A few days ago, I was honoured to speak to a group of soldiers from the New Zealand Defence College, who were travelling around China as part of their course study.
Speaking in front of an open audience in China – particularly, when there are senior generals from the PLA (People Liberation Army) and sharing a platform with the New Zealand Consul General, – it is necessary to moderate what issues and opinions are expressed, for fear of causing offence.
I stress offence, and NOT prohibition, because there is no blanket ban on speaking in China for a limited audience in English, but if something is interpreted incorrectly by a member of the audience then, because China is a shame based-society (or a society of ‘face’), the misunderstandings can escalate into a bit more than an unhappy look.
This article is some of the things that I would have said, were it not for this issue.
The very first thing, which is directly related to the above statement, is that China is a unique country, in that the general population feel they are instruments of government wherever foreigners are concerned.
The government, at all levels, is very vocal in disseminating information about governance and what is happening. That’s not a criticism, by the way – the government simply is very good, and has hundreds of news channels, at spreading the good news of what the government is doing and since they completely control every single channel of information, the ordinary person has a very rosy picture of how wonderful their leaders are, and full knowledge of what the government wants the people to know about the policy.
This message, is then absorbed by the population, and reaffirmed by individual interactions on the ground.
When the US bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the entire student population came out onto the streets – not to beat foreigners up, but to assail any foreigner on the street, and thrust petitions in the foreigners’ face, saying what a terrible country the US was, and how they must be called to account.
Likewise, when there is tension between China and another foreign country such as the situations with France over the Olympic Torch incident, Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, and Norway over awarding the Nobel Peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, then on the street, the overwhelming majority of people will react to that tension and take matters into their own hands – French supermarkets were blockaded, Japanese cars were smashed, and Norwegian salmon was refused entry at ports.
These were not specifically mandated government actions – they were the actions of the local people taking these matters into their own hands and implementing and reflecting official government stance.
In daily conversation with local people, these issues form the bedrock of the subject matter – every single aspect of the way in which China has been unfairly treated is dragged across the coals (frankly, often ad nauseam) and there is an overriding requirement that the foreigner should agree wholeheartedly with the speaker’s opinion.
There are several reasons behind this and while the facile explanation is that it is a result of the people feeling nervous to discuss local issues for fear of being accosted, but the reality is much deeper and understanding the dynamics is one of the keys to understanding China.
China’s history has been isolationist in the extreme. For the majority of the 3000 years of history in China, China’s doors have been closed as a society.
There has certainly been trade, but generally the prevailing flow has been one-way trade. China has rejected foreign influence and integration for thousands of years.
This has created a society that looks inward rather than outward and sees anything outside of China as alien, outside, barbarian, ‘not us’.
The reasons for this inward-looking characteristic was possibly formed by the fact that outside were a group of savage people – the XiongNu, for example – who invaded China over and over again, and when they invaded they didn’t come for tea and biscuits – they came for rapine, plunder and mayhem.
The world learned the fear created by these tribes when the XiongNu reinvented themselves as the Hun (as the smart money says) and took their brand of invasion across the Steppes into Europe and drove the Goths into the Roman empire, setting the stage for the collapse of European civilization at that stage.
It was the brutal incursions of these tribes of people that created the mindset of building the Great Wall of China – of finding a space of natural safety – surrounded by walls, mountains, rivers and anything at all that stood in the way of these barbarian tribes from the Steppes.
Growing in isolation with a mindset of building security systems to stay safe, created a very strong idea in the minds of the Chinese about protection and security, that echoes today.
Over the period of Chinese history, whenever, things were quiet from external invasion, there was often civil strife – dynasties rose and fell, and the interregnum periods were almost universally defined by the chaos, famine, killing, death and disease that emanated from the breakdown of civil society.
The last period of this civil strife is well within the living memory of China today.
From around 1820 until 1949 communities were the prey of massive banditry, civil war and warlords, constant military action between rival factions (the Tai Ping Rebellion killed around 30 million people), corruption, famine, organized crime and all the accompanying misery that these things brought.
In the settling down period of the 1949 establishment of the new China, there were countless millions killed or starved or were struggled to death during the Great Leap Forward, the Hundred Flower Campaign, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath.
It’s in living memory – not history book memory. Not stories from another age – but in the grandparents of today’s living memory.
