Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Chinese Pride or Western Prejudice

At the end of this month (31 January 2014), the Year of the Horse begins. The media around the world will undoubtedly take the opportunity once again to make as many sweeping comments about China and Chinese people as they can.

This year we can turn it into a little game and check the accuracy of what’s confidently proclaimed by commentators, with the help of a new book by Ben Chu (The Independent’s Economics Editor) called Chinese Whispers: why everything you heard about China is wrong (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2013). The book brings together an array of generalisations about all things Chinese, and with wit and considerable analytical prowess exposes old myths and new exaggerations alike.

Two of my favourites are: ‘the Chinese don’t want freedom’ and ‘the Chinese live to work’. Apparently, Chinese people are so obsessed with working hard that they neither mind getting paid a pittance nor being denied the freedom to express their concerns about how they are treated. That would be a convenient excuse for the exploitation of Chinese migrant workers in Britain and America in late 19th/early 20th centuries, and of lowly paid workers in China today. But the reality is that when economically one is given no other option but to take what little is on offer, and politically one can see no real opportunity to challenge the prevailing arrangements, one has no choice but to toil in silence – like billions of non-Chinese around the world.

But have not ‘the Chinese reinvented capitalism’? Have they not come up with a new economic system that, guided by far-sighted planning, and fuelled by congenitally diligent workers, is propelling China to surpass the US to become the largest national economy by 2017? According to Chu, China has merely removed the barriers in a way that countries in Europe and America have done in previous centuries (and in East Asia more recently). It has allowed its workforce to engage in producing what there is a worldwide demand for. But it is already making similar mistakes to other more advanced economies in fuelling investment bubbles; allowing a tiny elite to amass an ever increasing share of the wealth generated by the whole nation; and curtailing the purchasing power of the vast majority of its own population through a combination of low wages and minimalist welfare spending. As people save up in case they are sick and for their old age, the demand needed to sustain domestic manufacturing fails to materialise, and the same old capitalist problems will hit China.

Needless to say, Chu does not care for the claim ‘China will rule the world’. He has good reasons. Economically, the country’s per capita GDP is two and a half times smaller than that of Greece. Technologically, it is a long way from the top of the league for innovations. In 2009, it registered 1,600 patents in the US, while Spain registered 4 times that with 6,500, not to mention Japan’s 35,000. Culturally, its influence in terms of arts and entertainment is negligible outside its own frontiers. Militarily, it spent in 2012 eight times less than the US on the armed services. Its troops are confined to its own borders, unlike the US which has 500,000 troops stationed abroad. It also has 20 times fewer nuclear warheads than the US.

To the wider world, China neither poses a threat nor offers a special salvation. The Chinese people have their customs, but they also adapt to changing circumstances. In seeking peace and prosperity, they are not that different from anyone else. If anyone thinks they have a snappy phrase to capture the diverse mindsets and inclinations of a billion Chinese people, they should take a look at ‘Chinese Whispers’ first.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

‘Question the Powerful’: quincentenary of the 1514 watershed

The progressive tradition of critical thinking and radical reform has been a driving force for intellectual and social improvement for centuries. Although it began to take shape over the first half of the 16th century, the year 1514 marked a notable watershed worthy of commemoration five hundred years on.

Down to 1514, Renaissance Humanism was still largely preoccupied with recovering ancient learning to quench the growing thirst for knowledge. After 1514, the floodgates opened and the eras of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Reform rapidly came in subsequent centuries – successively advancing the frontiers of human understanding and democratic cooperation far beyond what had been previously thought possible.

Ideas articulated by a number of thinkers in 1514 cumulatively gave rise to the progressive ethos: never accept that there is no room for improvement; constantly explore alternative options; and be ever ready to question the powerful.

In 1514, Erasmus wrote Julius Excluded from Heaven, a satirical dialogue about papal abuse of power, which mocked the religious establishment for pretending that its greed and ill treatment of people were divinely sanctioned. In the same year, Thomas More, a friend of Erasmus, began writing The History of Richard III, a sharp critique of the tyrannical behaviour of kings. It cast doubt about the structure of hierarchical power as much as his other work, Utopia, questioned the socio-economic distribution of resources in the society of his time.

1514 was also the year when Copernicus wrote his Little Commentary, which challenged the view then held by everyone in a position of authority, namely, that the earth was the centre of the universe, and argued instead for a heliocentric model with the earth moving around the sun. No less revolutionary was Machiavelli’s The Prince, which he completed in 1514 to explain, along with its companion piece, Discourses, why rulers must do everything they can to take control of the apparatus of an authoritarian state, and transform it into a free republic for the common good.

One of the most dramatic exemplars of this new progressive mindset was Philip von Hohenheim, who in 1514 embarked on his medical career. He visited universities across Europe and concluded that it was wholly unacceptable to rely without question on ancient texts such as those by Celsus who wrote about medicine fifteen hundred years previously. Declaring that all texts must be critically questioned no matter how long they had been accepted, von Hohenheim changed his own name to ‘Paracelsus’ (‘beyond Celsus’), and led a movement to transform medicine by relentlessly subjecting its theory and practice to empirical analysis and experimentation.

Of course all the figures mentioned above had their share of shortcomings and intellectual blind spots, but collectively, they helped to inaugurate the progressive tradition, which in the next five hundred years transformed innumerable aspects of life for the better. And as we commemorate the quincentenary of this watershed year, we should recognise the oppressive threats posed in our times by the rise of plutocracy and resurgent fundamentalism, and draw strength from the wisdom and courage of the 1514 pioneers to persist with finding better alternatives and never desist from questioning the powerful.

To find out more about the progressive tradition, here is a list of ten books that take a closer historical look at how it has evolved, and what lessons we may draw from its development over time.