Kevin (erf_) wrote,

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how to destroy a five thousand year civilization in ten easy steps: part one

Recently I've been reading a fair bit about Sun Yat-sen, one of the most influential figures in contemporary Chinese history, and unarguably the single most revered person in Taiwan's political pantheon. For those of you who didn't grow up seeing his portrait in every school and public building (those who did can skip this entire paragraph), Sun is regarded as the "Father of Modern China" by both the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China, and was responsible for establishing China's first and only democratic government. In the years before the fall of the Qing, the country's final dynasty, Sun had established a reputation for himself as an international activist, garnering financial and ideological support among overseas Chinese to overthrow the corrupt, ineffectual, and intellectually and technologically backward Qing empire. He wrote once-controversial essays, now held in the same kind of reverence in the Republic of China as America does for the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, about adapting Western ideals of democracy to a Chinese cultural model. Sun believed a uniquely Chinese form of representative government of the people, for the people, by the people (yes, he cribbed the Gettysburg Address; the Chinese know these as the Three Principles, and the Taiwanese know it as their national anthem), a radical break from the dynastic model that had defined revolution in China for most of its history, was ironically the only way to end decades of Western economic domination. Citing the Opium Wars and various anti-foreign uprisings during the reign of the Qing, he made a strong case for not attempting to throw off the yoke of neo-colonialism by inciting violence against the West. He blamed instead the radical right-wing traditionalism, corruption, and incompetence that defined the reign of the Qing for turning China into the rest of the world's cash cow. (Historical context: The Qing believed the only way to resist foreign influence was to isolate China from the rest of the world. Consequently, the Qing lost both Opium Wars, which even the British House of Commons found repugnant on moral grounds, failed to contain the Taiping Rebellion, a religious uprising that killed more people than World War I, openly supported the Boxer Rebellion, and ultimately surrendered the world's oldest civilization to opium slavery. Not hard to see why Sun was so pissed.) A strong, modern, democratic, and uniquely Chinese government, Sun believed, was the only way for China to establish its own identity in an increasingly Western-dominated world--the only way to deal with the West was to be able to negotiate with them as an equal partner, on an equal footing. A talented orator and skilled diplomat, Sun successfully made his case to nationalists, socialists, and democratic reformers alike--as well as, interestingly enough, to foreign governments and overseas Chinese, to whom he pitched his plan as a way to sow the seeds of Western democracy from within. (A testament to his powers of persuasion: there isn't a Chinese ideological movement anywhere in the world, it seems, that doesn't claim Sun as one of its own.) Uniting under the banner of nationalism, a common trend given the international climate at the time, Sun's supporters--but curiously not Sun himself--took advantage of rioting and minor uprisings across China to stage a coup, resulting ultimately in the abdication of Emperor Puyi and the end of five millenia of dynastic succession in China.

This is all stuff that, in varying levels of detail, my classmates and I all learned at NEHS. All stuff that every Taiwanese seventh grader is familiar with, the same way that every American middle schooler's head is filled with details of George Washington's life and career, from the cherry tree to the crossing of the Delaware to the framing of the Constitution. What we didn't learn about Sun--or maybe just didn't get to, in the Taiwanese national curriculum--was everything else.

You see, even though Sun was a brilliant theorist, an eloquent orator, and a shrewd diplomat, he was a terrible politician. He had the ideas to get a revolution together, but he grossly underestimated how deep the roots of corruption and self-interest in China really went. His naming as the first provisional president of the ROC was almost immediately overturned by the conservatives among the revolutionary movement, who named Yuan Shikai, a prominent Qing general, as a politically safe choice for the second provisional president of China. (This was their way of repaying him for defecting the entire Qing army in Wuchang to the revolutionary movement--he scratched their back, so they scratched his.) This turned out to be a really bad move, as it turns out Yuan was a megalomaniac with imperial aspirations; he declared himself emperor, and it took another bloody coup to remove him from power. The brouhaha over Yuan's succession erupted into a series of enormous clusterfucks over the next few decades, which, for the sake of brevity, I will summarize: a Qing restoration attempt, a period of rule by squabbling warlords, an awkward military campaign by Sun against the Republic of China, a bizarre alliance with the newly formed Chinese Communist Party...all hell broke loose, really. Not for one moment of the post-Qing period did Sun's dream of a democratic, representative government for China ever come to fruition. Near the end of his life, Sun himself--this is the part that never gets mentioned in Taiwanese history books!--disillusioned to see his beloved country dissolve into anarchy, abandoned his democratic ideals and attempted to retake China once again in a campaign of violent anti-foreign militarist authoritarianism. (One of history's many tragic examples of a brilliant leader becoming that which he opposed.) His successor, the warlord Chiang Kai-shek, is popularly credited for perverting Sun's dream into a government of personal ambition, militarism, and brutal political repression, but the truth is that Chiang merely continued the legacy of Sun's final days, a period marked by bitterness, cynicism, and an absolute lack of faith in a people he once loved. It took thirty years and World War II for the communists (who were far more shrewd in the network of old boys' clubs, secret alliances, monetary kickbacks, and backdoor dealings than their republican predecessors) to finally restore order in China; and seventy years, World War II, the 2-28 Incident, and the threat of total annihilation from Beijing for any semblance of true democracy to finally emerge in the exile government on Taiwan.

