Tuesday


In geostrategic circles it is common to speak of China as an island, even though China is very much a part of the Eurasian landmass. China is isolated from its civilizational neighbors by mountain ranges and deserts and an ocean. These barriers have not been absolute, but these have been effective in isolating China and limiting Chinese interaction with other Old World civilizations. The less often recognized flip side of an insular China surrounded by mountains, deserts, and an ocean is that of Chinese unity. Chinese insularity and Chinese unity are two sides of the same coin; China’s geographical barriers both isolate and unify the region.

The idea of Chinese unity has a deep history in geostrategic thought, both in China and elsewhere in Eurasia and the world. Chinese civilization seems to have had its origins in the Yellow River Valley during the Neolithic, and it has been continuously Chinese civilization more-or-less since that time. There is direct line of descent from these earliest origins of civilization in East Asia to the China of today. And while the idea diffusion of Chinese civilization populated East Asia with other civilizations, related to China by descent with modification, few of these other civilizations had a profound reflexive influence upon Chinese civilization, even as they came to maturity and become regional powers. Moreover, when China has not been unified — as during the period of Warring States or the Taiping Rebellion — this has been regarded as an historical aberration.

Chinese unity is a far greater and much older imperative than any one Chinese regime, including the communist iteration of China as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Chinese communists are as keen on Chinese unity as any Chinese emperor of the past (much as general secretaries of the communist party in the Soviet Union were as keen on Russian imperialism as was any Tsar). Any great disruption within China threatens Chinese unity, and so is perceived as an existential threat to one of the core strategic imperatives of Chinese civilization. Another way of stating this is Martin Jacques’ contention that China is a “civilization-state” that derives its legitimacy from the continuity of its civilization (cf. Civilization-States and Their Attempted Extirpation).

At the recent 18th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese General Wei Fenghe, State Councilor and Minister of National Defense, PRC, gave a speech largely focused on Taiwan and the South China Sea. Taiwan perfectly exemplifies the Chinese concern for Chinese unity. It has been seventy years since the Chinese Nationalists fled to Taiwan, and Mao was forced to accept their control of Taiwan because he did not possess the resources to follow the Nationalists across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan has been a de facto independent nation-state since that time, but China has not forgotten Taiwan, and remains intent on re-asserting political control over the island.

After General Wei Fenghe’s speech he was asked questions, and he surprised many in the audience by explicitly answering a question about Tiananmen — the “June Fourth Incident” (天安門事件) — of which he was quoted as saying:

“Everybody is concerned about Tiananmen after 30 years,” Wei said on Sunday. “Throughout the 30 years, China under the Communist Party has undergone many changes — do you think the government was wrong with the handling of June Fourth? There was a conclusion to that incident. The government was decisive in stopping the turbulence.”

Turbulence threatens Chinese unity and stability, and as such it constitutes not merely a threat to the PRC or the ruling communist party, it constitutes a threat to Chinese civilization. Contrast this to Thomas Jefferson’s well known claim that, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Jefferson descended from the tradition of European civilization, which was always at war with itself, and never unified. And if you trace western civilization to its origins in Mesopotamia and Anatolia (cf. The Seriation of Western Civilization) it is obvious that western civilization has a different relationship to its origins than does Chinese civilization.

China’s grand strategy is dictated by these core concerns for continuity, stability, and unity, and China is willing to play the long game in order to secure these grand strategic goals. China has been mostly content to employ persuasion to this end, and this was the motivation for the “one country, two systems” policy that was supposed to assuage concerns in Hong Kong about its reunification with the Chinese mainland. For optimists, the success of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong would persuade Taiwan to voluntarily accept a similar deal for itself. But China also plays the long game in Hong Kong, and it has been steadily wearing away at the autonomy of Hong Kong, so that the “two systems” of the “one country” come ever closer to coinciding.

The Chinese mainland implicitly offers to Hong Kong and Taiwan the opportunity to hitch their wagons to a star, as the large and growing Chinese economy represents the possibility of great wealth for all who get on board (but at the cost of what Rufus Fears called “national freedom”). Now that China feels its growing strength, both economically and militarily, we hear much less about “one country, two systems” and much more about the core strategic concerns of continuity, stability, and unity. China can now afford to be more direct about its grand strategy.

Thirty years’ on, the Tiananmen Square massacre is now perceived as being safely distant in the past so that it can be acknowledged by Chinese military leaders, who have moved on to other concerns. There will be no official commemorations in mainland China, but the Chinese government may eventually become sufficiently confident of its position and its view of Chinese history that it can acknowledge the incident and place it in a context that they believe contributes to the narrative of the ability of the Chinese leadership class to ensure the strategic imperatives of Chinese continuity, stability, and unity.

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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:

2009 Anniversary of a Massacre

2010 Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

2011 Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

2013 A Dream Deferred

2014 Tiananmen and the Right to be Forgotten

2015 Tiananmen and Chinese Grand Strategy

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Sunday


Chinese politics was dominated by Mao Zedong from 1949 to 1976, and for more than a decade before that if we count the period from the Long March forward. Mao was effectively President for Life of China, though he wasn’t called that. However, he was called “The Red Emperor.” After the chaos of the Cultural Revolution some effort was made to regularize the political system after Mao’s death, and, to a certain extent, China managed to present itself to the world as a “normal” nation-state under the rule of law (not under military rule, or in the grip of a warlord or a strongman) and with a political succession that, while entirely internal to the communist party, seemed to follow certain rules. There was a semi-orderly succession process from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping.

This façade of orderly political succession occurred throughout a period a spectacular economic growth for China. Given that economic growth at this pace can result in extreme social dislocation, it reflected well on the Communist Party of China’s firm grasp on power that it was able to preside over this orderly succession of political power during economic and social conditions that would prove challenging even to a stable and well-established political system. In consequence, the CPC seemed to be a source of strength, stability, and order for China at a time when much else was in flux.

The apparent solidity of the CPC and its own internal mechanisms for orderly political succession have now been revealed to be illusory. It has been clear for some time that Xi Jinping has been the strongest political figure in China since Deng Xiaoping, but we now must see him as the strongest figure in China since Mao Zedong. This month, the CPC eliminated term limits for the president and vice president, re-appointing Xi Jinping as president with no term limit. What this means is that a sufficiently powerful individual can bend the CPC to his will, so that the power is vested in the individual rather than in the party or its offices. And given that the CPC is the political institution of China, that these institutions can bend to the will of one man points to the weakness of CPC institutions. In other words, China is much more vulnerable than it appears on the surface.

To a remarkable extent the western press have given Xi uncritical coverage during his rise to power. A few China specialists discuss how the elements of Shanghai clique were pushed aside in Xi’s rise to power, and some of the internal machinations of the state machinery, but much less than the issue deserves with China now the second largest economy in the world, and the largest nation-state on the planet in terms of population. Most notable of all is the uncritical coverage of Xi’s “anti-corruption” drive, which has given Xi the moral high ground in cleaning house and consolidating power. I have not read a single account in the western press that has observed that the anti-corruption efforts in China have left Xi’s inner circle entirely untouched. But who is going to take a stand in favor of corruption? Consolidating power by punishing rivals for corruption is a winning strategy.

