throughout their lives, but become the primary source of support for their parents in their old age—there being no social security, nor pensions worth called such. You can imagine the reticence with which Chinese society has embraced the one-child policy. As to relationships, communes have made little headway toward either supplanting traditional family or economic relationships. Since China’s most abundant resource is people, it has of course made sense to make excellent use of it. China, along with Japan, is the world’s most relationship-driven society (and economy), with virtually everything proceeding on the basis of who knows whom. As we might expect, such a society places little stock in such things as contracts and statutes, wisely preferring to invest their trust in relationships. Unfortunately, none of that has changed under communism–it’s still very much the old-boy game. The state provides little security such as we know it in the form of entitlements here in the West, and the Chinese continue to look to each other for their support. With marriage, love is not even a consideration; marriages are regarded as alliances between families for their mutual benefit. The Chinese are nothing if not practical!

Society/Family Loyalties

Asian societies and economies are the most relationship-driven in the world, with virtually everything proceeding on the basis of who knows whom—making it very difficult for outsiders like Americans to break in. China places straightjacket constraints on maintaining the harmony of its society and places the interests of the group—from the emperor on down–far ahead of the interests of the individual. And since China’s most abundant resource is people, it has of course made sense to make excellent use of it. China places little stock in such things as government, nationhood, and contracts and statutes, wisely preferring to invest their trust in relationships. Unfortunately, none of that has changed under communism–it’s still very much the old-boy game. The state provides little security such as we know it in the form of entitlements here in the West, and the Chinese continue to look to each other for their support. With marriage, love is not even a consideration; marriages are regarded as alliances between families for their mutual benefit. The Chinese are nothing is not practical! All that harks back to Confucius, whose entire philosophy was based in ordering the relationships among men so that China’s most dreaded condition—social chaos—might be kept at bay. As one might expect from such heavily populated conditions, Asian societies place a great deal more emphasis on social interaction and relationships than does the individual-minded United States.

Society/Future

As foreboding as the Middle East situation seems, I have the feeling that China’s wild card may well prove to be the story of the century. I say “wild card” since most of us seem to continue to be in the dark about the time bomb that’s ticking away in China. China’s banks are insolvent, and it seems that the likeliest outcome of the developing economic crisis could be hyperinflation (which has happened before in China). Massive unemployment could also ensure as the China people lose confidence in the banks, stuff their savings under their mattresses, and the state enterprises lose access to the endless line of credit that has been unwittingly financed by the Chinese people for so long. With that, severe social and political turmoil seems assured. Keep in mind that one-quarter of mankind stands to be caught up in this maelstrom, and the rest of the world may find itself unprepared to deal with the consequences.

Society/Gambling

Centuries of adversity have taught the Chinese that he exists at the whim of fortune, knowing that in a country so densely populated as China, human life is the most expendable of commodities, and that his earthly existence can be cut off at any time by flood, famine, banditry, bad government and rebellion. It would seem that he is therefore preoccupied with it, and that much of the Chinese consciousness thrives in the twilight zone of the ethereal, the mystical, and the fateful. Art and philosophy everywhere reflects the times, and China’s poetry, literature, its Taoist canon, and its preoccupation with gambling would all seem to reflect the Chinese craving for detachment from endless earthly complications and perils. So, why not “chance ‘em” (as we say in Hawaii)… whaddaya got to lose, besides a life that is so patently cheap?!

Society/Homelessness

Homelessness represents a failure of China’s paramount institution: family. In an agrarian society (back when 80% of China’s population was rural), sons provided needed labor throughout their lives, but became the primary source of support for their parents in their old age—there being no social security, nor pensions worth called such (you can imagine the reticence with which Chinese society has embraced the one-child policy). As to relationships, communes have made little headway toward either supplanting traditional family or economic relationships. Since China’s most abundant resource is people, it of course made sense to make excellent use of it. China is the world’s most relationship-driven society (and economy), with virtually everything proceeding on the basis of who knows whom. As we might expect, such a society places little stock in such things as contracts and statutes, wisely preferring to invest their trust in relationships. Unfortunately, none of that has changed under communism–it’s still very much the old-boy game. The state provides little security such as we know it in the form of entitlements here in the West, and the Chinese continue to look to each other for their support. But now the demographic equation is changing as China becomes a predominantly urban society, and the consequences of this disruption are legion.

Society/Migrant Smuggling

Chinese who pay huge sums to snakeheads to smuggle them into America often end up (if not deported or dead, that is) greatly disillusioned at the dismal prospects and oppressive drudgery they’re rewarded with for their trouble. Increasingly, it turns out that they’ve left a better life at home, given China’s breakneck pace of modernization and economic growth, and as word gets around, we may see the tide of illegal immigration turn. On the other hand, while I’d agree that there’s a crisis of the first order developing over illegal immigration and how to help provide for those who came here in such desperation, and while that may cost us plenty in the short run, immigration continues to reward us generously in the long run. Just about everyone came to America in a desperate condition of one kind or another, and it was their sheer determination to better themselves that fostered the spirit that built America into what it is today: the World’s Country, which gets the best, the boldest, and the brightest from around the world. A case in point: 4 out of 5 American recipients of the Nobel Prize have been either first- or second-generation immigrants; that speaks to the highest reward of all–that which comes from intellectual capital.

Society/Rice

Commonplace that rice is today, the Chinese have learned from bitter experience never to take the stuff for granted. In fact, the incredible genius that the Chinese have long demonstrated in the culinary arts may well have something to do with their long history of recurrent famine. As they say, the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit.

Society/Secret Societies

The absence of any tradition of government for the people and by the people, coupled with the intractable Chinese contempt for authority (based on the timeless abuse of the commoner by over-zealous taxation and conscripting his labor for outlandish projects like the Great Wall) has led the Chinese to develop organizations, institutions, and values that feather one’s nest from the inside out. Somewhere along the line, the inspiration of the secret society changed, in some cases, from contempt to criminality—probably once it got wise to the profit potential of living as a law unto itself.

Secret Societies/Falun Gong

Falun Gong has thrived in the absence of any tradition of government for the people and by the people in China, coupled with the intractable Chinese contempt for authority (based on the timeless abuse of the commoner by over-zealous taxation and conscripting his labor for outlandish projects like the Great Wall) has led the Chinese from time immemorial to develop organizations, institutions, and values that feather one’s nest from the inside out. Somewhere along the line, the inspiration of the secret society changed, in some cases, from contempt to criminality—probably once it got wise to the profit potential of living as a law unto itself. With the Falun Gong, it may seem hard to understand how a sect consecrated to physical conditioning and self-healing came to be deemed a political threat, but in a society as oppressive as China, the tendrils of such organizations inevitably seek out that most fecund growth medium of all: politics.

Society/Shanghai

Shanghai is very much in the world’s face these days with its New China attitude and showcase of fantasy-land architecture and social energy. If the government ever gives its people half a chance, we can expect not just Shanghai but China is general to rival the dynamism of the other showcases of free China: Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Society/Social Change

If only men and women anywhere could live their lives independent of the crosscurrents of politics, and without having a hand laid on them by the long reach of history. This is quite impossible in America, let alone China, where the presence of the state pervades every nook and cranny of society, and where society is constantly turned inside out by chronic political crisis and by the breakneck pace of change as China transforms itself from the most ancient and traditional of societies into the most dynamic force in the global economy. Much of the demand for change that has swept Chinese society since the death of Mao has occurred sub rosa, and not by way of open outcry (Tiananmen being the most notable exception). Either that, or we just don’t hear about it: the hundreds of public protests that each and every day erupt against all kinds of things: unpaid expropriation of land, corruption, the arrogance of the rich, exorbitant fees, unpaid wages, and much more. But notwithstanding the best efforts of China’s army of 50,000 Internet police, the mice continue to outwit the cats, and the inevitable day of reckoning draws closer, when ordinary Chinese will expect and demand civil liberties and a standard of living and governance on par with those of the rest of the civilized world. Things may well fall apart in the meantime, but I say “inevitable,” because I just don’t believe it’s possible for a society to grow richer in the fullness of time without becoming better educated, more sophisticated, and less tolerant of having their lives run by a bunch of ignorant thugs.

Society/Baseball

We know that the cultural walls of the once-impregnable Middle Kingdom have finally been breached when the day comes that we see the Tianjin Lions squared off against the Guangdong Leopards in a good old American game of baseball!

Society/Stereotypes

We need to be mindful of the temptation to allow cultural stereotypes to taint our growing fund of knowledge of China. Stereotypes offer us with the reassurance that we do indeed have the Chinese–or whatever other object of our consideration–properly sussed, and that we’re comfortably on the same page as everyone else with our petty prejudices and misperceptions. In the process of trying to disperse the fog of ignorance, we’ll labor diligently at our studies to accumulate a that fund of knowledge, but then the day will come when we’ll join our ancestors, and all of that knowledge will go with us… and we’ll have to leave it to the next generation to re-build that fund pretty much from scratch. And well and truly, I’m astonished at how little net progress we’ve made over the generations with Americans and Chinese (or anyone else) coming to understand each other. It almost seems pointless, and right in line with Kipling’s ditty that “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” But we need to keep in mind, too, that everything—race and ethnicity most of all, perhaps—means something. And the whole story of America (and globalization) is our struggle to embrace our differences, and become enriched in so doing—with the alternative being that we are overwhelmed by our differences, and become impoverished in the bargain. Globalization will present enormous challenges in the years ahead, as entire industries and millions of jobs are shipped offshore to China and other low-wage economies, and as the war of terrorism widens into a war between the Haves and the Have-Nots. We’ll need all the help we can get from folks like you who will have had sufficient exposure to multiculturalism to proclaim our profound differences with the rest of the world as opportunities to grow richer, not poorer.

Society/Women/Divorce

It’s hard to explain the radical change in attitudes toward divorce, except to say that the norms of the outside world are being embraced by the Chinese much faster and more comprehensively than anyone imagined… in spite of the efforts of the regime to censor and mitigate that contact. I suppose that bodes well for political change in China, since it’s hard to imagine the Chinese insisting on divorce and other women’s rights and gender equality without political modernization to match.

Society/Women/Foot Binding

Much as women would suffer to be beautiful (?), I agree that the self-mutilation and self-inflicted disability of foot binding carry the whole business too far. But what are we to make of liposuction, breast implants, plastic surgery, tattooing, and Michael Jackson?

Society/Women/Sex Education

A woman’s right to abortion poses a moral dilemma that, while painful, is not nearly so fraught with complications as the alternative of having no legal right to one. With the rising tide of education in China, women will increasingly demand enlightened and humane choices to the cruel stupidity that flourishes along the boundary between public and private morality. But in the process, China will need to find its way around the Gibraltar of thousands of years of Confucian tradition that defines those vaunted “Asian values” of the world’s most relationship-driven societies.

Society/Women/Marriage

For the average Chinese father of the bride, his daughter’s marriage was both his liberation and (by virtue of its onerous expense) his bitter reward for having been cursed with having daughters in the first place; indeed, for most girls, the practice of drowning them might at least assured the poor creatures of a better world than the one they otherwise generally inhabited. How presumptuous we in the West are to think that love is everything in marriage. In ancient China, love meant nothing as an inducement to marriage; should a young man be so bold as to ask about his upcoming marriage, he risked being reprimanded by his father and told to mind his own business! Marriage was purely a tool of alliance with another clan, and was negotiated with all the flinty-eyed pre-occupation with the bottom line commanded by the barter of a camel for a herd of goats. Once the parties to negotiation had concluded that the marriage was in their mutual interest, the price of the bride, and the goods that came with the bride, became the paramount concern. Virginity was not a virtue so much as it was an economic imperative, for without it, the woman was damaged goods and unmarketable. As for what love might or might not arise after marriage, that remained an imponderable. Adultery, a crime only for women, was frowned upon not because of the betrayal of love that it represented, but because the good name of the children came under a cloud and undermined their future marketability in marriage and thus the family’s continuity. And if the women failed to produce those sons, she at once became irrelevant as a wife, and was suffered as a secondary consideration to a Significant Other who could produce the requisite heirs. The poor women faced other terrors, with wife beating possibly the least among them when compared with the tyranny of the mother-in-law—the ferocious guardian of her son’s honor and property (is there any more formidable force in the universe than a mother whose young is threatened?!), and whose domain the poor bride inhabited at the old harpy’s constant displeasure. It’s all enough to make you wonder how the Chinese managed to propagate themselves into the world’s most over-populated nation.

Society/Women/Suicide

So much of the regime’s legitimacy depends on preserving political face, and China’s officially reported suicide rate is probably no less suspect than its economic statistics; I think it wise to generally discount the good numbers–and inflate the bad numbers–by a third. The Chinese propensity for oppression and for gilding the lily points up a larger problem, being the inability of women in China to find their own voice—politically, socially, economically. But the pace of change for Chinese women is bound to pick up dramatically, thanks to the transparency brought by the Internet and the globalization of communications, finance (meaning: the reticence of Western businesses to invest in and partner with sweatshop economies), and technology. As the Internet, mobile phones, faxes, and satellite dishes enable Chinese to increasingly see how the developed world lives, and as they become wealthier and better educated, they’ll be more demanding of the same standard of living (and rights and opportunities for women) that the West enjoys.

Society/Women

For the Chinese peasant cursed with having daughters, the practice of drowning them at least assured the poor creatures of a far better world than the one they would otherwise have inhabited. How presumptuous we in the West are to think that love is everything in marriage! In ancient China, love meant nothing as an inducement to marriage; should a young man be so bold as to ask about his upcoming marriage, he risked being reprimanded by his father and told to mind his own business! Marriage was purely a tool of alliance with another clan, and was negotiated with all the flinty-eyed pre-occupation with the bottom line commanded by the barter of a camel for a herd of goats. Once the parties to negotiation had concluded that the marriage was in their mutual interest, the price of the bride, and the goods that came with the bride, became the paramount concern. Virginity was not a virtue so much as it was an economic imperative, for without it, the woman was damaged goods and unmarketable. As for what love might or might not arise after marriage, that remained an imponderable. Adultery, a crime only for women, was frowned upon not because of the betrayal of love that it represented, but because the good name of the children came under a cloud and undermined their future marketability in marriage and thus the family’s continuity. And if the women failed to produce those sons, she at once became irrelevant as a wife, and was suffered as a secondary consideration to a Significant Other who could produce the requisite heirs. The poor women faced other terrors, with wife beating possibly the least among them when compared with the tyranny of the mother-in-law—the ferocious guardian of her son’s honor and property (is there any more formidable force in the universe than a mother whose young is threatened?!), and whose domain the poor bride inhabited at the old harpy’s constant displeasure. It’s all enough to make you wonder how the Chinese managed to propagate themselves into the world’s most over-populated nation.

Society/Uyghurs

For the lilting strains of Uyghur melodies to have insinuated themselves into the Chinese cultural ethos suggests that the Muslim minorities might still hold their own against the advance of the Han Chinese cultural tide throughout Central Asia.

Society/Education

Although China has long had a tradition of enabling upper mobility through education, it was a pretty narrow path (via the Imperial examinations). Education for the masses was a different story, since fees for even primary school had to be paid by the parents, who were seldom able to afford them. The big break might come by way of the Internet, as it enables China’s masses to see how the rest of the world lives, and raises their expectations for their own lifestyle. Prosperity and political transparency go hand-in-hand.

society/Yangtze and Yellow Rivers

While the Yangtze River has proved considerably more helpful in the scheme of things as China’s Rice Bowl, it was the Yellow River–China’s Sorrow—that has helped condition the Chinese attitude toward government. After all, it could only be inferred that when the river sundered its levees, changed its course, and inundated the land that the blessing of Heaven had been withdrawn from the incumbent dynasty, and that revolution was the only remedy.

society/Yellow and Yangtze Rivers

The Yellow River (“China’s Sorrow”), laden in silt and prone to frequent flooding, has changed its course times. The Yangtze divides north China from south, and bridging the river (and that Great Divide) has been an elusive goal for China until recently. It may contain to be problematic, with the imminent completion of the Three Gorges Dam along the upper reaches of the Yangtze. Western engineers regard this project with horror, and predict its collapse on account of poor engineering and cement. A calamity of this sort would unleash the Flood of the Millennium, and send China back to contemplating how to contend once again with its most ancient adversaries, its river.

Culture


Culture/Tai Chi Chuan

Ever since Descartes proclaimed “I think, therefore I am!” the Western world has poleaxed itself on this perceived divorcement of mind from matter, and of spirit from body. The Chinese recognize no such separation, and their medicine, martial arts, and much of their philosophy derives from their understanding of the duality of the corporeal and spiritual. Drawing upon the yin-yang foundation of much of their worldview and the patterns of energy flow in the body, the Chinese discipline of tai chi chuan draws its inspiration from metaphysical wellsprings in articulating our intimate inter-relationship with the natural and spiritual realms.

Culture/Tattoos

At first glance, tattooing seems nothing more than an art form that’s enjoying a modern comeback, along with the putative post-Mao Chinese Renaissance. But everything means something, and in one sense, the popularity of tattoos is more than a fashion accessory, and something closer to a political statement: anything in that smacks of individuality may well be seen as a challenge to the social cohesion that underpins its political viability.