This echo and the pattern of thinking these events have left entrenched in the people’s mind, is the utter need for security.
There can be no gap in the fence – anywhere at all. Every single action is judged under this magnifying glass – who can get in, who can steal something from me, who can jump the fence.
Yesterday there was noise in our stairwell from workmen working on the front door of the next-door neighbor. There as a huge brand-new door locking system being installed.
To frame this, we live in a secure compound – 4-meter fences, double electric fence, razor wire, motion sensors, enough security guards to man a battleship, and an existing steel door with no less than 5 bolts securing it.
To even get into the stairwell would entail such a performance keeping out of the way of the 15-minute checking of the security guard and sneaking past the eyes of the guard who sits looking at the stairwell door while he guards the car-park
There is no way that there is any need for extra door security at all.
But having said that – if something in China is NOT watched or tied down, there is a very good chance it will be stolen – personally, I’ve lost three motorbikes (parked outside the paid parking area) and any number of pushbikes, along with phones, bags and other possessions that weren’t watched carefully enough. The strangest theft was a wet old smelly carpet that was drying on the fence and could be reached from the street.
Going back to the thinking in the mind of the neighbor – he had assessed that there was a sliver of a chance that he could be robbed, beaten or worse so the door security had to be upgraded.
This is how China as a nation thinks geopolitically – there is a huge requirement on every level to stop any chance of anyone stealing secrets, causing trouble, spying, or infringing on China’s rights.
During the long slow breakdown of the Qing Dynasty western powers jumped into China and pretty much, in the minds of the Chinese people, committed all of the atrocities that the XiongNu had committed over the past thousands of years.
Japan invaded and unmercifully slaughtered China’s citizens – within living memory. As bad as any of the barbarian tribes in the past – armed with modern weapons and modern tactics Japan was able reside in China for 14 years.
With the western powers all taking their bit of China – the Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaties forced on the weakened Qing at that time – and with these acts being actively taught and remembered in schools – there is still a very strong residue of distaste for this part of history and an even stronger desire that this never happens again
The foremost requirement of people and nations in the Chinese cosmos, after they are fed, sheltered and clothed, is to create a security blanket – lock everything down and stay inside.
This process is now manifesting in China with the new strident national
ism and outward show of power – the aircraft carriers, the South China Sea, the portrayal in all the media of the new strong China.
This is standing up – this is cutting off any possible avenues for breakdown in security.
Then there is another very strong dynamic running through Chinese history – the dynastic cycle itself. Some people have commented that China does not have 5,000 years of history, but 300 years of history repeated over and over. And on looking at the dynastic ebb and flow that is pretty much on the money.
A dynasty is established – the first emperor was strong, dynamic, and unifying – followed by a couple of really good emperors – his children and grandchildren. The dynasty gets established, civil society and peace returns and the people have some years of security and calm – and a closed door.
Then the decadence and rot sets in – the succeeding emperors forget and lose sight of what got them there and all the problems emerge, until there is another rebellion or two, before the new dynasty starts the process all over again.
And the pattern of thought in the minds of the people is confirmed over and over again.
China has established itself as a world leader once more – whether it is the preeminent power right now is probably debatable, but it isn’t far off – another 20 years the position that China has occupied for its entire history (at least the last 2,000 years) will be unassailably #1 on every metric.
So, now China is wondering what to do with the open doors that got back on its feet.
It’s not the same – the world has changed – communication technologies have seen the world shrink to a village – and it is now not as easy as before to shut the door.
Deng Xiao Ping saw the development of Chinese society towards a more open global society but recently there has been a walk towards the direction of a more closed society – the Great Firewall of China just gets more and more powerful, civil society has been constrained enormously – right now the most endangered species in China is not the panda but the lawyer who dares defend a person on human rights issues.
This period in China’s development is the most critical period for China – it has never ultimately worked out well for China when the door gets shut – no matter how powerful China is – because in the words of Bo Yang – who wrote the book – The Ugly Chinaman:
A culture of any people is like a long, expansive river, surging on and on. However, over time, many foul and filthy things in the river, like the dead bodies of fish, cats, and rats, start to collect and settle to the bottom, prevent the water from flowing freely, and the river eventually becomes a stagnant pool. The more years go by, the greater the accumulation piles up, and the further it putrefies, turning the river into a pot of fermented soy paste, or a pit of sludge, exhaling an acrid stench.