Now that we know that China is a nation-state secondarily, and primarily the domain of a strongman, all that follows will depend on Xi himself. If Xi cares about the Chinese people and their welfare, he will use his power to strengthen the institutions of the country and will make it possible for an orderly political succession after he leaves power. But Xi could just as easily transform China into the largest kleptocracy on the planet, or into a tyranny, or any number of suboptimal outcomes. The stakes are high. The lives of more than a billion persons are in play. Much of the world’s manufacturing is sourced from China; rare is the supply chain that does not incorporate China at some point.

Even if Xi proves to be an honest and competent leader, China’s position in the world economic system is placed at risk merely by the revelation of the weakness of its institutions. China has put a lot of effort into trying to convince western businesses that China is a stable place to do business, where assets would not be arbitrarily expropriated and international legal norms would be respected. There is no reason to believe that this will suddenly change, but the weakness of the CPC is (or ought to be) a red flag for every business operating in China. The economy is stable at present, but that could change with a single executive decision on the part of Xi.

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Thursday


The photograph above of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is from Carl Bildt's Tweet on the anniversary.

The photograph above of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is from Carl Bildt’s Tweet on the anniversary.

Today marks the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. In the past year it almost looked like similar sights would be repeated in Hong Kong, as the “Umbrella Revolution” protesters showed an early resolve and seemed to be making some headway. But the regime in Beijing kept its cool and a certain patience, and simply waited out the protesters. Perhaps the protesters will return, but they will have a difficult time regaining the historical momentum of the moment. It would take another incident of some significance to spark further unrest in Hong Kong. The Chinese state has both the patience and the economic momentum to dictate its version of events. Hence the importance of maintaining the June 4th incident in living memory.

Just yesterday I was talking to a Chinese friend and I opined that, with the growth of the Chinese economy and Chinese citizens working all over the world, the government might have increasing difficulty in maintaining its regime of control over information within the Chinese mainland. I was told that it was not difficult to make the transition between what you can say in China and what you can’t say in China, in comparison of the relative freedom of Chinese to say whatever they think when outside mainland China. One simply assumes the appropriate persona when in China. As a westerner, I have a difficult time accepting this, but the way in which it was described to me was perfectly authentic and I have no reason to doubt it.

Over the past weeks and months there have been many signs of China’s continued assumption of the role of a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community, with the initial success of gaining the cooperation of other nation-states in the fledgling Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Financial Times last Tuesday noted, “…the IMF’s decision later this year about whether to include China in the basket of currencies from which it makes up its special-drawing-rights will be keenly watched.” (“What Fifa tells us about global power” by Gideon Rachman) The very idea of a global reserve currency that is not fully convertible and fully floating strikes me as nothing short of bizarre — since the value of the currency is not then determined by the markets, its value must be established politically — but that just goes to show you what economic power can achieve. And all of this takes place against the background of China’s ongoing land reclamation on small islands in the South China Sea, which is a source of significant tension. But the tension has not derailed the business deals.

If China’s grand strategy (or, rather, the grand strategy of the Chinese communist party) is to make China a global superpower with both hard power (military power projection capability) and soft power (social and cultural prestige), and to do so while retaining the communist party’s absolute grip on power (presumably assuming the legitimacy of that grip on power), one must acknowledge that this strategy has been on track successfully for decades. Assume, for purposes of argument, that this grand strategy continues successfully on track. I have to wonder if the Chinese communist party has a plan to eventually allow the history of the Tiananmen massacre to be known, once subsequent events have sufficiently changed the meaning of that the event (by “proving” that the party was “right” because their policies led to the success of China, therefore their massacre should be excused as understandable in the service of a greater good), or is the memory of the Tiananmen massacre to be forever sequestered? Since the Chinese leadership has proved their ability to think big over the long term, I would guess that there must be internal documents that deal explicitly with this question, though I don’t suppose this internal debate will ever become public knowledge.

I have read many times, from many different sources, that young party members are set to study the lessons of the fall of dictators and one-party states elsewhere in the world. Perhaps they also study damaging historical revelations as carefully, and have developed a plan to manage knowledge of the Tiananmen massacre at some time in the future. It is not terribly difficult to imagine China attempting to use the soft power of the great many Confucius Institute franchises it has sponsored (480 worldwide at latest count) to slowly and gradually shape the discourse around China and the biggest PR disaster in the history of the Chinese communist party, paving the way to eventually opening a discussion of Tiananmen entirely on Chinese terms. I suppose that’s what I would do, if I was a member of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo. But, again, I am a westerner and am liable to utterly misjudge Chinese motivations. I will, however, continue to wonder about their long game in relation to Tiananmen, and to look for signs in the tea leaves that will betray that game.

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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:

2009 Anniversary of a Massacre

2010 Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

2011 Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

2013 A Dream Deferred

2014 Tiananmen and the Right to be Forgotten

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Friday


Photograph by Jan Lagergren

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

It is perhaps too soon to say that the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong has failed, but it can be said that the protests have now largely dispersed and the Hong Kong government has already reneged on its promises to hold substantive talks with the student leaders of the protests. The time of greatest danger to the central government in Beijing, and the puppet government it allows to rule in Hong Kong, has passed, and the protesters have had none of their demands met. The government simply had to wait, remain calm, and let the protesters get tired of protesting and go home, which they have mostly done. The government managed this feat simply by waiting and through forbearance, rather than by conducting a massacre, as some feared. Perhaps if the protesters had proved more stubborn, a massacre might have followed in due course, as at Tiananmen.

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

This was, of course, the unavoidable point of reference for everyone who was watching the protests from afar — and probably also for those participating, and thus putting their lives in danger: the massacre in Tiananmen Square, known in Chinese as the “June 4 Incident.” Everyone wondered of Xi Jinping, “Will he or won’t he?” If we can count it was a “win” for the central government in Beijing that the first phase of protests have passed without granting the demands of the protesters and without the violent suppression of the protests by the PLA, that is indeed to damn the central government with faint praise. And if it was the intention of the protesters to bring the attention of the world to Hong Kong, and the raise the question of whether the proclaimed Chinese policy of “one country, two systems” can work, then the protesters must be judged to have been successful.

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

The policy of “one country, two systems” is incorporated by the The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, says:

“One country, two systems” is the fundamental policy of the Chinese Government for bringing about the country’s reunification. In line with this policy, the Chinese Government has formulated a series of principles and policies regarding Hong Kong. The main point is to establish a special administrative region directly under the Central People’s Government when China resumes its sovereignty over Hong Kong. Except for national defence and foreign affairs, which are to be administered by the Central Government, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will exercise a high degree of autonomy; no socialist system or policies will be practiced in the Region, the original capitalist society, economic system and way of life will remain unchanged and the laws previously in force in Hong Kong will remain basically the same; Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre and free port will be maintained; and the economic interests of Britain and other countries in Hong Kong will be taken into consideration.