Culture/Art

The genius of Chinese art lies in its ability to evoke at least as many of its subjects inner and implied qualities as those that it explicitly portrays. Similarly, with its cornucopia of ideo- and pictographs, Chinese calligraphy evokes a wealth of cultural implications that give expression to its several thousand years of history and tradition. But the Chinese are nothing if not eminently down to earth. An example: the character for “woman” poised beneath the character for “roof” = “peace.” Two women under a roof = gossip. And three women under roof? House of ill repute! But lest I descend too far into the gutter, I’ll make the observation that art reflects not only the tastes, but also the values of its time. It allows you to experience for yourself those most keenly felt sentiments that shaped the topography of the mindset of an era. For this, words don’t always suffice–there being things that, if explained to us, we cannot truly understand.

Culture/Cultural Imperialism

For China, what mattered was cultural—rather than military–dominion, and it was much easier for all concerned if outlying barbarian states would simply acknowledge China as the center of the universe, and its culture as vastly superior to that of the barbarian, by paying tribute in return for keeping the peace and being left alone. Empires come and go, but with China’s humiliation at the hands of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries came its bitter realization that the rest of the world regarded its standard of living as primitive, its political institutions as hopelessly outmoded, and its antique culture as quaint and mired in the past. This was a mortal blow to China’s unassailable self-image as the Middle Kingdom and center of all that mattered, and it sowed a conflict in China’s breast that rages even today, as China labors beneath the onus of the foreign ideology of communism, having recently trashed its Confucian heritage. Is anything about the China of olden days compatible with the modern day? Ironically, the trade that was forced upon China in the 19th century has come back to haunt us, as China drains America’s manufacturing vitality and floods our markets with its manufactures. History has a very long reach.

Culture/Dance

Chinese dance might at first seem as outlandish a form of the art as Peking opera does to those who have described it as sounding something like a cat being raped… by a rat! (The Hawaiians had much the same reaction to a violin sonata that was mellifluously rendered for them by a crewmember from Captain Cook’s voyage in 1779—-on the occasion of the first contact between Hawaii and the outside world.) That said, we should concede that the passions that animate Chinese dance are broadly comparable to those that govern Western ballet. No doubt artistic beauty—along with everything else—is culturally relative, but it nonetheless allows the viewer to experience for himself those sentiments and tastes that shape the mindset of a people. For this, words don’t always suffice–there being things that, if explained to us, we cannot truly understand.

Culture/Fashion

I can’t decide whether it’s amusing or pathetic to see the Gibraltar of Chinese culture quake and crumble before the gods of Western fashion. In any event, the conceits of the Middle Kingdom ain’t what they used to be.

Culture/Feng Shui

Ever since Descartes proclaimed “I think, therefore I am!” the Western world has poleaxed itself on this perceived divorcement of mind from matter, and of spirit from body. The Chinese recognize no such separation, and their medicine, martial arts, and much of their philosophy derive from their understanding of the duality of the corporeal and spiritual. Based upon the patterns of energy flow in the environment, the Chinese discipline of feng-shui articulates their intimate inter-relationship with the natural and spiritual realms.

Culture/Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was very much a microcosm of China itself. The overwrought relic that was the Forbidden City reflected China’s imperial hauteur and its belief that China was the center of the world–in fact, the Chinese name for China means “Middle Kingdom”; everything else was terra incognito and the domain of barbarians. Not all the hauteur under heaven, however, couldsave the Chinese from abject humiliation at the hands of the barbarian once the British came knocking at their door with guns and other technology that the Chinese had long ago dismissed as frivolous trinkets. Ironically, the wolves of the West would just as readily dismiss such glories of the Chinese civilization as the Forbidden City as equally contemptible trinkets.

Culture/Great Wall

The Great Wall represents a Great Divide between the old way of looking down their noses at the outside world and walling it out, and the startling innovation that kicked in with the Song dynasty–namely, that diplomacy and buying peace with the northern barbarians was a lot cheaper than building walls and fielding armies. Too bad they forget the lesson when it came time to deal with the Europeans.

Culture/Jade

I’ve long since become a devout skeptic of Chinese PR, and judging from the multiplicity of virtues which the Chinese have traditionally associated with jade, one can only surmise that there must have been an even greater multiplicity of monkey-business that attended its ascent in the popular esteem.

Culture/Obstacle to Modern Communication

They say that in order to understand the culture of a people, one must understand their language. In the case of the Chinese language, certain canons of the culture can be discerned in the fact that the high art of Chinese calligraphy could only be mastered by the scholar-mandarin; mastery of the written language was emblematic of the gulf that separated the scholar from the commoner. It is a language that is supremely ill-suited to science and technology–the Chinese term for “cement” is “foreign dust;” for “theater,” it is “electric shadow-hall”—but which is very well suited indeed to poetry, philosophical epigrams, and the cultivation of an artistic turn of mind. At the same time, it accords well with the Chinese veneration of the ancient idyll, and with the Chinese concept of the highest and best qualities of its culture and the literati who best represent them. Will it take a top-to-bottom makeover of the Chinese cultural personality in order for the nation to adapt to modernity?

Culture/Lion Dancing

Lion dancing might at first seem as outlandish a form of the art of dance as Peking opera does to those who have described it as sounding something like a cat being raped… by a rat! (The Hawaiians had much the same reaction to a violin sonata that was mellifluously rendered for them by a crewmember from Captain Cook’s voyage in 1779—-on the occasion of the first contact between Hawaii and the outside world.) That said, we should concede that the passions that animate Chinese festivities are broadly comparable to those that govern Western ballet.

Culture/Literature

Ordinarily, literature illuminates the evolving values and ever-changing experiences of the times. But in China’s case, its literary spotlight played upon an old masterpiece that was gathering dust on the museum wall for the longest time. The Confucian classics produced a hidebound reverence for the virtues of a long-vanished Golden Age that caused Chinese civilization–once one of the world’s most scientifically advanced—to find itself pathetically inadequate to the 19th-century incursions of the West. The spirit of exploration and military grandeur seemed to have reached its peak in the Ming dynasty and then deteriorated into an attitude of indifference and contempt that may have been engendered by China’s cultural arrogance, and its belief that the barbarian world outside of its borders must come to China, the Middle Kingdom and Center of the Universe, and that it had nothing to learn from anyone else. By the same token, the literary canon that girded China’s educational system was a product of its Confucian polity and its preoccupation with social harmony. Its emphasis on the subservience of student to teacher (and to the Confucian social hierarchy) to this day discourages independent initiative and creative expression, and places little emphasis on learning–beyond what is necessary to gain admission to college (and even that learning is purely rote). As a result, China is one of the most relationship-driven societies on earth, and the values inculcated by its literature and educational system ensured that China has long remained a follower, not a leader. The Confucian ordering of the relationship between student and teacher is one of a kind with that between emperor and subject, and father and son. With their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future, it’s no wonder that the Chinese adored imitation (and rote memorization) to the exclusion of originality. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? The Chinese preoccupation with ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day.

Culture/Folklore

I’m not sure where superstition and philosophy blend into folklore, but I would submit that it’s all cut from the same bolt of cloth—namely, the fabric of belief systems. Reality is personally construed, and what you imagine, believe, and expect is what you get. Imagine… above all—that’s the key word, for imagination is the precursor of personal reality, and in order for something to become material, it must first be imagined, then progressively invested with the emotional force that puts the meat on the bones, so to speak. In societies—ancient or modern–that are ordered around divine authority, myth serves that all-important purpose of expressing collective imagination in building culture. Myth is imagination writ large by culture and society, essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature, or as the various heroes of China’s folklore might have served as exemplars for its basic social morality.

Culture/Kung Fu

I sense an allegory in kung fu—with its emphasis on conforming body, mind, and soul to an iron-bound discipline—that speaks to the modern dilemma posed by the Chinese tradition of conforming their behavior and thinking to a rigid social straitjacket. That serves the purpose, I suppose, of enabling everyone to get along in close quarters, but it tolerates little individuality or dissent from the consensus of the group. In another sense, ever since Descartes proclaimed “I think, therefore I am!” the Western world has poleaxed itself on this perceived divorcement of mind from matter, and of spirit from body. The Chinese recognize no such separation, and their medicine, martial arts, and much of their philosophy derive from their understanding of the duality of the corporeal and spiritual. China is the most relationship-driven of societies, and it exacts heavy penalties for those upstarts who upset society’s harmonious balance. Chinese society—like kung fu–does not function when out of balance, whereas Western society thrives on discord and individuality.

Culture/Music

To those who have described Chinese opera as sounding something like a cat being raped (by a rat!), I would offer the observation that the Hawaiians had much the same reaction to a violin sonata mellifluously rendered for them by a crew member from Captain Cook’s voyage in 1779—-on the occasion of the first contact between Hawaii and the outside world. I suppose that artistic beauty—along with everything else—is culturally relative.

Culture/Oracle Bones

China’s institutions are venerable because they are ancient, and the institution that is both most ancient and germane to Chinese culture was the written language that became China’s greatest unifying influence. It’s odd that the Chinese had so little reverence for their oracle bones, preferring to grind them up into medicines instead of deciphering their secrets. The Chinese generally pride themselves on their antiquity, and with their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future, it’s no wonder that they revered history (and imitation and rote memorization) to the exclusion of originality. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? The Chinese preoccupation with ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day.

Culture/Philosophy/Glue of Chinese Society

Confucianism was a social contract that entreated relations between subject and ruler in the same spirit that governed one’s skein of family obligations; if it were possible for a person to change the world, it would all proceed from an individual’s proper discharge of his responsibilities toward others. If China was to build unity and a harmonious society, it began with the family. Given that family is the ultimate force in one’s life, how better to ensure order and loyalty than to keep things all in the family, so to speak? The theory was wonderful, but like most wonderful theories, it required a generous trade-off with reality. The strictly doctrinaire Confucian canon that formed the basis of the imperial examination system produced a bureaucracy that could faithfully ape the sacred texts, but could not think outside of the box. This debility proved fatal in China’s encounter with the West, leaving it hopelessly inadequate and hostage to the military technology of the “hairy barbarians,” and setting the stage for its “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West in the 1800s. Confucius’s teachings of family piety and respect for elders remain paramount in Asian societies, and the more Asia changes and becomes Western in its appearance, the more we need to be mindful of the ancient philosophical orientation that underpins its social behavior.

Culture/Preoccupation with Form

With their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future, it’s no wonder that the Chinese adored imitation to the exclusion of originality. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? The Chinese preoccupation with li and the preservation of ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day. Dynasties have either thrived or died on the strength of their ability to preserve social order in a teeming and restive populace. In bygone days, the threat was from the barbarians north of the Great Wall; in the modern day, the threat lies within, in the form of the looming calamity of unemployment and social disruption that for now is held at bay only by massive state support of the economy. In the Chinese mind, everything means something, and appearances are everything; this was true with li on a personal scale and with lies on a state scale.

Culture/Philosophy/Confucius

Our old friend Confucius lies at the heart of China’s intellectual tradition, in the sense that Confucianism–a philosophy dedicated to social order–was the product of chaotic times (the Warring States epoch, more than 2,000 years ago); its enduring popularity reflects the deeply-rooted Chinese dread of social chaos. This also explains why the Chinese were so harsh and unforgiving in their crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. With a population of 1.4 billion to keep a lid on (and with rampant unemployment), the present regime understands well from the lessons of history that if society comes undone, the people will regard it as having lost the Mandate of Heaven–the right to rule. The dread of social chaos is no less acute today than it was 2,000 years ago (and so often since then).

Culture/Philosophy/Hundred Schools of Thought

There must have been something in the water: the Mother Lode of cultural norms that was hatched from the Hundred Schools of Thought and their various gurus–Confucius, Mencius, Mo-Tzu, the Taoists, and more–have served China (for better or worse) for thousands of years. With their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future, it’s no wonder that the Chinese revere history (and imitation and rote memorization) to the exclusion of originality. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? The Chinese preoccupation with ancient and rigid forms has precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day.

Culture/Philosophy/Mohism

Mo-Tzu was to Confucianism what Martin Luther—the father of Europe’s Reformation—was to the Catholic Church: disdainful of its doctrinaire rigidity, its ritual and embellishment of the faith, its class snobbery, and dedicated to simplifying things. Yet, his creed of love one another–and the whole business of being one’s brother’s keeper–never stood much chance of gaining acceptance with the average Chinese, since the absence of any tradition of government for the people and by the people, coupled with the intractable Chinese contempt for authority (based on the timeless abuse of the commoner by over-zealous taxation and conscripting his labor for outlandish projects like the Great Wall) had led the Chinese to develop organizations, institutions, and values that feather one’s nest from the inside out. It all begins with the family, from which the Chinese skein of loyalties proceeds to insinuate itself into the extended family of guilds and triads. While Chinese society may appear chaotic and seem to suffer from community-mindedness, the obligations imposed on the individual by the Chinese family are far more of a straightjacket than those imposed on the Westerner by government regulation and civic responsibility. In America, we verse ourselves from an early age in the civic virtues of patriotism, democracy, and devotion to God–these being the values that are most needed to keep all the wildly diverse elements of our melting pot society on the same page. The Chinese, as one of the most homogeneous societies on earth, do not need to be reminded as to which country they belong to; the heavy hand of governmental authority is something to be avoided if at all possible, and for most Chinese, God remains an imponderable, while ancestors on the other hand are ever at hand to help with matters sundry and sublime. It takes a lot to sunder the social straitjacket that constrains the Chinese, and the rebel who rises up to revoke the Mandate of Heaven from a government that has exceeded its brief is heroic for so doing.

Culture/Philosophy/Taoism

Taoism offered an alternative for people who opted out of the social straightjacket that the teachings of Confucianism imposed, and encouraged its followers to go with the flow of the Universal Way. In a sense, however, it paralleled the teachings of Confucius in urging conformance to a natural order; Confucianism spoke to the harmony of social relationships writ large, while Taoism spoke to the harmony of mankind with the grand rhythms of nature.

Culture/Porcelain

While China has long suffered from the aversion of its literati to muddying their hands with scientific experimentation, it can thank the propensity of its Ming potters to muddy theirs in the clay of Kaolin for the porcelains that gave form to some of the highest and best of Chinese civilization.

Culture/Socialist Art

Artistic creativity in an authoritarian society such as China’s seems a contradiction in terms. It took some doing to transform the ingenious and richly creative cultural aptitude of the Chinese people into something as brittle, dogmatic, and ugly as the “communist cultural canon.” While history offers countless examples of art that has glorified the state (Versailles, St. Petersburg, the Forbidden City), artists and creativity seems to thrive best in conditions of social upheaval and chaos (as with the Renaissance); the distressed tree bears the sweetest fruit. Government guidance and sponsorship and political direction are antithetical to the artistic spirit that demands absolute freedom in order to range and roam about in search of fulfillment of those values it seeks to express, and when society comes unglued, the creative ferment arises in the absence of strictures. Ugly is as ugly feels, and the “art” of communist China and the desecration of China’s cultural icons—its temples and Confucian shrines and literary corpus—made China ugly in a way that mirrored its disgrace as the “sick man of Asia.”

Culture/Tea

Here in America, tea is coming into the same sort of hoity-toity vogue that Starbucks created for coffee. But the Chinese knew tea for the good thing that it is from ancient times—proving once again that if you hang onto something long enough, it always comes back into fashion again.

Culture/Terra Cotta Army

Only a monster like Qin Shihuangdi would have set himself to such epic tasks as building the Great Wall, burying China’s army of scholars alive, and assembling an earthenware army for (who knows?) the purpose of conquering even grander horizons that men of mere flesh and blood might shrink from. The old boy seems to have set a precedent for brutality that was not exceeded until Mao Zedong became the most prolific mass murderer of modern peacetime-—accounting for some 70 million deaths largely through maladroit policies like the Great Leap Forward that brought devastating famine to China and which, by the early 1970s, had left the average Chinese poorer than the average Somali. The Chinese are no less heavy-handed in enforcing uniformity of opinion today, largely because of their fear of the burgeoning popular dissatisfaction that has produced thousands of outbursts of public protest in recent years. This is the sort of thing that makes for the loss of the Mandate of Heaven, and which might someday summon Qin Shihuangdi’s terra cotta troops to administer to the regime its coup de grace… and bring the long cycle of Chinese history round once again to whence it began.

Culture/Tiger Penis Soup

Frankly, none of this surprises me. The Chinese have, by force of chronic starvation and uncertainty, grown into their (admittedly clichéd) reputation as the world’s most egregious misers, and it seems that no cost-cutting measures, no matter how cynical, have ever been out of bounds with them. Given half a chance, one wonders if they wouldn’t cut down ages-old sequoias to grow green onions… for the former brings only aesthetic gratification, while the latter brings cash. That’s what’s happening now to India’s population of Bengal tigers… poached to near-extinction for the sake of those flagging Chinese libidos that demand the salutary effects of tiger penis soup.

Culture/Science

Once upon a time, China indeed had a leg up on the West with respect to technology, but that leg got tangled up in conceit, and led to a nasty sprain that hobbled China’s scientific progress forever after. The Chinese name for China–“Middle Kingdom”–says it all; everything else was terra incognito and the domain of barbarians, and China believed it had nothing to learn from such ill-mannered and malodorous rabble. Not all the hauteur under heaven, however, could save the Chinese from abject humiliation at the hands of the barbarian once the British came knocking at their door with guns and other technology that the Chinese had long ago dismissed as frivolous trinkets.

