No entry on this blog for more than half a year. I honestly was not in the mood. Too much change in front of my house and even in my house. Government regulations did not only take down much of our neighborhood as I described in my last entry from January, but also part of our apartment. We lost two of our favorite restaurants, my hairdresser, our storage room and our daughter's room was sliced down as well.
Today's visit of the old Shanghai Jiaotong University campus, which is in our neighborhood, convinced me though that there is also an undeniable upside to breakneck change. The entire campus underwent a major overhaul and both old and new buildings shine in new splendor. A completely new building was erected for the Institute of Oceanography, the law and the economics & management faculty. Despite most undergraduate students attending classes in the suburban campuses, the old campus is really worth a visit and one should be grateful for being able to use the facilities of this institution.
A good reason for a visit is the C.Y. Tung Maritime museum and the Jiaotong University museum. Plan 3-4 hours and learn about the universities history and the seafaring Chinese. You might end up wondering why Zheng He discovered the world before Columbus in 1421, but in the end it was not the Chinese who rules the oceans for the last 500 years.
In politics, the central and fundamental problem is the problem of power. Who is to exercise power? And by what means, by what authority, with what purpose in view, and under what controls? Yes, under what controls? For, as history has made it abundantly clear, to possess power is ipso facto to be tempted to abuse it. In mere self-preservation we must create and maintain institutions that make it difficult for the powerful to be led into those temptations which, succumbed to, transform them into tyrants at home and imperialists abroad.
A weekend in Shanghai gives ample reason to ponder on Aldous Huxley’s words, which were written in 1962 in The Politics of Ecology. Can power politics and ecological action go well together? I have serious doubts.
A visit to the Shanghai Natural Science Museum, a world class museum and a real treat for children, was overshadowed last weekend by a publicity campaign of China’s public security forces. A few handsome police officers invited children to have their pictures taken with them. A squad of photographers shot every child they could get hold of. For the evening news on the Shanghai TV channel.
The police your friend and helper, who consumes 6% of the national expenditure. More than in any other country.
The same evening, I see food stalls along an entire road in Changning district taken down. By force. The next day half of Changning district’s Dongzhuanbang Road is where things happen: my favorite noodle restaurant, my hair dresser, and many more stores are gone. A military unit of roughly 30 men supervises the construction machines which demolish the buildings while tenants must watch. A friend of mine comments: that’s what communism looks like.
The background to these developments is straightforward economic policy from Beijing. GDP growth relies mainly on the increase of real estate prices and the consumption of high end goods like automobiles. The central government has decreed that illegal constructions must be removed to turbo charge the real estate prices in 1st tier cities. Less commercial space, even with no change in demand, means an increase in prices.
There is tough another reasoning which is related to human resources, not commodities, albeit both being linked with each other. Beijing wants to limit the population of Shanghai to 25 million and thus drives out migrant workers i.e. those who mostly rent cheap illegal commercial and residential space. Shanghai shall become a second Singapore. A cold city in a hot climate?
The implementation of this policy, one must say, is brilliant. I pay my kudos. I really do. Depriving migrant workers out of their businesses or homes just before the Chinese New Year Holiday, when they anyway travel to their originating villages in Henan or Anhui, will make most of them stay there without having anything left to return to in Shanghai. Kicking rural Chinese out of the city does also mean that there will be another increase in prices, which will eventually drive consumption to a new peak level.
Things seem to work according to plan. Instead of cheap migrant workers selling soy milk, Shanghai residents queue in the subway catacombs for a machine prepared orange juice. Bus lines stations are equipped with cooled dispensers of drinks and junk food. Oh, modernization, how have we waited for your belated arrival!
A cab driver analyzed the situation dryly by pointing out: “You will also get your youtiao (deep fried dough, a local breakfast favorite) in future, but not for CNY 1 but CNY 10, because who wants to fry and sell them for CNY 3000 a month, surely not Shanghainese residents. But they are the only ones left to do the job.”
I watch the cranes and excavators for a few minutes and recall how our neighborhood street looked like during early mornings when we went for a local breakfast. Tiny stores, boiling pots, stacks of fried cakes, people queuing in throngs. It’s that liveliness of market streets which always was a major draw to spend my days in Shanghai. Are these days gone?
And I can’t help thinking of the legal system which makes such forceful changes possible. My waning memory of law school produces something called servitude: a subjection of a property to an easement. At least in continental Europe, all these buildings would be subject to servitudes, because they were accepted for many years – both tenants and owners would have a right to indemnification like an owner with deed.
But this, again, is not continental Europe. And I am only a guest who is nothing more than entitled to watch what it means to be in service of the people.
James Chao, Managing Director of IHS Automotive Asia, an industry analyst, speaks on Nov 29th in a rather intimate SFCC setting on Tesla in China: Hype or Reality? We learn that Tesla Model S sales have dropped in Beijing by 50% in Q3 2017 and James tells us that these numbers are really concerning. Bloomberg’s Allen Wan adds fuel to these numbers: Tesla burns so much money every day producing vehicles at a loss that its financial resources will be depleted by August 2018. Will this company survive?
Opinions seem to diverge significantly, even at IHS, where some are convinced that Musk has a bigger plan, while others believe that Tesla needs to be turned into a profitable company in order to proof Musk’s overall vision. James seems to belong to the later fraction predicting that the combustion engine will be longer around than many believe. He tells us that the most spectacular but also most overseen new car is the Toyota Camry 2018, which increases in a refined standard 4-cylinder combustion engine fuel efficiency by 15%, without adding significant costs to the development of new technology; apart from, he adds, investment in engineering.
This argument alone confirms that somebody with a history degree, even if is a Harvard one, should not talk too much about the future of technology; in particular if the truly pressing question to be asked it this: Will EV solve the problem of transportation’s contribution to climate change? It was interesting to note that not even one event participant asked about the environmental impact of EVs, but questions rather focused on battery technology in general and if China’s government policies will harvest the promised great leap forward and turn corporations like BYD indeed into cutting edge new energy industry leaders.
In my modest opinion, there are a few issues in this ecosystem which keep to be overlooked by people who only focus on specific questions like battery technology, fuel efficiency, autonomous driving or innovation cycles. If we try to understand the big picture in the transportation industry and want to have answers about the future of Tesla or the future of EVs in China, we have to apply large scale systems theory in terms of technology, social organization and natural resources.
What are the core technologies in the EV industry? Batteries? Powertrain? IoT? Companies like techmeter or datenna have built an entire business around CTOs who want answers to this question and rather look into what the competition is doing than follow their own vision; I assume that Elon Musk is not their customer, because his vision is one of distributed power generation and consumption which turns end customers into independent entities which still are part of one large energy network. The car is in Musk’s vision merely an electricity consumer like a dishwasher or iron, and he certainly does not think along the lines of killer apps or core technologies, but has contemplated large scale problems which require a solution. Technologies are just means to an end.
What is then the central innovation at Tesla? It is not related to single technologies like battery, powertrain nor IoT. It is the conception of individual transport being an integral part of an energy revolution which is based on small, decentralized, photovoltaics power stations which are part of a regular family home. The energy of the sun is harvested by the consumer through solar panels and either used directly for charging a car and operating other appliances or stored in a batteries or hydrogen tanks which provide night and winter season supply. Tesla tries to solve the problem of fossil fueled individual transportation by providing renewable energy fuel vehicles.
Such an energy supply model is the antithesis to what the industrial revolution has brought to Western post WWII economies in form of centralized large-scale power plants, which are operated by mostly state-owned energy suppliers. Centralization has the advantage of top down organization, but the disadvantage of 2/3 energy loss during distribution; only 1/3 of the generated electricity reaches the consumer due to vast energy losses along the road.
The energy industry does therefore reflect in its entirety the Keynesian post WWII economic paradigm of scaling up production and distribution into megasystem beyond imagination: the bigger the better. It also reflects a political system which is based on strong and centralized nation states, which are able to provide their citizens with essential means in return for absolute loyalty.
Renewable and in particular solar energy stands for decentralization, self-responsibility and in terms of social organization heterarchy instead of top down hierarchy. Energy is not only consumed where it is produced thus eliminating unnecessary transportation and related infrastructure, it does also make top down structures of energy distribution completely obsolete and paves therefore the road to a postindustrial economic paradigm which has been famously formulated by Keynes protégé E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful.
One could therefore argue that driving a Tesla and any other electric car is as much a political as an environmental statement, in particular in Beijing, where Tesla sales have dropped so significantly. And this is where the EV industry attracts my sincere interest, because I wonder why Mr. Musk wants to enter a market with a manufacturing plant in Shanghai which is obviously not suitable to his big picture strategy of distributed energy generation and consumption; and if the Chinese government realizes that it undermines its totalitarian rule by pushing for 40% EVs by 2030.
Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity.
The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most. Every economist and businessman is familiar with the distinction, and applies it conscientiously and with considerable subtlety to all economic affairs – except where it really matters: namely, the irreplaceable capital which man has not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing.
A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital. How, then, could we overlook this vital fact when it comes to that very big firm, the economy of Spaceship Earth and, in particular, the economies of its rich passengers? One reason for overlooking this vital fact is that we are estranged from reality and inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves.
These lines from Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful give us two implicit answers. Musk has not solved the problem of production at Tesla, because he uses up his capital at breakneck speed; and it is his company which does on a microeconomic scale reflect a macroeconomic challenge: the depletion of natural resources can’t be stopped by changing within the same economic system from a product A to a product B, if still the same production principles and the same consumption behavior applies.
Let us look into these arguments a bit closer. I mentioned earlier that the core innovation of Tesla is Musk’s masterplan of decentralized, renewable electricity which shall power future transportation. He is certainly many steps ahead of his competition and most governments, but he is sadly still thinking along the lines of Keynesian economics in terms of vehicle production and consumption and this is clearly revealed in the case of Beijing, where Tesla S vehicles are being bought by high end customers who change cars like underwear. Their taste changes fast, their product satisfaction decreases even faster. They want to have the latest model, the trendiest design and the best brand, and purchase EVs rather for the hype than for the environmental impact. But why would you anyway buy a car in a city which is nicknamed the capital of congestion | 堵京 and which offers a good and reliable public transport system?
