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 A Chinese version of this afternoon would probably involve crunchy chicken feet, rotten tofu and some outdated Wang Fei tunes.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.
Years ago I classified foreigners coming to China into three categories: mystics who look for spiritual answers in an alien cultural realm; nerds who didn’t have enough studying technical chemistry back home looking for yet another intellectual kick in Chinese characters; and gold rushing adventurers who followed the current of global economics. Its hard to draw a line, but I would say that with the preparations of the Beijing Olympics, the first international event which put the Chinese civilization-state into the lime light, and definitely with the more or less coinciding GFC, the ratio between these three groups did tip, in particular because the number of foreigners in China grew exponentially and most of them arrived on its shores on the aforementioned current of mammon. If you belong to the first group, then The Souls of China is your decisive read to understand eventually what you have been looking for, but most likely have never found on your own. If you belong to the second group of nerdish geeks, then Ian Johnson translates for you the enigmatic riddles of Buddhism, Daoism and sinified Christianity. If you are one of the many, who have a rather pragmatic motivation to understand the Middle Kingdom, you will learn how the Xi administration transforms traditional religions into the atheist Party’s new power base. And that’s probably where these three strands of interest merge: at the intersection of faith and power in an – to the Western mind - alien civilization.
Only a person driven by serious pain and by a genuine interest in understanding the nature of suffering and transcendence, i.e. people whom we call mystics after they have managed to cope with their pain, go to such great lengths like Ian Johnson. Its inexplicable how he managed to write over a course of approximately five years next to his full time job as Berlin based correspondent for an American newspaper this emotionally and intellectually rich book. It unfolds in three narratives about a Beijing based Buddhist pilgrimage association, a Shanxi family of Taoist ritual masters and revolutionary Chengdu protestants, weaved into a structure that follows the traditional Chinese calendar, which is somewhat symbolic for the resurgence of the past, because it was more or less abolished in favor of the Gregorian calendar after the collapse of the Qing dynasty, but enjoys a century later wider and wider usage. With hours of personal interviews, days and even weeks spent on various religious retreats, and massive research into Chinese and religious history, each of these narratives would have been sufficient for a book in itself. Johnson manages though to tie the separate narratives together by adding a scholarly analysis of how the Chinese government evolved in its relationship towards religion over the last roughly 200 years and what role it played and will play in the development of a civilization-state which currently shapes the world like no other human organization and whose citizens feel a spiritual void.
Progress is not linear—churches are demolished, temples run for tourism, and debates about morality manipulated for political gain—but the overall direction is clear. Faith and values are returning to the center of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life. […] All of this exists and is true but misses a bigger point: that hundreds of millions of Chinese are consumed with doubt about their society and turning to religion and faith for answers that they do not find in the radically secular world constructed around them. They wonder what more there is to life than materialism and what makes a good life.
Johnson explains that traditional Chinese religion was not like Semitic religions a pillar next to secular society, but was spread over every aspect of life like a fine membrane that held society together, and was organized around local communities, e.g. almost every craftsmanship or guild in every town had its own patron instead of centralized authorities in Rome or Mecca. Chinese never believed exclusively in one religion and thus had no confession which excludes other forms of faith, instead, as the saying goes, every Chinese wears a Confucian cape, a Taoist hat and Buddhist sandals. And probably most importantly does Chinese religion not provide a home for the spiritual seeker, but certain services like a Taoist funeral, a Buddhist meditation or a Confucian moral self-cultivation; all of them making up an amalgam of Chinese religion in which all Chinese believe more or less, even today, even if they tell you that they are atheists.
I am not entirely convinced by Johnson’s elaborations, in particular the way he opposes Chinese to Western faith, because the nature of religion has changed in Abrahamic traditions substantially over time. Early Christians, too, were organized in communities instead of being streamlined by a pope and a strictly hierarchical organization. The idea of confessing one’s faith on the other hand is a historical consequence of the reformist era, when Lutherans pushed exactly against this hierarchical, community suffocating aspect of the Roman church. Moreover, I believe that all religions request in their original form that a set of values permeates one’s entire life and not only periods of observance in places of worship. In particular Judaism shows that the separation between secular society and religion is hardly possible; non observant Israelis will mostly still consider themselves Jewish; and I have not only once met a Chinese who describes himself as a Jew of the East: business minded and by culture not by nationality or genetic heritage tied to an ethnicity. Religion is as such always an integral part of what makes up a society’s culture, even if it has become secular or atheist, observing one of the new humanist religions of liberalism, communism or fascism.
Johnson does observe that Chinese religion focuses on the cultivation of the mind through the body with taichi, qigong and other physical practices. An approach which was familiar to the Romans who believed that a sound mind rests in a healthy body | mens sana in corpore sano. But he does not explain that this focus on the integration of body and mind which persisted in China until modernity and was refined even into political concepts like global harmony | datong, is the result of a from the West different cultural evolution during the Axial Age, when other modern societies had gone through a profound separation of the spiritual from the everyday, but no such division ever took place in Far East Asia. China never underwent what German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the ‘Axial Age’, a separation creating a dynamic tension between the world of matter and another world of spirit.
