Empire, interrupted

If it is not China, it is Russia or Iran or Turkey: dangerous states with ambitions far beyond their borders and memories far beyond our histories.

We expect certain behaviour of great nations. We expect them to respect their borders and others’, to grant equal respect to all settled nations, big or small. We expect them to respect their own people too of whatever tribe or tongue. We are outraged when China does not respect these norms, nor Russia, nor Persia, nor (increasingly) Turkey.

This is a moment in time. The West has had relative peace for three-quarters of a century after millennia of continuous bloodshed . Peace has brought prosperity beyond imagining. This period of time has been a new world such that the old is itself inexplicable to the upcoming generation. We have settled the world as it should be and demand that it remain. Others disagree.

The west has declared the norms for the whole world. For China though, with a civilisation stretching back millennia, the states of the west are mere children, and they see that the children have imposed their ideas on others for their own convenience.

The borders of the world were defined by the Empires of the West. All nations of ambition have in the past ages expanded as they could, swallowed neighbours, reformed failing cultures around them, found sparsely inhabited lands and colonised them. The great, enduring Asiatic empires were China, the Ottomans, Persia and Russia, each with its own age of expansion, consolidation and corruption. Persia and China were great civilisations when the English were a scatter of hut-dwelling tribes in the damp fens of north Germany. They faltered, and in the case of China it drew inward, disgusted at the state of the world it could see at its fringes.

The Western expansion is natural to us. We swept the oceans and settled the farthermost shores. We drew the borders of the whole world and defined what is acceptable, the universal concept of international law, the jus gentium taken from our history, religion and philosophy and our Westphalian conception of the autonomy of states. Then we stopped. We insisted on respect forever for borders we drew. We, the West, called an end to empire and the End of History itself.

China awakes. She finds that while she slept, the children of the world made rules. Had China not paused for a while in her natural expansion, China might have trodden where the western states do.

You might imagine an ambitious statesman looking out from the old Imperial capital of Peking, heir to the Emperors, seeing the almost empty land of Australia, say, and thinking that if the Yuan dynasty had not looked inwardly, it might have been their junks finding the Great South Land. Now white people live there but sparsely. Then he might wonder why history must stop where white people say it should, conveniently at our maximum expansion. The British and the Russians took advantage of China’s weakness to hem her in, and now, with those forces withdrawn, expect the Chinese to remain where they are. Should two centuries of weakness in four millennia of civilisation define them forever? Then they may wonder why this particular moment of time should be their eternity. It is not by their rules.

Iran, or Persia, is an empire older even than China’s, humbled repeatedly by outsiders but always counting herself the elder. To be scolded by the Americans, people of a state with less than two and a half centuries behind it, is insulting.

Closer west is Turkey, founded as an empire in the age of the Crusades, swallowing and adapting the Byzantine Roman civilisation it supplanted. For centuries the Ottomans ruled all north Africa and Arabia and south-western Europe, to be overtaken and cut down only in the Industrial Age. Thus they may be wondering what would have been had Turkey had the tools of industrialisation first. It is a hundred years this year since the empire was liquidated at Sèvres. Resentment is not lost in what is a brief time for such an old empire. When we read that the new Turkish government is sending guns and men to Syria we assume that they are concerned for their borders, but they are making the war longer, not securing peaceful bounds. When they send guns to Libya, then we may see that Libya was Ottoman territory until just over a hundred years ago, as was Syria. They may see it as theirs still in that same sense that we would resent any foreign country gaining political or cultural hegemony in India.

We live in a moment of time. In this time we have seen that by peace and the standards developed in the West there has been unprecedented prosperity and welfare. We cannot however assume that all other nations, the older nations with their own cultures and histories, see it the same way nor see any reason to stop their history.

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China: a world apart

China, the inexplicable – I found it impossible to write one article about why the Chinese government behaves the way it does, so unlike what we expect of great states. Its political attitude is shaped by other forces than those which shaped the West, found in its history, culture, experience and much more. It is a world apart, and that suggests a beginning: its geography.

Political maps are useless things – splodges of colour with no context. They show China as connected to many neighbours, but it is really a island continent cut off from the world. Its name for itself is Chung-kuo – which means ‘Middle Kingdom’, and so it has always seen itself: the one civilisation alone in the world with barbarians hovering at the fringes.

China is an island: it is surrounded by the sea to the east and south-east, almost impassable mountains to south-west and west and deserts within and to the north. Before flight, anyone who wished to enter China would have to come by sea or through the narrow gaps between the mountains and the deserts; lands sparsely inhabited. Mostly they trickled in by narrow camel caravans; sometimes with an horde of a million armed horsemen over the Gobi Desert.

Within its bounds, the Chinese learned to find all thy needed to live and for their rulers to prosper, if not the people, and this led to almost complete indifference to the outside world until it was a threat. Outsiders had nothing to teach China – no cultural insights were to be gained from the nomadic Mongols and Turks to the north and west nor from the field-dwelling Manchus.  They did at some point absorb from India Buddhist ideas (which India itself largely rejected) but it just fell into the mix of ancestral religion. (It was of use as a weapon:  the Chinese sent Buddhist monks to Mongolia to transform it from a peerless warrior nation into a people of despicable weakness.)

Ships from Europe and from Britain sailed to China early on, but not a single Chinese junk sailed the other way, and apart from a grand expedition around the Indian Ocean by Zheng He that was never repeated, they were content with home waters, and Chinese ships never developed that world-going capacity that Western and Arabian ships did.

When the Portuguese arrived in the South China Sea, they were a curiosity. When the British and Dutch East India Companies arrived, they appear to have been seen as no more than more strange barbarians from whom China had nothing to learn. These new barbarians though were a good source of silver, paid willingly for silk and tea, but the Chinese were not willing to buy from them, until the opium started to arrive from India.