Culture/Science

With such a promising beginning, one wonders how it was that China suddenly seized up in science. Part of the problem lay with the traditional disdain of the intellectual for getting his hands dirty with practical research… plus why bother modernizing production and such when you’ve got an endless supply of dirt-cheap labor? But a deeper problem lay in the fact that China did not have the institutions, in terms of education and scientific inquiry, a free-market economy, political and diplomatic relations with foreign markets, and much more that would support modernization. Industrialization cannot simply be grafted onto a brittle Confucian polity, but requires the accompanying development of social, economic, and political institutions that support it.

Culture/Science

By the time of Lord McCartney’s expedition in the late 18th century, China’s emperor would dismiss the wonders of technology that the British had brought in tribute as contemptible trifles. China has long suffered as well from the aversion of its scholars to getting their hands dirty with scientific experimentation. Why bother to invent a conveyor belt, for example, when there were so many thousands of pairs of hands available—dirt-cheap—to hand the baskets of gravel up the hillside?

Culture/Science/Traditional Medicine

I’m inclined to believe (pun intended) that what you believe is what will cure you–whether herbal, African fetish, voodoo, acupuncture, the White Man’s medicine, or plain old placebo. I’m not sure which is more potent: traditional Chinese medicine–with its arcana of jellied snow toad, powdered seahorse, pickled vipers, and the like—or the Western pharmacopoeia, with its infinite array of nostrums, pills, and powders. Both offer mind-boggling potential for healing by dint of sheer imagination, the prime prerequisite of faith healing. But I can’t imagine that Western pharmacology could offer the Chinese anything half as interesting, and if it’s the healing power of the imagination that we’re trying to incite, how can a little white pill compete with a pickled viper?

Culture/Science/Obstacles to Development of Technology

It seems cruelly ironic that the Chinese civilization, which was once one of the world’s most scientifically advanced, had by the 19th century found itself pathetically inadequate to the demands forced upon it by Western military technology. The spirit of exploration and military grandeur seemed to have reached its peak in the Ming dynasty and then deteriorated into an attitude of indifference and contempt that may have been engendered by China’s cultural arrogance, and its belief that the barbarian world outside of its borders must come to China, the Middle Kingdom and Center of the Universe, and that it had nothing to learn from anyone else. By the time of Lord McCartney’s expedition in the 18th century, China’s emperor would dismiss the wonders of technology that the British had brought in tribute as contemptible trifles. China has long suffered as well from the aversion of its scholars to getting their hands dirty with scientific experimentation. Why bother to invent a conveyor belt, for example, when there were so many thousands of pairs of hands available—dirt-cheap—to hand the baskets of gravel up the hillside? A deeper problem lay in the fact that China did not have the institutions, in terms of education and scientific inquiry, a free-market economy, political and diplomatic relations with foreign markets, and much more that would support modernization. Industrialization cannot simply be grafted onto a brittle Confucian polity, but requires the accompanying development of social, economic, and political institutions that support it.

Culture/Printing

China’s scientific ingenuity was all that you might expect from what was once the world’s most brilliant and accomplished civilization. Where it fell short, however, was in its failure to adapt its inventions to practical purposes—printing and gunpowder being the two best examples. What was firecrackers to the Chinese was firepower to the West; similarly, their elaborate and overwrought calligraphy proved supremely ill-suited to the system of movable type that they themselves had invented, but which would not find widespread applicability until Gutenberg’s press. More so, China has long suffered from the aversion of its scholars to getting their hands dirty with scientific experimentation and commercial application. Why bother to invent a conveyor belt, for example, when there were so many thousands of pairs of hands available—dirt-cheap—to hand the baskets of gravel up the hillside?

Culture/Calendar

The Chinese calendar, replete with celestial stems and terrestrial creatures and their personalities is, like the Chinese language, seems destined for the dustbin of irrelevancy. Nonetheless, in order to understand the culture of a people, one must understand the cultural canons that shape their worldview. In the case of the Chinese language, certain canons of the culture can be discerned in the fact that the high art of Chinese calligraphy could only be mastered by the scholar-mandarin; mastery of the written language was emblematic of the gulf that separated the scholar from the commoner. It is a language that is supremely ill-suited to science and technology–the Chinese term for “cement” is “foreign dust;” for “theater,” it is “electric shadow-hall”—but which is very well suited indeed to poetry, philosophical epigrams, and the cultivation of an artistic turn of mind. Similarly, their calendar, governed by whatever creature personality is in the ascendancy, accords well with the Chinese veneration of an animist universe. Will it take a top-to-bottom makeover of the Chinese cultural personality in order for the nation to adapt to modernity?

Culture/Cartoons

The Chinese have embraced the Western cartoon medium and lent to it its traditional taste for grotesquerie. If it’s true that everything means something, perhaps the Chinese take on the cartoon medium reflects their perception of themselves as victims of Japanese atrocities and Western monstrosities. For the Chinese, whose worldview remains mired in their historic humiliation at the hands of the outside world, cartoons afford a weird refractory lens through which to regard and reinvent themselves, both historically and futuristically.

Culture/Dragons

The dragon looms larger than life in the Chinese popular imagination. I recall a visit to the Taipei Zoo, where I asked an old Chinese lady what she thought about the place. Her reply: “Okay… but there’s no dragon.”

Culture/Creativity

China’s educational system is a product of its Confucian polity and its preoccupation with social harmony. Its emphasis on the subservience of student to teacher (and to the Confucian social hierarchy) discourages independent initiative and creative expression, and places little emphasis on learning–beyond what is necessary to gain admission to college (and even that learning is purely rote). As a result, China is one of the most relationship-driven societies on earth, and the values inculcated by its educational system ensured that China has long remained a follower, not a leader. The Confucian ordering of the relationship between student and teacher is one of a kind with that between emperor and subject, and father and son. With their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future, it’s no wonder that the Chinese adored imitation (and rote memorization) to the exclusion of originality. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? The Chinese preoccupation with ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day.

Culture/Imperial Exams

The Chinese revered history (and imitation and rote memorization) to the exclusion of originality. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? In its emphasis on regurgitating the wisdom of the ancient sage-kings of Confucius and company, the imperial exam system hardened the inflexibility of rule, and the Chinese preoccupation with ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day.

Culture/Scholar-Gentlemen

With all this talk about sages and scholar-gentlemen, it might be a good idea to consider some of the ramifications of China’s adoration for ancient wisdom. The ideal envisioned the scholar-mandarin as a master and custodian of the literary and philosophical canon of the Chinese Classics (most of all), and of poetry and calligraphy and painting and music, and an exemplar of public responsibility. It was this hidebound reverence for the virtues of a long-vanished Golden Age, and the emphasis of the system upon It seems cruelly ironic that the Chinese civilization, which was once one of the world’s most scientifically advanced, had by the 19th century found itself pathetically inadequate to the demands forced upon it by Western military technology. The spirit of exploration and military grandeur seemed to have reached its peak in the Ming dynasty and then deteriorated into an attitude of indifference and contempt that may have been engendered by China’s cultural arrogance, and its belief that the barbarian world outside of its borders must come to China, the Middle Kingdom and Center of the Universe, and that it had nothing to learn from anyone else. By the time of Lord McCartney’s expedition in the 18th century, China’s emperor would dismiss the wonders of technology that the British had brought in tribute as contemptible trifles. China has long suffered as well from the aversion of its scholars to getting their hands dirty with scientific experimentation. Why bother to invent a conveyor belt, for example, when there were so many thousands of pairs of hands available—dirt-cheap—to hand the baskets of gravel up the hillside?

Culture/Marco Polo

The account of Marco Polo‘s sojourn in China came as a body blow to the prevailing conceit that Europe was the center and very apex of civilization (ironic, considering that the Chinese felt the same way about themselves). The opulent and gracious cities, the ingenious novelties of paper money, pasta, and a postal system, and the hive of commerce that he encountered in China–and the very extent of the Khan’s empire—put to shame the squalid cities and sordid political rivalries that passed for civilization in Europe. At the same time, the experiences of the Polos in China awakened a taste for the wealth of the China trade that has confounded relations between East and West ever since.

Religion

Religion

The dismantling of an official orthodoxy (even if it’s Confucianism or ancestor worship) can leave society without the unifying spiritual values it needed to maintain control and fend off external threats. That’s what happened here in Hawaii when the missionaries induced the Queen of Hawaii to upend all the old gods and idols and replace them with Christianity—her subjects were left spiritually eviscerated, and it was all downhill from there. Organized religion serves the purpose of forging those unifying values that keeps society on the same page, so to speak, and sanctifying them with divine blessing. When a society’s religion is thrown out the window, as were the Hawaiian gods, and replaced with something new (like Christianity), it leaves society dangerously vulnerable to the incursion of other foreign values that piggyback themselves onto the imported religion, which ultimately weaken a society so that it is no longer willing to resist invasion.

Religion/Ancestor Worship

The absence of organized religion and a priestly class in China (Buddhism was never a mainstream religion, and Taoism was—like Confucianism–more concerned with correct living in the here-and now rather than the afterlife) reflects the pre-occupation of the Chinese with how best to keep body, soul, and society in proper working order in this life. If anything, ancestor worship almost attains the status of a religion—the Chinese view being that ancestors inhabit a realm from which they are able to assist their earth-bound families, so long as they are properly revered and their needs tended to diligently. Once again, a very pragmatic point of view geared towards earthly prosperity.

Power

Power/Dynasties

The Chinese political mindset is quite stuck on the inevitability of the cyclical rise and fall of dynasties. The Mandate of Heaven was a wonderfully convenient means of justifying the success of a rebellion and the subsequent legitimacy of its leaders: so long as a dynasty prevailed, it was presumed to have the blessing of heaven; should it be overthrown, it was presumed that it had betrayed heaven’s trust and had lost its blessing, and that its overthrow was meant to happen. The Chinese are, after all, nothing if not supremely practical! Still, the Mandate of Heaven points up the very Confucian preoccupation with the proper ordering and alignment of relationships among society and government and heaven.

Power/Mandate of Heaven

The Mandate of Heaven was a wonderfully convenient means of justifying the success of a rebellion and the subsequent legitimacy of its leaders. So long as a dynasty prevailed, it was presumed to have the blessing of heaven; should it be overthrown, it was presumed that it had betrayed heaven’s trust and had lost its blessing, and that its overthrow was meant to happen. The Chinese are, after all, nothing if not supremely practical! Still, the Mandate of Heaven points up the very Confucian preoccupation with the proper ordering and alignment of relationships among society and government and heaven.

Power/Xia Dynasty

Much of what we believe we know about the Xia dynasty is what the Chinese would have us believe. Its history seems largely mythological, replete with heroic deeds of flood taming by the sort of sage-king that populated the prehistoric pale in ancient cultures worldwide. It’s telling, though, that the Chinese pride themselves on their antiquity, and with their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future, it’s no wonder that they revered history (and imitation and rote memorization) to the exclusion of originality. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? The Chinese preoccupation with ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day.

Power/Shang Dynasty

Certain of the most enduring aspects of China’s geopolitical and cultural orientation took form in the Shang. The tributary nature of China’s trade with the outside world began with the Silk Road commerce, and helped the Chinese to form the view that the world comes to China, and not the other way around. This was when China began building walls to seal itself off from the barbarians to the north, helping to form China’s insular view of itself as the “Middle Kingdom.” The written language that became China’s greatest unifying influence had begun to unite north and south China back then. And the political turbulence and intrigue that attended the downfall of the Shang and justified its overthrow by the successor Zhou dynasty resulted in first articulation of China’s premier political precept, the Mandate of Heaven.

Power/Zhou Dynasty/Rise and Fall

What is China if not the world’s biggest and oldest bureaucracy? The building of this infamous institution got underway in the Zhou dynasty, and offered the focal point for Confucius’ preoccupation with the precept of the scholar-gentleman as role model for virtuous government. Regrettably, as power slipped from the monarch and his scholarly counselors into the grasping and contentious hands of local aristocrats, and central power broke down completely, Confucianism became a philosophy dedicated to social order. It was the product of the chaotic times of the Warring States epoch that ushered out the Zhou dynasty, more than 2,000 years ago), and its enduring popularity reflects the deeply-rooted Chinese dread of social chaos. This also explains why the Chinese were so harsh and unforgiving in their crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. With a population of 1.4 billion to keep a lid on (amidst rampant unemployment), the present regime understands well from the lessons of history that if society comes undone, the people will regard it as having lost the Mandate of Heaven–the right to rule. The dread of social chaos is no less acute today than it was 2,000 years ago (and so often since then).

Power/Zhou Dynasty/Intellectual Awakening

The awakening of self-expression in Zhou-dynasty China anticipated (by a couple thousand years) a comparable awakening of the European intellectual and artistic galaxy. With Western eyes thus opened to the entitlement of the individual to a mind of his own came a number of interesting developments: an awakening sense of nationalism, the dissolution of monarchy, the shattering of rigid social convention and artistic form, and a burgeoning galaxy of new modes and themes of self-expression (including democracy and civil liberty). But whereas these developments thrived in the West, they repeatedly proved abortive in China, as it awaited the incubus that would arrive with the Japanese and Western invasion of China. The nationalism that had flourished so handily in the close quarters of Europe’s developing nation-states at last fostered an awareness among modern Chinese intelligentsia of China’s ages-old cultural isolation, decrepitude, and backwardness, and of the urgent need for it to modernize. With China’s humiliation at the hands of the West came its bitter realization that the rest of the world regarded its standard of living as primitive, its political institutions as hopelessly outmoded, and its antique culture as quaint and mired in the past. This was a mortal blow to China’s unassailable self-image as the Middle Kingdom and the center of all that mattered, and it sowed a conflict in China’s breast that rages even today.

POWER/WARRING STATES

The Warring States epoch, more than 2,000 years ago, is responsible for the very living, beating heart of China’s intellectual tradition. The enduring popularity of Confucianism, a philosophy dedicated to social order, reflects the deeply-rooted Chinese dread of social chaos. (This, by the way, also explains why the Chinese were so harsh and unforgiving in their crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement; with a population of 1.5 billion to keep a lid on, and with rampant unemployment, the present regime understands well from the lessons of history that if society comes undone, the people will regard it as having lost the Mandate of Heaven–the right to rule. And so, the dread of social chaos is no less acute today than it was 2,000 years ago.) Confucius believed that if it were possible for a person to change the world, it would all proceed from an individual’s proper discharge of his responsibilities toward others. If China was to build unity and a harmonious society, it began with the family. The rash ambitions of emperors could only be constrained by the Mandate (or blessing) of Heaven, and if a ruler’s actions exceeded his writ, or if he failed to observe his obligations to his subjects, the Mandate of Heaven would be withdrawn and heaven’s displeasure would manifest itself in natural calamity and social upheaval. Confucianism was a social contract that entreated relations between subject and ruler in the same spirit that governed one’s skein of family obligations; if it were possible for a person to change the world, it would all proceed from an individual’s proper discharge of his responsibilities toward others. If China was to build unity and a harmonious society, it began with the family. Given that family is the ultimate force in one’s life, how better to ensure order and loyalty than to keep things all in the family, so to speak? The theory was wonderful, but like most wonderful theories, it required a generous trade-off with reality. The strictly doctrinaire Confucian canon that formed the basis of the imperial examination system produced a bureaucracy that could faithfully ape the sacred texts, but could not think outside of the box. This debility proved fatal in China’s encounter with the West, leaving it hopelessly inadequate and hostage to the military technology of the “hairy barbarians,” and setting the stage for its “century of humiliation” at the hands of the West in the 1800s. Confucius’s teachings of family piety and respect for elders remain paramount in Asian societies, and the more Asia changes and becomes Western in its appearance, the more we need to be mindful of the ancient philosophical orientation that underpins its social behavior.

Power/Qin Dynasty/Shih Huang-di

The heavy hand of Shih Huang-di went a long way toward welding an empire out of congeries of Warring States, standardizing the currency, weights and measures, and China’s written language (its spoken language remains hopelessly fragmented today). But what he’s best remembered for is his burning of the books in an attempt to eradicate Confucianism—odd, since for a man so obsessed with forging national unity, Confucianism would have seemed a natural ally. Shih Huang-di seems to have set an enduring precedent in his brutal quest for standardization–not only of weights and measures and language, but of opinion as well (he’s the guy that buried the scholars alive). The Chinese are no less heavy-handed in enforcing uniformity of opinion today, largely because of their fear of the burgeoning popular dissatisfaction that has produced some 600 (officially acknowledged) outbursts of public protest in 2004. This is the sort of thing that makes for the loss of the Mandate of Heaven, and the downfall of the regime.

Power/Qin Dynasty/Shang Yang

Shang Yang would have taken a cue from the Qin emperor Shih Huangdi, who seems to have set an enduring precedent in his brutal quest for standardization–not only of weights and measures and language, but of opinion as well (having gone Lord Shang one better and actually buried the Confucian scholars alive). Shang Yang’s own take on public administration included certain measures that anticipated future Chinese policy to the gnat’s eyelash: the principle of punishing those who are knowledgeable of a crime along with its perpetrator became a commonplace under Chinese jurisprudence, even in the modern day; and the present-day government’s expropriation of peasant lands for self-dealing development favors its pervasive (and pervasively corrupt) presence in the economy. What’s more, the Chinese are no less heavy-handed in enforcing uniformity of opinion today (though they’ve since desisted in burying its political opposition alive, preferring to jail or simply shoot them instead), largely because of their fear of the burgeoning popular dissatisfaction that has produced thousands of outbursts of public protest in recent years (and that just counts the ones that officially acknowledged). But after all, they’ve got to keep a lid of social instability, since that’s precisely what makes for the loss of the Mandate of Heaven, and the downfall of the regime.