Chinese rarely doubted the superiority of their civilization, which rested in this refined bodymind equilibirium. They were often self-critical but believed that their ways of life would prevail. China’s encounter with the West shook that self-assurance and led to the destruction of most religion, in particular of folk religion. A development which is most clearly confirmed by the demolishment of approximately one million city god temples and cultural heritage sites like the Buddhist grottos of Dunhuang. Only Taiwan and Hong Kong were saved from this madness and thus differentiate themselves exactly in this aspect from mainland China.
It seems though as if Johnson implies that Chinese politicians are better social psychologists than their Western counterparts, when he describes how the 150 year long struggle of the Chinese elite to identify religion and superstition within the hitherto holistic cultural blend in order to erase it completely, leads eventually to a resurgence of exactly the same blend, which now supported by new technology puts the party like never before firmly in its saddle. The Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping administrations have realized in the wake of the Chinese industrial revolution that what society lacked was rules, standards, ties. Chinese society was like a sailboat unmoored, its centerboard broken, its sails full, flying wildly across the water—exhilarating to watch from the shore but terrifying to ride.
Johnson interestingly describes for China what Ken Wilber described for the US: aperspectival madness, i.e. the government broadcasting continuous and repeated non-truth with the single objective of staying in power and completely detached from the values lived in society. He confirms my observation that the G2 governments converge in how they run their nations. “You have a society where the educational materials are all about loving the party, so of course it leads to a spiritual crisis. After a while the students learn that Lei Feng is a fake. This is destructive; it destroys everything you’ve been taught. You feel that nothing is real. How can they teach virtues? It’s impossible. You find out that the things you’re supposed to admire the most are fake. So it seems nothing is real. Faith is a foundation, but the government has no foundation: they will say anything or do anything. The only way the party can succeed is by cheating you. That becomes their biggest success—by how much they can cheat you. That’s whom you’re ruled by.”
Despite the title, The Souls of China is a deeply political book and the subtitle could well be Thank you, Mr. Xi: we don't need another regional set of regressive values in an era of globalization. Societies do need not only laws but also values and it is evident that the modern world is in a general crisis, because the values which are propagated are not lived by those who are in power; the resulting distrust seeps through society and permeates all areas and members. But even if the Xi administration manages to align its value propaganda with its deeds, it will lead to what Samuel Huntington described in 1996 as a clash of civilizations. The stakes for the West are high, because it is highly heterogeneous, badly organized and from a Chinese perspective its increasingly justified to speak of a bunch of barbarians. If Beijing succeeds to implant its values into the minds of its citizens then it will have created trust, i.e. the currency, which Francis Fukuyama argued in 1995 to be an essential antidote to the increasing drift of American culture into extreme forms of individualism, which, if unchecked, will have dire consequences for the nation's economic health. A prognosis which proofed to be true.
Johnson’s main merit consists in showing how China has painfully alienated itself over the last 150 years from its most intrinsic cultural asset to catch up with the Western world; and how Xi Jinping emulates the paramount leader of the cultural revolution and his dynastic predecessors in reinstating exactly this asset. Mao himself understood religion’s power, calling divine authority one of the “four thick ropes” binding traditional society together; the other three were political authority, lineage authority, and patriarchy. Thus he turned himself into the son of heaven who appears as the sun from the east; and Xi portrays himself as patron of traditional Chinese belief systems, i.e. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism with the sole objective of tying the population at large closer to himself.
In retrospect the GFC was a much underestimated turning point, which gave Chinese the impression that they had outperformed the West economically and could now focus again on the values which made them what they are. This search for identity is most prominently featured in Johnson’s book by Master Nan, a Taiwanese born traditionalist who now teaches in the Yangtze River Delta: “In the past one hundred years, China used Western thinking, not Chinese thinking,” Master Nan said. “Communism is Western, not Chinese. Capitalism is also Western. Socialism is also Western. What is Chinese?” Indeed, what is Chinese, and why must it be based on a look backwards? Why can’t we start to define ourselves by a common future?
Xi tries to wrest the divine authority from religious communities, because he has brilliant sociologists as advisors; they have understood by studying other modern societies that the industrial revolution undermines political, lineage authority and patriarchy. Religion will be the only strong rope which will hold in the 21st century a society together and therefore has to be controlled by the government; the reinforcement of the state as a parent surrogate is therefore top nationalist priority, no matter if such policies hamper the personal growth of the population at large. Xi’s policy is contradictory to what the Swiss psychoanalyst Jung said about individuation: Peeling off cultural conditioning and developing a true self often involves physical detachment from one’s originating society.
That the Chinese government does not want its citizens to grow up is subtly reflected in the open street. When I take my strolls in our neighborhood I am on a daily basis consternated by the childishness of political messages, which make the contents seem even more severe. The above left picture shows the nation as the mother and the citizen as the child holding on to the mother’s back. It reads: if the nation of ancestors is wealthy and strong, then my mind is at peace. The right picture is one out of a series spotted in Shanghai’s Changning district which tries to push the value of law and order by showing child citizens looking up to their neighborhood police officer. I am not surprised that a country, where Hello Kitty turned into a mega brand, generates such propaganda, but I am amazed about the multitude of policy interpretations. It seems as if the central government assigned to every local government the task of creating political artwork around the socialist core values, because at least in Shanghai every district has its own peculiar set of posters; each one of them revealing another detail to the keen observer about the true message of this campaign: obey.