And…

The rights, freedoms and duties of Hong Kong residents are prescribed in the draft in accordance with the principle of “one country, two systems” and in the light of Hong Kong’s actual situation. They include such specific provisions as protection of private ownership of property, the freedom of movement and freedom to enter or leave the Region, the right to raise a family freely and protection of private persons’ and legal entitles’ property. The draft also provides that the systems to safeguard the fundamental rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents shall all be based on the Basic Law.

A cynical reading of this text might point out that the first sentence in the above — “One country, two systems” is the fundamental policy of the Chinese Government for bringing about the country’s reunification — speaks only to the reunification of Hong Kong with China, and once that reunification has been achieved what happens in Hong Kong is left ambiguous. The central government in Beijing could maintain that, once a transitional phase of reunification has passed, Hong Kong will be no different from the rest of China, and “one country, two systems” will be a thing of the past.

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

This is more or less acknowledged in the Basic Law, although on a 50 year horizon, as the Basic Law itself expires on 30 June 2047. This was a sufficiently long time horizon that immediate worries could be allayed, but it turns out the Beijing would like to narrow the interpretation of the Basic Law well before 2047 rolls around. This has been anticipated, as we find in What Will Happen to Hong Kong Kong after 2047?, “…the protections against China eroding one country, two systems even before that date are far less watertight than they appear at first sight… even in this respect, the significance of June 30, 2047 is overstated.”

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

A familiar talking point in regard to the recent protests in Hong Kong has been the observation that the special arrangements made for the governance of Hong Kong after its handover by the British would be temporary, but extended long enough to accommodate some transition. For optimists, China during this period would open up and become more like Hong Kong, whereas now it appears that the Chinese leadership in Beijing has no interest whatsoever in opening up China in terms of social and political reform, and the period of adjustment is there simply to give Beijing time to force Hong Kong into conformity with the mainland.

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

How are we to understand an international trading entrepôt to be humbled under the yoke of a skittish Beijing, more concerned with asserting its control than with enjoying the benefits that accrue through a major Port with international connections, strong rule of law, and a significant banking industry? I used “humbled” here advisedly. In order to fully understand the situation of Hong Kong it must be understood in its historical and cultural context. Mainland Chinese who come to Hong Kong as tourists tell of being shabbily treated by the people of Hong Kong, who will make no attempt to speak Mandarin. If you cannot speak Cantonese, you had better try broken English.

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

Photograph by Jan Lagergren

We should not be surprised by this. Hong Kong has been a successful, entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan, and indeed an international city. The citizens of such a city would be understandably conscious of their differentness from the un-cosmopolitan mainland Chinese who visit Hong Kong in order to see the “big city.” Any people who have been proud, successful, independent, and, of course, overbearing also in light of their position, are going to invite resentment and a thinly-concealed desire to bring them down to a level with their current condition (to paraphrase from Thucydides). And at the bottom of most communist revolutions of the twentieth century we must remember there was a harnessing of social, cultural, and economic ressentiment, the use of the masses to overthrow the privileged — the expropriation of the expropriators. While “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has by now merely become a screen for crony capitalism, the mobilization of resentment continues to be an effective strategy for the manipulation of mass man by regimes with a communist pedigree.

Neither the pride of the successful, the popular desire to humble the proud, nor the readiness of communist regimes to mobilize popular resentment should be new to anyone. There is a reason that everyone who could afford to get out of Hong Kong got out while the getting was good. A great many former Hong Kong residents moved across the Pacific to Vancouver, British Columbia, and this has resulted in a steady stream of interesting news stories as Vancouver adjusts to its massive influx of wealthy Chinese. Just recently, for example, there was a controversy over advertisements in Vancouver that appeared only in Chinese (cf. Chinese-only sign stirs language controversy in Richmond, B.C.).

But the pre-1997 exodus from Hong Kong is not likely to be followed by a further exodus after Beijing’s decision to further tighten its grip on Hong Kong. There is an economic wrinkle in the story that makes it different from historical parallels. People will not necessarily leave Hong Kong in droves, and even if mainland Chinese could escape from China by passing through Hong Kong, they are not likely to do so in droves; Hong Kong in 2014 is not Berlin in the 1950s. After the Second World War, Germans in East Germany under communist rule could escape through Berlin until the Berlin wall was erected in 1961. And while many of these refugees wanted to escape to the west for freedom, many also wanted to escape the dismal economic regime of East Germany. These forces are not in play in today’s China and Hong Kong. On the contrary, the opposite forces are in play.

Economic refugees are now traveling in the opposite direction, with expatriate Chinese who have lived in the west, and enjoyed its personal freedoms and social openness, are returning to China to start businesses. Despite Beijing’s clampdown on freedom of expression, many Chinese choose return to China (accepting with a kind of fatalism that they must access the internet through a VPN) because the economy is growing and there are, at present, great opportunities in China for the young and ambitious who are willing to work hard. The crony capitalists of Beijing will continue to thrive, along with the princelings and returned expatriates, while the rest of the world festers in China Envy, and for this reason the leadership in Beijing has a degree of impunity that other oppressive regimes can only envy.

But the Umbrella Revolution was not for nothing. If it is true that the protests in Hong Kong failed, it is equally true that “one country, two systems” has also failed — catastrophically — and that what the central government in Beijing has proved is that it can revise, abridge, or suspend any part of the Basic Law that it likes, at any time, and to any extent. In other words, the people of Hong Kong are understood to be living under the most arbitrary tyranny conceivable, and in this sense have fewer rights and freedoms than mainland Chinese. This will have consequences not only for Hong Kong and mainland China, but also for the desire of the leadership in Beijing to negotiate reunification with Taiwan (cf. China’s Long Game With Taiwan Just Got Longer by David J. Lynch).

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Wednesday


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There is a spectre haunting China — the spectre of Tiananmen. It is now a quarter century since the June 4 incident, as it is known among the Chinese. The Chinese government is concerned that the symbolic significance of 25 years since the carnage in Tiananmen Square will mean the resurfacing of memories that the communist party of China has diligently sought to suppress and conceal. Within China, they have been largely successful, but they have not exorcised the spectre of Tiananmen, which haunts public consciousness even as it is carefully expunged. Can a nation forget? Ought a nation to forget? To put the question in a new light, does a nation have the right to forget? Does China have the right to forget the Tiananmen massacre?

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There has been a great deal of attention recently focused on what is now called “the right to be forgotten,” as the result of a European Court of Justice ruling that has forced the search engine Google to give individuals the opportunity to petition for the removal of links that connect their names with events in their past. This present discussion of a right to be forgotten may be only the tip of an iceberg of future conflicts between privacy and transparency. It is to be expected that different societies will take different paths in attempting to negotiate some kind of workable compromise between privacy and transparency, as we can already see in this court ruling Europe going in one direction — a direction that will not necessarily be followed by other politically open societies.