I am instantly reminded of Matthieu Ricard, the French biochemist and Buddhist monk, who is said to be the happiest person in the world, talking about chocolate cake: Although we want to avoid suffering, it seems we are running somewhat towards it. And that can also come from some kind of confusions. One of the most common ones is happiness and pleasure. But if you look at the characteristics of those two, pleasure is contingent upon time, upon its object, upon the place. It is something that -- changes of nature. Beautiful chocolate cake: first serving is delicious, second one not so much, then we feel disgust. A Tesla S is like any car a chocolate cake or as we more often say: a big toy for grownups. True satisfaction does not come from consuming product A or B, whether powered by fossil fuels or renewables, at ever shorter intervals. True satisfaction comes less by having and more by being.
But we don’t have to discuss the metaphysics of economics to make a stringent argument against (too many) EVs. Several reports have discussed lately the negative environmental impact of EVs but have mostly fallen short of analyzing the entire supply chain, but have instead rather focused on how electricity for charging EVs is generated. The most overlooked externality of all smart and clean technologies is rare earth mining which is polluting surface and ground water with alarming toxicity. China Water Risk published a comprehensive report on the subject in 2016.
In case this argument is not sufficient, one is asked to replace 35 mio conventional with 35 mio electric vehicles on China’s roads in 2020. One can imagine that EVs will not resolve central problems of urban transportation like congestion or parking.
Tesla produces vehicles which are sold without paying for externalities and fuels a stimulation driven consumer behavior instead of spreading the gospel of moderation by relying on principles of circular economy; but the company pushes a technological vision which, if successful, will catalyze social change, and is as such adding much value to our societies. Tesla shall therefore not only be evaluated by how much profit it makes, but in accordance to how much change it enables.
If I were though an advisor to Mr. Musk, I would argue against a China market entry. The Chinese power supply policy, which is until 2040 highly geared towards centralized nuclear power generation, and the society’s frame conditions in terms of urbanization and population density make the market highly unattractive for individual transportation, respectively require rather the entry of Hyperloop than Tesla; but old China hands know that the Chinese Railway Ministry is a PLA spin off and the Chinese market thus a deadend for foreign investors.
Chinese EV manufacturers like BYD or NEXT EV will never be a genuine competition to Tesla, because they lack a big picture master plan. BYD is despite its name – build your dream - not driven by a vision, but listens closely to Beijing’s China dream and tries to harvest subsidies and golden moments of government investment like most Chinese enterprises. NEXT EV has a great marketing and design team, but lacks according to experts in the supply industry central automotive manufacturing competences. We will see what Tesla competitors will bring to birth, but shall above all not forget that the problem of sustainable transportation cannot be separated from sustainable energy generation.
Thanks to a post in our Green Initiatives wechat group earlier this month my attention was drawn - in a search for a positive narrative for humanity’s future - to Captain Planet, a US animation series, I didn't even know it existed. Since our daughter is recently into drawing comics I looked it up and want to share here some thoughts on globalism and nationalism in an era when our post WWII world order is clearly dissolving and a new one seem to be emerging. I will elaborate further down on the recent decisions of the US administration to pull out of several international organizations, most importantly UNESCO, and the significance of the upcoming 19th Chinese Party Congress; and I will analyze if Xi Jinping will be our 21st century super hero.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers was aired 1990-96 and is the brain child of media mogul Ted Turner and screenwriter Nicholas Boxer who is credited for 103 of 113 episodes. Apart from having a really cosmopolitan and global mindset its a great way to create environmental awareness and a collaborative mindset amongst 6-12 year olds. The narrative is somewhat in line with what we all know from Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter: a crew of heroes fighting a crew of villains.
The producers drew a clear line between good and evil as in most Western narratives. Lewis Chriswell explains this fundamental difference between Asian, in particular Japanese, and modern Western story telling brilliantly in his video analysis of Hayao Miyazaki. He points out that Miyazaki’s characters are more complex than their Western counterparts, never only portraying the good or the evil. They are more like we all are in reality: in a constant float between the best and the worst of our potential self. I have to concede though that the clear juxtaposition of good and evil makes perfectly sense, when we try to create understanding of the world as a complex ecosystem, which requires our aligned action. Screenwriter Nicolas Boxer deserves serious credit for daring in a world of postmodern pluralism to give out a singular message: protect our home, planet Earth, by all means.
The plot is straight forward. Gaia, the spirit of the planet, is awakened from a long sleep by Hoggish Greedly, who happens to be drilling for crude oil above her resting chamber. Realizing that the damage is extensive, Gaia sends five magic rings, four with the power to control an element of nature and one controlling the element of Heart, to five chosen youths across the globe: Kwame from Africa, Wheeler from North America, Linka from the Soviet Union (changed to Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union's dissolution), Gi from Asia, and Ma-Ti from South America.
In Greek mythology, Gaia is the personification of the Earth and one of the Greek primordial deities. Gaia is the ancestral mother of all life: the primal Mother Earth goddess. She is the immediate parent of Uranus, the sky, from whose sexual union she bore the Titans, themselves parents of many of the Olympian gods, and the Giants, and of Pontus, the sea, from whose union she bore the primordial sea gods. Her equivalent in the Roman pantheon was Terra.
Our five protagonists are dubbed the Planeteers and are tasked with helping defend the planet from environmental disasters and making efforts to educate humankind to keep others from happening. In the beginning of the episodes, Gaia uses her "Planet Vision" in the Crystal Chamber to discover where the most devastating destruction is occurring and sends the Planeteers to help solve the problem. The Planeteers use transportation, usually a flying machine called a Geo-Cruiser, based on solar power to avoid causing pollution themselves.
In situations that the Planeteers cannot resolve alone, they can combine their powers to summon Captain Planet, a super hero, who possesses all of their powers magnified, symbolizing the premise that the combined efforts of a team are stronger than its individual parts. Captain Planet's outfit represents the embodiment of environmental beauty and health: a grass-green McGyver mullet, crystal blue skin, earthy brown eyes, a fire-red chest, gloves, trunks, and boots, and a sun-yellow globe insignia.
Besides having classical superhero powers such as flight, super-strength, and invulnerability, he is able to rearrange his molecular structure to transform himself into the various powers and elements of nature. He is though very sensitive to pollutants, which can weaken him considerably. The Planeteers cannot use their rings while Captain Planet has been summoned.
Once his work is done, Captain Planet restores the Planeteers' powers and reminds viewers of the message of the series with his catchphrase, "The power is yours!", which is said to mean that all have the power to end the destruction of the planet if we work together as one world rather than fighting each other as separate nations. Every episode is followed up with at least one "Planeteer Alert", often connected to the plot, where environmental-political and other social-political issues are discussed and how the viewer can contribute and be part of "the solution" rather than "the pollution".
For those amongst us who didn't know captain planet I post here the 23' intro animation which explains the characters and plot; and a 2' trailer on the captain planet foundation which seems to have gone very much into natural science education of youth and might lack the consumption awareness element which is recently discussed a lot as we come to realize that the industrial growth model drives us into a dead end.
The Dissolution of the Current World Order
Captain Planet producer and owner of CCN and Cartoon Network Ted Turner is probably also known as an important American philanthropist. He donated in 1998 USD $1 billion to support the United Nations, which created the United Nations Foundation, a public charity, which original purpose was to build domestic support for United Nations causes and to make sure that the United States honors its commitments to the United Nations. Turner serves as Chairman of the United Nations Foundation board of directors.
Considering that the Trump administration has just declared that the US will pull out of UNESCO, that it did pull out of the UN Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and that a new congressional bill seeks to leave the UN entirely, one might argue that the United Nations Foundation has failed in its mission. One definitely has to agree with USA Today’s headline: For 70 years America has led Europe and the free world. Not anymore.
The United Nations were established after WWII, but it is not a secret that they have always been a vehicle for the US to maintain the status quo, i.e. what is called amongst international relations buffs Pax Americana, a peace which serves the interests of the American economy and thus those who are on its top. The UN’s main objective of global peacekeeping and security reveals that despite other secondary goals, it introduces law and order which keeps corporate America and its allies in power.
Thinks of WTO (World Trade Organization) for a second, the organization which blazes the trail for large industrial conglomerates like – in order of global revenue volume - Nestle, Pfizer, Mars, GlaxoSmithKline, Kraftfoods, Monsanto, etc. to establish level playfields on a global market and thus create a competitive advantage over local small scale businesses; or WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), the organization which helps the same large corporations to protect their intellectual property at the expense of social progress. If one understands the informal missions of WTO and WIPO, one easily understands that the UN in its general setup only serves as an extension of the (American) upper ten thousand under the good guy umbrella of the United Nations.
UNESCO though, is of a different caliber and has always been - at least in my marginal perception next to UNICEF – the best part of all UN activities. It shone as the light at the end of a tunnel of international lobbying, which absorbed the UN in the interests of war faring nations and profit greedy corporations. Its declared purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms. UNESCO is – mostly unknown to the general public – the successor organization of the League of Nations’ International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, and as such the continuation of the world’s first international organization, which had the maintenance of global peace as its mission.
The International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation was an advisory organization for the League of Nations which aimed to promote international exchange between scientists, researchers, teachers, artists and intellectuals. It was established in 1922 as a reaction to the atrocities of WWI, included 12 individuals, and counted such distinguished figures as Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Robert A. Millikan among its members. We shall therefore understand that UNESCO has exactly the same function within the UN: it is an interdisciplinary advisory board which supports the UN in defining its activities, and it is probably the single most important entity within the UN.
The US confirms its disrespect for the idea of the United Nations by pulling out of UNESCO because of animosities over the Palestine Authority being granted full membership in 2011. It has repeatedly – 2013, 2017 - claimed that UNESCO management maintains an anti-Israel attitude, but reflects hereby its own anti-Palestine perspective. The idea of the UN, and UNESCO in particular, is to get leaders of all nations to sit at one table to discuss how conflicts can be prevented or resolved. By blackmailing the UNESCO management to withdraw 22% of its annual budget, i.e. the US contribution of roughly USD 80 million p.a. amounting to more than USD 600 million arrears since 2011, both the Obama and the Trump administrations showed that they are in the grip of decision makers who hide in second line and who put their own commercial and political interests over the mission and purpose of international organizations.
