Learning Chinese

Closing CeremonyThe Beijing Olympics have ended just as flamboyantly as they began. I watched the Closing Ceremonies with interest and a tinge of sadness: after all, the Games have provided the bulk of my entertainment for the past two weeks, and the success of the British athletes has provided me with a timely set of “pick me ups” just when office life was stagnating.

The BBC has done a fine job, but I thought that the broadcasters were a bit too obvious in their admiration for the Chinese. The announcers were more than effusive in their praise of the new “Bird’s Nest” stadium, the transport facilities and the overall organisation of the Games. Yet, there were disturbing items as well; for example, there was an undercurrent of militarism in the use of the People’s Liberation Army in the flag raising and lowering ceremonies. As the BBC noted, without a hint of sarcasm, the synchronisation of vast numbers of people was a Chinese skill that had been so well developed, the only nation that did it better was North Korea. The theme of “harmony”, which the government was so keen to stress, was also worrying: who gets to determine what “harmony” means, who decides the basis of “harmony”? Inevitably, this was probably decided by the uniform apparatchiks who sat in the balconies of the Birds’ Nest. Their dark suits, starched shirts, and bland ties made the presence of the rumpled and scruffy London Mayor Boris Johnson oddly reassuring.

The Games had their wonderful aspects, however; the outstanding British medal tally is one thing, the performances of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are another. Unlike superstars in the past, both Phelps and Bolt appear to have a true sense of humility. Phelps does not present himself in a manner that suggests he believes he is the “greatest Olympian”. Bolt said his contribution to sprinting had been marginal. Heroes with so little ego are generally difficult to find; to see two at once is hugely refreshing.

Bolt’s predecessor in spriting dominance, Michael Johnson, was a BBC commentator. During the Closing Ceremony, he said perhaps the most true statement about the Beijing Games: “Prior to this the world didn’t know China, now we do.”

Yes, we do. I think the most important bit of information the Beijing Games has provided is precisely what kind of regime China is, and what it wants.

Sinology is a subject which attracts a great many scholars; I know people who have gone to Beijing and Harvard to pursue advanced degrees to learn more. But at the heart of what the Chinese regime wants and what it is, is a very simple idea: the ruling elite wants to build a strong country, and they will be both absolutely ruthless and pragmatic and achieving it.

I know that it is fashionable to get wrapped up either in the Communist symbols and rhetoric, or to hint that China is essentially fascist. Both of these interpretations miss the point entirely. This is not a regime that has a particular, world-embracing ideology at its core. China is not particularly communist, nor is it active in spreading Marxism abroad. Nor is it fascist; it is not engaged in the lives of its citizens at anywhere near the same level of Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. In a fascist state, there is a requirement for the citizens to be active participants in the party and community; in China, so long as one does not get involved in politics, one can expect to be left alone.

If anything, China has copied post-war South Korea, as it was ruled by General Park Chung-Hee. For those who are not familiar with this era or the man, General Park was the head of a ruling junta, who pushed through the rapid economic modernisation of the country. He demanded that the Koreans work extremely hard for little wages; the central idea, however, was to build up South Korea, make it so strong that the North could not take advantage, and make it so rich that stability would be ensured. General Park was eventually assassinated and a democratic system put in place; however, there is more than an echo of this approach in the Chinese approach to national power.

As previously stated, they simply do not care about anything else. Communist ideology can go hang if it means China is not a great industrial power. The Little Red Book may be revered, but it is like a children’s story at bedtime if it doesn’t allow China to become the world’s creditor, and translate that financial power into a larger military. The environment, human rights, national self-determination can all go to blazes in this scenario because their benefits to a direct increase in the strength of the Chinese nation are unclear at best.

Building up this power is an end in and of itself; there is no quantification of how much power is enough power, just China must continue to develop it, and nothing must get in the way, lest domination by foreigners, as was prevalent in China in the early twentieth century and nineteenth century, will return.

The regime’s fundamental ruthlessness is obvious in how the Tibetians are treated; the suspension of investment in the countryside in the name of the Olympic games is just as blatant. As reported by the Washington Post, the regime was content to let farmers crops go unirrigated to ensure the setting of the Games was idyllic. The Olympics was a power exercise, an attempt to dazzle the world with Chinese prowess; the plight of a small farmer didn’t have such a direct cost to benefit ratio.

That said, the regime does allow personal prosperity, largely because this too increases the power of the nation. The wealthy are soldiers in China’s cause, able to spend cash abroad in the purchase of the trappings of the West. This opportunity does give a form of legitimacy to the regime; but the regime only cares about formal legitimacy insofar as it gives them freedom of action to pursue their goals.

This singlemindedness should concern us all. While there is no coherent ideology behind it, no striving towards a “good” society, it is a very practical philosophy which has attractions. We are seeing this take hold in Russia whereby Putin is aggressively using his control of energy supplies; on a lesser scale, Cuba is starting to liberalise its market in order to emulate the Chinese model. Perhaps, the propoents of this model state, personal liberty is not all, particularly when it means others can get one over on you.

We are not at a point yet where this thesis has been proven. However the Olympics have shown how late in the day we are. China has all the trappings and technology of a modern nation; it is working day and night, pushing itself, straining itself, to get the raw materials to build itself up into a superpower. Unlike the Soviet Union, it is not encumbered by a ridiculous edifice of central planning which will bring it down; in China, the animal spirits run free. This implies it will be more resilient, and as they concern themselves less with the environment, they have less of an incentive to do what’s right for the planet than we will. They may indeed take advantage of our steps to curb economic growth in order to preserve the planet; our sole hope is that the ecological issues thrown up by the Beijing games make them think again. Power is not all. National strength is all well and good, but if the world in which a nation is pre-eminent is nothing but a wasteland, then it is an exercise in pointlessness. Perhaps these thoughts reside in the minds of the apparatchiks; it’s difficult to tell. We know China, but we’re still in need of education, because it’s obvious we don’t know enough.

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