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The Chinese communist party that presided over the Tiananmen massacre would certainly like the event to disappear from public consciousness, and to pretend as though it never happened, and the near stranglehold that the communist party exercises over society means that it is largely successful within the geographical extent of China. But outside China, and even in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the memory does not fade away as the communist party hopes, but remains, held in a kind of memory trust for the day when all Chinese can know the truth of Chinese history. A hundred years from now, when the communist party no longer rules China, and the the details of its repression are a fading memory that no one will want to remember, Tiananmen will continue to be the “defining act” of modern Chinese history, as it has been identified by Bao Tong (as reported in the recent book People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim).

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The right to be forgotten could be understood as an implementation of the right to privacy, but it is also suggestive of the kind of control of history routinely practiced by totalitarian societies, and most notoriously by Stalin, who had individuals who had fallen out of favor excised from history books and painted out of pictures and photographs, so that it was as though the individual had never existed at all. It has been suggested that this extreme control of history was intended to send a message to dissidents or potential dissidents of the pointlessness of any political action taken against the state, because the state could effectively make them disappear from history, and their act of defiance would ultimately have no meaning at all.

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Many have observed that there is no right to privacy written into the US Constitution, and some have proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would secure such a legal right to privacy. I found one such proposed amendment, worded as follows:

“Each person has the right to privacy, including the right to keep personal information private; to communicate with others privately; and to make decisions concerning his or her body.”

But a nation-state is not a person, not an individual, and while advocates of the nation-state and the system of international anarchy that prevails among nation-states claim on the behalf of the nation-state supra-personal rights, I think that the moral intuitions that predominate in our time deny to political entities — in principle, if not always in practice — the kind of rights that persons have, or ought to have, and I further suspect that among those who advocate a right to privacy or a right to be forgotten, than they would not likely extend this right to political entities.

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Few would argue that the individual deserves greater consideration when it comes to privacy than a political entity. This idea has already been incorporated into law. In libel and slander cases, individuals considered private citizens are viewed in a different light by the courts than public figures such as politicians and celebrities, and I am sure that at least one of the motivations on behalf of the “right to be forgotten” is the idea that private citizens deserve a certain anonymity and a higher level of protection. Nevertheless, the opportunities for abuse of the right to be forgotten are so obvious, and so apparently easily exploited, that it is at least questionable whether a right to be forgotten can be considered an implementation of one aspect of a right to privacy (which latter, as noted above, does not itself have legal standing in most nation-states).

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I think that the worry that individuals will be dogged by a past on the internet that they would rather forget is overstated. We hear about the egregious cases in which individuals lose their jobs because of off-color photographs from years before, but the media emphasis that falls upon these cases tends to obscure how social networks actually function. On most online social networks, individuals post a vast amount of material, the vast bulk of which is rapidly pushed into the past by new posts piling up on top of them. Most things are forgotten quite quickly, and it takes a real effort to locate some post from the past amid the sheer amount of material.

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The exception to this rapid receding even of the recent past is what has come to be called the Streisand Effect: when the attempt to suppress information results in the wider dissemination of the same information. In other words, it is often the attempt to suppress information that creates a situation in which a right to be forgotten becomes an issue. If an individual or a nation-state did not try to sanitize its past, much of these past would naturally fall into obscurity and would eventually be forgotten.

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The institutional memories of nation-states guarantee, on the one hand, that many things will not be forgotten, while on the other hand the equally institutional suppression of events, or versions of events, can become something like an imperative to forget, that buries in the silent grave of the past all that the institution and its agents do not want on the conscience of the nation-state. Nietzsche once wrote that, “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ Soon my memory yields.” This, I think, is equally true for nation-state and for individuals.

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It is this imperative to forget, to put behind that which is a burden to the conscience of the individual or the institution, that provokes the opposite reaction — the moral demand that a memory not be forgotten, and this is why one of the most familiar political slogans is, “Never forget.” There is a Wikipedia article on “Never forget,” calling it, “a political slogan used to urge commemoration and remembrance for national tragedies,” and noting that, “It is often used in conjunction with ‘never again’.” Both of these slogans are as appropriate for Tiananmen as for any other national tragedy one might care to name.

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In Twenty-one years since Tiananmen I mentioned the then-recently published diary of Li Peng, who compared Tiananmen to the Cultural Revolution, and justified the Tiananmen crackdown as necessary to avoid another tragedy of Chinese history on the scale of the Cultural Revolution. Thus for Li Peng, the massacre at Tiananmen on 04 June 1989 was itself undertaken in the spirit of “Never again.” During the Cultural Revolution, China has scarcely more government than Somalia has today; the state during the Cultural Revolution was essentially represented by roving bands of Red Guards who killed and destroyed virtually at will. The attitude of Li Peng and other communist leaders who ordered the massacre was, “Never forget” the Cultural Revolution, and never allow it to happen again. In their eagerness to avoid another national tragedy, they created another national tragedy that in its turn has become a focus of the imperative to never forget.

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The emergence of the memory of Tiananmen as an imperative to never forget, no less than the imperative to never forget the Cultural Revolution, poses a problem for the authority of the Chinese communist party, and the party has taken the familiar Stalinist path of attempting to control institutional memory. Rather, however, than the brutal amnesia of Stalinist Russia, when disgraced party members were painted out of heroic celebrations on communist triumph with a certain awkwardness so as to remind the people that individuals can be forgotten and written out of history, the Chinese have approached the problem of controlling history as a pervasive low-level intervention.

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An article in the Wall Street Journal, Tiananmen Crackdown Shaped China’s Iron-Fisted Approach to Dissent, describes the method of the Chinese police for dealing with dissidents:

“In taking down Mr. Zhang, police applied a well-honed, layered strategy to nip opposition in the bud. His moves were carefully tracked online and in real life. He was apprehended just before the Chinese New Year, when it was less likely to attract attention, and then quietly released into a life of isolation. ‘These are strategies that have been used over and over again,’ says Maya Wang, Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. ‘Tiananmen also started small. The government has to be on the lookout for sparks… They’ve been working on this for 25 years’.”

The skittishness of Chinese authorities entails a low threshold for intervention, meaning that the state feels it must act on the smallest suspicion of dissent. It is this skittishness that led to the suppression of a movement as apparently innocuous as Falun Gong.

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We all know that tyrants and dictators eviscerate civil society, leaving nothing to a people but the dictator himself, or his cronies, so that the people are utterly reliant on the state for all things; here there is no alternative to the one, universal institution of dictatorship. While China’s economic opening to the world has been so dramatic that there has been a tendency to view Beijing’s totalitarianism as a perhaps kinder and gentler totalitarianism, in actual fact the low threshold for dissidence in the wake of Tiananmen has meant systematically dismantling and deconstructing any and all spontaneous institutions of civil society, wrecking any promising social movement that might serve as an alternative focus for social organization not dictated by the communist party.