The Washington Post writes that despite all the U.S.-UNESCO history, Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. membership is more drastic than the 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. funds. The UNESCO withdrawal stands out because it fits Trump’s pattern of leaving international institutions. […] But other countries also appear to be exiting from international organizations. In September, for example, Nigeria announced it was pulling out of 90 international organizations. The U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO is unlikely to start a domino effect, but the culmination of multiple withdrawals may help create a tipping point for more retrenchment from the global order.
In short, what we witness is the dissolution of the post WWII global order. Henry Kissinger saw the threat of such a development already back in 2014 when he wrote his magisterial international relations oeuvre World Order and said that Westphalian principles are being challenged on all sides, sometimes in the name of world order itself. He defined three major threats to the existing world order:
Within only three years after the publication of Kissinger’s masterly analysis, I see my then assumption being confirmed: Only China will emerge as a force to set up a new world order. Kissinger’s focus on radical Islam and supranational organization was merely academic. We shall though not forget that the systemic disintegration in international and supranational organizations helps China tremendously in its push for global hegemony. Corruption affairs in the UN, in particular UNESCO, wide spread frustration over EU institutions, and the general fact, that all the established international organizations serve rather as employer for a new global aristocratic bureaucracy, than their defined purpose of transforming the world into a better place, have certainly contributed to their beginning dissolution. Meanwhile the EU is weakened considerably by Brexit, and more than before focused on itself instead of how it could shape the world, or at least its region of intimate impact.
A New Emerging World Order
China has built over the last two decades a shadow system of international institutions which navigates in the caveats of the existing US backed system. It engages with neglected African nations in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which will most likely at some point substitute the New York based United Nations. It provides loans and investment through the Beijing headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank already in a larger volume than its US backed counterpart, the Asian Development Bank, and might take over the functions of an ailing Washington D.C. headquartered World Bank.
Considering that the United Nations and all its associated organizations have grown into a complex bureaucratic swamp, which costs roughly USD 6 billion, but has little impact, which preaches in the 17 United Nations Sustainability Goals the reduction of poverty and wealth redistribution, but provides its own employees the world’s best and most secure working conditions, one wishes actually for a clean slate and the transition to a new and better system of international governance. But can China provide that?
Globalism vs. Nationalism
The 68th Chinese National Holiday has just passed and the 19th Party Congress is coming up this week. This seems to be a good timing to think about the meaning of nationalism and globalism in the 21st century as humanity marches straight into the 6th mass extinction event by being unable to transform itself into one crew operating one Spaceship Earth. TED chief curator Chris Anderson and historian Yuval Harari discussed in February 2017 why a national organization structure cannot deal with problems of global dimension, in particular environmental pollution, degradation of natural resources and the increasing automation of labor markets and therefore growing income disparities. We might ad this point to Kissinger’s list of threats to the existing world order, indeed the world itself: a system based on national interests is not capable to deal with global challenges which put our survival as species at risk.
While the Republican Hertiage Foundation has recently released its annual report on US Military Strength pushing the resources of an ailing global power to its limits by demanding more investment in national defense, while the homeland security department is flooded with money since 9/11 in a fake propaganda against Islamist fundamentalism, which only fuels false fear and the American manufacturing and oil industry, China, too, continues to increase its military and domestic security spending according to economists Damien Ma and William Adams:
In 2011, China allocated 624 billion yuan ($100 billion) for domestic public security, a 14% increase from the previous year and over 6% of total public spending, higher than healthcare spending. By contrast, China’s reported defense budget in the same year was 601 billion yuan (less than $100 billion). Of the $100 billion public security budget, about 70% went to domestic police and the paramilitary force, the People’s Armed Police (PAP), while the courts and judicial functions received a much smaller fraction. On matters of law and order, there isn’t much competition—order wins by a wide margin, at least in terms of resource allocation.
In short and without having the time to research the numbers in detail, both behemoths, which account by far for the world’s largest economies, world’s largest tax revenues, world’s largest public expenditures, world’s largest national defense and domestic security budgets, allot more than 10% of their annual budgets on war and citizen oppression, when they should actually and most urgently allot their resources on mitigating climate change by investing in education and research & development of science and technology that makes a turn around possible. Infamous blogger Tim Urban would say, wait, but why?
Collective Unconscious and Elitarianism
The CCP’s value propaganda has lately been a lot on my mind, because related billboards decorate Shanghai’s streets, walls, public school grounds and even construction sites. They cause quite ambivalent feelings, because for one I admire the Xi administration for putting common values again at the center of politics; something blatantly missing in pluralistic and postmodern Western democracies, which could learn an important lesson in these transformational times from Chinese governance. But on the other hand I am worried about its nationalistic and exclusive undertone when we have to deal with challenges of global dimension. Will there be any change in how we run this planet under a Pax Sinica, or will we just swap the color code from Yankee blue to Maoist red?
The Chinese National Day is observed annually on October 1st to commemorate the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. On the contrary to other National Days that I know of, e.g. Germany’s October 3rd or the United States’ July 4th the Chinese government allots a full vacation week, the so called Golden Week, to its citizens. It is a good indicator for the importance of the Chinese National Day in the rhythm of a calendar year considering that the most important traditional holiday, the Chinese Spring Festival, which is usually celebrated in observance of the lunar calendar between late January and late February, being in significance comparable to Western Christmas and New Year combined, deserves the same number of days off.
Governance is essentially about the management of people; and it seems as if only the Chinese have read and understood what management guru Peter F. Drucker said: To be sure, the fundamental task of management remains the same: to make people capable of joint performance through common goals, common values, the right structures, and the training and development they need to perform and to respond to change. What Drucker wrote about business management is equally if not more true of society management.
Ian Johnson did in The Souls of China a brilliant job describing how Xi Jinping changed domestic policies since 2013 from a focus on economic progress only to a definition of common national values beyond capitalism, how he managed to revive Chinese tradition, culture and religion in search of means to fend off the forces of individualism and materialism; forces which have been unleashed onto the global marketplace, but in the West - rampantly destroying societies – still wait for containment. One can only pay kudos to such an ingenious and timely political strategy and its execution, even though we have to acknowledge that China’s past helps a lot to shape its future as Howard French explained in Everything Under the Heavens. Xi Jingping has put China on a solid track to make its people capable of joint performance through common goals and common values by developing the China Dream | 中国梦 narrative which is tied into the mythological foundations of the civilization-state.
Johnson explains that the traditional combination of religious and political power in Chinese society helps Xi Jinping to regain control of a society which undergoes the same transformation which has unraveled Western economies in the process of the industrial revolution. A local temple could be like the cathedral and city hall of a medieval European town rolled in one. In the words of the historian Prasenjit Duara, religion was society’s “nexus of power.” But religion was more than a method for running China; it was the political system’s lifeblood. The emperor was the “Son of Heaven,” who presided over elaborate rituals that underscored his semi-divine nature. Officials duplicated many of his rites at the local level, especially by praying at temples to the local City God. From the fourteenth century onward, the government mandated that every district of the empire have its own City God temple [effectively a town hall to venerate the emperor].
Xi Jinping has reestablished this traditional governance system in only five years’ time and thus managed to do the impossible: turn a country which is officially atheist, into a non-secular theocracy with himself as Son of Heaven. Again, Johnson, who described the 18th party congress in such a manner: The party launches its most important public display of power: a ten-day ritual called the Two Meetings. One of them is a session of a consultative conference where Communist Party leaders confer with entrepreneurs, movie stars, religious figures, and academics. It is meant to show that people “from all walks of life” are part of the sacred mission of ruling China. The other gathering is the annual session of the National People’s Congress, a ritualized version of a parliament. The congress has deputies, but they are unelected. It passes bills, but the decisions are drafted elsewhere. It promulgates laws, but their enforcement is arbitrary. Like the bright halls or bronze vessels of ancient times, it is a statement of intent—of plans that will only slowly become clear.
The weakness of Xi’s value propaganda and its imminent threat is equally evident as its strength and its opportunities. The top-down organization of Confucian societies allows the government to launch policies and change both mindset and behavior, thought and action in almost all layers of society at a pace Western style bottom-up organized democracies can only dream of. In as such China has already taken over command of spaceship Earth. Those who think differently, like the The Heritage Foundation and its Republican supporters, have lost touch with reality.
So, where is Xi’s weakness? Capable and strong leadership requires system awareness or as psychologist Daniel Goleman writes: For leaders to get results they need all three kinds of focus. Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Outer focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And other focus lets us navigate in the larger world. A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided. Your focus is your reality.
It has been widely discussed and I confirm here that Donald Trump is only equipped with a sharp inner focus, which helped him to amass a fortune. He knows what he wants, but he does not care about the world of others and is completely indifferent to larger systems which go beyond America and his own business interests. Infants and toddlers naturally have a sharp inner focus, but if an adult has not acquired outer and other focus, we must diagnose him a psychological retard who must be cured from his regressive state of mind. Such a leader is not apt to guide the world in such a critical period of transition.
Xi Jinping is a different caliber. Any political leader navigating Chinese society and in particular the one Party system must have sharp outer focus. Contrary to Western politicians it is for a Chinese not enough to manipulate ignorant and often desperate proletariat to be elected into top government positions; Xi Jinping had to deal in the very first place with the smartest and shrewdest power-driven minds of a 1.3 billion population, which sit at the top of the 70 million members communist party institutions. While it was enough for Trump to run a campaign - in classic Roman panem et circenses style - that convinced mostly so called white trash – the left behind class of a globalized and tech savvy labor market - to vote for him, while he was ousted by his own Republican party fellows, Xi had to obtain endorsement from a decisive part of China’s most powerful politicians and business leaders.
Xi is without question a much more formidable national leader, and one could now start to discuss, if such an analysis induces that China as a nation and economy is stronger than the US, and if the one party system is the better form of governance. But I am not going down this track. I want to draw your attention to the third focus which is required by 21st century leaders: the other focus, which lets us navigate the larger world. Ian Johnson writes in The Souls of China that China’s official identity is a multiethnic state where all peoples, beliefs, and traditions are equally respected. The problem with this story is that Han Chinese run the country and it is their values, their dreams, and their traditions that define the national vision—not China’s fifty-five other ethnic groups. Now, the same is true for a nation which has forged a dream for itself but ignores the rest of the world.
