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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New world-teachers needed

Let us go out into the world and make it a better place. Now is the time, or it will be lost to knaves and fools.

Conservative-minded folk do not like to lecture other countries: that is the sort of thing that radicals and socialists do. However it has become necessary, partly because radicals and socialists are doing that, and because of human nature, or what passes for it among politicians.

Those who are conservative-minded are short of radical utopian visions, so we are less likely to rail at others for disagreeing with our preferred ways of doing things. We are quite happy to let other nations live in their own cultures, though we may grind our teeth at some of the excesses of their rulers.  It is ultimately not for us: as there is no power without responsibility, so there is no responsibility where there is no power.

Others take a very different view. When the Thirteen Colonies won their independence in the name of liberty, they proclaimed to the world that they would support liberty across the world (except for slaves, obviously), but they were deep-down conservatives and three thousand miles away and did no more about it.  The bloodthirsty Jacobins on the other hand proclaimed a policy to foment revolution across Europe and to intervene with force to bring it about, the Bolsheviks likewise, and they outdid the French many, many times over in subversion and blood. Today’s enthusiasts preaching wrongheaded ideas to the world are those with elements of the cultural-Marxist mindset, and it is only a mercy that they do not have their predecessors’ capacity for destruction.

Natural enthusiasm for an idea can be a troublesome thing.  Maybe it is just not wanting to feel you are alone in the world, needing company to validate your beliefs.

If conservatives do not make missionary efforts to force foreigners to conform to British ideas, that leaves the radicals to be the only voices in town. (I would call them liberals as is the usual way, but there is nothing liberal about their doctrines.) The world is changing fast and new nations and newly freed nations look for a model to follow; and there waiting for them are people with ideas, wokeists, social-justice warriors and all who follow with them.

It is in Britain’s interests to see a settled and prosperous world. We might not want to bother other nations with our ways of doing things, but those values we have developed, in our context with our the Anglosphere norms, are the values that can enable prosperity and a form of society that is most fitted to human nature. A foreign nation which adopts a free, open market, firm rights of property, limited government, the rule of law and settled family and social bonds in socially conservative terms, that nation can prosper and enjoy civil peace. Socialist and big-state ideas can only ensure poverty. Breaking social bonds with radical, inhuman ideas will bring strife, and even war. Replacing social interdependence with dependence on the central state will bring both poverty and war.

Britain is a trading nation and needs customers with money and reliability, and also needs the markets of the world to be open. It is not just about internal ideas of sound law and liberty then; nations need to embrace free trade for their own prosperity. That goes against many instincts of nature and even in the more conservative-sounding establishment there will be frequent demands for action to protect home markets (ignoring the point that increased prices will result, saving a few jobs in one sector at the penalty of increased costs and consequent unemployment distributed across others). Free trade is for the benefit of the nation being preached to, even if we preach it for our own nation’s good.

In the 1980s, Roger Scruton travelled extensively in Eastern Europe, then still under the Soviet jackboot. He taught, he provided material, he nurtured an underground intellectual class which was able to rise with the fall of Communism and take over. It is noticeable that the countries in which he was active have been those which rose and mended themselves spectacularly after the Wall fell – Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (or half of it at least) – while those left to the mercy of the Vienna Commission and its ‘progressive’ ideas have been stunted. The Vienna Commission hates Hungary and Poland for their social conservatism, but those two nations are doing very well.

Prosperity in the wider world then needs a new Scruton initiative. There will never be another Roger Scruton, God rest his soul, but his example and his courage are measures for a new effort.

Without it, the international commentariat is dominated by ideas rooted in textbooks but not reality, and the result can only be poverty and strife and closed markets.

The modern radicals appear to have a monopoly on ideas and they would certainly have it that way. Those who dissent will face censure, as we have seen in Hungary and Poland for even minor non-compliance (which can be ignored but puts pressure on surrounding nations to take action). In the longer-term view, if one narrow field of ideas retains the monopoly, those who disagree will doubt their sanity, or be driven to more radical, illiberal ideas in reaction, or to unfortunate companions. Hungarian politicians have started to be warm towards Russia, which is far from the Scrutonian promise they have shown.

