I’ve been re-educating myself on China a little bit lately, and thanks to my favorite socialist institution, my local public library, I came across this pretty good book about how the Chinese interacted with foreigners. It’s The Dragon and the Foreign Devils: China and the World: 1100 BC to the Present, by Harry Gelber(London, 2007). The book is a pretty good overview, though the author drives me nuts sometimes by getting some of his dates wrong, like in what year some World War II battle took place.
Anyway, it’s not bad, is a pretty easy read, and it confirms some of my own conclusions. One is that the Chinese are beyond arrogance when it comes to their sense of cultural superiority, at least by any Western standard. They have this notion that just because their civilization has been around, more or less intact, for over 4000 years that that makes them just better than anyone else, and everyone else should just, well, know that.
Another is that the Western European concepts of democracy and inalienable individual rights is very, very alien to the Chinese. Due to the circumstances of their history and to the prevailing philosophy of Confucianism, the Chinese have this inherent loyalty to the family and to governmental authority most of the time.
Still another is that the Chinese empire expands to more or less the same limits it has now, and then collapses for one reason or another, only to rise again.
These three points are closely intertwined.
To be more specific, Chinese civilization started out as a series of “water empire” dynasties. Like the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, successful Chinese governments based their power on the control of water for irrigation, the food that was produced by it, the trade that successful agricultural communities engendered, and the abilities of those governments to protect all of the above both from “barbarian” attack and natural calamities.
This meant that the community as a whole, and the state, required loyalty and obedience from individuals for the sake of the greater good. Old Confucius came up with an entirely logical philosophical system to justify this point of view, and it has been applied very successfully for millennia by every dynasty, including the current Communist one according to Gelber. Individual rights are subordinate and, according to this tradition, should be so. In fact, the subordination of individual rights to those of the family and the state is just good morals. In that context, is Mao or any of his successors so different from the emperors of old? Surface ideology aside, not so much.
For thousands of years, the ruling dynasties considered themselves the “sons of Heaven,” whose job it was to provide food and physical security to the populace. Whenever the dynasty lost its way, there would be calamities sent by the gods to show that they had lost the “Mandate of Heaven,” and then the dynasty would collapse and be replaced by another created by more worthy people. The calamities could come in the form of either natural disasters, foreign invasions, or domestic revolt because the dynasty was failing most of the population, or all three.
Whenever this happened, a strong man would appear and lead his armies to victory and set himself up as the new emperor. Sometimes these men would be of the majority Han Chinese population, such as Qin Shi Handu(founder of the Han Dynasty in about 200 CE), Hongwu(founder of the Ming Dynasty in 1328) and Mao Zedong(founder of the Communist Party “dynasty” in 1949, according to the author). Others were foreigners such as Kublai Khan and the later Qing, who were Mongolian and Manchurian respectively, but ultimately adopted Chinese customs and ways.
All of them had a few things in common. They all believed in a strong central state in which all real power should be vested. They all demanded unquestioning loyalty to that state, with severe penalties ranging from imprisonment to torture and death for dissent. They all insisted that foreigners wishing to deal with them must acknowledge inherent Chinese superiority by proper deference or tribute, which they would return in kind with incredible generosity, at least from their point of view and quite often even from a Western point of view.
Gelber does argue for something I had never thought about before, and that is that “barbarian” or foreign legal concepts such as the sanctity of contracts, treaties, and other agreements only have validity so long as they serve the interests of the central government at the top of things and Chinese merchants themselves at the bottom. When some agreement no longer works in the favor of the Chinese, it can simply be ignored because, well, what good is it if it no longer benefits the Chinese? Why should they consider such a thing binding upon them when it is not in the greater Chinese good’s interests to follow it?
This attitude is quite consistent with everything else I’ve talked about here, and it’s not incomprehensible at all. It explains why the vast Chinese market to sell things to has never been fully exploited by foreign interests, and why Chinese foreign policy so often baffles everyone else. To the Chinese, it makes perfect sense. To me, it offers a bright glimmer of hope that the monstrosity of of the Trans-Pacific Partnership(TPP) is doomed before it starts. If the Chinese refuse to sign on to it, the absence of a huge power on the Pacific Rim leaves a great, big, gaping whole in the whole framework.
Even if the Chinese government signs on to the TPP, it will simply ignore it as soon as it presents a threat to the stability of that government whenever that happens. If, for example, enforcing the terms of the TPP would cause social domestic unrest because it would piss off millions, tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions, of Chinese, the government will backpeddle quickly in order to maintain domestic stability. Otherwise, it would lose the Mandate of Heaven, no matter what the ruling Communist Party calls it, and therefore deserve to fall. They don’t want to fall, so they’ll try not to do so. Whenever they do fall, and they will, it won’t be because of outside pressure alone, it will be because of internal, uniquely Chinese, divisions as well.
And if China refuses to enforce the TPP, whaddaya gonna do about it, Wall Street? Huh? They got nukes, too. Can’t go there. Wouldn’t be prudent, you know.
We The People of the United States and other countries can learn a few things from the Chinese, like thinking the people running our government no longer deserve to hold power because they just aren’t doing their freaking job of providing basic physical and economic security for us, and that they deserve to be replaced by somebody else who can.
I’ll go one step further because, after all, as far as the Chinese are concerned, I’m just another barbarian(as are most of you reading this) and say that if the system that our so-called leaders are beholden to no longer works for us, then it doesn’t deserve to survive. It’s lost the Mandate of Heaven, you see. The English saw this in the 1640’s, the Americans in the 1770’s, the French in 1789, and the Russians in 1917.
Maybe we’re not so different from the Chinese, after all. Even if the Chinese won’t admit it.