Above picture floated into our living room as unrequested screensaver on our Xiaomi telly during this year’s Chinese National Holiday.
Winston Churchill once said that the further we look into the past the better we can understand the future. The Chinese past defines everybody who is not part of the cultural hemisphere of the Middle Kingdom as barbarian. The barbarians were seen as the far extreme opposite of the emperor or Son of Heaven | 天子, who was divinely appointed and emanated universal and well-defined principles of order. His spheres of influence were clearly classified according to physical proximity and as such exposure to his culture, into court officials, officials at vassal courts, tributary courts and their respective subjects, and finally barbarians, who were not yet under his heavenly mandate.
Later dynasties, in particular the Ming who moved the capital in the early 15th century to Beijing and had there the Temple of Heaven | 天坛erected, continued to apply this essentially social and strongly hierarchical structure of the emperor and his court being the center of the known world, culturally superior to any other form of human life. Only if one tries to understand this more than two millennia long self-perception of the Chinese elite, one can phantom the emotional dimension of the what the British kicked off in 1839 with the Opium Wars and what is known by the Chinese as Century of Humiliation | 百年国耻.
I guess we can summarize a few answers to the questions raised earlier at this point:
The American elite is captivated in a prolongation of its obsolete 20th century world dominance, the related economic model of industrial growth and its profit focus which can only be sustained by creating a world of scarcity and poverty. The Chinese elite is enthralled in a 150-year long pursuit to regain cultural and political world hegemony and therefore spends insane amounts, in particular in terms of purchasing power, on domestic security and national defense, and has adopted the US economic system as means to meet that end.
Xi Jinping has a clear inner and outer focus, which makes him contrary to Donald Trump a strong national leader, but he most likely lacks the required other focus to understand the global dimension of environmental and social challenges ahead, which demand a concerted effort of all of mankind and thus an integral, inclusive and pragmatic leadership. With a continuation of the same economic growth model he will only change the color code of the world hegemon, but won’t be able to give future generations hope. There is though a chance that Xi himself initiates in the tradition of Chinese pragmatism a transition from nationalist to globalist leadership; if only for pure power based calculations; and I give him my full endorsement following the thoughts of management philosopher Peter Drucker who once said:
One hears a great deal today about “the end of hierarchy.” This is blatant nonsense. In any institution there has to be a final authority, that is, a “boss” – someone who can make the final decisions and who can expect them to be obeyed. In a situation of common peril – and every institution is likely to encounter it sooner or later – survival depends on clear command. If the ship goes down, the captain does not call a meeting, the captain gives and order. And if the ship is to be saved, everyone must obey the order, must know exactly where to go and what to do, and do it without “participation” or argument. “Hierarchy” and the unquestioning acceptance of it by everyone in the organization, is the only hope in a crisis.
有地球才有家 | One World One Home
If Xi Jinping is our Captain Planet, then I would have a few recommendations for his second term during the next five years.
The Urgency for Transition and Captain Xi’s Responsibility
Now, some readers – if they have made it so far – might think I am nuts; but be assured I am all sober and my recommendations to Captain Xi do only reflect the facts of a world in peril. Pax Americana created after WWII abundance for much of the Western world, but at the expense of the developing world and the environment. Pax Sinica is set to develop abundance for the sinocentric world at the expense of the Western world and the environment, but at a much larger and thus threatening scale considering the increase in consumption per capita and roughly one billion more human beings being added to this planet each decade, in particular in Asia and Africa, China’s second continent.
Damien Ma and William Adams captured this resource driven perspective well in the title of their 2013 book In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity Will Define China's Ascent in the Next Decade. What they describe is a China which is at the center of an economic system which circulates around commodity and utility streams geared towards profit maximization; a system which in the words of yet another economist, F. E. Schumacher, does not operate as if people or other forms of life mattered. The world will thus continue to spin driven by the same profit driven economic system which the US has globalized; only the decision makers at the very top have changed.
Sinica hosts Kaiser Guo and Jeremy Goldkorn had in September FT journalist Lucy Hornby and Greenpeace East Asia Senior Climate & Energy Policy Officer Li Shuo as guests to discuss China’s environmental headaches and their impact on the world with a focus on distant water fishing and soil pollution. The crucial question in summarizing this podcast episode is this: Why has distant water fishing declared a strategic industry by the Chinese government, although it is not an obvious choice like industrial robotics, artificial intelligence or space exploration? I will try to explain here why.
Lucy Hornby tracks down the global squid fishing industry, which has its global center, where, you guess, in China, yes, in a Zhejiang coastal city called Zhoushan, not far from Ningbo. And she does so because squid is the latest and one of the last resources in the oceans to be exploited by humans after many maritime populations like mackerel or hake have collapsed in the past few decades, and many more are doomed to follow, because of the Chinese elite’s craving for political pole position and the world’s hunger for fish.
Zhoushan and Qingdao are the two largest Chinese and global fishing industry locations; Zhoushan accounting for 70% of the current global squid caught and Qingdao being home to the world’s largest seafood processing industry. Once rich waters of the Chinese coast have been emptied in the 90s and Chinese fishermen have to sail ever further if they don’t want to return empty handed, creating a vicious cycle of having to haul back increasing amounts of fish to pay for the increasing costs of long journeys to distant waters. What strikes me though as most important in Hornby’s account is the clear connection of all three industry sectors and the impact of a short sighted, profit focused, commodity based economic system on the entire value chain of a national economy, which shapes the 21st century like no other.
Although the act of fishing extracts natural resources from water bodies, it is considered part of the primary sector, i.e. agriculture. The impact of the primary sector on the secondary and tertiary sector is far from obvious, in particular for Western observers, who are used to less than two percent of the labor force being active in agriculture. Despite China still employing about 40% of its labor force in the primary sector, Hornby’s account shows incisively that our economic systems depend entirely on natural resources and cannot be sustained without them.
The excessive extraction of natural resources from oceans has led according to Greenpeace to critical conditions in more than 90% of commercially exploited fish stock. Despite this obvious depletion of natural maritime resources, the commodity based economic system which China has adopted in the 1980s, forces the central and provincial governments to subsidize the fishing industry in order to sustain employment in related secondary and tertiary sector industries; instead of slowing down, the exploitation is stepped up in the name of national stability, i.e. greed for power and profit.
China goes even so far as to declare distant water fishing a strategic industry, because it deems itself as new global hegemon entitled to exploit the entire planet’s international waters. Conflicts over the Diaoyu (Chinese for fishing) Islands, which erupted with Japan in 2012 and have been only the start of unavoidable conflicts with a nation that has to fuel its insatiable economic system on a scale that mankind has never seen before.
These take aways clarify why it is Captain Xi’s responsibility to initiate within this five-year legislation period a transition towards a new economic model which is not based on profit and scarcity, but on value and abundance; an economic model which I call in association with Ken Wilber’s integral metatheory, the integral model, because
Energy Security and Peace
Hornby’s FT article does also allow conclusions further down the value chain. Provincial and municipal subsidies for large scale infrastructure projects like Zhoushan’s multibillion CNY fishing harbor, national subsidies to the shipbuilding and steel industry, and the imminent threat to lay off literally millions of workers in the coal mining industry, do reveal that the Chinese economy is – like all industrial growth systems - sick to the marrow and grows only at the expense of the global ecosystem. Never before though did a national economy reach scope and scale of China’s and never before was a single economy of this size connected to a global market of mindless consumers. That’s why 21st century dynamics are reason to worry; and that’s why both top down as well as bottom up transformation is required urgently.
China’s energy policy should give us particular reason to worry, because it is one which sets its own and thus the global economy on track for the next 20 to 50 years and thus entails Beijing’s most far sighted measures. China’s current reliance on coal, accounting for 2/3 of its national energy generation and its initiated shift to nuclear energy, which the central government labels as renewable (!), clearly indicate that there is no intention to collaborate with ROW in terms of energy security. A focus on nuclear energy reflects in any nation a deeply centralized and nationalist governance attitude, since it is based on the very premise of being independent from others, while a focus on solar energy reflects the visualization of a transnational future, where the sun, as our original source of energy is harvested and distributed globally.
The World Nuclear Association writes in its September 2017 report that in China, now with 38 operating reactors on the mainland, the country is well into the growth phase of its nuclear power program. There were eight new grid connections in 2015, and five in 2016. Over 20 more reactors are under construction, including the world's first Westinghouse AP1000 units, and a demonstration high-temperature gas-cooled reactor plant. Many more units are planned, including two largely indigenous designs – the Hualong One and CAP1400. China aims to have more nuclear capacity than any country except the USA and France by 2020 and to lead nuclear power generation globally by 2030. A past, a fading and an emerging empire on nuke steroids; confirming what Karl Popper wrote after WWII in Utiopa and Violence: The spirit of Hitlerism won its greatest victory over us when, after its defeat, we used the weapons which the threat of Nazism had induced us to develop.
A quick look into the history books tells us that a joint energy security is one if not the central pillar for regional peace. One might today look critical upon the European Union for having stalled its development due to bureaucratic futilism, but we shall not forget that it is the result of a concerted effort to avoid the recurrence of destruction WWII brought upon Europe. The EU was erected on the basis of the 1951 Treaty of Paris, which entailed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). French post WWII foreign minister Robert Schuman proposed a union of energy and heavy industry commodity supply as a central measure to guarantee regional peace.
If there were only one measure I could recommend to Captain Xi, it would be forging a regional energy security treaty with Japan and Korea in a first step and in a second the successive transformation of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project into a distributed energy generation and energy consumption network. China’s abundant solar resources in Tibet, Xinjiang and Dongbei are combined with the Chinese manufacturing power the key to trigger a breakthrough in a change of energy supply from fossil fuel based economies to renewables. A breakthrough, which can only work if energy supply is conceived supranational or even global. Captain Xi would thereby guarantee a peaceful future for the Eurasian and African continents and could find his way into the history books of future generations as the leader who saved the world. He would most likely share the 2030 Peace Nobel Price with Elon Musk who has a similar project in mind for the Americas.