The dominant ideas therefore need a respectable opposition, to show there are other ideas that are just as respectable and far more practical.

We owe it the world to whom we introduced Western ideas in the first place, and to our merchants to provide them with the world marketplace they deserve.

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Books

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.

Books

South Sudan praying for peace

South Sudan was at birth as a free state in 2011, lapped in the hope of the world. It has become a horrible proof of Hobbes, for without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre. However Peace may be coming, from the remarkable work of the Anglican Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Many new countries claim that their independence was a delivery from ‘slavery’, but in the case of South Sudan that is literally true. Northern Sudan is an Arab region on the Nile, but the south is Sub-Saharan Africa, and Arab slavers even into the twenty-first century raided and burnt its villages to carry off their human booty. How many women and children were labouring as slaves in Khartoum, their husbands and fathers having been slaughtered, we may never know. There are some in bondage in the north still. The South was not governed by Khartoum but tyrannised, until finally a peace treaty could give the south its desired independence to create a government for those abused people where their had been none before, not really since British rule.

When 98.83% of the population voted for independence, that seemed to show national unity and there was reason to hope that the new country would be united in endeavour. One voice though three hundred and sixty years before had warned that would not be so:

Nor is it enough for the security, which men desire should last all the time of their life, that they be governed, and directed by one judgement, for a limited time; as in one Battell, or one Warre. For though they obtain a Victory by their unanimous endeavour against a forraign enemy; yet afterwards, when either they have no common enemy, or he that by one part is held for an enemy, is by another part held for a friend, they must needs by the difference of their interests dissolve, and fall again into a Warre amongst themselves.

We have seen what happened. It was a new state, and there was all to play for, and just one nudge might overthrow one regime and allow another warlord or tribe to take over. It just took a slight, an allegation of unfair treatment by one tribe against another.

if any one, or more of them, pretend a breach of the Covenant made by the Soveraigne at his Institution; and others, or one other of his Subjects, or himselfe alone, pretend there was no such breach, there is in this case, no Judge to decide the controversie: it returns therefore to the Sword again; and every man recovereth the right of Protecting himselfe by his own strength, contrary to the designe they had in the Institution

Common sense, you would think, or fear, would keep national unity, because the country had only achieved independence after decades of bloodshed and it could yet be a fragile independence. Who could know whether the north, Sudan, would look on a power vacuum as an opportunity to move south again and snuff out this resented breakaway state. In fact they have not, perhaps realising that they have no interest there, restricting themselves to holding undecided patches of territory, but it could so easily have been different.

Instead of unity, the country fell into warring factions each after its prize and barely controlled even within their factions.

What price loyalty to an entity which has no history or ancestral call on any one? The Obligation of Subjects to the Soveraign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by Nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no Covenant be relinquished. The Soveraignty is the Soule of the Common-wealth; which once departed from the Body, the members doe no more receive their motion from it.

The end of Obedience is Protection; which, wheresoever a man seeth it, either in his own, or in anothers sword, Nature applyeth his obedience to it, and his endeavour to maintaine it. And though Soveraignty, in the intention of them that make it, be immortall; yet is it in its own nature, not only subject to violent death, by forreign war; but also through the ignorance, and passions of men, it hath in it, from the very institution, many seeds of a naturall mortality, by Intestine Discord.

And yet there may be hope born of the reality of what has been seen here. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

There is still a memory of peace, of what it can bring. The greatest peacemakers are in the Church. There are more worshiping Anglicans in South Sudan than in the Church of England, and they worship the Prince of Peace. The Archbishop of Canterbury himself went to South Sudan and joined the hands of enemies.

You might not have read of Justin Welby’s heroic efforts to end the war, putting himself into one of the more brutal killing grounds of the Earth, but why would you – the media will report a pre-set narrative and this does not fit that narrative. He as there though, and guns ceased. We have for now seen the beginnings of peace. We have yet to see if at last the swords have been beaten into ploughshares and the spears into pruning hooks, but we now know who will make that peace if it can be: the Christian congregations of South Sudan.

There must be no complacency though but reconciliation and an understanding of the common nature of the undertaking of the commonwealth: the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.

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