If China, were to follow its traditional history at this point and gradually, or in worst case scenario, hastily, shut out the rest of the world, then at some stage in the future, the old demons of corruption, nepotism, landlordism, and usury, will inevitably emerge.
In the reign of the third Qing Emperor (Qianlong) the door was shut to foreign in-bound trade because the silver was the emperors and he needed it to pay for all his girlfriends and rice wine.
The result of that little decision was that Great Britain – who at that time were the big gorilla in the world because of the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution – looked assiduously for a way to stop the outflow of silver from their neck of the woods, and find something that could get the flow going in the opposite direction – they found it in the poppy plant from India.
It’s wrong to say that Britain introduced opium to China – they introduced a much better-quality opium – which got the opium addicts all excited – or rather not excited – just very dreamy.
Time and again, if you close the door, then the door is somehow prised open – and China knows this – the government knows that unless trade is reciprocal then problems come from down the line.
China is grappling with this – since the people themselves are agents of government policy – the people themselves try their absolute hardest to avoid paying for overseas goods unless it is property purchase, luxury goods to show your neighbors how wealthy you are, or education for your children.
I fight my own staff almost daily when I go and engage outsource companies from abroad from time to time:
‘No, no, no – we will find someone China who can do it’
‘Yes.’ I opine ‘You have had two weeks to find someone at a reasonable price and failed utterly.’
5 minutes later, we have a local, who has dropped their price by 98.3% and can miraculously can finish the job before it is even started.
Keep your silver in your country’s purse.
A little-known fact is that paper money was created in the province of Sichuan because the government was firstly worried about the amount of silver leaving the country from trade with the areas in and around Tibet, and then even the replacement ‘cash’ or iron coins, were disappearing too fast.
So, coming back to the premise of this article, how China is framed by history, I believe that the real question everyone is trying to understand about China ultimately boils down to the double question, which I am asked over and over again, and, is the question that, I believe, the worlds people are asking over and over again:
What is happening in China right now? and what is going to happen in China in the future?
And both these questions could be summed up in one question: Should we be worried?
Answering the first question is relatively straightforward – the current situation is the readjustment of China to its former position in the world as the as the world’s largest economy kept safe within its borders, and with little interest or hegemony in the rest of the world.
This period is the reestablishment of that period of peace and calm that succeeds the restoration of strong and stable government and it is this security that the people are yearning for. It is the tranquility of governance that lets people feel safe to have and nurture their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren and put down secure family roots again.
The future, however, is somewhat unclear. The options that are on the table reduce to perhaps three worthy of comment:
China continues to develop as part of the global order and finds a way to absorb lessons from western civilization that will benefit the Chinese society as a whole;
China grows economically and in military strength but closes the door more firmly to globalization and foreign influence and returns to its past cyclical history, in which case we will see a China that remains powerful for another 200 years and then decline once more until there is a future renewal;
Or, and I believe this is the most likely scenario – that China actually does a bit of both of the above – that there is an integration into the global order, but that China changes the global order into a system that combines elements of the current western liberal democracy with the central management tenets of the current Chinese system.
China currently views the western liberal democratic system as dissolute and failing. Watching the Trump circus and the Brexit disaster, China is emboldened to think that western liberal systems are outdated and foolish and are determined not to repeat it – and that the Chinese system is superior to the western model.
China is unlikely to ever see itself adopt the western style focus of individual liberty – China views liberty as meaning looking after the rights of the many as opposed to the rights of the individual.
In no possible universe could China ever allow personal gun ownership to reach the level of that in the US where a person can arm themselves and shoot more than 500 people from the window of the hotel.
There is simply bafflement in the minds of every single person in China as to how that could be allowed or tolerated and then upheld in the nation’s highest court as being the right of a citizen to arm themselves in this way.
In essence, China, will not close the door again as it has in the past, but neither will it open the door completely – China is going to demand that it controls its destiny in the way it wants. And more importantly, as China assumes its mantle of leadership, I believe that China will influence the global order itself to reflect its dominant philosophies. And that is going to test the western liberal democracies in ways that have not yet been fully understood.
Should we be worried? Absolutely not. But that’s for another post.