Sun, by any objective measure of political success, was an absolute failure. Not only did he not succeed in rebuilding China on a democratic model, he led his country into decades of brutal anarchy, fell out of power himself, and ultimately turned against everything he stood for. Sun thought that by uprooting the Qing and installing a republic, he could put an end to the many millenia of systematized corruption, nepotism, warlordism, and might-makes-right authoritarianism that have plagued the Chinese people since the dawn of civilization. But in destroying the Qing, Sun merely peeled away the bark of the rotting tree, tearing away the facade of government that had been the only thing keeping Beijing's ancient network of Machiavellian manipulators, criminal organizations, and wealthy private interests underground, and exposed the true rulers of China to the world. His own movement, built on precariously fragile alliances, succumbed to conspiracy and infighting when it became clear that Sun was actually serious about instituting a democratic republic, rather than using the typical rhetoric people in power use to keep rioting peasants at bay. His desperate gambit to achieve authoritarian control of China--ostensibly to purge the corruption from Beijing in order to allow true democracy to flourish--led to a movement that actually achieved an oppressive totalitarian state, one so violent and intolerable that the atrocities of the ensuing communist revolution (places of worship burning, entire families slaughtered, clanhouses torn down by rioters, people lynched in the streets for speaking English), which led to an almost equally totalitarian state, seemed to the Chinese people like an acceptable compromise. Sun began and ended democracy in China. One wonders if, for all his idealism, and for all he is venerated today, China would have been a better place if he had simply done nothing.

Madness? This. Is. China!!!!!

Not bad for a disaffected Chinese-American kid who went to middle school in Hawaii, and was shut out of Chinese politics for much of his early adult life because he hadn't studied the classics like everyone else. (To this day, Chinese politics does not take kindly to people with foreign influences or new ideas. Those who haven't learned the lessons of Chinese history are not fit to rule China! Especially the lessons about how brutal violence is essential to maintaining power! And so forth. To this day there are Chinese scholars who, missing the entire point of the anti-Qing rebellion, attribute Sun's failure to his unfamiliarity with Chinese history and tradition.)

That's something Sun and Mao have in common, really--one that Chinese people don't talk about enough, since it drives Chinese conservatives up the wall: They were both inspired to revolution by the ugliness of Chinese culture. There's no denying that there is great beauty in Chinese culture, too--five thousand years of continuous civilization have produced inimitably beautiful art, music, theater, literature, cuisine, architecture, and philosophy, and transformed the world with inventions like gunpowder, the printing press, and the compass. Mao professed a fondness for classical Chinese poetry, and was an excellent poet; Sun had an arranged marriage. But five thousand years in which violence is seen as the only viable mechanism for political succession leads to some pretty horrible things being passed down from generation to generation. Sun was horrified by the heavy taxes levied upon Chinese peasants by the gentry, and the gentry's attempt to defend them on traditional moral grounds, and he struggled against the rigid unthinking manner in which politics and philosophy were taught in Chinese higher education. Mao...well, evidently he hated everything, considering that in the Cultural Revolution he attempted to purge every last artifact of pre-communist China from the earth. (That so much of it survived anyway, despite the mobs of Communist supporters in every city hellbent on destroying everything, is a testament to how much Chinese people value tradition over politics.) It would be erroneous to imply that either of them was blissfully unaware of how deep corruption in China went. I suppose it was their shared assumption that a strong central government, in which the people had real faith in, could stamp out all the nepotism and all the power play bullshit. Sun thought that giving people a stake in government through democracy would persuade them to hold their leaders to higher standards of integrity; Mao believed that since bad money bubbles to the top, empowering the proletariat to smash the upper class would obliterate corruption once and for all. Both underestimated the curious tendency of Chinese people, in an uncertain political climate, to abandon all pretense of ideology and act entirely in their individual self-interest.