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This evisceration of civil society, at all levels and across all institutions, may well mean yet another “Never forget, never again” moment will define China’s future history. Without robust institutions of civil society outside the exclusive control of China’s communist party, weathering the coming storms of history will not be easy, and the communist party of China is building into its rule a kind of brittleness that will not serve either itself for the people of China when the country experiences the kind of strategic shocks that are inevitable in the long term history of a nation-state.

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In the meantime, the Chinese communist party will continue to assert its right to forget its own unpleasant past, and to defend this right by policing its own amnesia. This, again, incorporates a kind of brittleness into the rule of the party, even a kind of schizophrenia in actively seeking to suppress not only a memory, but also public consciousness of the meaning of China’s modern history.

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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:

2009 Anniversary of a Massacre

2010 Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

2011 Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

2013 A Dream Deferred

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Thursday


televisions for sale

What is the role of the consumer in the economies of advanced industrialized nation-states? The question is not as easily answered as one might suppose. In my last post, Global Debt Market Roundup I mentioned, “It seems that China’s transition from an export-led growth model to a consumer-led growth model based on internal markets is re-configuring the global commodities markets, as producers of raw materials and feedstocks are hit by decreased demand while manufacturers of consumer goods stand to gain.” This is a familiar talking point in contemporary economics, and I will assume that everyone is familiar with the distinction between an export-driven economy and a consumer-driven economy.

China achieved several decades’ worth of year-on-year double digit growth through the pursuit (some might say “single-minded pursuit”) of an export-led economic model, but China was already the largest nation-state in the world by population, so it had enormous resources to bring to bear upon its export-oriented model. As new workers streamed into China’s burgeoning cities to work in factories, China became the workshop of the world. (This is a migration that has produced some nearly apocalyptic images of manufactured landscapes.) China’s workers accepted uncomfortable living conditions as an investment in a better future for themselves and their children. This is a theme taken up by Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants, in which he quotes Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City:

“Why would anyone leave a brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view of small hills in the East to come here?” Then he answers: “So that someday the eldest son can buy two rooms in Mira Road, at the northern edges of the city. And the younger one can move beyond that, to New Jersey. Discomfort is an investment.”

The emerging structure of the global market seemed to offer a series of steps toward accession to global markets, and hence economic growth. A nation-state begins by greatly discounting its labor; investors build manufacturing facilities in the country to take advantage of the inexpensive labor to lower its production costs. As investment enters the country, and an increasing number of persons are earning regular wages, the local population has the resources to invest in education while the local government has the resources to invest in infrastructure (or the infrastructure is gradually put in place by investors). With a more highly educated workforce and improved infrastructure, the nation-state is prepared to move the next step up the value-added chain in manufacturing. With each stage of value-added manufacturing, the workforce becomes more sophisticated and the local infrastructure improves, leading to a virtuous circle.

Moving up the chain of value-added manufacturing, however, remains within the paradigm of an export-driven economy, and while this model served China well for several decades, it also has structural vulnerabilities. The Great Recession reduced the buying power of wealthiest regions of the world (Western Europe and North America), which led to a drop in demand, which led to factories in China being shuttered. This was a big problem, but it was not the only problem. The investment in discomfort mentioned above eventually needs to be redeemed, and the millions of Chinese who have made this investment want more from life. The Chinese communist party is not about to give up its stranglehold on political control, so it has turned to the tried-and-true model of a consumer-driven economy, in which workers will have the opportunity to join the rat race for material abundance.

The consumer-driven economic model would seem to place the consumer at the center of economic activity, but is this the case? Is the consumer central to consumer-driven markets, especially in comparison to export-led markets? Certainly the consumer plays a much more important role in the consumer-led economy as compared to the export-led economy, but it would be misleading to say that the consumer is central to a consumer-driven market, though this is a common misconception. The transition from an export-driven to a consumer-driven model is not a play to make the consumer central to the operation of a market economy, but to shift to an economic model less vulnerable to global demand fluctuation and which sufficiently placates workers that they can be counted on not to riot.

Ideally (from the perspective of the nation-state), the consumer is a ratepayer who receives some infrastructural service in exchange for regular payments to the service provider. The essence of this transaction is its fungibility and anonymity: any ratepayer might contract with any provider to meet the need for goods or services. In practice, the transaction is constrained by so many factors that the market is reduced to Hobson’s choice: the choice between what is offered or nothing.

In late industrialized capitalism we have seen a considerable departure from this ideal model as industry has sought to personally engage consumers and has invested considerable resources into “branding” in order that consumers should develop specific preferences not only for specific products, but also for specific producers of goods and services. The competition among brands for loyal and reliable consumers has led to industries pouring money into studying the buying habits of consumers, and this in turn has led to the idea that the mere idiosyncrasies of consumers and their tastes are what drive the market.

Industries have turned market research into a deceptive fetish, often based on distorted and misinterpreted statistics (sometimes willfully misinterpreted, as consultants, conscious of their own need for an income, need to justify ongoing market research). The most obvious example I can think of to illustrate this is how market researchers systematically look to buying habits among the youngest consumers, on the assumption that these youngest consumers will grow up, get jobs, and then spend real money on goods and services. The result has been to drive the infantilization of consumer products, such that industry produces what teenagers want, not realizing that teenagers grasp at whatever trend happens to be hot at the moment, in adolescent desperation to be part of whatever is “happening” at the moment.

It is this kind thinking that has led to idiotic predictions of the “death of the PC” because many young people use their smart phones and tablet computers, communicating through instant messaging services and not bothering to exchange emails. At one time, if you wanted a computer, you had the choice between a PC or nothing. Now consumers have many choices. That does not mean that PCs will disappear, but they will have a smaller proportion of market share as those who had no need for a fully functional PC turn to smaller, lighter devices for their needs. So don’t expect a diachronic extrapolation of the decline in demand for PCs to continue down to zero. And don’t expect adults in the workplace to abandon email in favor of exchanging messages through Facebook or some other social media site.

It is this kind of limited thinking that has also given us the operating system of Windows 8. Because of the fetish for handheld devices, on which “apps” predominate, the wizards at Microsoft thought that this is the trend that is defining the future of computing. Because teenagers are using apps, that must mean that everyone will be using apps in the future, and that everyone will want their PC set up with a touch screen with the apps being the first thing you see when you turn it on. Recently I read a columnist humorously make the claim that no one over the age of 18 thinks that One Direction is the future of music (I don’t recall who wrote this). We recognize the humor in this, and laugh at it, but it is exactly this kind of thinking that is being taken seriously by software engineers and computer manufacturers, and this may be yet another reason that computers may become completely useless to us.