Johnson writes that the content for this campaign was conceived in the autumn of 2011, at the last big annual Communist Party meeting under the old administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. The communiqué issued by that meeting frankly described a society where “in a number of areas, morals are defeated, sincerity is lacking, the view of life and value system of a number of members of society is distorted.” The solution was to educate people in “Core Socialist Values.” These were mainly anodyne terms (“patriotism,” “honesty,” “thrift”), but they began to be supplemented with ideas from the old political-religious system of Han Chinese thought, such as filial piety, or xiao, and a political utopian term, datong, often translated as “great harmony.” In fact, the report called China’s traditional heritage “a common spiritual garden for the Chinese nation.”
One would think that president Xi who seems to be in particular fond of Buddhism pushes core values like compassion, but what we usually see first are airplane carriers, tanks, soldiers or symbols of traditional Chinese power like the Temple of Heaven under the characters 富强 | wealth and power; translated euphemistically into prosperity. The simple fact that this value is always leading all others reflects that it is not intended to instill true values into society at large but shows by what it is motivated: the parties will to power. Shouldn’t authentic values be defined by purpose?
Some overview billboards separate the twelve key terms into three groups of each four which reflect three different levels of society: 国家 | nation, 社会 | society, 公民 | citizen. The nation, which is the same as the government and thus the parent surrogate for the citizens should strive to be 富强 | prosperous and powerful, 民主 | democratic, 文明 | civilized, 和谐 | harmonious. Society shall follow the values of 自由 | freedom, 平等 | equality, 公正 | justice and 法治 | the rule of law. The citizen must be 爱国 | patriotic, 敬业 | dedicated, 诚信 | honest and友善 | friendly. Should values be essentially the same for all members of society, no matter whether they have the role of government or ordinary citizen?
The China Dream campaign with its implementing strategy of propagating socialist core values is backwards and inwards looking; it is deeply nationalistic and is the antithesis of what a globalized and united humankind needs to tackle the problems ahead; it is the Chinese version of a Japanese sakoku policy. Instead of reviving the Nüwa myth, telling the Chinese that they were made out of Yellow River clay and teaching them to be patriotic, it would make more sense to talk about The Journey of Man, i.e. why humans are one big famiy having its origin in Africa. Prosperity, democracy, civility and harmony, even if fake, are under president Xi’s policy only values for Chinese subjects and foster the renaissance of the Hua Yi dichotomy: a superior Chinese culture opposed to babarians.
Johnson makes though a slightly optimistic resume of his writing and emphasizes the opportunity for broader transformation. Religion provides a morality and frames of reference for universal aspirations—like justice, fairness, and decency—that are higher than any government’s agenda. Out of this is coming a China that is more than the hyper-mercantilist, fragile superpower that we know. It is a country engaging in a global conversation that affects all of us: how to restore solidarity and values to societies that have made economics the basis of most decisions. Perhaps because Chinese traditions were so savagely attacked over the past decades, and then replaced with such a naked form of capitalism, China might actually be at the forefront of this worldwide search for values. Reading his account of how protestant churches in Chengdu translate the Bible from classic Greek into Chinese and how they meet like early Christian communities; how Buddhist associations focus in the last extent on exhorting people to do good; and how Taoists favor deeds over ruminations; I feel that there is hope and I once again would like to ask philosopher Ken Wilber if he wouldn’t agree that the leading edge of evolution has shifted to China; considering that competition has definitely shifted to the field of values. Wertbewerb instead of Wettbewerb.
Richard McGregor, former FT Beijing Bureau Chief and author of The Party, a widely acclaimed account on the internal workings of China’s ruling bureaucratic apparatus, has completed his next book, Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century, which will be available starting this August. His scholarly talk at the Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club confirmed the global relevance of Sino-Japanese relations not only for the geopolitical future of Far East Asia, but global peace.McGregor highlights that an understanding of the Sino-Japanese relations since WWII must include the US, since it was the US which set in the 1951 San Francisco Treaty the political architecture for the region; and although the entire global economy is affected by the present manufacturing concentration in the region, there is little literature on the Sino-Japanese relations. An entire college industry writes in the UK about the relationship between Germany, France and Great Britain; a similar college industry writes in the US about the G2 Sino-American relationship; historian Neil Ferguson even coined a neologism therefore: Chimerica; but few scholars or journalists pay attention to the trilateral relationship between China, Japan and the US.
It's not only dangerous to build an empire, its even more dangerous to give one away. This statement could well be McGregor’s main message. The Pax Americana has enabled the region to grow peacefully during the last 70 years into an economic success, but a political disaster; a familiar perception which has also been discussed in Europe. The US supremacy has guaranteed not only in Far East Asia, but also in Western Europe for the peaceful frame conditions which enabled both regions to grow economically. But both regions failed to grow into mature political entities under the auspices of the US as parent surrogate. Europe had this unpleasant awakening in the Ukraine conflict with Russia; Japan’s awakening has been triggered by the Diaoyu/Senkaku Island confrontation and is reinforced by the new US president who would have liked to retreat military forces entirely from the region and is quoted saying: If we step back, Japan will defend itself very well. Hasn’t it won every battle against the Chinese so far?
Japan’s relationship to the US has changed during the last few years. It was deeply resentful about the US, about having lost the war and having been imposed a constitution. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s 1971 visit to China was a slap into its face and the 80ies trade war between the two countries is part of the negative collective memory. It nevertheless wants the US now to flash the sword and fend off China’s encroachment on hitherto regional stability. A weakened America, in particular one which suffers from a chaotic presidency provides though to China an opportunity to build its own political empire in the region. Large tender battles between the two nations about high speed railway projects are the tip of an iceberg of economic interests which hoover beneath the political sabre rattling.