There Are Many Flames, But Only One Light
Theodore Roosevelt once said that man must protect himself in new and wild communities where there is violence; and until other means of securing his safety are devised, it is both foolish and wicked to persuade him to surrender his arms while the men who are dangerous to the community retain theirs.” Kissinger writes that for Roosevelt, if a nation was unable or unwilling to act to defend its own interests, it could not expect others to respect them and therefore his favorite proverb Roosevelt’s favorite proverb was “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”
Quite frequently, I feel that Xi Jinping is like Roosevelt a realist; and what else should he be considering that China is in terms of socio-economic development where the US was about a century ago? But we have to hope that Xi considers a Great Leap Forward in Chinese international relations management. To be sure, it is a lot to be asked from him, because no other leader ever had to transform himself and his subjects within only a few decades to such an extent. If he can take though such a leap of faith he would become a Chinese Woodrow Wilson, who served as US president during WWI. He exemplified according to Kissinger idealism in international relations and it was him who initiated the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. Wilson was much ahead of his time, but Xi would be just in time to focus all human effort on the solution of the most pressing challenges of 21st century humanity.
Is Xi Jinping, after all, the Captain Planet, the world has been waiting for? I wouldn’t know for sure, but even if I would, I wouldn’t put all my money on a single political leader, but ask what I could do myself. In an era of consumer empowerment, it is my daily purchase and consumption decision that makes a small, but significant difference. Xi might be Captain Planet, but we are all: Planeteers, who don't eat fish.
Every autumn, when the scorching summer heat has dissipated, Shanghai residents are treated with great weather, gentle sunshine and a sort of second spring, bringing to town a wide variety of blossoming plants.
My personal favorite is a tree which grows in different locations and goes unrecognized by most people despite its ubiquitous presence and stark appearance. It listens to the Chinese name 栾树 ｜luanshu and is classified in Western botany as Koelreuteria Paniculata. The tree is a leafy everygreen, which starts to blossom in September in bright yellow, developing two weeks later pink sprout leaves on top of the flower buds.
Below pictures where taken on Yongyuan Rd ｜ 永远路, Fengxian Rd ｜奉贤路 and Zhongshan Park | 中山公园。Go and check them out or stroll the city and watch for these marvels of nature.
Dozing in front of the Berliner Cathedral on a weekday afternoon in late August. People stretching themselves on the grass, lovers, families, retirees, people of all nations and ethnicities are scattered on the wide lawn of Lustgarten | Garden of Pleasures. Pleasant live music and radiant sun permeate the space. But there is something more in the air; and I am not anymore surprised that whoever I talk to tells me that Berlin is the place to be. Creatives flock to the city reclaiming some of the fame it had between the two world wars, and although getting increasingly gentrified it keeps its European second tier city character, making is a (still) affordable place to live.
Not too long ago I reviewed Ken Wilber's latest book and suggested that the evolution's leading edge left the US and moved to China or Germany. Now I can confirm that the Square of Heavenly Peace | 天安门 is not in Beijing but in Berlin. A space of heavenly peace | 天安 or great harmony | 大同 requires above all an open and inclusive society, which allows pluralism and individual diversity. Germany has to a certain extent managed to create such a space. Wilber explains why the US has failed, and I couldn't think of a single Chinese city where such an atmosphere would be possible; hence I must conclude that China is probably on the wrong path or simply not there yet.
Sure enough, our concepts of heaven are as diverse as our tastes for music. A Chinese version of this afternoon would probably involve crunchy chicken feet, rotten tofu and some outdated Wang Fei tunes. The problem is though above all, that Chinese governance does not allow pluralism, but drives its subjects towards a monolithic cultural self-understanding, which per se makes a space like this impossible.
An hour later I take the opportunity to participate in the evening worship inside the cathedral, partly to avoid the entrance fee, which I donate instead to the excellent Bulgarian street musician in the Lustgarten | Garden of Pleasures; partly because I felt lying on the lawn, staring into the crystal blue sky and watching fat white clouds passing by, that this is how services ought to be: in open space, with gentle music, much time to dream and listen to God's day language, i.e. silence.
The golden inscription over the huge entrance gates reads, Cometh to me, you, who is burdened with misery and pain, I shall replenish your thirst for joy, and makes me recall psychologist Martin Seligman’s explanation why in particular the catholic church has nothing to offer to the contemporary members of a pleasure society. Who, in God’s name, who would give a damn to enter a place which promises salvation from misery and pain, if you can experience bliss just outside?
The cathedral is a splendid baroque piece of architecture, both from the outside as well as in its interior, which despite only slightly more than 1000 seats gives because of its vast dome the impression of being gargantuan. Some buildings indeed are made to convey grandness and provide the space to understand hierarchy and authority. The organ, a beautiful and surely the most fitting instrument to display the creator's might, contributes to a quite different atmosphere: man is minuscule in front of God (or the Hohenstaufen family who commissioned the construction of the cathedral in the late 19th century). All integrative kindness and brotherhood from the gardens in front of the cathedral is gone and substituted with an atmosphere of heavenly absolutism. This, too, must put people off from attending services.
A female vicar welcomes very few attendees and invites the still much larger number of tourists to join the evening worship. Large boards in German and English at the entrance ask to not disturb daily weekday services at 6pm and morning weekend services. The instructions remain unread, the vicar’s voice remains unheard to most and reminds me of how Germany and Europe deal with recent migration waves and the society at large. We have lost the competence of listening and are on permanent self broadcasting as sound engineer Julian Treasure lucidly tells us.
A probably Southern European family with seven children of all ages occupies the three first rows of the right second seating section. The mother tries with her youngest son desperately to take a selfie with the altar concave in the background. Her son tears the mobile out of her hand and victoriously jumbles back to the seating rows where he starts a game on the smart phone while his older sisters watch him. Their father pulls out his mobile in turn to catch the moment from the back: entire family gaming in Berlin during a holy service. Wham! Posted. Whishhh. Read by two dozen friends back in Bulgaria.
Two older German ladies a few rows before me in the left second seating section watch the scene and shake their heads in disapproval only to leave a few minutes later in the middle of the service. A young chubby Asian woman walks down the main hallway, stops right in the middle of the cathedral to pull out her semi professional camera and takes a shot; obviously unaware of the official worship, she continues to walk slowly towards the altar, where the vicar briefly explains how the event is structured, implicitly telling all tourists to respect space and time. The Asian woman takes a left turn right in front of the vicar and takes another shot from the pulpit, there noticing that something is awkward when a couple sitting in the left first seating section starts to chat and laugh about her.
The vicar recites from the Bible and elaborates on the purpose of sleep. The Lord, she says, cares of his children during sleep. He does so without asking anything in return. And such is the nature of sleep, its without pay and not subject to performance or profit, despite market forcing cutting in on this sacred realm. The truly important things, she continues, we do not receive through labor or toil, but without being asked anything in return. I can’t believe what I hear. Sounds to me like unconditional basic income. Everything for everybody without any commitment to a common good in return. I simply can’t believe that things work like that. Such a statement defies the laws of nature and is therefore not accessible to the rational and critical mind. Energy output demands energy input. In other words: there is no free lunch. And yes: I am in favor of a basic income, but not an unconditional one. People need to fulfill minimal standards of behavior, in particular when it comes to ecology. And no: I don't believe that there is a shepherd God who gives to his sheep all they want without wanting anything in return, but blind faith.
Dozens of tourists, most of them out of my field of vision, continue their visit during the service in utter disrespect of local norms, and I muse what would happen with such people in a predominantly Muslim country, when they would visit a mosque, or in China, when they would visit the Great Hall of People, which Ian Johnson brilliantly describes as modern China’s temple of rituals. A society needs both integration and hierarchy, openness and structure. Excess top down hierarchy in religion and governance respectively has made life in Muslim nations and China a burden for their subjects. They extend law and order from on sphere of life to all. Excess laissez faire policies and an exaggerated emphasis on individualism has perverted Western democracies like Germany into places of unruly chaos. Principles of equality and liberty have been driven to absurd levels. There is much to learn from each other.
A public square like the Lustgarten | Garden of Pleasures clearly serves the purpose of bottom up exploration. Most people were literally exploring the sky bottom up this afternoon; and rightly so. No rules apply, but only those minimal standards of any society which wants its members to interact in peace. A religious building like the Berlin Cathedral is a space though, which people who believe in a spiritual hierarchy attend to seek guidance for their own top down executive focus. Not only minimal standards of social behavior, but observance of particular rules of that confession apply and should be enforced accordingly. Some Confucian authority would serve hereto well.
I recall what psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote in Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence and venture into a conclusio ad majorem comparing neurological and psychological findings of individual performance to society at large: if excelling individuals manage to balance a triple focus, a balance between inner, outer and other focus, if it is true that the secret to their success is the ability to shift between top down executive and bottom up explorative attention, then the same must be true for an excelling society. It requires bottom up focus which allows space and time for jolly exploration as well as a top down focus which enables us to efficiently strive for a common good. It does not only take enlightened leaders to tell us when to shift from one to the other, but better self leadership in all of us.
Matthew 11:28-30"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
My daughter's Chinese textbook had 闷声不响 in the new vocabulary section and we looked it up in Pleco after I explained her that 闷 is an incredibly important word in Shanghai, because it means both humid and being in a bad mood. I then explained to her that the character is easy to remember: it's a heart in a door, so obviously a heart that lacks freedom. my aunt listens to my explanation and interjects that a heart in a door has quite a different meaning in the European Alps. I laugh out load recalling that some earth toilets with wooden housing have plaques nailed against their doors reading: Wenns Arscherl brummt, ists Herzerl gsund. Graham Earnshaw's translation: If your buttocks roar, your hearts soar.
Having lately written much about exterior and interior conditions conducive to genuine freedom and well-being, i am once again intrigued by classic Chinese wisdom shown in more than two millennia old characters. The modern translation of freedom is 自由, a term which has been introduced to the Chinese language from Western humanistic philosophy, which quite on the contrary to Chinese tradition focuses on the self to understand and define the world. A heart being shut away in 郁闷 reveals a different perspective; it indicates that somebody is isolated from her environment including fellow human beings and thus being depressed.