Microsoft still won’t admit it made a mistake with Windows 8; probably they will never admit it, but there is a humorous photograph making the rounds of the internet of a shop sign advertising the service of “downgrading” a Windows 8 operating system to a Windows 7 operating system. I don’t know if the photograph is for real or if it is Photoshopped, but we understanding the joke immediately, in the same way that we understand the joke about One Direction and the future of music. The only question is how long we will have to suffer from suboptimal products driven by misguided consumer research before the technology industry passes out of its own adolescence, painful and conflicted as it is.

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A Dream Deferred

4 June 2013

Tuesday


Tiananmen square

There is a quite well-known poem by Langston Hughes titled “Harlem.” Here it is:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Today I was talking to a friend about the anniversary of the June 4 incident, which we Westerners refer to as the Tienanmen massacre, or some similar title. My friend is Chinese, was living in China at the time, and was part of the movement for democracy. To hear about the hopes that the Chinese people had at the time for a democratic China was quite moving, and it immediately reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem, since my friend said to me that everyone who lived through the June 4 incident had their dream destroyed.

For an entire generation of Chinese, democratic governance was and has been a dream deferred. And perhaps more than a generation: one of the consequences of the Tienanmen massacre was that the military and hard-line factions of the Chinese Communist Party consolidated and extended their control, while those elements of Chinese society who were sympathetic to the democracy protesters had their careers destroyed and lost all influence in the Chinese government — more dreams deferred. In other words, the consequences of the June 4 incident were to shift the whole of Chinese society in the direction of hardliners.

In the intervening decades Chinese society has changed dramatically, and the Communist party monopoly on power has allowed, if not encouraged, every kind of change except political change. It is the oft-observed social contract of China that you can do almost anything you like, as long as you don’t question one-party rule in the country. But this so-called “social contract” is a one-sided contract enforced by the Chinese communist party’s stranglehold on power, and it is aided and abetted by the “Princelings” who found themselves all the more firmly entrenched in power as the result of the consequences of 4 June 1989.

The segue from political and military power of the generation that accompanied Mao to power to the next generation of their children, who have exploited their connections to become rich and powerful, points to a China that has made the transition directly from communist dictatorship to crony capitalism, bypassing a democratic stage of development. There have been many articles in recent years about the high life of the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, and how the Princelings — children of older, influential communist party members — have taken wealth and power for themselves. An article in Foreign Policy called this “The End of the Chinese Dream” — more dreams deferred.

In my post Crony Capitalism: Macro-Parasitism under Industrialization I speculated that crony capitalism may well be the mature form that capitalism takes in industrial-technological civilization. If, unfortunately, I am right in this, the defeat of the dream of a democratic China on 4 June 1989 may mean that China has assumed the politico-economic structure that it will maintain into the foreseeable future — more dreams deferred.

How long can a dream be deferred and still remain viable, that is to say, still retain its power to inspire? When does a dream pass from deferment to destruction?

There is a political scientist — I can’t remember who it is as I am writing this — who has divided up political movements according to when in the future they locate the ideal society (i.e., utopia). Reformists see the ideal society as in the distant future, so there is no reason to do anything radical or drastic: concentrate on incremental reforms in the present, and in the fullness of time, when we are ready for it, we will have a more just and equitable social order. The radical on the contrary, in pursuit of revolution, thinks that the ideal society is just around the corner, and if we will just do x, y, and z right now we can have the ideal society tomorrow.

Talking to my Chinese friend today, and discussing the almost millenarian expectation of a democratic China, I immediate thought of this revolutionary ideal of a new society right around the corner, since my friend said to me that they felt that a democratic China was not merely a possibility, but was so close to being a reality — almost within their grasp. I also thought of the radicalism of the French Revolution, and Wordworth’s famous evocation of this time:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

The dream of the French Revolution issued in the nightmare of The Terror, and of course many who opposed the protesters for democracy in China did so because this is the path of development they feared: a collapse of civil society followed by years if not decades of chaos and instability. Many former communist officials who participated in the Tienanmen crack down were quite explicit about this (which is something I wrote about in Twenty-one years since Tiananmen).

To invoke yet another western poem to describe the situation in China, Chinese democracy remains the road not taken. We will never know what China and the world would have looked like if democracy had triumphed in China in 1989. We don’t know what kind of lesson China would have given to the world: an example to follow, or a warning of what to avoid. Instead, the leaders of China gave the world a very different lesson, and a very different China.

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Chinese Military Posture

16 April 2013

Tuesday


Chinese defense budget

The Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China has just released a white paper on China’s military posture, which can be read in its entirety online: The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. This document is remarkable not for its insights into Chinese strategic thinking or its application of Sun Tzu’s philosophy of war or even “strategy with Chinese characteristics” but only for its resemblance to military white papers from western nation-states, which idiom (and acronyms) it has thoroughly adopted.

This use of the idiom of contemporary western military professionalism is doubly interesting, since public statements of the Chinese government often continue to be jargon-laden pieces of communist theory — sometimes to the point of impenetrability. Some time ago in What is Strategic Trust? I mentioned an article in Foreign Policy by Isaac Stone Fish, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars, which very effectively poked fun at the irony of the Chinese leader’s formulaic use of communist nostrums in the attempt to urge his fellow Chinese to improve the quality of their cultural production.

It is precisely this absurd communist jargon that is missing from the just released report The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. Instead, the report indulges in the western parallel to this: the absurd jargon of western bureaucratic military jargon and acronyms. There is a pattern here of rigidly formulaic thinking. Of course, such patterns are to be found in the official documents of all nation-states, but the question is whether it is believed by those who use this language, or whether such language is used merely out of a misplaced sense of bureaucratic necessity.

It was interesting to note that the report mentions the “three evil forces” which have been a talking point for the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and I recall when I last wrote about this I remarked on how the press releases of the SCO read like those of any western military exercise. And while the report mentions the three evil forces of “terrorism, separatism and extremism,” Tibet and Xinjiang, where the Chinese are most likely to encounter these forces, are only mentioned peripherally in this report (in relation to rivers and schools in the section titled “Participating in National Development”), as the Diaoyu Islands (which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands) are mentioned only once.

At the same time that the Chinese were releasing their official version of China’s military posture, Focus Taiwan published a short piece, China yet to deploy 094 sub, JL-2 & DF-41 missiles: security head, mostly about China’s failures to fulfill its military ambitions for weapons systems commensurate with the technologically advanced weapons systems of western nation-states. The article was concerned with the trouble China continues to have with their latest submarines and ICBMs.

It is easy to focus on Chinese ambitions to join the club of nation-states operating aircraft carriers or fifth generation fighters, but it is also important to recall that China has had difficulty in tooling its industries to design and build world-class weapons systems. The Chinese have long had difficulty building missile boats (as with the above-noted difficulties with the 094 Jin-Class submarine and the JL-2 ballistic missile), for example.