Then there is the issue of the Japanese apology for war crimes and atrocities committed during WWII. There have been no joint declarations, no joint historical research process and therefore the bilateral history has neither been collectively nor individually digested despite 14-20 million victims. A joint historical review as done in Germany and France is needed Asking for an official apology from Japan and using the lack of such an apology gainst the neighbor country wasn't China’s policy for decades until the 80ies. Mao thanked Japan for invading China, because otherwise the communists wouldn’t have defeated the nationalists; and it's a historical fact that most fighting against Japanese forces was done by nationalists, not communists. That myth was introduced in the 90s by Jiang Zemin in the course of ramping up a patriotic education which mainly aimed at uniting the dissolving country against Japan.
China did never ask for official reparation payments from Japan and thinks it did Japan a favor thereby: we repaid cruelty with kindness. Japan on the contrary thinks that it never was thanked for the vast investments and infrastructure aid which has been poured into the country in particular in the 80s and 90s. Mutual resentment is deeply rooted, but above all, both countries have never managed to treat each other as equals; probably because they were never able to. China, stuck in its self-perception of cultural superiority, viewing Japan as just another vassal state in the all-under-heaven empire, and Japan in its weird Galapagos mentality believing very much like orthodox Jews to be the God chosen people.
McGregor thinks that China’s big failure in foreign policy is to not have befriended Japan since the GFC and drawn it away from the US. Similar to 17-20th century French foreign policy on continental Europe fearing a unification of German speaking people, the US were motivated in Far East Asia ever since WWII by keeping China and Japan apart. In a Pacific century the front line of Pax Americana runs therefore through Japan over South Korea down to Taiwan and the Philippines, and it is this fault line were we will see with some probability political and military eruption in the years to come.
Although the analogy wasn’t mentioned, I am pretty sure that McGregor would agree to compare the current political situation in Far East Asia to Europe before WWI. France and England saw the rise of Germany and thus a major shift in the balance of power which they were not able to contain. In the collective consciousness, in particular of the ruling elite, new found economic might translated into political arrogance, which led then to war. Henry Kissinger wrote in his 2014 book World Order that the rise of China creates a similar shift in the power balance regionally and globally.
Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe are described by the author as having lots of similarities; both haven’t been stellar scholars to put it euphemistically, but both are men of action; both are members of the political elite and have their family roots in the Sino-Japanese war; their family history is intimately tied to national history; a fact which can not be overemphasized, because it is exponentially reinforced by the Confucian culture which is predominant in both countries: man is part of a family, and the families are the smallest units of the country. The concept of society or nation is alien to Confucius and have been first introduced to Japan by the West with China now following en suite re-building an entire civilization into a nation.
McGregor concludes that it will be difficult for president Xi to genuinely befriend Japan and put the past behind, because a good kick into Japan’s ass is the party’s best weapon to mobilize its masses. I believe, that Abe gets equally as much unifying fear out of the common enemy China. But considering the global dimension of pressing challenges ahead such as environmental degradation and increasing automation of labor markets, we really have to ask ourselves which solutions are available to get these two countries out of their past traumas and future fears to act jointly in the here and now. The author leaves this question sadly open; at least in his talk. Both nations and in particular it’s leaders are advised to look inside and spend some time on C.G. Jung who said: Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
Analyzing a Talk by Jane Sun, CEO of Ctrip, the World’s Largest Online Travel Agency.
Just back from one of the rarely interesting Shanghai Foreign Correspondents Club events. I was due to renew my membership today, but declined, because it does not pay off for attending two or three events a year. And to be completely frank, with spring finally reaching this city, I had a nap in our neighborhood park right afterwards. Bumming. What a relief after that draining push it, be fabulous, be great, we are awesome, business executive talk of pointing at a deer and calling it a horse | 指鹿为马, i.e. Chinese for lying somebody straight into the face and trying to convince of an objective non-truth.
About 50 people wait for lunch in one of Azul’s separated dining rooms on 376 Wukang Rd, which was known during colonial times as Ferguson Lane. The large number of participants indicates that this is a special event. Jane Sun, CEO of Ctrip | 携程, the world’s largest online travel agency, which can be rightly dubbed the Taobao of the travel industry, is scheduled to speak about Key Trends in China’s Travel Industry. As she takes over the mic from the SFCC moderator, we are presented with a Chinese Melania Trump, a face as young as a spring peach, elegant but substantial make up, only a wrinkled neck giving away her real age, which I guess is around 50.
Jane is dressed completely in white and we will learn that she trains her slim body on various city marathons, annually on Shanghai’s – a great choice to extend one’s life span. And a long breath is what this woman needed to become Ctrip’s first CEO, who is not member of the founding Quattro, and female on top of this. Jane tells us that she was born in China, but studied and lived in the US for twenty years and loves both countries. I continue to be cynical, because I have heard it not only once: the worst things grow out of US capitalism and Chinese totalitarianism.