I want to believe that my mother's family survived the Cultural Revolution because they were strong. The ugly truth is, they survived because they were selfish. In Chinese revolutions, noble hearts suffer the same fate as noble families: They get culled. Violently. With not a trace left on the earth. Only cowards and ideologues survive Chinese revolutions, and ideologues only live until the next.

The problem with both Sun's approach and Mao's approach, different as they are, is the same: They thought they could eliminate corruption, a social problem, with a political solution. The truth is, corruption has been the bane of Chinese government since its inception--perhaps even more so than corruption in Western governments, rife as it was during so many periods in Western history. Government is not the solution to corruption. Government is the medium by which corruption spreads. Trying to prevent corruption by redesigning government is like trying to prevent graffiti by redesigning walls. There's really not so much you can do, from that angle. Integrity is a very new concept to Chinese culture. 關係 (a measure of Chinese norms of reciprocity), 面子 (reputation), and 臉 (face), on the other hand, are more ancient in China than civilization itself. Bribery, if you're the one doing it, is seen as not a sin but a virtue (it's only a crime when other people do it). For all Chinese people point fingers and scold politicians who get caught for embezzlement or triad connections on television, they congratulate each other and celebrate when they find out how to pick the lock on traffic signals, or charge expensive family vacations to their expense accounts. Manipulating the system, even aspects universally accepted to be part of the public good (like public transportation and bathrooms), is a point of pride. The ability to honor obligations and repay debts, even against personal ethics and professional loyalties, is, paradoxically, just as revered in China in most circumstances as it is reviled when used to pull strings in government.

These meta-political ideas are entrenched in Chinese cultural values, even morality. They have survived every dynasty, corrupted every ideology; they have escaped the purges of the Cultural Revolution; they have withstood carrots and sticks, schooling and Confucius, liberalization and incarceration, appeasement and torture. Saying you'll get rid of them is all well and good, and you can get millions of Chinese, sick of whole-family lynchings and triad killings and widespread embezzlement, to rally behind you in that cause...but the moment the shit hits the fan, folks loot their supermarkets, count their favors, band their families together, and run for the protection of the warlord they've sucked up to most. Machiavelli may have been Italian and Bismarck may have been German, but even they knew that repaying a favor is sometimes a bad idea. Even they would have had a public outcry to answer for if things they had done came to light during their time, rather than a massive public shrug of apathy. Corruption in China, as it always has been, is officially public enemy number 1, but is unofficially tolerated as far as the system will let it go. Do any but the most respectable, amazingly committed Chinese official a favor, and you will watch him or her struggle to not do a favor for you in return. Even if you didn't ask for one.

Feudalism, after all these thousands of years, still lives on.

No, government reform, no matter what form or what flavor, will not put an end to all this embezzling and pork-barreling and back-scratching and favor-mongering that dominates every aspect of Chinese social relations from the highest echelons of bureaucracy to the gifts your brother brings you to obligate you to do a favor for him. It's immoral. It's usually illegal. It's cowardly, and entangles people in obligations they can't fulfill. And yet...given the thousands of history behind this particular aspect of a Chinese cultural background, it takes a strong will, a sharp mind, and a powerful sense of integrity for someone raised in an authentic Chinese cultural background to not instinctively sell out Sun Yat-sen's vision for a favor. Sun lost his revolution to this bullshit. Mao lost his revolution to this bullshit. The people of China still struggle under twice their weight in bureaucracy, both the official and the unofficial one, because of this bullshit. The greatest political thinkers in five thousand years of Chinese history could not put an end to the eternal war between the two extremes of authoritarianism and corruption that dominate Chinese politics to this day.

But you can.

(part two)
Tags: china, history, politics
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