Suddenly, China met the concept of a world outside itself.

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Blaming China

Just a few weeks ago a newspaper published the headline result of a survey about the coronavirus epidemic that the majority of Britons blame China. This got a headline, but is useless.

You have to ask what ‘blame China’ actually means, and what it means to different people.

Blame is not a fixed word. It is a general disapproval but has no set meaning. If a fence falls down, someone looks for the blame: the builder who put it up, or the person who should have maintained it (or the structure of ownership that left it without a responsible owner), or the children who keep falling against it in their rough games of football, or the lack of space for them to play elsewhere, or the developer who should have provided that space, or the high wind the other night. It is not a moral judgment as you cannot condemn the moral failings of the wind or dumb luck: in that case “blame” just means identifying the cause.

You could have stopped the fence from falling had you kept the boys inside that afternoon, had you not gone for the cheaper option, had you paid attention to the lean it had developed, had you put another inch of concrete round the post. The guilt grows not from actual responsibility but fear of the word ‘blame’.

The word sounds like condemnation: casting ‘blame’ is an assault, and the one blamed will bridle and protest. Blame suggests responsibility, moral failing, even legal liability. Court proceedings have been started by outraged parties not for compensation, but just to have the power of the state declare that blame is to be attributed to their opponent.

In the context of a global pandemic, the protest rises to a deafening roar and demands that blame be attached to someone or something. China is to blame, but that means something different in every mouth. To some, ‘blame’ is a high threshold to be attributed only to clear, actual moral culpability; to others it just means the cause lies there.

Then there is China. What does it mean to blame China? That is a tract of ground encompassing more than two billion acres, scoured by more rivers and winds than you can count in a lifetime: are the mountains and meadows and wastelands able to answer a charge of negligence? The disease started there, and that as the location of the cause is enough for the lowest-rung meaning of ‘blame’, for some.

We can assume that those who blame China mean specifically the People’s Republic of China not Taiwan or Hong Kong, but even then is it just noting that the contagion began there, or is an accusation pointed at the government of that country? If the latter, it might mean no more than that the outbreak began on their watch (which is rather like blaming the local policeman for an assault that happened when he was at the other end of the village). Maybe an accusation is levelled at a culture which does not consider hygiene as we do.

The Chinese government is culpable in its way. It did not cause the disease nor its spread, and they did not determine for it to escape their borders and infect the world, but they took it with their usual approach which prioritised suppressing the news and not the epidemic, and thus ensured that the infection could not be kept in check. Maybe it would not have spread outside China if they had behaved better. Then again, the infection broke out in one of the largest cities in the world, Wuhan, so it might have escaped in any case. There are further stories: in January Australian companies celebrated major domestic sales of gloves and facemasks, which were promptly shipped to China, depleting Australia’s stocks – they knew what was coming. When it all started we cannot tell – such is the secrecy in Red China and such is the fear of authority felt by everyone who might otherwise have alerted the country and the world. Yes, the Chinese government is culpable of cynical neglect, though not malice. They did not start it: it just happened. In a crowded sub-continental landmass like China, new, horrid diseases often appear and will always do so.

Blame is needed because if it is just dumb luck then we are powerless in the face of the universe. Modern life is about control, and about man’s mastery of nature, but here is a disease, primal, a primaeval timeless event, and we cannot grasp it unless someone is at fault: there must be blame.

The word ‘blame’ is like an infection itself. It may start as the lower end, with just an acknowledgement that events began in China so there is the cause. Then having fixed that impersonal blame, it grows into finding a moral fault. The Chinese government is not without moral fault in the matter but they still did not cause it, but if they are not guilty, it means that we are the victims of untamed nature and that will never do, so the light blame must grow: the tinge of turpitude in Peking is enough for resentment to grow. That may be why conspiracy theories have appeared with fantastical claims of deliberate, even manufactured diseases. It beats the mundane reality.

We come back then to those two words “blame China”, and see they are meaningless – no two people have the same understanding of the word ‘blame’, and how blame, by whatever definition, gets attached to the amorphous concept of ‘China’ is a mystery even to those thinking it.

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The Case of China

Adam Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

China has been long one of the richest—i.e. one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous—countries in the world. But it seems to have been long stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than 500 years ago, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness in almost the same terms in which they are described by travellers today. It had, perhaps even long before his time, acquired the full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.

The accounts of all travellers, though inconsistent in many other respects, agree on the low wages of labour and on how hard it is for a labourer to bring up a family in China.

If by digging the ground for a whole day he can get what will purchase a small quantity of rice in the evening, he is contented. The condition of skilled workmen is perhaps even worse. Instead of waiting patiently in their workshops for the calls of their customers, as in Europe, they are continually running about the streets with the tools of their respective trades, offering their services—begging for employment.

The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China is far worse than that of the most beggarly nations in Europe. It is commonly said that in the neighbourhood of Canton many hundreds or even thousands of families have no home on the land, but live permanently in little fishing-boats on the rivers and canals. The subsistence they find there is so scanty that they are eager to fish up the nastiest garbage thrown overboard from any European ship.

Marriage is encouraged in China not by the profitableness of children but by the liberty of destroying them. Every night in all large towns several babies are exposed in the street or drowned like puppies in the water. The performance of this nasty task is even said to be the avowed business by which some people earn their subsistence.

However, although China may be standing still it does not seem to go backwards. Its towns are nowhere deserted by their inhabitants. The lands which have been cultivated are nowhere neglected. So just about the same annual labour must continue to be performed, and the funds for maintaining it must not be noticeably diminished. So the lowest class of labourers, despite their scanty subsistence, must somehow find ways to continue their race far enough to keep up their usual numbers.