Power/Han Dynasty

Must have been something in the air (or water) back about the turn of the millennium. It’s odd that China reached one of the grand apogees of territorial and commercial expansion about the same time the Roman Empire did. It reminds me of the strange general concurrence (circa 5th-4th centuries BC) of the lives of the Buddha, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Confucius and Lao-Tze, and the Hebrew Prophets.

Power/Sui Dynasty

For such a short-lived dynasty, the Sui accomplished lots. Just unifying the country (however briefly) and bringing the local muckamucks under the thumb of a central government has proved an elusive goal throughout the long reach of Chinese history. What’s more, the Sui’s achievements in land and currency reform, infrastructure, and science rank it among the best credentialed of China’s dynasties. Alas, all of these good works came to grief–as they often did–on the treacherous shoals of fiscal profligacy and over-burdening the peasantry with public works and taxation–ancient lessons that even the most modern government would do well to heed.

Power/T’ang Dynasty/Empress Wu

Women in Chinese history have often proved themselves not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least have had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its countless complications (war and more), and exert themselves in more subtle ways. Such women often occupied a badly underestimated role, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exerted on men who lent a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft was just as easily found behind the throne as upon it. Empress Wu was seen by many as an archetypal Dragon Lady who cast aside the customary constraints to meddle in the time-honored male preserve of power and poison politics. A more enlightened society might have been more accepting, but what is China–in all of its hoary, hidebound longevity–if not traditional?

Power/T’ang Dynasty

The T’ang dynasty was the sort of model of imperial virtue that helped fixed the Chinese gaze of self-perception firmly in reverse. With their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future, it’s no wonder that the Chinese revered history (and imitation and rote memorization) to the exclusion of originality. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? The Chinese preoccupation with ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day.

Power/T’ang Dynasty/Taizong

The lethal intrigues surrounding the inception of the T’ang dynasty are of a piece with an ancient political tradition that decrees death to any siblings and other possible rivals to the top dog. Nothing much has changed since then, and the Mandate of Heaven still holds sway over the Chinese political psyche as a wonderfully convenient means of justifying the success of a rebellion and the subsequent legitimacy of its leaders. So long as a dynasty prevailed, it was presumed to have the blessing of heaven; should it be overthrown, it was presumed that it had betrayed heaven’s trust and had lost its blessing, and that its overthrow was meant to happen (the Chinese are, after all, nothing if not supremely practical!). Still, the Mandate of Heaven points up the very Confucian preoccupation with the proper ordering and alignment of relationships among society and government and heaven, and the only allowable alignment in an authoritarian political culture is vertical—there being no equals among autocrats.

Power/Liao Dynasty

The experience of the Liao, the Yuan, and the Qing point up the fact that the highest civilizations often prove to be the easiest prey to the barbarian hordes. Witness the downfall of Egypt, the Minoans, Rome, the middle dynasties of China, or Islam. But the triumph of the barbarian—absent the enduring graces of civilization–is typically brief, and the barbarian then disappears… by being absorbed and transformed by the civilization he has conquered. Just as the barbarian Manzhous became China’s Qing dynasty (and the most diligent imitators and guardians of classic Chinese culture), the Mongols embraced the Islamic civilization they nearly destroyed and became its most ardent proponents… seeing to it that the empire of Islam soon reached its greatest extent ever. The barbarian often infuses a dying civilization with new blood and the martial vigor that it had neglected in the process of becoming so civilized, and becomes its most ardent defender and propagator, but only if the patient survives the surgery (as Egypt and Rome did not).

Power/Song Dynasty/Emperor Huizong

The Emperor Huizong epitomized the duality of the Song idyll—characterized on the one hand by the classical Chinese reverence for nature, their belief that man should live in harmony with his environment, their subordination of earthly and temporal concerns to divine will, its love of tradition, scholasticism, cultural refinement, and mysticism. On the other hand, Huizong presided over a progressive and material society in which the Song came up with at least a couple of startling innovations in the Way Things Were Done–being the idea that government could become rich(er) by fostering productive enterprise among the people–instead of just maximing its extractions from the peasants; and, that diplomacy and buying peace with the northern barbarians was a lot cheaper than building walls and fielding armies. It took the Chinese a couple thousand years to learn these lessons, so it’s not surprising that it’s taking us a while too.

Power/Ming Dynasty/Hongwu

The Ming dynasty meant a restoration of China from the clutches of the Mongols and a return to the classic China way of doing things—in government, most of all. The Ming actually went the old way one better, by way of institutionalizing the eunuchs and their myriad intrigues as the true instrument of imperial rule. In its emphasis on regurgitating the wisdom of the ancient sage-kings of Confucius and company, the restoration of the imperial exam system hardened the inflexibility of rule, and assured that China’s leaders would lack the vision needed to contend with the West when it arrived in its lap with the first Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries. What’s more, China’s contempt for the “trinkets” of the West helped further distance it from technology—and it was creative learning and technology (military, most of all) that would prove to be China’s undoing.

Power/Ming Dynasty/Money Supply

The rise and fall of the Ming calls to mind the old adage that those who live by the sword shall die by it. It’s also true that empires rise and fall on the strength of their money. It’s interesting that only a government as despotic as the Ming could get away with floating paper currency in ancient China, since the Chinese understood even then (though we’ve since lost sight of this) that money needs to be backed by something besides the faith of the people (something that’s easily lost in the course of history).

Power/Ming Dynasty/Maritime Expeditions

The crowning glory of the Ming’s relations with the outside world was the Maritime Expeditions of the early 1400s under Admiral Zheng Ho (there were seven, ranging as far as Somalia, Ceylon, Ormuz, Sumatra). These obtained all the hoped-for results: enhanced Chinese prestige throughout East and Southeast Asia; expanded trade in the form of tribute from princes far and wide who had been suitably impressed by these splendid convoys of several dozen ocean-going junks and their 20,000-man crews; new contact with the Near East and even Egypt (the choice of Zheng Ho, a Muslim, to command these expeditions was a judicious one); and a complete disappearance of those pestilential Japanese pirates. Zheng Ho was such a success that he was deified–his cult thrives even today in certain temples throughout Southeast Asia. What’s more, his chief eunuchs went on to publish geographic treatises that greatly expanded Chinese knowledge of the outside world. Most of all, what endured was the currents of trade and Chinese emigration to the lands of Southeast Asia and southern India that were further legitimized by Zheng Ho’s imprimatur. Why it all suddenly came to an end says something about what China wanted from the rest of the world: nothing! In its view, China needed little from the outside world; it was for the world to come to China, the Middle Kingdom, and not the other way around. All this points up the fact that China’s expansionism was, for the most part, not so much a land grab as it was something cultural, undertaken in the interest of buffering its historic boundaries with Sinicized tributary states like Korea, Tibet, and Vietnam. Chronically harassed by Mongols and other such rabble from beyond the Great Wall, China wanted nothing so much as to be left alone, and when the barbarians raised their ugly head once again, the Ming responded by retreating from its engagement with the outside world, and the likes of Zheng Ho’s expeditions would be seen no more.

Power/Ming Dynasty/Foreigners

It’s unfortunate that China’s first contacts with the West happened with the Portuguese—an especially ill behaved, avaricious, and aromatic bunch. Not that the Chinese needed any convincing of the nature of this nuisance from abroad: their view had long been ingrained that China needed little from the outside world, and that it was for the world to come to China, the Middle Kingdom. This point of view had been reinforced by countless centuries of trouble with the true barbarians—Mongols and such from beyond the Great Wall—and China had always sought to deal with them by playing one off against the other. That worked… up to a point, when the Mongols finally figured out that they were being diddled, and out aside differences to overrun Beijing and hold the emperor for ransom. The Japanese weren’t much more likeable, having visited a plague of piracy and smuggling on China that was so nettlesome that the Chinese officially made the decision to abandon their coastal regions to them. But there was also legitimate trade with the Japanese, and several shoguns became such admirers of the Chinese that Japan invigorated its embrace of Chinese cultural institutions and arts. The crowning glory of the Ming’s relations with the outside world was the Maritime Expeditions of the early 1400s under Admiral Zheng He (there were seven, ranging as far as Somalia, Ceylon, Ormuz, Sumatra). These obtained all the hoped-for results: enhanced Chinese prestige throughout East and Southeast Asia; expanded trade in the form of tribute from princes far and wide who had been suitably impressed by these splendid convoys of several dozen ocean-going junks and their 20,000-man crews; new contact with the Near East and even Egypt (the choice of Cheng Ho, a Muslim, to command these expeditions was a judicious one); and a complete disappearance of those pestilential Japanese pirates. Cheng Ho was such a success that he was deified–his cult thrives even today in certain temples throughout Southeast Asia. What’s more, his chief eunuchs went on to publish geographic treatises that greatly expanded Chinese knowledge of the outside world. Most of all, what endured was the currents of trade and Chinese emigration to the lands of Southeast Asia and southern India that were further legitimized by Cheng Ho’s imprimatur. Another high point took place thanks to the efforts of yet another singular individual, Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest who understood that only by adopting Chinese ways and learning their language would he gain access to the court. Ricci’s efforts, while they ultimately proved abortive, established a pattern of diplomacy that affirmed Chinese admiration for learning and culture… and which vindicated their contempt for the avarice and arrogance embodied by the Portuguese and later, the British.

Power/Ming Dynasty/Manzhou Invasion

The Ming dynasty had meant a restoration of China from the clutches of the Mongols and a return to the classic China way of doing things—in government, most of all. Hongwu actually went the old way one better, by way of institutionalizing the eunuchs and their myriad intrigues as the true instrument of imperial rule. In its emphasis on regurgitating the wisdom of the ancient sage-kings of Confucius and company, the restoration of the imperial exam system hardened the inflexibility of rule, and assured that China’s new Manzhou leaders would lack the vision needed to contend with the West when it arrived in its lap with the first Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries. For all of their acumen in managing China’s economy, the one thing that the Manzhous were most deficient in was humility. Their early encounters with the West betrayed an insufferable arrogance toward the outside world. China was the “Middle Kingdom,” and it was for the world to come to China, and not the other way around. China had nothing but disdain for the technology of the West, thinking these things to be toys and trifles beneath the dignity of the Chinese court. When the military technology of the West was turned on China, it could not be so easily dismissed. China suffered a rude awakening and a hundred years of humiliations at the hands of the West, which opened China’s markets at gunpoint for its opium. China’s resentment of its humiliation formed the underpinnings of its response to the West well into modern times. What’s more, China’s contempt for the “trinkets” of the West helped further distance it from technology—and it was creative learning and technology (military, most of all) that would prove to be its undoing. China’s cultural atrophy would prove brittle and helpless against the timeless incursions of the barbarian—whether Mongol, Manzhou, or Englishman, demonstrating once again that civilization and the gods are no match for military might.

Power/Ming Dynasty/Treasure Ship

The wrecks of China’s treasure ships have yielded just a sample of the glory of the Ming dynasty’s Maritime Expeditions of the early 1400s under Admiral Zheng He (there were seven, ranging as far as Somalia, Ceylon, Ormuz, Sumatra). These obtained all the hoped-for results: enhanced Chinese prestige throughout East and Southeast Asia; expanded trade in the form of tribute from princes far and wide who had been suitably impressed by these splendid convoys of several dozen ocean-going junks and their 20,000-man crews; new contact with the Near East and even Egypt (the choice of Zheng Ho, a Muslim, to command these expeditions was a judicious one); and a complete disappearance of those pestilential Japanese pirates. Zheng Ho was such a success that he was deified–his cult thrives even today in certain temples throughout Southeast Asia. What’s more, his chief eunuchs went on to publish geographic treatises that greatly expanded Chinese knowledge of the outside world. Most of all, what endured was the currents of trade and Chinese emigration to the lands of Southeast Asia and southern India that were further legitimized by Zheng Ho’s imprimatur. Why it all suddenly came to an end says something about what China wanted from the rest of the world: nothing! In its view, China needed little from the outside world; it was for the world to come to China, the Middle Kingdom, and not the other way around. All this points up the fact that China’s expansionism was, for the most part, not so much a land grab as it was something cultural, undertaken in the interest of buffering its historic boundaries with Sinicized tributary states like Korea, Tibet, and Vietnam. Chronically harassed by Mongols and other such rabble from beyond the Great Wall, China wanted nothing so much as to be left alone, and when the barbarians raised their ugly head once again, the Ming responded by retreating from its engagement with the outside world, and the likes of Zheng He’s expeditions would be seen no more.

Power/Northern Wei Dynasty/Equal Field System

The equal field system that facilitated the use of household and land registers expressed the intimate ties of Chinese government and society to the land—ties which have thrived since time immemorial. Until quite recently, some four out of five Chinese lived in the countryside, and notwithstanding the lofty culture of its artists and philosophers and their supreme regard for education, the Chinese have always harbored a profound respect for their rural traditions. Today, as China becomes increasingly urbanized and affluent, an ever-widening chasm is developing between the lifestyles and worldviews of city dwellers and country folk. And with farmers becoming increasingly dispossessed of their land for development, I fear that as China loses touch with the land and its farmers, the implications for social unrest and political instability are staggering.

Power/Yuan Dynasty

The highest civilizations often prove to be the easiest prey to the barbarian hordes. Witness the downfall of Egypt, the Minoans, Rome, the middle dynasties of China, or Islam. But the triumph of the barbarian—absent the enduring graces of civilization–is typically brief, and the barbarian then disappears… by being absorbed and transformed by the civilization he has conquered. Just as the barbarian Manzhous became China’s Qing dynasty (and the most diligent imitators and guardians of classic Chinese culture), the Mongols embraced the Islamic civilization they nearly destroyed and became its most ardent proponents… seeing to it that the empire of Islam soon reached its greatest extent ever. The barbarian often infuses a dying civilization with new blood and the martial vigor that it had neglected in the process of becoming so civilized, and becomes its most ardent defender and propagator, but only if the patient survives the surgery (as Egypt and Rome did not).

Power/Qing Dynasty/Cixi

Women in Chinese history have often proved themselves not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least have had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its countless complications (war and more), and exert themselves in more subtle ways. Such women often occupied a badly underestimated role, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exerted on men who lent a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft was just as easily found behind the throne as upon it. Cixi was the archetypal Dragon Lady who cast aside the customary constraints to meddle in the time-honored male preserve of power and poison politics. A more enlightened society might have been more accepting, but what is China–in all of its hoary, hidebound longevity–if not traditional?

Power/Qing Dynasty/Puyi

The manically compulsive nature of thousands of years of regime change in China seems as much an exercise in physics as of history. The debased and pusillanimous character of Puyi’s last tango of the Qing dynasty virtually assured the rise of an equal and opposite reaction in the regime of Mao Zedong. From hauteur to humiliation to horror, the Chinese political mindset remains stuck on the inevitability of the cyclical rise and fall of dynasties, and only the rise of personal freedom and democracy will enable China to overcome this ugly habit of history.

Power/Qing Dynasty/Taip’ings

The Taip’ing program of “a legendary ancient state in which the peasantry owned and tilled the land in common [where] slavery, concubinage, arranged marriage, opium smoking, footbinding, judicial torture, and the worship of idols were all to be eliminated” anticipated the communists of 80 years on. China’s historical memory of its century of humiliation at the hands of the West–which began in earnest with Western intercession in the Taip’ing Rebellion–added an especially virulent element to the toxic mix of pathologies that ended in both revolution and China’s long-enduring alienation from the global community.

Power/Qing Dynasty/May Fourth Movement

As we see with the present-day Chinese demonstrations against the Japanese, the long fuse of history has once again set off a powder keg in the distant future. Until the Japanese come to terms with their appalling behavior in China, the outrage that was first given voice to by the May Fourth Movement will continue to echo and reverberate, not only in China, but in Korea and elsewhere amongst the countless skeletons that Japan left to rattle away in history’s closet.

Power/Qing Dynasty/Opium War

For all of its imperial splendor, the one thing that China was most deficient in was humility, and as a consequence, China was unable to resist the incursions of British opium and the Century of Humiliation that resulted. Its early encounters with the West betrayed an insufferable arrogance toward the outside world. China was the “Middle Kingdom,” and it was for the world to come to China, and not the other way around. China had nothing but disdain for the technology of the West, thinking these things to be toys and trifles beneath the dignity of the Chinese court. When the military technology of the West was turned on China, it could not be so easily dismissed. China suffered a rude awakening and a hundred years of humiliations at the hands of the West, which opened China’s markets at gunpoint for its opium. China’s resentment of its humiliation formed the underpinnings of its response to the West well into modern times.

Power/Qing Dynasty/Boxers

The invincibility that the Boxers ascribed to their amulets and magical booshwah was typical of the pathetic responses of traditional societies to modern predators. As lethal as the military technology of the West was, it wasn’t nearly as deadly as its contagions, which often wiped out 80-95% of indigenous peoples who had no immunity to the Pandora’s Box of viruses they brought in their wake. However, there was another kind of virus that arrived with the Japanese invasion of China–that of nationalism and a growing awareness among the Chinese intelligentsia of China’s backwardness and the urgent need for it to modernize. With China’s humiliation at the hands of the West came its bitter realization that the rest of the world regarded its standard of living as primitive, its political institutions as hopelessly outmoded, and its antique culture as quaint and mired in the past. This was a mortal blow to China’s unassailable self-image as the Middle Kingdom and the center of all that mattered, and it sowed a conflict in China’s breast that rages even today.