The currently most valuable online travel agency has an army of 33.000 employees with an average age below 25. Its market value was USD 300 mio at its IPO in the year 2000 and exceeds now USD 30 billion. Each of its five business units have their own CEO and CFO and are evaluated like the entire enterprise at Wall Street according to tough KPIs, driving innovation and motivating its work force to perform in permanent excellence. I think I know those lines form Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. Jane tells us that only booking.com and expedia are larger travel industry players, but limit their services to accommodation and air tickets respectively. Ctrip though goes for everything and offers 30 different products with the objective of being a travel one stop shop for its customers. What a paradox …
65% of the domestic online travel market are already under Ctrip’s control and currently roughly 25% of its revenue comes from Chinese travelers going abroad, compared to zero when Jane joined the company ten years ago. 8000 software engineers and Ctrip’s alliance with its largest shareholder Baidu secure that these market shares will increase until monopoly status is attained. Ctrip is on a safe path to indeed turn into the Taobao of the global travel industry. Now why is that? Because of a great management or macro economic frame conditions or both?
Jane is a woman who appears to be friendly, but I am left with a feeling that I don't want to get into a conflict with her; although writing this piece might actually get me there. She is a tough bitch, a tiger mum who explains us that her business units are tiger babies. If it was her focusing on Ctrip’s operations for ten years before she was promoted to serve as CEO, one can assume that the company’s management follows Confucian style army drill and US capitalist employee extortion strategies. She tells us e.g. that employees are not allowed to answer customers with 15 words if 10 words are sufficient, because … now listen closely … our customer’s time is precious to us … and of course we also have to control our operation costs. Imagine yourself how much time employees are given to take a dump. That’s probably why Jane’s talk emphasizes that Ctrip’s employees who mostly hail from the relatively poor provinces of Anhui and Henan receive a lot of social benefits.
Jane’s focus on marketing Ctrip to the audience as an outstandingly social employer and travel giant driven by world peace causes her to forget the event title. Since she mentions not even with a single word key trends of the Chinese travel industry, the first question from the audience during the Q&A section asks exactly this. We are being told that Chinese travel now increasingly abroad to South Korea, Japan and South East Asia. Travels to Europe have declined in favor of the US due to recent terrorist attacks. Well, I knew that much. She then ignores the second – smart - question, if the domestic political situation plays into the hands of the travel industry by jumping into her obvious favorite subject: high end sales.
Now, I don't want to be cynical all along, but you know, when a lady in her early 50s speaks to you nicely but stiffly about her company’s mission and explains to you on a few simple powerpoint slides “What does the world need?” and then gives you in her sweet voice the answer “World peace” and continues “What do we feel passionate about?” and again provides the answer “Bringing people together”, then asks “What are we good at?” while the next answer cascades onto the screen “Linking the world” and finally ends her messianic sermon with the claim that Ctrip’s mission is to bridge the East and the West, I get goose bumps when her body language and facial expression changes significantly when she starts to brag about Ctrip customers spending USD 2k minimum per day on their Hawaii trips and limited edition USD 200k travel packages being sold within only 70 seconds. Her eyes shine. From the far other end of the room I have the impression both the white of her teeth and the red of her lips grows infinitely while she smiles excitedly. Ah… that’s what this deer is about.
Let’s be realistic. Ctrip rides the macro economic wave of a nation not only having become rich enough to turn into a consumer society, but also rich enough to take time off and travel. And its not any nation, it's the world’s most numerous nation which is in PPP the world’s largest economy. It is also a nation which is run by a government which does not allow international competition and has more or less banned foreign travel agencies from its market. Hence, Ctrip enjoys like it’s largest shareholder Baidu political protection to grow without international competition into a colossus, a colossus which thrives on the psychology of travel as a compensation behavior for limited domestic freedom; a colossus which thrives on modern slavery to develop its products; a colossus which knows everything about his customers.
All of the above is part of what state controlled capitalism facilitates and although I would wish for different conditions it is the following thought which worries me more. The American culture critic Neil Postman wrote in 1985 a book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business and claimed 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 work 1984, where they were oppressed by state control.
Jane Sun tells us that travelling helps people to understand each other better. And she is absolutely right about that. Chinese are most likely as a society － there are surely many individual exception － where the US was as a society about a 100 years ago, when Mark Twain wrote: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime. So maybe Jane is right when she quotes a Chinese proverb: It's better to travel 10000 miles than to 10000 books.
I have looked up that proverb and found that读万卷书，行万里路 literally translated means Read 10000 books and walk 10000 miles and could be loosely translated to Learn as much as you can and go as far as possible. It’s a reminder to strive for more, not a preference for travel over reading, which would constitute a heresy in Confucian China. I interpret moreover a preference for the truly investigative and contemplative journey over blind group pressured travel packages. But Jane’s new use reflects where the modern Chinese society is heading to: the same consumerist amusement addiction of which Western societies suffer since a few decades, but combined with Orwellian cyber-Leninism.
Jane’s presentation in general, but her subtle twist of the original meaning of that Chinese proverb in particular raises the question which responsibility such powerful conglomerations like Ctrip have in our modern world. She tells us that Ctrip tracks every move of its customers and recommends according to prior purchase behavior similar and additional products accordingly. With Baidu as its largest shareholder I am pretty sure that Ctrip runs similar algorithms like Facebook or Google which have been recently in a brilliant Guardian article revealed to be absolutely misguiding and quite often devilishly leading to an utterly wrong decision whether that may be a political opinion or a purchase click. When I point this out, Jane replies that she recognizes this risk, but Ctrip does not deal with such delicate political questions, it sells only beautiful places and historical sites. Again a broad innocent smile with much tooth white and inflated lip red.
Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr pointed out that Google’s search algorithms reflect virtually nothing but the popularity of websites based on the number of search inquiry. There is nothing that checks whether any of the recommendations are actually true or good or beautiful or have any other value. Google is search. It's the verb, to Google. Its what we all do, all the time, whenever we want to know anything. We google it. Its mission as a company, the one-line overview that has informed the company since its foundation and is still the banner headline on its corporate website today, is to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. Well, whatever Baidu has as its mission, the organization of information or world peace, it does the same as Google; it is as a matter of fact a modelled after Google.
Cadwalladr points out that not only Google, but also Facebook and, indeed, the general Internet culture itself operates like an echo chamber which satiates our appetite for pleasant lies and reassuring falsehoods and has become the defining challenge of the 21st century. Jews are evil. Woman are evil. Muslims need to be eradicated. And Hitler? Let’s google it. Was Hitler bad? Cadwalladr types. Google’s top result: 10 reasons why Hitler was one of the good guys. She clicks on the link: He never wanted to kill any Jews.
Now just think for a second without me actually doing Cadwalladr’s experiment on Baidu, what search results we would get from there if we were to ask: Are Japanese evil? Should China kick America’s ass? Is Mongolia an integral part of China? With decades of focusing on foreign enemies to create domestic unity reflected in the propaganda poster art, China is poised to use the Internet’s echo chambers for its regime’s ultimate and necessary objective to maintain social unity. American philosopher Ken Wilber explained recently that US postmodernism negates truth and values and explained that this madness has led to Trump being put in office; a clear sign of collective regression into ethnocentrism triggered by the failure of the postmodern political leadership personified in Hilary Clinton to integrate all layers of US society. China can look back on centuries of crafting narratives which suit the ruling dynasty but are far from the historical truth and at least since the cultural revolution opportunism has permeated the mainstream culture despite many Chinese living their private lives by high ethical standards. I get the impression that the West and China are converging in their moral nihilism. What Wilber calls a post truth world and what is currently described in the West as alternative facts or pleasant lies has a strong overlap with the Chinese tradition of pointing at a deer and calling it a horse.
Wolfgang Uchatius published 2013 shortly before the German national elections a long essay in the weekly Die Zeit titled Should I Vote or Shop? He describes therein that the opinions of German political parties on major social, economic and political questions clearly converge with only the far left being a genuine alternative to the moderate social democrats, Christian conservatives, liberals and greens. He concludes that German citizens have lost their democratic rights to this indiscernibility of political movements and are left with making purchase decisions. I read a similar analysis on political opinions of democrat and republican contenders for the 2016 US presidential elections, which concluded that only Bernie Sanders is a genuine alternative for the US electorate; all others represent roughly the same values and opinions. We also know that the most populous nation in the world, China, is ruled since 1949 by a one-party system, which de lege concentrates all political opinion in one organization only. Again, with some realistic cynicism, we could argue that we witness a convergence of global political systems, and consequently the collapse of individual political rights in Western democracies. In accordance with Wolfgang Uchatius’ analysis, we must conclude that citizenship is a dying singular concept, which gives rise to the plurality of customership. 21st century mankind is vested with the political powers of what and how to consume.
I therefore strongly believe that all the social movements which were born during the Age of Enlightenment like anti-slavery, women rights, political freedom et cetera have to give way to a single new movement, which is consumer empowerment, i.e. enabling the individual to make sound consumption decisions. I don't want to repeat here what others have already said perfectly well; read Steven Rosenbaum writing on a definition of consumer empowerment in Forbes. But I want to emphasize that this is a unique opportunity for mankind to put the differences of political systems aside and unite in the idea of forging a sound future through qualitatively better and most likely quantitatively less consumption.
When Marx called in the 19th century on the proletarians to unite against the capitalists he failed to recognize the dynamics of human psychology. Marxism got perverted by man putting power over purpose. It might well be that a 21st century call on consumers to unite against manufacturers of goods and providers of services fails because of the same dynamics which are innate to man’s psyche; but considering that we have truly entered a global arena, at least in terms of trade, the game board has changed significantly and the power of national regimes are limited beyond recognition. Henceforth the 19th century antagonists of the proletarian movement have shifted from an alliance between capitalists and nationalist regimes to a more or less clearly defined number of conglomerations which manufacture and distribute the goods and services which we consume.
The consumer is therefore left with two choices which do not exclude each other. Firstly, he can reduce his external consumption and shift towards internal consumption, i.e. produce as much as possible himself and trade within small local communities. This concept, I believe, does only work for self-sustainable farming, but wont satisfy human needs beyond nutrition. Secondly, he needs to learn more about the true costs of products purchased externally. Since, I rarely think either black or white, it is very likely that we have to take both choices simultaneously: Reduce consumption and empower the consumer. I focus here on the latter.
So what needs to be done to empower the consumer? How can a single person make sense of the myriads of products available on the market? The key words here are transparency, accountability and social responsibility, and all three of them, I believe are questions of ethical behavior which can hardly be executed or enforced by legal mechanisms, but must be trained through a culture of genuine empathy. 1. The true costs of products and services being offered must be made transparent. 2. Manufacturers and service providers must be accountable. 3. Consumers, manufacturers and service providers must act socially responsible.