Modern psychology and medicine has meanwhile shown that healthy social relationships are the single most decisive factor to well-being. Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger e.g. explains that the 75 year long study on adult development at Harvard University confirmed that genuine relationships are all that matters for a happy and fulfilling live. It thus seems as if the traditional Chinese thinking of how to look at well-being and social interaction has something important to teach to Western societies suffering from excessive individualism.
Get the full PDF with many more exhilarating pictures here.
People often ask what’s Hong Kong’s appeal after Shanghai’s cosmic rise and the central government’s decisive push to sever the city state from its former special status by setting up SEZ all over mainland, starting with Shenzhen after Deng Xiaoping’s great journey South in 1992. Shanghai is clearly favored by the CCP over Hong Kong as being the present and future financial and commercial pendant to Beijing’s political gravity. I believe though that only those who have scratched China’s surface can ask such a question. When living in Northern or Central mainland for some time, you will understand that Hong Kong is still foreign, even if you just perceive it as the epitome of the Cantonese cultural realm, which encompasses a population the size of all German speakers in Europe.
A few years ago I was interested in Hong Kong as the spear head of China’s urbanization, and explored the city’s role as the CCP’s guinea pig to experiment with the future of urban spaces, in particular in regard to the real estate market, environmental protection and the urban middle class. This year, to be precise on July 1, 2017, China celebrates the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland political realm, what Chinese like to call in good old Confucian tradition, Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland | 香港回归. A timely occasion to revisit the former colony and spend some time and thought on the meaning of Hong Kong.
Things don’t seem to run as smoothly as many locals like South China Morning Post journalist Peter Guy would have wished. There is a general perception that Hong Kong has lost its regional status as South East Asia’s commercial and financial hub to Singapore and has to confine itself to the role of being a harbor for China’s superrich, comparable to what Monaco is for Europe. But average Honkies feel an unimaginable economic and cultural squeeze. He writes that all the best paying, entry level financial jobs are going to mainland Chinese rather than Hong Kong Chinese. It was only 30 years ago that I remember Hongkongers mocking overseas Chinese for poor Cantonese speaking skills. Now mainlanders treat Cantonese like Latin: a language that is only useful if you want to converse with a dead Roman.
Peter Guy sees the only realistic salvation for his people in quickly merging Hong Kong with China and relinquishing the One Country, Two Systems status. Looking into this concept, one realizes that it is in fact outdated. 1980ies paramount leader Deng Xiaoping proposed it on the basis of China being a socialist and Hong Kong being a capitalist economical and political unit. As of 2017, I am not sure whether there is any difference between the two systems of governance, at least I fail to see it. Both systems are ruled by an alliance of bureaucrats and property tycoons; the average citizen is being exploited; and materialism is prevailing in a social system which the great Lin Yutang described already in 1935 cogently as a form of magnified selfishness, family minded not social minded. In an increasingly global world such an attitude wont help to resolve challenges of supra-regional and even planetary dimension such as environmental degradation or the cybernation of our societies and resulting landslide changes on our labor markets.
Meditating On the Meaning of Hong Kong
The movie Chinese Box was shot during the six months before the return of Hong Kong to China and is generally perceived as a meditation on the meaning of Hong Kong. The plot projects the differences between the societies of mainland China, Hong Kong and Great Britain into the movie’s protagonists, meandering between freedom and captivity, socialism and capitalism, emotional growth and financial gain, fraud and honesty, opportunist liking and consummate love; and Hong Kong born director Wayne Wang succeeds to craft individual characters into a rich portrait of collective mentality dynamics.
John, a mid-aged, British journalist who has been living in Hong Kong for more than 15 years, meanwhile separated from his wife and their children who moved back to England, is desperately in love with Vivian, the partner of Chang, a self-made tycoon. Vivian rejects John’s courtship, and in her hope that Chang will marry her she displays the twisted, incompatible value sets on which her life is based. Chang who seems to have started out his Hong Kong career as sleazy pimp thrived on the acquaintances which Vivian handed over to him as high end prostitute. Both left mainland China in the 80ies for Hong Kong in search of opportunity and abandoned the values of their home society, but now having managed to achieve a certain level of social status and material wealth regress into rigid patterns of cultural conditioning. Chang rejects a marriage with Vivian because of her prostitution past, and Vivian wants nothing more than to confirm to her mother that she has succeeded in Hong Kong by marrying a well off business man. Chang’s love to Vivian is constricted by face | 面子 and mores of purity; Vivian is driven by the Confucian core principle of filial piety | 孝. Both have failed to individuate themselves from the cultural programming of their home societies.
John asks Chang one day upon realizing that Vivian had been a prostitute, “You know why Chinese like blondes? To not be reminded of their wives.” If we believe the Chinese mentality’s most profound connoisseur Lin Yutang, then this joke is based on a cultural misunderstanding: Chinese man most likely don't care. The Chinese regard marriage as a family affair, and when marriage fails they accept concubinage, which at least keeps the family intact as a social unit. The West, in turn, regards marriage as an individual, romantic and sentimental affair, and therefore accepts divorce, which breaks up the social unit. Chinese Box makes me not only once think about what I have occasionally perceived as a distorted moral code when it comes to questions of love. I recall a few Sinica podcast episodes, e.g. host Jeremy Goldkorn ranting that “The Chinese government needs hookers. All politicians are married to some women they don't like, because it was better for their career. The entire government would fall apart if they would ban prostitution.” Or the interview with James Palmer about Business and Fucking in China as well as his excellent article Kept Women. Chinese Box certainly also has some overlap in its narrative with the classic 1934 silent movie The Godess | 神女, which displays the scrupulous extortion single women had to suffer in traditional China, and touches a delicate subject, which must be elaborated somewhere else: the unconscious dynamics of culture in our most intimate relationships.
Shortly after John is diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, Vivian realizes that there is no future with Chang. She decides to break up with him, but when being eventually ready for true love, John rejects her. He who seemed to have understood best of all the differences between China and the West indicated a single sentence “Is our truth any better than their truth?”, is turned by Wayne Wang into a projection wall for a dying democracy and evaporating freedom with only three to six months left to breath. His opening statement “This great big department store is just going to have a change of management” is seemingly falsified by his own death.
Its telling that all three Asian protagonists impersonate mainland Chinese, who have taken different paths in Hong Kong. Chang the path of power and wealth, Jean the path of fraud and opportunism, Vivian being torn between the former two and true love towards John, who represents British virtue amongst a bunch of mostly white trash type of foreigners and dies perplexed over Hong Kong’s multiple identities reflected in his relationship to Vivian. “I used to write about Hong Kong’s future as it has a definite direction, a predictable outcome, but everything in this city has always been changing. Maybe I wasn’t meant to figure you out.”
To the disappointment of many Hong Kongers, Chinese Box is not about them. It is the art work of a Hong Konger, who has left that society long ago; it is his perspective on a society or rather a space, which has provided opportunity for people from different walks of life to distance themselves from their originating societies and experience a sort of freedom they did not have back home; but director Wayne Wang shows that unprejudiced love is the only truth and freedom is not only related to how societies are organized, but also to how much we can make unconscious conditioning conscious and react thereon. He succeeds to create a masterpiece which shows in an emotional narrative that exterior social structures and resulting patterns of behavior have the same weight as our internal structures; and freedom or liberty is thus only to a limited extent related to the system of governance under which we live. In Jung's words: as long as we haven't made the unconscious conscious we call it fate.
The Role of the Collective Unconscious
I have meditated myself on the meaning of Hong Kong not only once; its historical and its contemporary significance. The Chinese elite does probably consciously perceive Hong Kong’s concession to Great Britain in 1842 as the starting point of what is generally considered 100 years of humiliation | 百年国耻; the dominating theme of the Chinese collective unconscious. Hong Kong’s return in 1997 on the other hand is widely acknowledged as the end of the British Empire and thus the beginning of a final chapter in the dominating theme of the European collective unconscious: 500 years of imperialism driven by the the scientific and industrial revolution.
Hong Kong’s contemporary appeal to non-Chinese tourists is without question the, albeit superficial, accessibility of Chinese culture through its British heritage; one feels at home although one is clearly not. A mainland resident though feels like being abroad, although he is at least legally not. Hong Kong seems to be neither fish nor meat, but it has been clearly changing in consistence during the last two decades. My favourite indicator for this change is the annual observation of pedestrian behaviour. While people strictly walked on the left when I visited Hong Kong for the first time in the early 2000s, the picture has completely changed as of 2017. The majority of pedestrians walk on the right, but some colonial hardliners insists on walking left and cause quite substantial collision risk. Expect to go out of your way not only once, when strolling on the massive flyover network which connects many of Central’s high rises.
Back in April 2015 I wrote about the Hong Kong – Macao – Zhuhai Bride: A Symbol for Bridging Democracy and Fascism. Like the slow change in the behaviour of pedestrians, this colossal project tells much about the integration of one small entity within a much larger. The meaning of Hong Kong in such a context is one of a polis state being absorbed by a surrounding empire, a handful of sand being lost in a desert, a small rock being washed away by might breakers. And hitherto useful terminology seems to have lost ground. Whether China is fascist, absolutists or even democratic can only be answered by the subjects affected.
The new artificial Zhuhai city beach provided me yesterday with a misty view of a colossal construction project: the several kilometres long off-shore bridge between Zhuhai and Hong Kong. I only saw a small part of its entire length still being unfinished, and therefore asked our resident business partner, when the bridge will be opened. “Oh, the project is delayed and we don’t know when the bridge will be eventually finished”, he replied. It turns out that the half of the bridge starting in Zhuhai has been finished according to plan, but the half starting in Hong Kong is long overdue. Our Hong Kong business partner with operations in Zhuhai continues to tell me that the Hong Kong construction workers are on strike. There is a shortage of workers in Hong Kong and the construction companies intend to bring in additional work force from mainland China. Hong Kong workers, now earning HKD 40k a month, fear that their wages drop to mainland levels.