Power/Qing Dynasty/Boxer Rebellion

This gives us a good example of the shifting sands of Chinese allegiances in such matters, which can change from one pole to the opposite at the flick of a mandarin’s wrist. So-called popular uprisings in China are as often as not orchestrated for political and diplomatic theatre, much as China’s rumblings over Taiwan are today. But there’s very little that transpires without official complicity and sanction, and that in turn is something that’s easily negotiated. Remember: whenever there’s a mystery, the answer will usually be found on the bottom line (the one with the dollar sign next to it).

Power/Qing Dynasty/Jesuits

As a foreigner himself, the Manzhou emperor Kangxi was able to contribute a perspective that led to a more constructive engagement with the outside world than would have been possible under a Han Chinese government. The Jesuits did more to change the Chinese perception of the West as barbaric than most missionaries, who typically have never been satisfied with saving souls–meddling in politics being such an irresistible game. But the quarreling of the Jesuits amongst themselves earned them a swift kick in the pants, and put paid to the single best chance that the West had to Christianize China. Alas, China’s classic disdain for the outside world would reassert itself–with dreadful consequences–with the passing of the Manzhou and their more cosmopolitan perspective.

Power/Qing Dynasty/Kangxi, Qienlong

As foreigners themselves, the Manzhou emperors Kangxi and Qienlong were able to contribute a perspective that led to a more constructive engagement with the outside world than would have been possible under a Han Chinese government. Kangxi’s decision to open a number of ports to foreign commerce was fateful, as these became permanent enclaves that forevermore placed the barbarian front and center in the Chinese consciousness. It also seems to have contributed to the renewal of Chinese expansionism, in its embrace of neighboring states as tributaries, and in Qienlong’s absorption of Tibet. Alas, China’s classic disdain for the outside world would reassert itself–with dreadful consequences–with the passing of the Manzhous and their more cosmopolitan perspective.

Power/Qing Dynasty/White Lotus Rebellion

The White Lotus Rebellion thrived for as long as it did in the absence of any tradition of government for the people and by the people in China, coupled with the intractable Chinese contempt for authority (based on the timeless abuse of the commoner by over-zealous taxation and conscripting his labor for outlandish projects like the Great Wall) has led the Chinese from time immemorial to develop organizations, institutions, and values that feather one’s nest from the inside out. While not a political creed, the Buddhism that infiltrated China via the Silk Road in time acquired a rebellious streak in response to the inevitable official intolerance of anything that might undermine established orthodoxy and possibly usher in regime change. Beneath the heavy layer of Chinese cultural arrogance must have lain the sneaking suspicion that their ossified social and political structure (remember, their stuff was ancient before the rest of the world was young!) might not withstand seditious outside influences. It may seem hard to understand how a sect consecrated to otherworldliness came to be a political threat, but in a society as oppressive as China, the tendrils of such organizations inevitably seek out that most fecund growth medium of all: politics. And if you’re thinking that all of this anticipated the present regime’s kerfuffle over the Falun Gong, your thinking is right on the money.

Power/Hundred Days’ Reforms

The Hundred Days’ reformers attempted to graft foreign institutions onto a native root stock that wasn’t at all ready to accept the graft–much like the Japanese did with the Meiji Revolution (and as the American Occupation authorities did after World War II in Japan), and with what we’re trying to do now in Iraq. For reform to take hold in Qing-dynasty China, it would have required the political will to reform (aborted by the Manzhou bureaucracy), and for it to thence take hold at the grassroots level in China’s educational system—requiring a wholesale repudiation of the Confucian ethic. In this juncture in China’s history, it was like trying to sprout new shoots from a petrified log.

Power/Sino-Japanese War

China, dying from civil war and of humiliation at the hands of the West, proved an easy mark for the Japanese in their determination to beat Russia to the Chinese corpse. But the Chinese weren’t quite as dead as the world would like to have believed, and the Japanese invasion may well have made the Communists into the nationalist heroes that they would not otherwise have been, and gave them the opportunity to buy much-needed time with a short-lived and spurious alliance with Chiang Kai-shek against the Japanese bogeyman. One might have laid better odds on an alliance between the scorpion and the tarantula, but it served the purpose of ensuring survival and ultimate victory for Mao and Company. As usual, though, “Old Hundred Names” (the Chinese term for its rank-and-file and salt of the earth) was the loser in the end.

Power/Eunuchs

The eunuchs of China seemed to embody the worst of both genders. Whereas women at least had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its many complications (war and much more) and exert their influence in more subtle ways, the eunuchs combined feminine wiles with the usual male vanities–though without the testosterone to occupy anything more than an insidious and serpentine role.

Power/Civil War

It’s surprising that we were unable to see in the doctrine of war as seen in the Chinese Civil War and as enunciated by Sun Tzu echoes of the struggle that we ourselves had fought back in the American Revolution. There was a time when we played the best game of guerrilla warfare in town—against the British—and even if we were unwilling to empathize with the same nationalist spirit that we once laid our own lives down for, we should have seen the sort of fight that was coming from even a casual examination of the Chinese experience. But who cares about history… and all that dead white male stuff?

Power/Civil War/Long March

Contrary to the prevailing mythology about the Long March, Mao was actually carried in a litter most of the way… and many of the purported battles with the Nationalists of that era never took place. But that’s Mao and Maoism: mostly malarkey. The fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes must have been written with Mao in mind. Mao’s economic and political prescriptions were cooked up without the benefit of anyone to tell him how misguided and ill suited they were to reality. Consumed as he was with developing a uniquely Chinese take on socialism, he saw the glory of the common man—China’s most abundant resource—as China’s answer to the industrial supremacy of the Soviet Union and the West. His experience in having carried off a revolution with the support of the common man convinced him that China’s modernization could also be shouldered by China’s peasantry—and so we had the Great Leap Forward (Backward?). On the other hand, Mao did enable China to regain its pride—shattered as it was from a hundred years of humiliations at the hands of the West, and sundered by the unspeakably brutal Japanese occupation. China’s resentment of its humiliation formed the underpinnings of its response to the West well into modern times, which, while not sauce for the Western goose, has proved sauce for the Chinese gander.

Power/Civil War

As the Last Warlord (the last, at least, until the next bunch comes along—everything’s cyclical in China), Zhang Hsueh-liang is proof that the good die young. Capping a glorious career of carnage, rapine, drugs trafficking, assassination, kidnapping, and much more, Zhang died with his boots on—in a Hawaii retirement home—at the ripe old age of 100.

Power/Revolution

Political revolution is less as someone once described it–“breaking eggs to make an omelet”–than an ogre that eats its own young. The only thing that seems to stick to the wall after all the old scores have been settled (“meet the new boss… same as the old boss!”) is the blood of its victims.

Power/Civil War/American Support

Notwithstanding the best efforts of the Flying Tigers and Vinegar Joe Stilwell & Company, Americans in the 1940s agonized over the loss of China… as if China was ours to lose. In fact, they had a point, since China might not have been lost to the communists had the United States not acquiesced in British opium-peddling to the Chinese masses in the mid-19th century, Yankee gunboat diplomacy the carving up of China into spheres of influence by the Western powers, and China’s unspeakably brutal invasion and occupation by Japan through the 1930s–and our support of the corrupt Nationalists. When Mao Tse-tung proclaimed in 1949 that “China has stood up!” he spoke to the memory of the assembled millions of the painful humiliation of a civilization that had once been mankind’s proudest. In a sense, China had been ours to lose… or keep as a friend. The choice was ours, and we made that choice through a policy of our own making. The advent of radical politics in China—and its alienation from America–was yet another example of what historians call “blowback.”

Power/Kuomintang/Policies

Americans in the 1940s agonized over the loss of China… as if China was ours to lose. In fact, they had a point, since China might not have been lost to the communists had the United States not acquiesced in British opium-peddling to the Chinese masses in the mid-19th century, Yankee gunboat diplomacy the carving up of China into spheres of influence by the Western powers, and China’s unspeakably brutal invasion and occupation by Japan through the 1930s–and our support of the corrupt Nationalists. When Mao Tse-tung proclaimed in 1949 that “China has stood up!” he spoke to the memory of the assembled millions of the painful humiliation of a civilization that had once been mankind’s proudest. In a sense, China had been ours to lose… or keep as a friend. The choice was ours, and we made that choice through a policy of our own making. The advent of radical politics in China—and its alienation from America–was yet another example of what historians call “blowback.”

Power/Communism in Name Only

Chinese communism is communism in name only, and good old fashioned Chinese authoritarianism in practice (which will persist for as long as the government feels threatened by social unrest. Ultimately, the only thing that will change all that is economic growth, but with 800 million people in China still living on less than a dollar a day, they’ve got a long ways to go yet.

Power/Communism/Another Dynasty

Mao was an avid reader of Chinese history, and regarded himself as an intellectual and keeper of the prerogatives and obligations of imperial rule. But that wasn’t where the imperial mindset stopped with Mao: the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes must have been written with Mao in mind. Mao’s economic and political prescriptions were cooked up without the benefit of anyone to tell him how misguided and ill suited they were to reality. Consumed as he was with developing a uniquely Chinese take on socialism, he talked up the glory of the common man—China’s most abundant resource—as China’s answer to the industrial supremacy of the Soviet Union and the West. And his experience in having carried off a revolution with the support of the common man convinced him that China’s modernization could also be shouldered by China’s peasantry—and so we had the Great Leap Forward. But much as Mao talked up the glory of the common man, he walked a very old-line imperial line.

Power/Communism/Land Reform

As bad as the abuses of the landlords were, the communists’ program of land reform stripped away much of the incentive for wealth formation that the Chinese, if left alone, are so good at. The Chinese regard land as the basis of all wealth (while this may be true with all agrarian societies, it is profoundly and perhaps pathologically true with the Chinese), and without the freedom to amass it and use it as they see fit, the economy remained dysfunctional as it is today for a very long time. Now that that’s changed, however, it’s Katie-bar-the-door!

Power/Communism/Peaceful Revolution

I suspect that until the day comes that China learns how to manage its economy objectively instead of politically, “peaceful revolution” may be impossible. So much of China’s command economy has been theatrically stage-managed, and it’s a poor substitute for the market-economy precepts that do not square with its politics. But make no mistake—China’s future is economic, not political. With the nation’s banks insolvent and the people’s savings imperiled, the consequences could eventually include the sort of social turmoil in China that could produce yet another of its regular-as-clockwork dynastic upheavals, with consequent instability in China’s relationship with America, Russia, and its Asian neighbors. I don’t mean to sound the Trumpet of Apocalypse, but it does seem in so many ways that the 21st century is shaping up as a watershed in global geopolitics.

Power/Communism/Three Goals

The three goals–national unification, transformation, and modernization—reflect much of the wardrobe that China’s naked emperor awoke from his delusion to realize was patently missing. China had long been riven by warlord rivalries. Chiang Kai-shek and his horde of plundering locusts had conducted themselves little better than the bandit armies of the Warring States Epoch. China’s government and society was mired in the muck of Confucian piety. China’s emperor had dismissed the wonders of technology that the British had brought in the late 18th century as contemptible trifles. The ideal envisioned the scholar-mandarin as a master and custodian of the literary and philosophical canon of the Chinese Classics (most of all), and of poetry and calligraphy and painting and music, and an exemplar of public responsibility. It was this hidebound reverence for the virtues of a long-vanished Golden Age, and the emphasis of the system upon It seems cruelly ironic that the Chinese civilization, which was once one of the world’s most scientifically advanced, had by the 19th century found itself pathetically inadequate to the demands forced upon it by Western military technology. The spirit of exploration and military grandeur seemed to have reached its peak in the Ming dynasty and then deteriorated into an attitude of indifference and contempt that may have been engendered by China’s cultural arrogance, and its belief that the barbarian world outside of its borders must come to China, the Middle Kingdom and Center of the Universe, and that it had nothing to learn from anyone else. China had long suffered as well from the aversion of its scholars to getting their hands dirty with scientific experimentation. Why bother to invent a conveyor belt, for example, when there were so many thousands of pairs of hands available, dirt-cheap, to hand the baskets of gravel up the hillside? Since you can’t argue with results (which were deplorable), all of this was destined to meet with the revolutionary broom that Mao & Company would bring to the dust heap of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization.

Power/Corruption

Isn’t it ironic that the corruption and venality that the communists so bitterly denounced came around to plague them in equal measure in the end? Politics always talks a new game, but can never seem to change human nature in the end… which is why each nation must be allowed to achieve political maturity in its own way, and in its own good time.

Power/Democracy

China’s intellectual tradition is a product of its Confucian polity and its preoccupation with social harmony. Its emphasis on the subservience of student to teacher (and to the Confucian social hierarchy) discourages independent initiative and creative expression, and places little emphasis on learning–beyond what is necessary to gain admission to college (and even that learning is purely rote)—and the sort of initiative that makes democracy work. As a result, China is one of the most relationship-driven societies on earth, and the values inculcated by its educational system ensured that China has long remained a follower, not a leader. The Confucian ordering of the relationship between student and teacher is one of a kind with that between emperor and subject, and father and son. With their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future, it’s no wonder that the Chinese adored imitation (and rote memorization) to the exclusion of originality. Their view has it that “What could originality (and democracy) produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well?” The Chinese preoccupation with ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day.

Power/Deng Xiaoping

The rule of 90-year old gerontocrat Deng Xiaoping came as an unlikely breath of fresh air into China’s political and economic prospects. It was only by closing off all contact with the outside world from 1949 until recently that it was possible to keep China’s people so completely in the dark as to how miserably its economy was performing. With China now irreversibly and pervasively consumed in the globalization of information (thanks to the telecommunications and Internet revolution) it is no longer possible for China’s government to isolate its people from the outside world. This, then, would seem to ensure the end of China’s 5,000-year old tradition of political absolutism. China’s human potential—in the form of a workforce dedicated to productivity, making money, and education—is about to be unlocked (think Taiwan times 50!). Perhaps Deng had been keeping the company of Mao and his madmen too long, since it seems that he had very nearly lost touch with the talent and energy of the ordinary Chinese that have made such success stories of Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. It seems that the simplest thing to do—which is to turn the Chinese people loose to indulge their innate industriousness and pursue their naturally ardent money-making proclivities in their own way—is the thing that China’s leaders are most loathe to do. This seems ironic, considering that the Mandate of Heaven has always hinged most of all upon popular satisfaction, and not upon the edification of the regime.

Power/Student Dissent

China’s drive to become an economic power of the first order is likely to come up short without the intellectual freedom and creativity that needs to accompany industrial brawn. Absent that, the talent that comprises the cutting edge of China’s economy may never develop the innovation and ability to think outside the box that adds the most value to an economy. Part of the problem is political constraint, but the lion’s share of the obstacle in China’s path lies with the traditional propensity of Chinese students to recite–rather than to think creatively and independently–and with their reluctance to question their teachers and the dusty dogma that comprises much of the Chinese intellectual heritage.

Power/Foreign Policy/Africa

China’s recent diplomatic initiatives in Africa seem to be pretty much in keeping with its crass preoccupation with the bottom line, being in this case to help assure the supply of oil and other raw materials to keep its economy going. Yet, China’s preoccupation with making money is not so much driven by greed as it is driven by the fear that if its economy cannot find the wherewithal to keep its factories humming and its millions of rural migrants and urban bourgeoisie employed, the fate of the regime itself will surely be imperiled by the discontent of the unemployed. And, who are we Americans—with 6% of the world’s population commanding 40% of its resources–to criticize the Chinese for angling for the goods? We’re going to see quite a dust-up as the West competes with the Asian nations and their rising middle classes for the stuff of the good life.

Power/Foreign Policy/Does China Matter?

The short answer to the question of whether China matters is… it depends on whose ox is being gored. China has never really been an expansionist power (with the exception of its grab of Tibet), and has always taken the view that the world must come to China, rather than China going to it. Its vast army is impotent against the high-tech arms of the West, but is easily capable of confounding the outcome of any land war in Asia—Korea and Vietnam being cases in point. China, as workshop to the world, does matter in world trade, and consumers everywhere have come accept and depend upon its manufactures. And if things went badly wrong in China, could the rest of world stand by while one-quarter of humanity hit the skids? I have the feeling that China’s wild card may well prove to be the story of the century. I say “wild card” since most of us seem to continue to be in the dark about the time bomb that’s ticking away in China. China’s banks are insolvent, and it seems that the likeliest outcome of the developing economic crisis could be hyperinflation (which has happened before in China). Massive unemployment could also ensure as the China people lose confidence in the banks, stuff their savings under their mattresses, and the state enterprises lose access to the endless line of credit that has been unwittingly financed by the Chinese people for so long. With that, severe social and political turmoil seems assured. I had no confidence, either, in China’s ability to contend with the SARS crisis any better than it had dealt with its banking crisis—the difference being that try as they might, SARS could not be swept under the bed and denied. Keep in mind that one-quarter of mankind stands to be caught up in this maelstrom, and the rest of the world may find itself unprepared to deal with the consequences.