The Chinese still buy the jet engines for the most sophisticated fighter jets from Russia, which despite its decrepit communist economy was able to create and sustain an industrial plant nearly equal to that of western powers during the Cold War (including supersonic jet turbines and missile boats). This came at a price for the Soviet Union, of course, and it would come at a price for China. So is it the case that the Chinese are unwilling to pay the price for a world-class defense industry, or that they would be willing be to pay the price, but are simply unable, as yet, to design and build the hardware? It would take a China specialist to give a definitive answer to this question, but it is a crucial question, because to answer this question would be to determine whether China’s military posture is voluntary or involuntary.

If China’s present military posture really is voluntary, that means that China’s leadership really does believe in their own “peaceful rise” and in “strategic trust.” If, however, China’s present military posture is involuntary, forced upon it by circumstances beyond the control of China’s leadership, then that means that “peaceful rise” and “strategic trust” really are the formulaic platitudes that they appear to be. We must be prepared to entertain either of these hypotheses, as, at present, they are empirically equivalent theories.

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Chinese defense spending

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Monday


This map purports to show the spheres of influence of US cities, which just goes to show you that spheres of influence need not necessarily be conceived in terms of relations between nation-states.

In several posts I have attempted to understand autocratic regimes “from the inside,” as it were, seeking to grasp the reasoning of those who take a principled stance in the denial of freedom to entire peoples and populations. I gave one formulation of this in Modeling the Other, and offered a practical interpretation of this in Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2012. Moreover, I suggested that these formulations of autocracy cannot be dismissed as being merely amoral, since there is even an utilitarian moral justification for this, as I described in The Chinese Conception of Human Rights.

The moral defense of autocratic governance is that autocratic institutions are necessary to secure the greatest good for the greatest number, which is an unambiguously utilitarian conception. While this would be laughable in relation to the Taliban, were it not for the miserable condition of the Afghan people — one could even argue that the Taliban while in power secured rather the greatest harm to the greatest number, constituting the pure inversion of a utilitarian morality — but this argument is deadly serious when it comes to the Chinese, who both preach and practise it. More importantly, the Chinese have their admirers even among Westerners. While I am quite certain that these Western admirers of Chinese utilitarianism would be loathe to surrender their own individuality to the good of the masses, they seem quite content to argue that the Chinese should accept the surrender of their individuality to the state. Some of the worst hypocrites in this respect even imply that such political models should be brought to Western countries, though, again, their own personal autonomy is not to be infringed, but it is fine to infringe the autonomy of others who they take to be much less important than themselves.

However, I am not interested in exposing the hypocrisy of China admirers — Tom Friedman is often cited as an admirer of the efficiency of Chinese autocracy, though for my money Robert Kaplan is the more dangerous China admirer, since he makes the moral case for autocratic utilitarianism — who are today the useful idiots of autocracy as others once played the role of serving as the useful idiots of communism. Rather, today I am interested in extrapolating the principle of autocracy, understood in its full moral, social, political, and diplomatic dimensions, which brings us to the consideration of a perennial feature of the politics of power: spheres of influence.

The central principle of autocracy is the inviolability of autocratic rule. In geographical terms, this means the inviolability of the autocratically ruled geographical territory, and, if the legitimacy of neighboring regimes is recognized, the inviolability of the neighboring regime’s territory. This was concisely expressed by Mullah Mohammed Omar such that, “The Islamic Emirate does not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of others nor allow others to interfere in its internal affairs.” The same idea has been repeatedly expressed by every nation-state that resists political “interference” in “internal” matters. The idea here is that the autocratic regime possesses absolute autonomy within its own territory, including the power of life and death over its citizens, and acknowledges a parallel autonomy to hold for other regimes in other territories.

Every nation-state recognizes a limited form of this principle, out of the pragmatic realities of power projection even if not out of an intrinsic respect for the boundaries of another nation-state, but there are implicit limitations upon this principle, and we have seen these limitations tested repeatedly since the Second World War and its aftermath up to the present day. When a regime’s depredations upon its own people reaches a level which is considered genocidal, even those who recognize a limited form of territorial inviolability will countenance a violation of territorial integrity in the interest of ending a genocidal campaign against a people internal to a given nation-state.

However, since there is no universally recognized application of the idea of genocide to actual historical circumstances, there is always disagreement about the threshold of intervention on humanitarian grounds. We can agree, after the fact, there there was a genocidal program in progress in Nazi-occupied Europe, and we can agree that the Khmer Rouge were engaged in a genocidal program in Cambodia, but beyond these paradigm cases there is little agreement, and therefore thresholds of intervention vary for different political entities.

The autocrat often must involve himself in moral contortions to excuse, explain, and justify his depredations upon neighbors, and this often takes the form of denying the legitimacy of neighboring regimes (putatively the objects of mutual respect and mutual non-interference), much as the advocate of slavery must deny the common humanity of those subject to enslavement even while celebrating the humanity of those other individuals who fall within the charmed circle of the free who are presumably beyond enslavement. Similarly, the autocrat who invades his neighbors denies that neighboring regimes constitute legitimate forms of power and therefore are exempt from his principled respect for other regimes’ internal affairs.

The Japanese Empire in 1942, also called the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, a Japanese sphere of influence established by Japanese power projection in the first half of the twentieth century.

While depredations upon neighboring regimes are precisely parallel to depredations upon one’s own population — the former is external while the latter is internal, so that these actions represent the external expression and power and the internal expression of power, respectively — the principle of autocracy as defined by power’s own inviolability is an infinitely flexible pretext for action characterized as an attempt to defend this inviolability. We know that one of the most common rhetorical tropes of autocracy is to blame internal dissent on agents provocateurs under the control of external actors; this immediately de-legitimizes dissent as not being an authentic expression of internally subject peoples and therefore constitutes a violation of the autocrat’s autonomy. Exactly this pretext is then naturally extended to the external powers claimed to be underwriting internal dissent. There is no quarter of the globe that lies beyond the reach of an autocrat convinced that he is being “attacked.”

The 70° east longitude general demarcation line proposed in January 1942, which split Eurasia and might have defined the Co-Prosperity Sphere’s westernmost limits. (text from Wikipedia)

The supposed inviolability of internal state security thus is not limited to internal security, but naturally is projected outward and externally. An autocrat, once having consolidated an internal security regime, immediately perceives the possibility of danger from abroad, and so seeks to extend this internal power as far as possible beyond his borders. The ability to project power with impunity beyond the geographical territory defined by state boundaries is a sphere of influence (in the geopolitical sense). Autocratic regimes of expanding influence eventually collide on the far boundaries of their spheres of influence.

The Tordesillas meridian in the Atlantic and its anti-meridian in the Pacific, dividing the world into Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence.

History is rich in examples of powers mutually dividing the world between their respective spheres of influence. The Spanish and Portuguese division of the New World along the Tordesillas Meridian meant that European discoveries in the Western hemisphere would be divided between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence. This division continues to the present day, although the English did not recognize the legitimacy of the Papal decree on spheres of influence in the New World and consequently created their own sphere of influence by fiat through the establishment of colonies.

Division of Africa among European colonial powers.