The bridge turns before my eyes into a symbol of advantages and disadvantages of democracy and fascism and I wonder how Singapore would have faired in this project would it have been in the place of Hong Kong. Democracy gives people a right to have their say, to stand up for themselves. Authoritarianism excels at executing vast infrastructure projects by streamlining the population, if necessary against its will. Democracy fails to maintain a trajectory for large scale infrastructure projects, because the government must appease the electorate to stay in power for another term. Fascism fails to give important, but from the leadership divergent opinions, a say.
here are political scientists who claim that fascism is the more stable form of governance. We have only a few years track record in a small number of states. But if they are right, we still have to ask ourselves at what cost this stability comes, and if democracy, after all, is not the best amongst many bad choices. It seems though that in all forms of human governance, the ruling stakeholders enrich themselves at the expense of the ordinary taxpayer. The difference is only how they do so and how much freedom the subjects are left with. As far as present day democracy is concerned, it has been perverted by media and technology into a utopian concept like Marxism. Educator Neil Postman described this development already back in 1985 in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. He said that the contemporary world was better reflected by Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, whose public was oppressed by their addiction to amusement, than by Orwell's 1984, where they were oppressed by state control.
If liberty is defined by free access to media, then I would call Hong Kong free. I was e.g. able to open without any complications a NYT review of Chinese Box when there. Now, being back in Shanghai, I have to use a VPN to read what is not of interest to the mainstream Chinese mind. If liberty is being defined by having access to the world’s largest labour market, then I would agree with Peter Guy that Honkies are not free at all. Remember that the free access to the labour market is one of the four basic liberties of the European Union. From such a POV, Hong Kong is less integrated to China than let’s say Monaco into the EU, and the majority of Hong Kongers would probably laugh at the very high human development index their home nation has been awarded with. If the HDI is about whether people are able to “be” and “do” desirable things in their life, most Honkies would tell you a story of the upper ten thousand and the harsh realities for the bottom seven million. Having to save all your life for a damp and dark 700 square foot apartment, which will set you back between 10 and 15 million HKD in Central and still a substantial amount on outlying islands or the New Territories, will harvest understandable cynicism when others think that you can do desirable things in your life.
Eric Stryson, managing director of the Hong Kong based Global Institute for Tomorrow wrote in a recent announcement for a fall 2017 conference that Hong Kong has a housing affordability crisis. Solutions to date have been crowded out by convoluted arguments and intractable positions. The city’s housing — the world’s most unaffordable — is making headlines for all the wrong reasons, such as Bloomberg’s report that an apartment smaller than a Tesla Model X sold for US$500,000. A recent opinion in The South China Morning Post argued that Hong Kong’s housing quality represents a totally unacceptable state of affairs in one of the world’s wealthiest cities, and the most significant drag on the city’s overall quality of life.
Ever heard of Georgism? It's an economic philosophy originating in the 19th century, which postulates that economic value derived from land (including natural resources and natural opportunities) should belong equally to all members of society. Its founding father, American political economist Henry George, argued that governments should be funded by a tax on land rent rather than taxes on labor. But both the Hong Kong and the mainland Chinese government revenues are based though on a power structure which rests on two pillars: real estate tycoons and the government, using land in good old feudalist tradition.
If liberty were defined by being able to purchase goods and services of one’s desire, a definition which held certainly some truth in the socialist nations of Eastern Germany or the UdSSR – you will certainly recall that Levis won the cold war - both Hong Kong and China have lifted their citizens – real estate excluded - into freedom’s Olympus. It would be worth discussing whether the form of governance or technological progress was the main catalyzer for that progress, but if man searches more and more for meaning beyond materialistic satisfaction, affluent consumer societies loose their appeal, no matter how they got there and whether they rather resemble Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. I have lost my preference for modern democracies over totalitarian regimes. In case of Hong Kong and China they are same same, but different.
Sinocentrism and the Legend of Barbarians
Winston Churchill once said that the further we look into the past the better we can understand the future. I therefore want to venture into China’s past to understand societal changes in contemporary Hong Kong and probably the future world at large. The area of Hong Kong was for most of recorded BC history part of tribal affiliations which encompassed the area of northern Vietnam and Southern China. The Baiyue or Hundred Yue were various partly or un-Sinicized peoples who were considered as barbarians who lived in primitive conditions and lacked technology as bows, arrows and chariots. During the Warring States period, the word "Yue" referred to the State of Yue in Zhejiang - nowadays dubbed as China’s Switzerland - indicating that Yue tribes spanned from an early Chinese perspective the entire area south of the Yangtze. The later kingdoms of Minyue in Fujian and Nanyue in Guangdong are both considered Yue states. Genetic studies connect the Baiyue with Austronesian peoples, especially with Taiwanese. The Yue were assimilated or displaced as Chinese civilization expanded into southern China in the first half of the first millennium AD, but considerable differences in general physiognomy between Northern and Southern Chinese in particular, can still be traced back to this period.
Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese Alexander the Great, brought present day Guangdong 214 BC under his rule and thus first time directly under Chinese cultural influence, albeit only for a few years, because in 204 BC the Kingdom of Nanyue established itself after the collapse of the Qin Empire in the area of Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan and Northern Vietnam, once again confirming the then prevailing cultural affinity of the region to South East Asia. Han Dynasty rulers perceived Nanyue as a vassal state and formally annexed the area in 112 BC to integrate it permanently into the Empire. The Nanyue period is considered to have contributed greatly to the sinification of the Baiyue peoples, since the ruling elite hailed from Northern Chinese heart lands.
It is widely agreed amongst historians that the distinction between “sinified” and thus from a Chinese perspective culturally superior peoples and all others, the so-called Hua-Yi dichotomy | 华夏蛮夷emerged already during the Western Zhou Dynasty (1041-771 BC) and was reinforced during the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC) when the Western Zhou Dynasty was breaking apart and unity amongst the increasingly warring states was sought by establishing a unifying cultural code, which set ancient Chinese apart from their surroundings. It ultimately led to the now still prevalent concept of sinocentrism | 中国中心主义, which was refined during the Han Dynasty into a division of humankind between Huaxia | 华夏 and Manyi | 蛮夷, a civilized society that was distinct and stood in contrast to what was perceived as the barbaric peoples around them.
Man Yi Rong Di | 蛮夷戎狄 turned latest during the Spring and Autumn Period, when ancient Chinese culture flourished with the appearance of the Nine Schools of Thought including Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and Mohism, into generic names for minorities which are outside of the Zhou heartland, which was mainly the area of present day Henan province between the ancient cities of Luoyang and Kaifeng – a tiny strip of land compared to what China encompasses now. Man | 蛮are ethnic groups which lived South of ancient China and generally associated with people from present day Yunnan, but including everything South of the Yangtze; Yi | 夷 were the tribes living in the East, i.e. Shandong, Anhui and Northern Jiangsu; Rong | 戎peoples included originally Hebei, Liaoning and Gansu, but shifted later to all non-sinified tribes West of the Qin capital Changan; Di | 狄 were mostly nomadic tribes in Shanxi and Shaanxi.
The barbarians were seen as the far extreme opposite of the emperor or Son of Heaven | 天子, who was divinely appointed and emanated universal and well-defined principles of order. His spheres of influence were clearly classified according to physical proximity and as such exposure to his culture, into court officials, officials at vassal courts, tributary courts and their respective subjects, and finally barbarians, who were not yet under his heavenly mandate. Later dynasties, in particular the Ming who moved the capital in the early 15th century to Beijing and had there the Temple of Heaven | 天坛erected, continued to apply this essentially social and strongly hierarchical structure of the emperor and his court being the center of the known world, culturally superior to any other form of human life. Only if one tries to understand this more than two millennia long self-perception of the Chinese elite, one can phantom the emotional dimension of the what the British kicked off in 1839 with the Opium Wars and what is known by the Chinese as Century of Humiliation | 百年国耻.
There were similar distinctions made e.g. in the Hellenistic worldview, which differentiated between Greeks and barbarians, but none of these concepts of cultural racism prevailed into modernity. Today, I believe its important to understand the historical roots of sinocentrism, because of three reasons. Firstly, because sinocentrism paired with 大同｜Great Unity, a Chinese concept referring to a utopian vision of the world in which everyone and everything is at peace, effectively creates an agenda which is similar to Islam, i.e. the global spread of a set of values from a center of gravity, which is Beijing in the former and Mekka in the latter. Secondly, because Chinese language lends itself as the ideal vehicle to establish a schism between the Middle Kingdom and the barbarians. Thirdly, because China is probably the only political entity which realistically could surpass the 20th century influence of the US. All indicators point towards a shift from a pax americana to a pax sinica.
The Hua-Yi dichotomy and any other worldview which separates humankind in two groups results in growth as long as it remains open in order to absorb other peoples as it was e.g. the case during Tang China, which despite prevailing sinocentrism is considered to represent the peak of Chinese culture; but it results in stagnation or even decline if doors are shut and segregation measures are taken, e.g. under Ming China or Edo Japan. Modern China could be perceived since 1989 as a country which despite global trade gradually closes itself - in good old Japanese sakoku style – off from ROW. Jiang Zemin introduced the patriotic education in the 90s, Hu Jintao technonationalism in the 2000s, and Xi Jinping oversees the implementation of cyberleninism since the 2010s which includes turning the internet in China into an intranet – separated from the Western world.
The medieval diplomat Niccolo Macchiaveli who was something like an Italian version of Confucius, providing his services of government advisory to different courts of his time, and whose ideas could be understood as the foundation of enlightened absolutism, wrote in The Prince that men are driven by two impulses, love and fear … it is much safer to be feared than loved. The similarity between Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Heaven, a supreme universal emperor who rules tianxia comprising "all under heaven" which translates from the ancient Chinese into English as the "ruler of the whole universe" or the "ruler of the whole world” is striking. One spreads his gospel through love, the other rather through fear, but both claim to be the incarnations of heavenly values. Chinese monarchs were referred to as a demigod or deity and most modern rulers like Yuan Shikai, Jiang Jieshi or Mao Zedong did their best to emulate their predecessors, with the latter definitely succeeding therein. China’s new helmsman Xi Jinping is well on track to reestablish the integral bond between government power and tradition, turning the wheel of time back into an era when neither China nor the West were secular, a Pope acted as statesman and an emperor was the son of God.