Power/Foreign Policy/Dominion in Asia

With all this discussion of how Western empires imposed themselves on China, there’s some question as to whether China was ever an expansionist power, an empire like Rome that absorbed great swaths of territory with the intent of establishing political and military dominion. For China, cultural dominion was what mattered, and it was much easier for all concerned if outlying barbarian states would simply acknowledge China as the center of the universe, and its culture as vastly superior to that of the barbarian, by paying tribute in return for keeping the peace and being left alone. Empires come and go, but with China’s humiliation at the hands of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries came its bitter realization that the rest of the world regarded its standard of living as primitive, its political institutions as hopelessly outmoded, and its antique culture as quaint and mired in the past. This was a mortal blow to China’s unassailable self-image as the Middle Kingdom and center of all that mattered, and it sowed a conflict in China’s breast that rages even today, as China labors beneath the onus of the foreign ideology of communism, having recently trashed its Confucian heritage. Is anything about the China of olden days compatible with the modern day? Ironically, the trade that was forced upon China in the 19th century has come back to haunt us, as China drains America’s manufacturing vitality and floods our markets with its manufactures. History has a very long reach.

Power/Foreign Policy/Korea

It’s hard to say how much control anyone has over a madman, as in the case of China and the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. There’s not as much question, though, as to whether China is—or has ever been–an expansionist power, an empire like Rome that absorbed great swaths of territory with the intent of establishing political and military dominion. For China, cultural dominion was what mattered, and it was much easier for all concerned if outlying barbarian states would simply acknowledge China as the center of the universe, and its culture as vastly superior to that of the barbarian, by paying tribute in return for keeping the peace and being left alone. Empires come and go, but with China’s humiliation at the hands of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries came its bitter realization that the rest of the world regarded its standard of living as primitive, its political institutions as hopelessly outmoded, and its antique culture as quaint and mired in the past. This was a mortal blow to China’s unassailable self-image as the Middle Kingdom and center of all that mattered, and it sowed a conflict in China’s breast that rages even today. Similarly, North Korea’s quest for the prestige that might assuage its image as a financially and morally bankrupt regime that has been relegated to the rubber room of the community of nations lies at the heart of its nuclear brinkmanship and diplomatic theatre. Recognition and engagement may well be the remedy, but on what wavelength does one engage a madman like Kim Jong-il?

Power/Foreign Policy/Senkaku Islands

The problem is that everything means something, and even the Senkakus—a group of reefs and guano-spattered rocks in the East China Sea—is pregnant with implications, both historical and geopolitical. As we see with the present-day brouhaha over the Spratlys in the South China Sea and with Korean demonstrations against the Japanese over the islets of Takeshima/Tokdo in the Sea of Japan, the long fuse of history has once again set off a powder keg in the distant future. Until the Japanese come to terms with their appalling record of 2,000 years of oppression in China, the outrage over offshore drilling rights will continue to echo and reverberate amongst the many skeletons that Japan has left to rattle away in history’s closet.

Power/Foreign Policy/US-China Cooperation

Notwithstanding the best efforts of China’s army of 50,000 Internet police, the mice continue to outwit the cats, and the inevitable day of reckoning draws closer when China will demand civil liberties and a standard of living on par with those of the rest of the civilized world. I say “inevitable,” because I just don’t believe it’s possible for a society to grow richer without becoming better educated, more sophisticated, and less tolerant of having their lives run by a bunch of thugs. To that end, I submit it’s best for the United States to do everything it can—by way of cooperation in trade and scientific and technological exchange to help China become richer, faster.

Power/Foreign Policy/Vatican

The conditions that China imposed on the Vatican for diplomatic ties—that the Vatican not recognize Taiwan and that it not interfere with China’s internal affairs—demonstrate the absurdity of Chinese diplomatic theatre. They especially point up the absurdity of making political demands on the Church, whose position demands that it recognize all members of the global community, irrespective of their politics, and that it exert its ponderous moral authority to help ameliorate the civil abuses of the Beijing regime.

Power/Hong Kong/Donald Tsang

The appointment of Donald Tsang as Hong Kong’s senior-most official would seem to satisfy both Beijing’s requirement of loyalty and the West’s (and Westernizer’s) desire for a rational administration unbeholden to Beijing’s Alice-in-Wonderland politics. Hong Kong points the way that China—-now capitalist in spirit and communist in name only–hopes to follow into the global economy, and I see little danger of Beijing deliberately taking actions that would alienate the governments of its global export markets. However, the increasing assertiveness of China, Japan, and India in competing for oil and other global resources is very likely to cause relations among these nations and the West to become increasingly prickly.

Power/Jiang Qing

Women in Chinese history have often proved themselves not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least have had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its countless complications (war and more), and exert themselves in more subtle ways. Such women often occupied a badly underestimated role, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exerted on men who lent a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft was just as easily found behind the throne as upon it. Jiang Qing, however, was hardly first in line for Mao’s attentions, and thus scorned, she became the archetypal Dragon Lady who cast aside the customary constraints to meddle in the time-honored male preserve of power and poison politics. A more enlightened society might have been more accepting, but what is China–in all of its hoary, hidebound longevity–if not traditional?

Power/Mao Zedong/Common Man

The fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes must have been written with Mao in mind. Mao’s economic and political prescriptions were cooked up without the benefit of anyone to tell him how misguided and ill suited they were to reality. Consumed as he was with developing a uniquely Chinese take on socialism, he saw the glory of the common man—China’s most abundant resource—as China’s answer to the industrial supremacy of the Soviet Union and the West. His experience in having carried off a revolution with the support of the common man convinced him that China’s modernization could also be shouldered by China’s peasantry—and so we had the Great Leap Forward. Similarly, Mao derived his political legitimacy from the common man, and roused them to the extremes of the Cultural Revolution in his defense against the encroachments of his political enemies. That Mao believed that anything could be accomplished by China’s indefatigable resource of humanity—at the behest of his say–was his one of his biggest mistakes. It made it impossible to take the many essential small steps in implementing his programs, and to make proper use of China’s greatest source of wealth: its agricultural base. To the extent that the “natural capitalism” of the Chinese was unleashed under Deng Xiaoping, an economic explosion was inevitable.

Power/Mao Zedong/Contempt for Intellectuals

Mao was an avid reader of Chinese history, and regarded himself as an intellectual and keeper of the prerogatives and obligations of imperial rule. But his contempt for intellectuals was of a piece with his imperial mindset: the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes must have been written with Mao in mind. Mao’s economic and political prescriptions were cooked up without the benefit of anyone to tell him how misguided and ill suited they were to reality. Consumed as he was with developing a uniquely Chinese take on socialism, he talked up the glory of the common man—China’s most abundant resource—as China’s answer to the industrial supremacy of the Soviet Union and the West. And his experience in having carried off a revolution with the support of the common man convinced him that China’s modernization could also be shouldered by China’s peasantry—and so we had the Great Leap Forward. But much as Mao talked up the glory of the common man, he walked a very old-line imperial line.

Power/Mao Zedong/Cultural Revolution

The Mao-speak term “Cultural Revolution” speaks volumes about the decidedly uncultured Mao. In one sense, it’s an oxymoron: cultural change is not spasmodic—rather, it evolves. In another sense, the term betrays Mao’s obsession with politics (his) as the new foundation of Chinese culture, one that would supplant the old Confucian orthodoxy with the revolutionary imperative of the masses (struggling on his behalf). Yet, there was nothing revolutionary about it—just politics as usual. What could be more Confucian than the obsession with social order—that is, with regulating relationships between Heaven and the emperor, emperor and subject, father and son, husband and wife, and so on. Everything is configured to uphold the grand matrix of Chinese society so that it might not collapse of its own weight, and Mao’s realization that politics was not purely a palace matter, but one that involved each member of every household, resonated with classical ideology.

Power/Mao Zedong/Debauchery

The fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes must have been written with Mao in mind. Mao’s economic and political prescriptions were cooked up without the benefit of anyone to tell him how misguided and ill suited they were to reality. His debauchery only compounded his delusion to the point where ultimately, Mao must have fancied himself an emperor–indeed, an emperor without clothing as often as not.

Power/Mao Zedong/Great Leap Forward

The fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes must have been written with Mao in mind. Mao’s economic and political prescriptions were cooked up without the benefit of anyone to tell him how misguided and ill suited they were to reality. Consumed as he was with developing a uniquely Chinese take on socialism, he saw the glory of the common man—China’s most abundant resource—as China’s answer to the industrial supremacy of the Soviet Union and the West. His experience in having carried off a revolution with the support of the common man convinced him that China’s modernization could also be shouldered by China’s peasantry—and so we had the Great Leap Forward.

Power/Mao Zedong/Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution

It seems that China’s political agenda—apart from preserving power itself—always comes down to how to avoid social chaos. True, Mao’s program was pre-occupied with restoring China’s self-esteem (China was, after all, the historic center of the universe in traditional thinking, and the glories of its civilization unsurpassed); China had been horribly humiliated by the Western powers in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, and by having its eyes opened to its own extreme backwardness in the world community). Knowing that China was sorely deficient in the technology of the West, Mao turned to China’s sheer numbers to fill the gap; that’s one reason way there has never been much of an emphasis on science in the Chinese intellectual tradition—why build a conveyor belt, for example, when you can use a dirt-cheap thousand coolies to pass along the baskets of dirt and rocks? Why build modern steel mills when millions of backyard blast furnaces would (seem to) do? And Mao’s emphasis on “permanent revolution” and “better red than expert” were conceived more in the interest of preserving his own power—and social order—than anything else. The fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes must have been written with Mao in mind. Mao’s economic and political prescriptions were cooked up without the benefit of anyone to tell him how misguided and ill suited they were to reality. Consumed as he was with developing a uniquely Chinese take on socialism, he saw the glory of the common man—China’s most abundant resource—as China’s answer to the industrial supremacy of the Soviet Union and the West. His experience in having carried off a revolution with the support of the common man convinced him that China’s modernization could also be shouldered by China’s peasantry—and so we had the Great Leap Forward. Similarly, Mao derived his political legitimacy from the common man, and roused them to the extremes of the Cultural Revolution in his defense against the encroachments of his political enemies. The present-day economy, with its rampant unemployment, poses severe challenges to the leadership as to how best to keep people employed and—hopefully—prosperous. As Deng put it, what does the color of the cat matter so long as it catches mice?

Power/Mao Zedong/Legacy

Under the Communists, the interests of China’s economy were sacrificed on the altar of politics, and as a result, China’s immediate future has become more urgently economic than political. With the nation’s banks insolvent and the people’ savings imperiled, the consequences could eventually include the sort of social turmoil in China that could produce yet another of its regular-as-clockwork dynastic upheavals, with consequent instability in China’s relationship with America, Russia, and its Asian neighbors. I don’t mean to sound the Trumpet of Apocalypse, but it does seem in so many ways that the affairs of 21st-century China are shaping up as a watershed in global geopolitics. On the other hand, Mao enabled China to regain its pride—shattered as it was from a hundred years of humiliations at the hands of the West. China’s resentment of its humiliation formed the underpinnings of its response to the West well into modern times, which, while not sauce for the Western goose, has proved sauce for the Chinese gander.

Power/Mao and Confucius

Mao and Confucius are the two most iconic figures of Chinese history. Mao was indeed an emperor, and I believe you’ll find many of the classic “virtues” of China’s Confucian, imperial polity evident in his thinking. Mao was an avid reader of Chinese history, and regarded himself as an intellectual and keeper of the prerogatives and obligations of imperial rule. Both are creatures of upheaval. One of the key points of Confucianism is that it is the product of chaotic times of the Warring States epoch, and reflects the mortal dread that Chinese regimes have of social disorder (a very real concern today with unemployment and under-employment being very high, and a large part of the populace on the move, looking for work). The control that the party exercises over the media also reflects this fear of the disorder that could result from the contamination of foreign ideas and morals.

Power/Olympics

The Olympics are meant to announce to the world that China has arrived… and if a few hundred thousand forced relocations stand in the way, so be it; the rights of the individual will forever pale before the face of the nation. Perhaps the Chinese are as obsessed with “face” to the extent that they are because of their sensitivity to the humiliations that China—once the world’s grandest civilization–sustained at the hands of the West. China under the Tang dynasty had achieved the fullest extent of its empire, stretching from Korea to Sogdiana in Central Asia, and from Lake Baikal to Vietnam. With that, the tide began to ebb, until by the time of its encounter with the West, China was unable to resist the incursions of British opium and the Century of Humiliation that resulted. For all of its imperial splendor, the one thing that China was most deficient in was humility. Its early encounters with the West betrayed an insufferable arrogance toward the outside world. China was the “Middle Kingdom,” and it was for the world to come to China, and not the other way around. China had nothing but disdain for the technology of the West, thinking these things to be toys and trifles beneath the dignity of the Chinese court. When the military technology of the West was turned on China, it could not be so easily dismissed. China suffered a rude awakening and a hundred years of humiliations at the hands of the West, which opened China’s markets at gunpoint for its opium. China’s resentment of its humiliation formed the underpinnings of its response to the West well into modern times.

Power/Modern China/Political Stability

There is a danger that China is staring calamity square in its ugly face, not only on account of the social unrest fueled by corruption and the widening gulf between urban prosperity and rural poverty, but from severe shortages of oil and other natural resources to keep the good times rolling and an almost inevitable banking crisis as well. Much of the demand for change that has swept Chinese society since the death of Mao has occurred sub rosa, and not by way of open outcry (Tiananmen being the most notable exception). Either that, or we just don’t hear about it—notably, the thousands of riots and public protests that have occurred in the last couple of years throughout China against all kinds of things: unpaid expropriation of land, corruption, unpaid wages. Notwithstanding the best efforts of China’s army of 50,000 Internet police, the mice continue to outwit the cats, and the inevitable day of reckoning draws closer, when China will demand civil liberties and a standard of living on par with those of the rest of the civilized world. I say “inevitable,” because I just don’t believe it’s possible for a society to grow richer without becoming better educated, more sophisticated, and less tolerant of having their lives run by a bunch of thugs. With the nation’s banks virtually insolvent and the people’ savings imperiled, the consequences could eventually produce yet another of China’s regular-as-clockwork dynastic upheavals.

Power/Political Tradition

In spite of the absolutist nature of China’s political tradition, it is more open to the world than it has ever been and foreign investment continues to roll in. The government is learning that it is lucrative to open itself up, and that imposing fewer restrictions on its market will not necessarily diminish its power. Is it possible that globalization is stronger than the 5,000-year weight of Chinese tradition?

Power/Modern China/Repression

It’s ironic to think that the United States—which stands for human rights—might be indirectly responsible for China’s egregious abuse of human rights. China needs to strike a balance between preserving the prestige that keeps the political pot from boiling over and the need for the regime to avoid offending its largest trading partner, who holds the key to its continued economic (and thus political) stability. Without both political face and the fortune it earns from exports, the regime risks ringing in the death knell of the Mandate of Heaven. Small wonder they go to such lengths to stifle troublemakers.

Power/Reunification with Taiwan

If money is the acid test of human relations, it’s also the acid test of relations between Taiwan and the mainland. Much of Taiwan’s economic prosperity is by now quite deeply rooted in China, by way of the prolific (and prodigious) investment that Taiwan businesses have made in building and managing factories and sales in China. In a larger sense, I feel that unification is inevitable, once China’s economy and living standard gains parity with Taiwan’s (just a matter of time), and once China’s political and social freedoms attain the same threshold that Taiwan enjoys. That’s also just a matter of time, methinks, since China’s increasingly wealthy population is likely to be a much better educated one, and much less likely to tolerate being sequestered from the standard of living that the West and Japan enjoy—especially since not even China’s 50,000 Internet police will be able to prevent its citizens from seeing, and demanding, the same standard of living for themselves. All of this, I suspect, will increasingly make moot any long-term prospects for Taiwan’s independence.

power/political philosophy

The Chinese once again provide us with proof that that’s sauce for the goose isn’t necessarily sauce for the gander. We Americans developed our legal and constitutional framework as something that induced thirteen very independent-minded colonies to sacrifice their own sovereignty to the altar of federalism and national unity, and our founding fathers crafted the Bill of Rights as a trade-off for the rights that the colonies feared they might never again have otherwise. While we Americans harbored fears of what we were giving up in the process of coming together as a union, the worst nightmare for the Chinese has traditionally been that of falling apart. All of China’s most prominent political philosophies have been social philosophies, concerned with how to keep the whole show glued together. Was man’s intrinsic nature such that government needed to serve merely as moral exemplar, or was tyranny needed to keep the peace in society? Whether Confucianism, Legalism, or the doctrines of Mencius, it always came down to the question of how best to keep things from falling apart. And considering the modern-day consequences of one-quarter of mankind hitting the skids, it remains the foremost preoccupation of China’s rulers.

Power/Government and Justice

It seems that China’s political agenda—apart from preserving power itself—always comes down to how to avoid social chaos. Confucius sought to order Chinese society in terms of each of its members’ relationship to others, and of the relationship of subject to state. Mencius and Hsun-tzu agonized over man’s original nature and whether government should serve as model or mold to man. Han Fei-tzu and the Legalists had already made up their minds as to man’s dubious propensities, and helped form a political philosophy that would abet a tradition of authoritarianism that endures today. And Mao’s emphasis on “permanent revolution” and “better red than expert” were conceived more in the interest of preserving his own power—and social order—than anything else. What’s more, China’s scholar-mandarin tradition, with its emphasis on rote regurgitation of the Confucian canon, ensured that creative thinking in the manner of the Enlightenment ideals of 18th-century Europe would not flourish. The Chinese have no tradition and relatively little understanding of democracy, believing that to advance the interests of the individual is to undermine the interests of the many. The present-day economy, with its rampant unemployment, poses severe challenges to the leadership as to how best to keep people employed and—hopefully—prosperous. As Deng Xiao-p’ing put it, what does the color of the cat matter so long as it catches mice?


