Friday, February 23, 2007


(News-Herald, February 22) We keep hearing that we need to pay attention to China, and given that they’re well on their way to owning us (and the oil we crave), that’s probably good advice. I’ve read a fair number of histories of China, particularly covering the twentieth century, and I agree it’s a good idea for us to pay attention.
For one thing, we’re going to have to deal with them sooner or later (actually, sooner has already arrived for a great number of American businesses), and if there is one thing we are consistently, repeatedly, expensively stupid about, it’s the matter of doing our homework about the countries we’re getting involved with. Cuba, Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, Iraq—our problems often aren’t a matter of military will. We just plain don’t study up on the culture and the people and we end up taking a croquet mallet to a horseshoe game.
But China is different. China is huge. It’s entirely possible that the only reason that China doesn’t already rule the world is that they’ve never wanted anything from the rest of us except some breathing space.
Chinese communism had a lot in common with the old Soviet Union communism, which is to say that in both cases the resulting government has very little to do with communism and plenty to do with national character that was already in place.
And Chinese culture is worth some American eyeballing because many of their most disastrous and undesirable characteristics are outsized versions of qualities we generally like.
Take family values. The Chinese put an enormous premium on family values, and much of Chinese culture is powered by them. And sometimes, it has not been a very good thing.
Chinese family values often ended up meaning that, in a position of power or public trust, your first responsibility was to take care of your family, and that your actual job description was secondary. If your job is to manage food distribution in your district—that means your family is sure to get fed, followed by people who stay on your good side, with people that you don’t like bringing up the rear. If you do the hiring, qualifications are not nearly as important as connections.
In many cases the Chinese valued family over responsibility or principle. In our culture, we don’t really associate family values with corruption, but in excess, unchecked by principle or ethics or a general sense of responsibility, family values can be just as much of a corrupting influence as anything else.
That is probably one of the reasons that the Chinese welcomed Mao and the communists in the first place—because they promised to replace a government based on personal connections and familial corruption with a government that focused on actually doing its job impartially.
Not that Mao ever delivered on that promise. But what I read leads me to suspect that says a lot more about Mao and China than about communism. Communism’s wide-reaching control simply allowed traditional Chinese corruption to become even more pervasive.
The Chinese also have a history of being really good at loyalty. And as much as we value loyalty and patriotism, it’s instructive to see how the Chinese have occasionally shot themselves in the foot with those virtues as well.
In the late fifties, Mao decided to turn China into an industrial giant by simply having all citizens turn their attention to steel production. China did not become a steel giant—but millions of farmers were taken away from the business of food production.
It was considered disloyal to question any of this. It was, in fact, considered disloyal not to claim enormous crops and great success, regardless of the facts. So as people across China celebrated their loyalty to their leader and their country, people across China also suffered and died because there simply was not enough food.
Under Mao, loyalty trumped truth. Facts were unwelcome; all that mattered was loyal and patriotic beliefs that stirred the heart and fostered the view of a strong and powerful country. Couple this belief with the drive to stay on the good side of the local people of privilege, and you begin to see why Chinese leaders have never needed anything like the Gestapo or the KGB.
It’s easy to imagine that certain values or ideals can never be perverted or twisted or over-emphasized, that they can never lead us into dark and dangerous places. “As long as I believe X, I’ll never do wrong,” is a lovely thing to tell ourselves. But our nature allows us the ability to make a hash out of just about anything.

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