A City State Between Two Empires
The American philosopher Ken Wilber wrote that it is the nature of the [evolution’s] leading edge stage that its values, although they are only directly embraced by the stage itself, nonetheless tend to permeate or seep through the culture at large. Hong Kong was both strategic part of the British Empire, the largest empire in human history, which 1913 held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the then world population, and by 1920, it covered 35,5 mio km2 or 24% of the Earth's total land area. Now it is part of the modern Chinese Empire, which calls more than 1.3 billion people its subjects, i.e. roughly 17% of the world population, which constitutes since 2013 the world’s largest economy in PPP and soon also in GDP. The polis is therefore the playground of competing values of two imperialistic success stories, which can serve well to elaborate on the ingredients for civilizations and their progress.
Considering that Hong Kong’s population, as a matter of fact the global population, was insignificant until the begin of the industrial revolution and in particular in regard to the subject at hand until the Opium Wars 1839 – 1842, its safe to say, that Chinese values have played only an indirect role in the rise of the city state. Hong Kong’s population grew between 1841 from a few thousand settlers to 6.5 million in 1997, but has since then only increased to 7.3 million. Something about Hong Kong must have certainly had until 1997 an appeal to mainland Chinese; and if it was only the simple material fact that the tiny city state was then worth 1/3 of mainland’s entire economy.
Let’s try therefore a comparison between Orient and Occident to answer where Hong Kong’s attraction lied in. Historian Niall Ferguson argued in his 2011 oeuvre Civilization – The West and the Rest, that six novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviors distinguished the West from the rest and were causal for the Eurasian world dominance for the last 500 years. These novel complexes are competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society and work ethic; and Ferguson calls them killer apps, because they helped European powers to outperform all other cultural entities on this planet roughly until the turn of the millennium or respectively until the return of Hong Kong to China.
I would like to argue instead that these six killer apps are merely consequences of a much deeper change in values (or growth apps) which Europe did undergo since the Renaissance, the rebirth of classical antiquity, at first in Italy and then spreading across Western Europe in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, and again resurging during various neo-classical revivals in the 18th and 19th centuries. Europe evolved then because it studied and applied the ideas and values, which helped the Greek and Roman civilizations to flourish from roughly 800 BC until 500 AD before the continent plunged into the hitherto labelled dark middle ages.
Renaissance humanism took center stage and was a response to the utilitarian approach and what came to be depicted as the "narrow pedantry" associated with medieval scholasticism, a school of thought which reminds me strikingly of the Chinese tradition to study the Confucian classics. The Greco-Roman cultural foundation has been immensely influential on the language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, science, art, and architecture of the modern (Western) world and it is therefore widely considered the cradle of European and Western civilization at large, thus being the main reason why Europe and its colonial offspring, the Americas, share most of their values. Trying to identify the part of classical antiquity which had most impact on how the Western world defines itself, we must arrive at humanism, a school of thought which sought to create a citizenry able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus being capable of engaging in the civic life of their communities and persuading others to virtuous and prudent actions. In short, humanism promoted personal growth, albeit then mostly restricted to male members of the respective societies.
Humanism was the growth app which made ancient Greece and the Roman Empire flourish; humanism, the competition between Italian city states, and Machiavelli’s recommendation to ruling nobles to be unjust or even cruel in order to achieve noble ends, sparked the scientific revolution, and the scientific revolution in turn the era of enlightenment, culminating in enlightened absolutism, which is the Western pendant to the Chinese concept of an emperor being the son of heaven | 天子and ruling all under heaven | 天下 under a divine mandate. Liberal humanism was restricted in the West until the 19th century by enlightened monarchs, but the balance tipped in favor of individualism, whether this be dictatorship or the appearance of narcissistic consumer societies, and ultimately led into the chaos of the 20th century.
The Chinese antiquity produced two schools of thought which can be understood as Oriental pendant to humanism and absolutism. Taoism emphasizes like humanism the freedom of the individual and teaches a natural suspicion against any form of social organization. Confucius understood the ruler like Machiavelli as the principal subject of the state, which has to compromise short term individual freedom in favor of long term goals. Confucius’ concept of a society ruled by gentlemen | 君子 reflects that his political science was never to be understood as totalitarian or strictly hierarchical; he propagated an ideal society ruled by an enlightened monarch, who embodies the virtue of benevolence and whose acts are in accordance with the rites of rightfulness. 君子喻于义小人喻于利 | The gentleman understands what is moral; the small man understands what is profitable.
Confucius’ ideal was though never lived by because Chinese rulers perverted his teachings and only focused on the hierarchical aspects; a deterioration like with Jesus’ teachings in the Roman Catholic Church to a Machiavellian form of governance was the result: rule by fear instead of rule by example. Taoism was in addition to the perversion of Confucian doctrine suppressed by the elite, resulting in a never ending string of absolutistic dynasties. Whereas renaissance humanism led 1642 in England to a civil war between royalists and parliamentarians and the exclamation of the first republic following the beheading of King Charles I in 1649 – 145 years before the beheading of Louis XVI in France - China remained absolutistic and thus stifled individual growth and growth of the society at large.
The English Republic was short lived. Oliver Cromwell establishes himself as de-facto king - like Napoleon after the French Revolution – in 1653, with Charles II returning to throne in 1660 with seriously reduced power, making England next to the Netherlands one of the freest places in the world. The Bill of Rights, based on thinking of John Locke, is passed in 1689 establishing that the sovereign can not suspend laws passed by parliament nor levy taxes without parliamentary consent. The still lasting era of parliamentary monarchy begins in England, while other European nations choose to prosper as parliamentary republics. Humanism led in Europe to a gradual increase of personal freedom and supported individual growth; whereas China was stuck for 2.5 millennia in a divinely sanctioned stasis.
The British chemist Joseph Needham who spent the better part of his life researching the technological developments in historical China argued that bureaucratic futilism did ultimately lead to the decline of the Ming and the collapse of the Qing dynasties. I believe that bureaucratic futilism was rather a symptom of a decaying civilization. Confucius would have explained the reason for China’s decline in the 16th century and ultimately its colonization by imperial powers in the 19th century with a lost focus on what really matters. Instead of morals, Chinese rulers built their future on profit only; and sometimes not even that considering the debt of the late Qing court. Despite a stable bureaucracy, they lost their divine mandate – then only over generations - by not living as an example for their subjects. The Chinese elite is said to fear grass root uprisings like the Boxer Rebellion or the Falun Gong Sect, but actually they should fear their own moral decomposition.
Ian Johnson writes in The Souls of China, that president Xi has made since 2011 the rectification of national morals his top priority, which indicates that he either understands what matters or some smart advisor has told him to turn to faith as the last bastion against the socially destructive forces unleashed by the industrial revolution. We don’t know yet if China’s helmsman supports individual growth, but concluding from the China Dream or One Road One Belt campaign, he certainly has the nation’s development on his agenda. Does this make him into an enlightened monarch or an authoritarian ruler? Does this make him into a Frederik the Great, one of the most distinctive monarchs of European enlightened absolutism, who considered himself the first servant of the state, or Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest generals in human history, who was most likely motivated by an inferiority complex?
I guess that the answer depends on the subject asked. Mainland Chinese will perceive their president’s measures against corruption and his support for traditional religion as a step into the right direction, because they aim at establishing a just and peaceful society. Honkies, who have been used during the last decades to more personal freedom than their mainland cousins, might see Lord Vader descending upon their turf. They might forget though that Hong Kong was not all that liberal under English colonialism, which made it difficult for natives to rise through the ranks. They might also forget, as one fellow traveler told me recently, that increased personal freedom through liberal humanism was only one of three ingredients for Hong Kong’s economic rise. The other two were a massive mainland brain drain before and after 1949 and the colony‘s mediator position between China and the West in the early 80s. Thousands of well educated and wealthy - mostly Shanghainese - left mainland when the Communists got to power and moved to Hong Kong or Taiwan, inflicting on the country a similar brain drain like the Nazis did on Germany before WWII. The rise of Hong Kong is therefore a story which bears some resemblance with the rise of the US relying heavily on being an attraction for human talent. Hong Kong’s unique geopolitical position during the early years of the economic reform era | 开放改革, when China started to open up to the West, but was not yet able to directly interact its customers, established itself as the Asian if not global trading power house, a Seville of modernity.
After all, it seems as if Wayne Wang asked the right question in Chinese Box: “Is our truth any better than their truth?” The socio-psychological truth of how to organize societies must be somewhere in between total exterior control and total interior freedom. The homo socialis is per definitionem a networked species which can define liberty only in relation to others. Liberalism and absolutism - and the same is true for Taoism and Confucianism - are therefore like black and white two extremes which can’t work alone. They need each other to make sense. What is true on this political level of dealing with societies is therefore also true on the systemic level of families, when real parents deal with their children and struggle between authoritarian Confucian control (only I know what is good for you) or laissez fair liberalism (you have to know yourself what is good for you). The state takes the role of a parent surrogate influencing its subjects; and like a parent he either supports the personal growth of his offspring or he stifles the same.
I increasingly tend to see in Xi Jinping an enlightened monarch, because similar to the 18th century enlightenment models Prussia and Scotland did China experience the scientific and industrial revolutions during the last few decades and engages currently in a renaissance of Chinese antiquity. Thus, Hong Kong could not have hoped for any better. Suffering from blatant individualism which created the before mentioned housing crisis and indulging in the world’s sickest consumerism - with the world’s largest casino next door - China’s modern son of heaven might well be, what that society needs. As the sinocentristic circles once again expand, we must though wonder whether Beijing’s value broadcasting on channels 16+1 (China and CEE Countries Cooperation Organization), SCO (Asian Countries Cooperation Organization), One Belt One Road (all roads lead to Beijing initiative), etc. is nevertheless cacophony to the rest of the world. This is not a critique but rather a statement; because it would be asked too much of a nationalist 19th century leadership, which deals now with what other industrialized nations dealt 200 years ago, to find in addition answers to questions of 21st century global dimension.
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