Power/Elites

This is a chicken-and-the-egg kind of question: which comes first, the business elites or the market that creates them? Chinese consumers will serve the interests of political reform quite nicely. As the Chinese become wealthier, they will become better educated, more sophisticated, and better acquainted with the way the outside world lives, and in time, they will come to demand and expect the same standard of living. The business elite is in business for the express purpose of making money, and China’s business community, with its incredible industriousness and instinct for moneymaking, will be more than happy to respond to the demands of the market.

Power/Tibet

China’s historical suzerainty over Tibet was more imagined than actual. Tibet never recognized Chinese control–apart from occasionally paying enough tribute and lip service to keep the Chinese happy, and the Chinese generally left the Tibetans alone. As long as China never had to enforce its own presumptions, it was content to exercise what amounted to little more than moral suasion over its farthest-flung domains in Tibet, Central Asia, and eastern Siberia. The emperor was too far away in Cloud-Cuckoo land for anyone to get overly excited about what the Chinese believed.

Power/Taiwan

Everything means something—even Taiwan, seemingly so insignificant in China’s long shadow. If anything, the success story of Taiwan is testament for what the incredible energy and talent of the Chinese can accomplish if left to its own devices. It portends and should put all of us on notice as to the global powerhouse that China is quickly becoming, now that its political masters have seen fit to unleash those energies. America’s support for Taiwan served as a powerful affirmation of the values that harness the highest and best talents of a free people to the promise of prosperity. On the other hand, our belief that China—and its tortured political countenance–would go away if only we ignored it long enough demonstrated a profound ignorance of the humiliations of Chinese history, and an arrogant disdain for the sovereign right of China to reclaim its pride and political identity in its own way. The question of whether we were right or wrong is like most things of this magnitude: neither black nor white, but a murky shade of gray.

Power/Taiwan and the UN

If money is the acid test of human relations, it’s also the acid test of relations between Taiwan and the mainland… and ultimately of whether Taiwan has a place in the UN. Much of Taiwan’s economic prosperity is by now quite deeply rooted in China, by way of the prolific (and prodigious) investment that Taiwan businesses have made in building and managing factories and sales in China. In a larger sense, I feel that unification is inevitable, once China’s economy and living standard gains parity with Taiwan’s (just a matter of time), and once China’s political and social freedoms attain the same threshold that Taiwan enjoys. That’s also just a matter of time, methinks, since China’s increasingly wealthy population is likely to be a much better educated one, and much less likely to tolerate being sequestered from the standard of living that the West and Japan enjoy—especially since not even China’s 50,000 Internet police will be able to prevent its citizens from seeing, and demanding, the same standard of living for themselves. All of this, I suspect, will increasingly make moot any long-term prospects for Taiwan’s independence and membership in the United Nations.

Power/Terrorism

I can’t help but smell a rat when I see China cozying up to the Americans’ War on (of?) Terror: it seems like such wonderful cover for China’s own persecution of its Muslim minorities, as they struggle to hold their own against the advance of the Han Chinese cultural tide throughout Central Asia. From the time when the Qin emperor Shih Huangdi standardized axle lengths on horse-drawn carts and the Han decreed its measures to standardize the written language throughout the empire, to the brutal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, China’s rulers have long been obsessed with achieving and enforcing uniformity and consensus in a population that is not only the world’s largest but historically one of its most fractious. The lesson of that history is that anything less than consensus invites disruption and beckons the Mandate of Heaven, with its dreaded consequences for the incumbent regime. China’s traditional response to barbarians of any stripe—whether Mongols, Manchus, Muslims, or Tibetans, has been to absorb them, and its present-day policy of populating China’s farthest-flung dominions with waves of Han Chinese settlers gives the lie to its official tolerance of minorities and to the regime’s absurd celebration of China’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

Power/Political Agenda

It seems that China’s political agenda—apart from preserving power itself—always comes down to how to avoid social chaos. True, Mao’s program was pre-occupied with restoring China’s self-esteem (China was, after all, the historic center of the universe in traditional thinking, and the glories of its civilization unsurpassed); China had been horribly humiliated by the Western powers in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, and by having its eyes opened to its own extreme backwardness in the world community). Knowing that China was sorely deficient in the technology of the West, Mao turned to China’s sheer numbers to fill the gap; that’s one reason way there has never been much of an emphasis on science in the Chinese intellectual tradition—why build a conveyor belt, for example, when you can use a dirt-cheap thousand coolies to pass along the baskets of dirt and rocks? And Mao’s emphasis on “permanent revolution” and “better red than expert” were conceived more in the interest of preserving his own power—and social order—than anything else. The present-day economy, with its rampant unemployment, poses severe challenges to the leadership as to how best to keep people employed and—hopefully—prosperous. As Deng put it, what does the color of the cat matter so long as it catches mice?

Power/Censorship

The 50,000 pairs of hands of China’s army of Internet police will not be sufficient to stick fingers in every crack that’s opening in the dike of China’s sequestration from the world. As China’s population becomes wealthier, it will become better informed and better educated–wealth and freedom being the inevitable concomitants of learning. As the Chinese become better informed of how the rest of the modern world lives, they will be less and less tolerant of being deprived of the civil and material rewards of the success they’re working so hard to achieve. Censorship and oppression is a losing proposition in this era of transparency and globalization.

Power/Tiananmen

With a population of 1.4 billion to keep a lid on (and with rampant unemployment), the present regime understands well from the lessons of history that if society comes undone, the people will regard it as having lost the Mandate of Heaven–the right to rule. The dread of social chaos is no less acute today than it was 2,000 years ago (and so often since then). The Chinese have no tradition and relatively little understanding of democracy, believing that to advance the interests of the individual is to undermine the interests of the many. The present-day economy, with its rampant unemployment, poses severe challenges to the leadership as to how best to keep people employed and—hopefully—prosperous. As Deng Xiao-p’ing put it, what does the color of the cat matter so long as it catches mice?

Power/Traditional Responses to Modern Crises

The problems faced by both East and West–whether urbanization, social pathologies, pollution, public health, economic growth versus quality of life—are the same, but the resources we bring to their resolution are different. The West has more money, longer experience, and greater technology; its cities are less chaotic, its standard of public health is high, civil liberty reigns supreme, and material fulfillment is unparalleled. The East, on the other hand, has little crime, and its citizens are prepossessed with family and social obligation instead of material fulfillment, their work ethic is supremely conscientious, and they are consecrated to education. Which makes you wealthier? Which represents mankind’s best hopes for the future? Are the two sets of values mutually exclusive? Do we have something to learn from each other, or was Kipling right when we remarked that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”?

Power/American Land War

Both Korea and Vietnam caused the United States to bump up against limits that it had never expected. Not all the atom bombs in the world would have enabled MacArthur to win the war that he wanted against China, nor did dropping more bombs on North Vietnam during the Christmas of 1968 than had been dropped during all of World War II dent the determination of the North Vietnamese to unify their country. Both countries lay on China’s doorstep, and the road to resolution of any mainland Asian conflict is usually seen as leading to Beijing. But does China really matter, geo-politically? With the exception of its grab of Tibet, China has never been an expansionist power, preferring that the barbarian outside world come to China, the Middle Kingdom. Its bluster over Taiwan and other international issues has never amounted to more than diplomatic theatre. And while it has undeniably become the workshop to the world, China needs the world (and its markets) at least as much as the world needs it. Nixon’s diplomatic initiative with China in 1973 accomplished nothing, apart from deluding the United States into believing that Hanoi would heed the intercession of the Chinese… and it may have contributed to America’s miscalculation of the Vietnam War’s outcome at the Paris Peace Talks. What’s more, if the United States is looking to China for resolution of its current impasse with North Korea, its hopes may be misplaced. China just doesn’t matter as much as we think it should in matters concerning its periphery.

Power/Military Threat

The usual assessment of China’s military might conjures up visions of its vast armies, nuclear arsenal, and burgeoning blue-water navy. It makes us wonder when the hammer will fall on Taiwan, with batteries of Chinese missiles poised to strike across the strait in threatened retaliation for a Taiwanese declaration of independence. It recalls the hordes that swarmed across the Yalu River during the Korean War, and China’s avowed “lips-to-teeth” analogy of its strategic relationship with Vietnam. But for all that, does China really matter? Are its threats so much bluster? After all, an assault on Taiwan would surely be the death knell for trade with America, and usher in massive unemployment in China’s critical export industry sector. Are its millions of men under arms any match for America’s satellite-guided firepower? Are China’s nuclear weapons usable without bringing on its own destruction? Military questions aside, China’s greatest vulnerability lies in the same Achilles Heel that has caused it to limp through the last several thousand years of history: its precarious burden of population and the unending possibilities implicit therein for social disorder… and the passing of the Mandate of Heaven to another regime. Anything that threatens to disrupt China’s trade—and therefore its economy and balance of its society on the razor’s edge—imperils the regime more than war itself.

Power/Zhu Rongji

Zhu Rongji, like most senior Chinese politicians, has worn many different hats in his rise to the premiership. This profligacy of positions cuts to the heart of the old Chinese debate on “Red” versus “expert”; clearly, qualifications don’t matter so much as political loyalty. Political hacks repose as comfortably beneath one hat as another, as neocon Paul Wolfowitz’s appointment to head the World Bank clearly demonstrates.

Power/Gunpowder

The discovery of gunpowder was ironic in a couple of ways–being that what the Chinese discovered in their search for an elixir of everlasting life instead became mankind’s most prolific agent for death and destruction; and, that the Chinese themselves never made much use of gunpowder for armaments, but mostly just for fireworks. It was for the West, which borrowed the formula from the Chinese, to apply gunpowder to its lethal application.

Power/Aerospace

Given China’s bold new ambitions in aerospace (as well as its development of a blue-water navy and threatening missile posture towards Taiwan), we can be forgiven for wondering whether China intends to assert itself as a global player in the same way that the U.S. and former Soviet Union did. I submit, though, that China’s foreign policy will long be held hostage to its crucial need for trade, since its manufacturing-for-export business is the only thing that’s keeping the mobs away from the palace gate, so to speak.

Economy


Economy/Business Attitudes

We’ve grown used to regarding the legendary Chinese miserliness and hard-nosed acumen with money as amusing stereotypes that had little relevance to how we lived our lives in America, apart from haggling with them over the price of whatever geegaw caught our fancy in Chinatown. But with China now irreversibly and pervasively consumed in the globalization of information (thanks to the telecommunications and Internet revolution) it is no longer possible for China’s government to isolate its people from the outside world. This, then, would seem to ensure the end of China’s 5,000-year old tradition of political absolutism. China’s human potential—in the form of a workforce dedicated to productivity, making money, and education—is about to be unlocked (think Taiwan times 50!). Twenty years ago, our trade with China was nothing more than tea, junky plastic toys, candied ginger and pressed duck. But in the last few years, we’ve lost three million jobs, as entire industries are shipped offshore to low-wage economies (mostly China, it seems), and if you think these jobs are coming back, don’t hold your breath. An American business would be foolish (and probably out of business soon) if it chose to stay in America and pay its workers $20 an hour when it could get the same job done for $2 a day in China. Our best hope lies in the fact that both China and India are developing enormous middle classes that increasingly have the buying power to buy what we can make (and market) better than they. But as the experience of General Motors and numerous other multinational companies has demonstrated, China is not a market that will be opened by those who do not understand it.

Economy/Salt Wells

Once upon a time, salt occupied a pre-eminent position in Chinese pharmacopeia. These days, salt has become a pestilence as China’s aquifers dry up and leave (at best) brackish water for its boundless humanity to subsist on. The implications of China’s chronic and worsening water shortage are staggering. In the last 50 years, the accelerating desertification of China has left it with just half of the cultivable land it had back then. Its demand for water, as rural migrants pour into the cities and its urban populations and factories soak up the stuff in prodigious quantities, has placed China on the same Malthusian track as it is with respect to oil and a vast array of other resources. On the other hand, if China cannot continue its breakneck pace of development and urbanization, the hundreds of millions of people who would be unemployed and unemployed as a result bode ill for the prospects for political stability. It seems like not just China, but the entire world, is somewhere in between a rock and a hard place with all this.

Economy/Currency Convertibility

The yuan is not exchangeable by ordinary people, and therein lies its value as an economic policy tool for the government, since it ensures that Chinese savings have nowhere to go but into Chinese banks (or their stock market)… thereby ensuring that money is always available to lend to state industries. As to how it affects trade? Since its value is pegged to the dollar, it makes for artificially cheap prices for its exports, huge trade surpluses for China, and a rising tide of protectionist sentiment in the US.

Economy/Currency Revaluation

China and the United States may well have struck the devil’s own bargain in their agreement to, in effect, continue to allow China (by way of its artificially cheap currency) an unfair trade advantage with the U.S., in exchange for China’s continuing to finance America’s deficits by plowing its trade surplus earnings into U.S. Treasury bonds. On the one hand, America continues to see its industrial core hollowed out by the loss of manufacturing jobs to China and cheap Chinese imports; the Chinese, on the other hand, continue to see their core investment in U.S. treasuries become progressively more worthless with the intractable long-term decline of the dollar.

Economy/Electric Power

If China is to continue to be workshop to the world, the implications of a power shortage/gridlock are staggering. China is already the fastest-growing consumer of oil, and prices seem likely to rise precipitously given her demand for the stuff. On the other hand, if China cannot continue its breakneck pace of manufacturing development, the hundreds of millions of people who would be unemployed and unemployed as a result bode ill for the prospects for political stability. It seems like we’re somewhere in between a rock and a hard place with all this.

Economy/Foreign Investment

After all that we’ve heard of America’s manufacturing being offshored and outsourced to China, it’s good to know that the sword cuts both ways. Now that China is developing a middle class with an avid taste for the consumer goods and standard of living that the West enjoys, the opportunity for American firms to export our specialties to China—whether Wal Mart, KFC, or Boeing Dreamliners–has never been brighter. With all our experience, resources, and marketing savvy, it seems that we could more than hold our own in the China market.

Economy/Globalization

Some 800 million people in China still live on less than a dollar a day, but much of China’s urban population enjoys a much higher standard of living, largely thanks to China’s exports to the world. What’s more, with an acute labor shortage (believe it or not!) kicking in in China’s export industries, wages are rising rapidly. The investment in China’s export economy is paying off not only for many Chinese, but for American and other global consumers of cheap (and good quality, increasingly) Chinese manufactures. The downside is that it’s gutting our manufacturing sector, and contributing to a downward spiral in the standard of living for America’s middle class. But that’s all part of the process of leveling the playing field that defines much of globalization… and perhaps it won’t end until everyone who’s making twenty cents an hour in China–and twenty bucks an hour in America–is making something in between (say, twenty bucks a day?)

Economy/Human Resources

China’s greatest wealth lies in its people and its land, and any program of industrialization must proceed first of all from an agrarian base. China’s detour into the collectives experiment and its insistence on placing the glories of socialism above the fruits of individual enterprise were both perversions of the highest and best use of land and human talent which free Chinese societies have so profitably employed by just leaving the people alone. It was only when Deng finally recovered his senses enough to allow this to happen that China’s modernization has finally been able to begin to hit its stride.

Economy/Obstacles to Modernization

China’s economy in the modern day has suffered from several impediments. One problem was that modernization was imposed on China by the West, which demanded commerce with a nation that little disposed to trade with the barbarian outside world, and believed that it needed nothing from the barbarian. China had little by way of a science and technology to rival that of the West; this in part came from the traditional disdain of the intellectual for getting his hands dirty with practical research… plus why bother modernizing production and such when you’ve got an endless supply of dirt-cheap labor? A deeper problem lay in the fact that China did not have the institutions, in terms of education and scientific inquiry, a free-market economy, political and diplomatic relations with foreign markets, and much more that would support modernization. Industrialization cannot simply be grafted onto a brittle Confucian polity, but requires the accompanying development of social, economic, and political institutions that support it.

Economy/Infrastructure

China, unlike many Western nations, has experienced economic growth far ahead of its development of infrastructure. Perhaps that’s a consequence of an economy that has focused more on exports than on accommodating a domestic consumer economy. But now that the money is pouring into the pockets of China’s urban middle class, the consumer economy in China is growing like wildfire, and if the electricity, roads, and other infrastructure aren’t there, it’s going to cause widespread dislocation and dissatisfaction in the cities, in addition to the woes of the rural population.

Economy/Intellectual Property Piracy

As industrious as the Chinese are, they’re going to have a pretty hard time doing much of anything except copying (illegally, in many cases) the pioneering efforts of other societies until they undertake a top-to-bottom revision of their educational credo. China’s educational system is a product of its Confucian polity and its preoccupation with social harmony. Its emphasis on the subservience of student to teacher (and to the Confucian social hierarchy) discourages independent initiative and creative expression, and places little emphasis on learning–beyond what is necessary to gain admission to college (and even that learning is purely rote). As a result, China is one of the most relationship-driven societies on earth, and the values inculcated by its educational system ensured that China has long remained a follower, not a leader. The Confucian ordering of the relationship between student and teacher is one of a kind with that between emperor and subject, and father and son. With their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future, it’s no wonder that the Chinese adored imitation (and rote memorization) to the exclusion of originality. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? The Chinese preoccupation with ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the West and adapt with greater success to the modern day.

economy/Another Taiwan

In spite of the absolutist nature of its political tradition, China is more open to the world than it has ever been and foreign investment continues to roll in. The government is learning that it is lucrative to open itself up, and that imposing fewer restrictions on its market will not necessarily diminish its power. While China’s immense population makes for lucrative potential, the myriad restrictions on foreign investment means that it will always remain exactly that–potential. As long as the government continues to favor state enterprise with credit, private enterprise will never participate in China’s economy, but will always be export-directed. The rule of 90-year old gerontocrat Deng Xiaoping came as an unlikely breath of fresh air into China’s political and economic prospects. It was only by closing off all contact with the outside world from 1949 until recently that it was possible to keep China’s people so completely in the dark as to how miserably its economy was performing. With China now irreversibly and pervasively consumed in the globalization of information (thanks to the telecommunications and Internet revolution) it is no longer possible for China’s government to isolate its people from the outside world. This, then, would seem to ensure the end of China’s 5,000-year old tradition of political absolutism. China’s human potential—in the form of a workforce dedicated to productivity, making money, and education—is about to be unlocked (think Taiwan times 50!). Is it possible that globalization is stronger than the 5,000-year weight of Chinese tradition?