The European colonial divisions of Africa and Asia are now notoriously cited as examples of spheres of political influence and domination, and indeed the very idea of a “sphere of influence” carries with it a certain taint of colonialism, but since the political world cannot really get past the idea of a sphere of influence, it persists, even if it is called by other names and practised most grievously by those who have been the loudest in their condemnation of colonialism.

France once had a significant sphere of influence in the Americas.

Spheres of influence can be carefully for formally defined, as in the British, US, French, and Soviet occupation areas of Berlin following the Second World War. Berlin proved to be a microcosm of Cold War spheres of influence, which were not nearly so well defined, due to shifting alliances and the ideological opportunism of potential client states. As the Cold War developed and its paradigmatic divisions emerged across the planet, the reality of spheres of influence were felt in every aspect of life. The Cold War was a Total War the transformed the lives of all peoples inducted into the struggle; the global division between US and Soviet spheres of influence defined the boundaries of the Cold War.

Berlin and the whole of occupied Germany were divided between Soviet, US, British, and French spheres of influence at the end of the Second World War.

There is a fundamental asymmetry between autocracies and non-autocratic regimes, and that asymmetry is that non-autocratic regimes recognize some form of popular sovereignty and have some form of democratic institutions, which limit the depredations of a regime upon its own people, whereas the autocratic regimes of the world have no such limitations upon their depredations. Thus the “internal” affairs of a non-autocratic regime are not likely to involve mass atrocities, whereas autocratic regimes may pragmatically choose to limit their depredations, but there is no restraint in principle on an autocratic regime’s depredations. And while autocracy begins its justifications at home, in terms of its internal security, we have seen that this internal security regime cannot in fact be limited within the borders of an autocratic nation-states. Therefore there is in principle no limitation on the depredations of a autocratic regime either upon its own people or upon neighboring regimes.

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Monday


Last Valentine’s Day Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping made some remarks at the US State Department that were widely reported at the time as “defending China’s human rights record. There is a transcript of the Vice President’s remarks on the website of the US Embassy in Beijing, and from those remarks I will quote a couple of the crucial paragraphs in which Vice President Xi Jinping explicitly discussed human rights:

“…China has made tremendous and well-recognized achievements in the field of human rights over the past 30 plus years since reform and opening up. Of course, there is always room for improvement when it comes to human rights. Given China’s huge population, considerable regional diversity, and uneven development, we’re still faced with many challenges in improving people’s livelihood and advancing human rights.”

“The Chinese Government will always put people’s interests first and take seriously people’s aspirations and demands. We will, in the light of China’s national conditions, continue to take concrete and effective policies and measures to promote social fairness, justice and harmony, and push forward China’s course of human rights.”

Chinese leaders usually avoid explicit remarks on human rights, but there are a few times when I have read accounts of remarks made in Western countries by visiting Chinese officials who do their best to make a strong case for human rights with Chinese characteristics. After all, when Chinese officials come to Western nation-states they cannot avoid the protesters who would not be able to protest in China. But the official Chinese government line on human rights, though not often explicitly formulated, when it is articulated is unapologetic on those issues that most provoke international outcry.

I wrote above that the Chinese “do their best to make a strong case” for the Chinese conception of human right, and I realize that this could sound condescending or patronizing, but it is not intended as such. I think it would be fair to say that the Chinese have a very different conception of human rights than that which informs the thought and policy of Western peoples, and that many of the disagreements over human rights issues are individuals talking at cross purposes because they do not understand each other.

Moreover, and no less importantly, what I am here calling the Chinese conception of human rights is in no sense confined to China, and can often be found given forceful and eloquent expression by Western thinkers. …

What, then, is the Chinese conception of human rights? And if there is any such thing as a Chinese conception of human rights, how does it differ from Western conceptions of human rights? Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping formulated the Chinese conception of human rights in terms of “improving people’s livelihood” and promoting, “social fairness, justice and harmony.” This is a good summary. When I began to write this post I looked for a different speech with even more forceful formulations, but I wasn’t able to find exactly what I was looking for, since my memory preserved too little the that example to find it again.

In other speeches by PRC officials I have come across explicit contrasts between the Chinese effort to improve standards of living across the board for 1.3 billion people — which is, admittedly, a daunting task — with Western ideas of individual liberties and ensuring the rights of minorities. This is the crux of the issue: the individual vs. the social whole. The Chinese tendency is to prioritize the social whole over the individual; the Western tradition has been to ensure the inviolability of the individual, although this is a tradition that has been honored more in the breech than the observance.

Since the individual is a minority of one, the tradition of safeguarding minority rights can be folded into individual rights, though I know that many would disagree with me here. And I am sure that some will see what I have called the Chinese conception of human rights not as an alternative to the Western conception of human rights, but as a smokescreen behind which to hide their actual contempt for human rights. This is where Western formulations of the Chinese conception of human rights become important — important, at least, for Westerners to understand a point of view different than their own, because Western thinkers will argue for a non-individualistic conception of human rights according to Western norms of political and moral thought.

I recently found a good example of this in Robert Kaplan, who has lately been contributing to Strategic Forecasting. In a piece titled Defining Humanitarianism, Kaplan wrote:

“The very amoral and abstract reasoning behind the preservation of the balance of power in maritime Asia, through the deployment of warships and fighter jets, actually is as humanitarian as intervening in Bosnia or Libya was.”

And…

“Nixon’s diplomacy gave China implicit security guarantees regarding the Soviet Union, Japan and Taiwan. Thus, when Deng Xiaoping came to power a few short years later, he had the option — because China was now externally secure for the first time in more than a century — to concentrate on internal capitalist-style development. China’s economic growth would dramatically lift the living standards and expand the personal freedoms of more than a billion people throughout East Asia. That’s humanitarianism!”

And…

“…realism in the service of the American national interest is the most humanitarian approach possible.”

And…

“…the issue is not idealism versus realism, for realism can sometimes save lives more than idealism.”

Kaplan isn’t explicitly stating the contrast between two conceptions of humanitarianism, but the distinction informs his essay throughout, and he argues strongly that foreign policy “realism” is more humanitarian because it saves a greater number of lives and improves standards of living to a greater degree for a greater number of people. This is a straight-forwardly utilitarian conception of humanitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number — and this utilitarian conception of humanitarianism corresponds to a utilitarian conception of human rights: human rights under this conception is best defended by way of utilitarian humanitarianism.

So the Chinese conception of human rights is simply a utilitarian conception of human rights, and it can be contrasted to any number of non-utilitarian theories, such as consequentialism, deontology, or the Kantian kingdom of ends.

As I stated above, there are any number of Western defenders of utilitarian conceptions of humanitarianism and human rights. There are passionate defenders of communitarianism who essentially privilege the community over the individual, and while I don’t think many conscientious communitarians would want to explicitly defend China’s human rights record, on the level of principle they are advocating essentially the same thing as the leaders of China say when they claim to have improved the lives of more than a billion people.

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