Now, this thought brings me back to Jane Sun and her pep talk on China’s most social employer Ctrip. I asked her yet another question in regard to Ctrip’s actions to obtain world peace by reducing environmental pollution. She acknowledged again the relevance of my question, and – seriously – responded that Ctrip customers can donate their loyalty points to environment protection causes. I don't want to be too hard on rising Chinese MNO’s, because they basically go through an entrepreneurial life cycle which is comparable to the gold rush of American conglomerates after WWI. Chinese didn’t have more than a century to learn that not short term profit, but long term sustainability should be the desired business objective. And truth be told, most Western companies still haven’t. But it is the economic might and the velocity with which China rises, the protectionist isolation of its market, the support of its new global players by a cyberleninist government and the sheer scale of economy of all things happening within the domestic market which have much more effect on humanity at large than anything else we have ever seen, that makes it a paramount task to make Chinese leading entrepreneurs aware of their responsibility to be transparent, accountable and socially responsible.
Scold me for my carbon footprint if you want to or simply accept the facts which you can also watch in the documentary Before the Flood. I just returned from a holiday on Bali and was horrified to see the environmental degradation there. Bali has like most other small islands basically no native industry and most goods have to be transported to the island. The local infrastructure is poor and lacks above all state of the art sewage systems and liquid and solid waste treatment facilities. The tropical rain flushes garbage of whatever consistence left on the roads and on uncontained waste dumps into the sea which literally looks like a huge toilet. We were told that there is only one unspoiled beach left on the far West of the island, and the number of Chinese tourists on Bali is steeply increasing. A recent seminar on Cheung Chau | 长洲岛, one of Hong Kong’s smaller islands, which is a favorite weekend getaway for the close by urbanites, showed a similar picture. The South Korean owner of a Philippine diving school warned me already back in 2011 to avoid dive sites where Chinese tour groups show up. They come in packs of 30 to 50 divers instead of usually five to ten and coral reefs are quickly destroyed because many divers believe to have the right to break off a souvenir.
Jane is well aware of such developments. Probably referring to the incident of a Chinese tourist vandalizing the most inner hall of the 3500 year old Egyptian temple in Luxor which went viral on weibo in 2013, or the Hong Kong uproar of comparing mainland Chinese tourist flocking to the citystate like a swarm of locusts. She explains that this is just the adolescent period of a young travel nation, “There were times when Americans were also considered annoying and preposterous tourists who have no respect for local culture and customs, but all this has changed and so it will for Chinese tourists once they have grown into mature travelers.” Jane is absolutely right, and it would be wrong to blame Chinese in general for a few individuals who misbehave. But since even Western consumers haven’t been given the tools to consume mindfully, it is – again considering the economy of scale and China’s rapid development – paramount to start with consumer education asap.
Jane though is excited about massive and mindless consumption as her body language reveals while bragging about customer spending on Hawaii and luxury travel package sales shows. And both Ctrip and Baidu seem to be absolutely ignorant to the responsibility they have to teach Chinese consumers making better external purchase decisions. I can’t highlight the relevance of mindful consuming enough in a country with the most convenient B2C platforms and delivery services. Companies like Ctrip which employ 8000 software engineers to reach their sales targets could also employ some designers like Tristan Harris who think deeply how software can increase long term well being not short term profit. They could, just some thoughts off the top of my head, add carbon footprint indicators next to the travel package choices or give a pole position listing to airlines which do not serve junk food in plastic packaging on the plane, but nutritious and tasty meals before and after the take off in airport cafeterias.
There are surely lots of great ideas out there on how to reduce mindless consumption, but it takes a clear and genuine yes from power people like Jane Sun to implement such ideas. 21st century consumers can unite like 19th century proletarians, but it will be a long and painful path to induce real change, because human psychology has remained unchanged. If the CEO’s in today’s multinational megabusinesses continue to be corrupted by power and forget over this selfish attitude their responsibility to act on behalf of the greater good, then I believe there is little hope for radical change. It is Google, Facebook, Tencent, Baidu, Taobao & Co., the tech giants which control the flow of bits and bytes and the large retailers like German Aldi, Japanese Lawson or US Walmart, which control the flow of goods, which have to change from channeling to consumers economically short term profitable information and products - and thus most often outspoken madness; to channel knowledge – and truth - which increases individual and general long term well-being. Jane’s pointing at a deer and calling it a horse during that SFCC lunch was a sad display of being deeply enthralled in the former.
Follow up reading:
Tom Miller, the managing director of the China Economic Quarterly, presents his second book after China’s Urban Billion as a work which was inspired by Howard French’s China’s Second Continent. French wrote on China’s colonial ambitions in Africa through the eyes of about one million Chinese who have settled on the continent. Similar to French, Miller interviews dozens of people in 14 different Asian countries, both locals and Chinese colonizers. He arrives at the conclusion that there is no plan for the Silk Road; there is not even a map; it's a moving target. The NDRC did only define 6 economic corridors, which have little in common with the Silk Road, but are more about establishing connectivity between the Middle Kingdom and its neglected Eurasian neighborhood.