Economy/Labor

As bad as the abuses of labor are, the human element (of which there is a supreme abundance) will remain the basis of China’s economy (while this may be true with all agrarian societies, it is profoundly and perhaps pathologically true with the Chinese), and without the freedom of labor to organize and exert its influence for the better, the economy will remain dysfunctional. But that’s changing!

Economy/Chinese Way

The question of whether China’s economy can be modernized without extensive Westernization has troubled the Chinese enormously from the time when they were humiliated by the West and its unanswerable military technology in the 19th century. In fact, their ongoing resentment of this historic humiliation made them all the more insistent upon finding a “Chinese way” to modernize—socialism with Chinese characteristics, as so on. Generally, politics and brute manual labor have been a poor substitute for Western technology and economic planning, but until China overcomes this sense of humiliation, it will find the modern world rough sledding indeed. Its best hope may lie in globalization, which makes it increasingly impossible to seal the Chinese people off from the rest of the world. Once they see how the rest of the world lives, they will not settle for less, and nothing will be able to restrain the Chinese people from putting their natural talent, intelligence, and industry to work (think Taiwan times 50!) It seems that China’s immediate future is more economic than political. With the nation’s banks insolvent and the people’ savings imperiled, the consequences could eventually include the sort of social turmoil in China that could produce yet another of its regular-as-clockwork dynastic upheavals, with consequent instability in China’s relationship with America, Russia, and its Asian neighbors. I don’t mean to sound the Trumpet of Apocalypse, but it does seem in so many ways that the 21st century is shaping up as a watershed in global geopolitics.

Economy/Occupational Diseases

For as long as China offers a virtually endless supply of cheap labor–without the freedom of labor to organize and exert its influence for the better–workers will suffer the usually litany of sweatshop abuses, including the full array of occupational diseases. In one sense, there’s hope: China has seen a proliferation of protests and riots in the past few years, largely brought on by the widening wealth gap between rural and city folks, and by government’s failure to respond to corruption and by officials’ abuse of people who are otherwise helpless. There’s hope also in the dwindling supply of cheap labor (you read that right), which betters the chances of workers securing much-needed improvements in pay, benefits, and workplace conditions. However, there’s always someone further down the food chain—like Vietnam or India—that will work even cheaper than the Chinese, and predictably, businesses have wasted little time in responding to the opportunity.

Economy/Oil

Japan justified its aggression in World War II partly by its need for natural resources, which the United States and the British had conspired to deny it. Oil is no less essential to China, since it doesn’t produce a drop of the stuff and its economy (and political stability) is completely dependent upon it. It’s entirely possible that if China’s oil supply is jeopardized, it may need to once again consider how it might secure its own supply—the oil fields of Siberia are close at hand, and its uneasy relationship with Japan has unresolved issues stemming from Japan’s barbarous behavior in China in the 1930s that could offer a useful pretext for asserting itself. With few resources of its own, and should the geo-politics of trade and oil appear to conspire against it, China may one day seek to reestablish—and enlarge upon–its ancient Qing dynasty boundaries at the expense of a disintegrating Russia.

Economy/Oil Spill

China’s oil spill controversy leads us to wonder whether the problems faced by both China and the West–whether pollution, urbanization, social pathologies, public health, economic growth versus quality of life—-aren’t pretty much the same (although the resources we bring to their resolution are different). The West has more money, longer experience, and greater technology; its cities are less chaotic, its standard of public health is high, civil liberty reigns supreme, and material fulfillment is unparalleled. China, on the other hand, has relatively little crime, and its citizens are as much prepossessed with family and social obligation as with material fulfillment, their work ethic is supremely conscientious, and they are consecrated to education. Which makes you wealthier? Which represents mankind’s best hopes for the future? Are the two sets of values mutually exclusive? Do we have something to learn from each other, or was Kipling right when we remarked that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”?

Economy/Pollution

The problems faced by both China and the West-whether pollution, urbanization, social pathologies, public health, economic growth versus quality of life—are the same, but the resources we bring to their resolution are different. The West has more money, longer experience, and greater technology; its cities are less chaotic, its standard of public health is high, civil liberty reigns supreme, and material fulfillment is unparalleled. China, on the other hand, has relatively little crime, and its citizens are as much prepossessed with family and social obligation as with material fulfillment, their work ethic is supremely conscientious, and they are consecrated to education. Which makes you wealthier? Which represents mankind’s best hopes for the future? Are the two sets of values mutually exclusive? Do we have something to learn from each other, or was Kipling right when we remarked that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”?

Economy/Reformers

I suspect that until the day comes that China learns how to manage its economy objectively instead of politically, “peaceful revolution” may be impossible. So much of China’s command economy has been theatrically stage-managed, and it’s a poor substitute for the market-economy precepts that do not square with its politics. But make no mistake—China’s future is economic, not political. With the nation’s banks insolvent and the people’ savings imperiled, the consequences could eventually include the sort of social turmoil in China that could produce yet another of its regular-as-clockwork dynastic upheavals, with consequent instability in China’s relationship with America, Russia, and its Asian neighbors. I don’t mean to sound the Trumpet of Apocalypse, but it does seem in so many ways that the 21st century is shaping up as a watershed in global geopolitics.

Economy/Socialism and the Free Market

While China’s immense population makes for lucrative potential, the myriad restrictions on foreign investment means that it will always remain exactly that–potential. As long as the government continues to favor state enterprise with credit, private enterprise will never participate in China’s economy, but will always be export-directed.

Economy/Specious Statistics

It amazes me that economists and other consumers of economic data everywhere so unquestioningly accept the GDP growth figures proclaimed by the Chinese state. A growth rate of 7% seems to be the least politically acceptable threshold, and the millions of apparatchiks at the provincial and local levels of government know full well that telling Beijing what it wants to hear is the only way to assure their own promotion and to assure that their own pet projects enjoy continued access to the credit trough. Local bureaucrats are the sole arbiters of truth in their own territories, and know that the imaginative data they report will never be examined. I am also amazed that we are so seldom reminded that the astonishing growth rates of the Chinese economy are coming off a pathetically small base; the 14% growth that China reported in 1992 still left it with an economy only the size of Spain and Holland combined—far smaller than that of Taiwan. It seems true that cheap tricks are the ones that work the best, simply because the smarter we think we are in the West, the more we reluctant we are to believe that anyone could be so foolish as to try to pull the wool over us with lies and cheap tricks.

Economy/Stock Market

The unsuspecting sheep have been led to slaughter in China’s Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets of late. The past ten years or so have given modern China its first taste of speculative folly, as both the stock and property markets were pumped to astronomical highs… only to have bubble burst and leave millions of ordinary investors holding the bag. The story of China Aviation Oil is typical of countless companies whose corporate governance was opaque and whose accounting was specious. The underlying problem has been that the yuan is not exchangeable by ordinary people, and therein lies its value as an economic policy tool for the government, since it ensures that Chinese savings have nowhere to go but into Chinese banks (or their stock market)… thereby ensuring that money has always been available to lend to state industries. But the entire economy is redolent with suspect statistics, and it amazes me that economists and other consumers of economic data everywhere so unquestioningly accept the GDP growth figures proclaimed by the Chinese state.

Economy/Telecommunications

China’s love affair with telecommunications—mobile phones, Blackberries, the Internet, satellite dishes—bode ill for the regime. The 50,000 pairs of hands of China’s army of Internet police will not be sufficient to stick fingers in every crack that’s opening in the dike of China’s sequestration from the world. As China’s population becomes wealthier, it will become better informed and better educated–wealth and freedom being the inevitable concomitants of learning. As the Chinese become better informed of how the rest of the modern world lives, they will be less and less tolerant of being deprived of the civil and material rewards of the success they’re working so hard to achieve. Censorship and oppression is a losing proposition in this era of transparency and globalization.

Economy/Trade

The biggest limitation on China’s foreign trade was self-imposed, in their belief that the outside, barbarian world had little to offer the China, apart from the occasional zoological curiosity such as the giraffe or rhino, or the occasional bit of technological handiwork like the cuckoo clock (even these were disdained by the Emperor as being beneath the dignity of the Son of Heaven to accept as a gift). True, China sent out a number of armadas during the Ming dynasty, which reached as far as Zanzibar, but this was the exception to rule that it was for the outside world to come to China, not the other way around. In fact, China’s relations with the barbarians were as tributary states to the Middle Kingdom—and Center of the Universe. China did not desire their territory or their riches, only tribute that would acknowledge China’s cultural supremacy. But when the British came to town with their chests of opium, followed by the Germans, the Russians, the Americans, and the Japanese—all demanding their share of the Chinese pie, China came to realize its helplessness before the onslaught of these predators. There followed a hundred or so years of humiliation at the hands of the West, and unspeakable agony at the hands of the Japanese. Even today, foreign investment in China follows the same pattern of being bedazzled by the prospects of 1.5 billion consumers; the same protocol obtains of bowing and scraping before the Chinese Emperor for the privilege of doing business with his subjects… only the expected rewards are not forthcoming, since demand for Western goods is largely absent in what is still an impoverished society.

Economy/Silk Road

The biggest roadblock on the Silk Road was self-imposed, in the Chinese belief that the outside, barbarian world had little to offer them. If there was to be trade, then the outside world must come to China, not the other way around, and the relations of barbarians with China were as tributary states to the Middle Kingdom—the Center of the Universe. But truth be told, the Chinese have long been ill at ease with transparency, and beneath their arrogance must have lain the sneaking suspicion that their ossified social and political structure (remember, their stuff was ancient before the rest of the world was young!) might not withstand seditious outside influences. While not a political creed, the Buddhism that infiltrated China via the Silk Road in time acquired a rebellious streak in response to the inevitable official intolerance of anything that might undermine established orthodoxy and possibly usher in regime change. And if you’re thinking that all of this anticipated the present regime’s kafuffle over the Falun Gong, your thinking is right on the money.

Economy/Trade with EU

One of the ugly lessons from America’s Great Depression in the 1930s (and one which applies just as well to China and the EU) came to us courtesy of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which attempted to protect American businesses from foreign competition. This turned out to be the single most hurtful thing we did to ourselves in the Depression, in having brought on retaliatory tariffs that crippled America’s ability to export. Much of the West’s economy depends on foreign trade, and although cheap Chinese labor has undeniably cost it a great many manufacturing jobs, globalization cannot be undone without catastrophic effects on the global economy. Our job losses are part of the price that we’ll have to pay for the Great Leveling of the playing field of the global economy. On the other hand, now that China is developing a middle class with an avid taste for consumer goods and all the other elements of the good life, the opportunity for Western firms to export their specialties—whether KFC or Airbuses–to China has never been brighter. With all of the West’s marketing savvy, it seems that it could more than hold its own in the China market.

Economy/Trade War

One of the ugly lessons from America’s Great Depression in the 1930s came to us courtesy of the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which attempted to protect American businesses from foreign competition. This turned out to be the single most hurtful thing we did to ourselves in the Depression, in having brought on retaliatory tariffs that crippled America’s ability to export. Today, roughly 40% of our economy depends on foreign trade, and although cheap Chinese labor has undeniably cost America a great many manufacturing jobs, globalization cannot be undone without catastrophic effects on the global economy. Our job losses are part of the price that we’ll have to pay for the Great Leveling of the playing field of the global economy. On the other hand, now that China is developing a middle class with an avid taste for consumer goods and all the other elements of the good life, the opportunity for American firms to export our specialties—whether KFC or jumbo jets–to China has never been brighter. With all of our marketing savvy, it seems that we could more than hold our own in the China market.

Economy/Unemployment

The massive unemployment problem in China is the best guarantee we have that Chinese will not attack Taiwan or otherwise misbehave in the global arena. Any such actions would result in trade restrictions from the West that would imperil the one best chance that China has to avoid social cataclysm and the wrath of the Mandate of Heaven–namely, the enormous number of jobs that are generated by China’s export industries.

Economy/WTO Membership

China’s entry into the WTO is indeed a step toward accountability and trade equality. China will still set the conditions of its business deals with the outside world because they are the ones being courted. WTO membership can assure things like tariff levels but it will still encounter barriers when accounting the economy. Figures are still exaggerated and the government underwrites its bad loans, particularly to itself. If it wants to start making improvements financially, those aforementioned practices need to stop.

Economy/Water Shortage

The implications of China’s chronic and worsening water shortage are staggering. In the last 50 years, the accelerating desertification of China has left it with just half of the cultivable land it had back then. Its demand for water, as rural migrants pour into the cities and its urban populations and factories soak up the stuff in prodigious quantities, has placed China on the same Malthusian track as it is with respect to oil and a vast array of other resources. On the other hand, if China cannot continue its breakneck pace of development and urbanization, the hundreds of millions of people who would be unemployed and unemployed as a result bode ill for the prospects for political stability. It seems like not just China, but the entire world, is somewhere in between a rock and a hard place with all this.

Economy/Wealth Gap

The yawning chasm between urban prosperity and rural destitution poses one of the severest challenges of all to China’s leadership. There is a danger that China is staring calamity square in its ugly face, not only on account of the social unrest fueled by corruption and the widening gulf between urban prosperity and rural poverty, but from severe shortages of oil and other natural resources to keep the good times rolling and an almost inevitable banking crisis as well. Much of the demand for change that has swept Chinese society since the death of Mao has occurred sub rosa, and not by way of open outcry (Tiananmen being the most notable exception). Either that, or we just don’t hear about it—notably, the tens of thousands of riots and public protests that have occurred in the last couple of years throughout China against all kinds of things: unpaid expropriation of land, corruption, unpaid wages. Notwithstanding the best efforts of China’s army of 50,000 Internet police, the mice continue to outwit the cats, and the inevitable day of reckoning draws closer, when China will demand civil liberties and a standard of living on par with those of the rest of the civilized world. I say “inevitable,” because I just don’t believe it’s possible for a society to grow richer without becoming better educated, more sophisticated, and less tolerant of having their lives run by a bunch of thugs. With the nation’s banks virtually insolvent and the people’ savings imperiled, the consequences could eventually produce yet another of China’s regular-as-clockwork dynastic upheavals. With a population of 1.4 billion to keep a lid on, the present regime understands well from the lessons of history that if society comes undone, the people will regard it as having lost the Mandate of Heaven–the right to rule. The dread of social chaos is no less acute today than it was 2,000 years ago (and so often since then).

Economy/Drought

One of China’s greatest challenges has been—and long will be—how to manage its water supply. Historically, the problem has been the rivers. The Yellow River (“China’s Sorrow”), laden in silt and prone to frequent flooding, has changed its course times. The Yangtze divides north China from south, and bridging the river (and that Great Divide) has been an elusive goal for China until recently. It may contain to be problematic, with the imminent completion of the Three Gorges Dam along the upper reaches of the Yangtze. Western engineers regard this project with horror, and predict its collapse on account of poor engineering and cement. A calamity of this sort would unleash the Flood of the Millennium, and send China back to contemplating how to contend once again with its most ancient adversaries, its rivers. But now there’s a modern, man-made calamity in the making as well, as China’s phenomenal economic growth far exceeds its supply of water—whether on the ground, beneath it, or above it. And when Mother Nature has the occasional spate of bad hair and inflicts either drought or flooding, there’s just no middle ground. It seems that China will reel and lurch from one calamity to the next, and from the blessings of economic prosperity to the shortages of the stuff it needs to keep the good times rolling.

Economy/Guilds

The absence of any tradition of government for the people and by the people, coupled with the intractable Chinese contempt for authority (based on the timeless abuse of the commoner by over-zealous taxation and conscripting his labor for outlandish projects like the Great Wall) has led the Chinese to develop organizations, institutions, and values that feather one’s nest from the inside out. It all begins with the family, from which the Chinese skein of loyalties proceeds to insinuate itself into the extended family of guilds and triads. While Chinese society may appear chaotic and seem to suffer from community-mindedness, the obligations imposed on the individual by the Chinese family are far more of a straightjacket than those imposed on the Westerner by government regulation and civic responsibility. In America, we verse ourselves from an early age in the civic virtues of patriotism, democracy, and devotion to God–these being the values that are most needed to keep all the wildly diverse elements of our melting pot society on the same page. The Chinese, as one of the most homogeneous societies on earth, do not need to be reminded as to which country they belong to; the heavy hand of governmental authority is something to be avoided if at all possible, and for most Chinese, God remains an imponderable, while ancestors on the other hand are ever at hand to help with matters sundry and sublime. It takes a lot to sunder the social straitjacket that constrains the Chinese, and the rebel who rises up to revoke the Mandate of Heaven from a government that has exceeded its brief is heroic for so doing.


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