Miller provides several reasons why Xi Jinping wants to build these commercial corridors:
USD 30 billion outward investment in 2015/2016 is still limited compared to USD 100 billion in Africa, but USD 189 billion in contracts signed tell a story of significant commercial success and long term commitment. Let’s forget the numbers. China either shifts its foreign policy focus away from Africa to its own region of intimate impact and pledges to invest massive amounts through its own development banks, or it simply aspires for a new world order since a G2 does not seem anymore likely with a US that has regressed into an ethnocentric and self-protective development stage. Considering that the new Silk Road does encompass a corridor to Africa the latter is more likely.
The NYT writes that Xi Jinping positioned China at center of new economic order on May 14th when he opened the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Miller mentioned in his book presentation that Beijing was covered with billboard posters prior to the forum and joked that the abbreviation of the forum, BARF, is a synonym for regurgitate in American English. That’s probably how many representatives of Western nations – a strong overlap with NATO member states to be assumed – felt, because most of them did not show up for this grandly executed event.
Chairman Xi gives the one belt one road project absolute priority. It seems to be his flagship project, the project with which he wants to write history; despite the connotations we might have with the Silk Road, it is in essence more about China re-building its network of vassal states, similar to what the US did after WWII under the NATO umbrella and with its semi-colonial dependencies in Central and South America; or the USSR with the Eastern Bloc. The international implications are already visible, because the world shows after four decades cold war from the late 1940s to the early 90s a new fault line between democratic and authoritarian political systems and their spheres of influence. This time not only the centers of power have changed, but the also the frame conditions, in particular the technologies applied by governments and within societies at large. China’s technocratic system and its advances in cyberleninism seem to have a cutting edge over outdated democratic opinion finding.
Historian Harari wrote recently that political scientists increasingly interpret human political structures as data-processing systems. Like capitalism and communism, so democracies and dictatorships are in essence competing mechanisms for gathering and analysing information. Dictatorships use centralised processing methods, whereas democracies prefer distributed processing. In the last decades democracy gained the upper hand because under the unique conditions of the late twentieth century, distributed processing worked better … as data-processing conditions change in the twenty-first century, democracy might decline and even disappear. As both the volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, parties and parliaments might become obsolete – not because they are unethical, but because they don’t process data efficiently enough. These institutions evolved in an era when politics moved faster than technology.
Harari continues, that doesn’t mean we will go back to twentieth-century-style dictatorships. Authoritarian regimes seem to be equally overwhelmed by the pace of technological development and the speed and volume of the data flow. In the twentieth century, dictators had grand visions for the future. Communists and fascists alike sought to completely destroy the old world and build a new world in its place. Whatever you think about Lenin, Hitler or Mao, you cannot accuse them of lacking vision. Today it seems that leaders have a chance to pursue even grander visions. While communists and Nazis tried to create a new society and a new human with the help of steam engines and typewriters, today’s prophets could rely on biotechnology and super-computers.
The big question is therefore what vision president Xi has for China’s citizens and humanity at large. Are gargantuan projects like the One Belt One Road Initiative motivated by power or purpose? If power is the Middle Kingdom’s paramount leader’s paramount motivation, then the fears of neighboring countries which Miller describes in his book are justified. In Kirgizstan people have a perception that the Chinese are gobbling up the country. Sri Lanka thinks that Chinese will import even more corruption than the island nation already suffers from. Pakistani are outspoken belligerent and Beijing had to dispatch 15000 Chinese security staff to protect Chinese workers at infrastructure project sites. Chinese expansionism in the South Chinese sea and beyond nurtures India’s worries that a string of pearl harbors suffocates its own commercial and defense system. Laos experiences in its Golden Triangle SEZ, which is owned by a Heilongjiang businessman commercial annexation: clocks are set according to Beijing Time and China Mobile serves as main carrier. All Pacific nations are doubtful about the consequences of president Xi pressing ahead with APEC since president Trump declared TTP dead; regional trade organizations like ASEAN might suffer a gradual lethal blow from APEC, because they would be made redundant.
If chairman Xi’s vision is driven by power, then the world is likely to experience a scenario which is likely to what William Adams and Damien Ma tried to describe in their macroeconomic analysis In Line Behind a Billion People. Scarcity will define China’s ascent during the next decade, in particular for those who have to queue; and that is ROW: the rest of the world. Foreign participants of the BARF event on May 14 would then be political opportunists who want to secure themselves a place in second position, still behind China, but at least before others in the new global pecking order. If chairman Xi’s vision is driven by purpose, what I hope very much, we could indeed see a massive increase in living standards in regions which have till now not participated in the benefits of the industrial revolution and globalization. China’s initiative could henceforth facilitate more economic and social justice. The future will show which vision was at the heart of China’s helmsman, but there is reason to be suspicious, because apart from China’s Asia Dream, which is mostly communicated to a foreign audience, there is a second much more important domestic dream being broadcasted since years to the Chinese citizens: the China Dream | 中国梦. It is shown to the population on billboards all over the country and speaks with a wall in center position a well known symbolic language of exclusion which is the exact opposite of what president Xi pledges in the video of the state owned news agency Xinhua.
Follow up reading and listening:
Saw the above graph recently on wechat with a question: where would you locate China? I couldn't help but storming my brain and arrived at the conclusion that a society changing at warp speed must also change in this aspect dramatically from a very traditional, probably even more traditional Confucian society than Japan to something that at least in my humble opinion comes very close to today's America. The GFC could be considered as an important tipping point from non confrontational to confrontational because hiterto supressed aggression started rougly then to be openly shown due to increased collective self confidence.
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