Thursday, September 5, 2019

Hong Kong, China, Confucius, Mao, Lenin

I appreciate patriotism, to a point. I admire Confucius, to a point. I particularly admire the people of Hong Kong and I have a great deal of affection for China, but I do not like authoritarian governments.

 First, about patriotism: there’s nothing wrong with rooting for your own country. But look out for patriotism’s nasty little brother, tribalism. That’s where the trouble lies. Tribalism is patriotism made poisonous by self-righteous belligerence. You can find tribalism in every country. Trump’s dream of an anti-Mexican wall is an American example of it.

 Chinese tribalism, that version of it cultivated by the Chinese government, has helped provoke months of turmoil in Hong Kong. Another provocation was the Leninist authoritarianism practiced by the Chinese Communist Party.

 It is not easy for me to criticize China because I admire so much about that great country. Also, I have experienced countless wonderful moments in the company of my friends there. In fact, I’ve lived for a total of about two and a half years in Chinese communities, including one year in Hong Kong during the mid-1970s and another year in the People’s Republic of China in the 1990s when I was a visiting professor at Qingdao University. My time there has offered me rewards I will never forget and from which I continue to benefit.

 To be honest, I can’t say I experienced a daily dose of Leninist heavy-handedness in the classroom or faculty offices during my days as a visiting professor at Qingdao University. In fact, I was surprised at how little my Chinese colleagues cared about local party officials. My impression was that when they attended their compulsory weekly meetings with the CCP branch secretary, they listened with reluctant boredom to his edicts from Beijing. I was told they often read the newspaper while he spoke.

 But I know I was watched closely in the classroom. I was especially watched by a student monitor who sat in the front row of my senior class whom I will call Comrade Hu (not her real name). She was clearly respected by her classmates, Her notes on my lectures – on American culture, English composition, and other topics – she, no doubt, faithfully turned over to party officials.

 One day, while lecturing, I mentioned in passing that Americans had mixed feelings about imperialism since our nation had been born in opposition to the British Empire. Several students took sincere but polite exception to this since, in accordance with CCP teaching, America was “a leading imperialist power.” I smiled, a little sheepishly and said something like this: “Well, true enough, we have our imperialist side, but then so does China. After all, the Tibetans  did not willingly choose to be part of China.”

 At this point, Comrade Hu wheeled around to face her classmates and said angrily, “That’s enough of this!”

 The students were clearly intimidated by her and, frankly, so was I, a little. It did not escape me that it was my words that provoked her furious outburst, even though she directed her venom at her classmates. I remembered then that Tibet was one of the topics I was cautioned not to discuss in the class, and, in fact, I never did raise that issue again. Chinese imperialism was not to be mentioned.

 When authorities suppress discussions on topics they consider politically uncomfortable or even threatening, democracy can not flourish. That's why Leninist authoritarianism is evil. China would be much better off if it were to acknowledge authoritarian's moral failings by taking down its portrait of Mao, which hangs over Tiananmen, and replacing it with a portrait of Confucius.
 Mao is problematic because he introduced the Leninist authoritarianism from which China has not yet been able to escape. I recognize that he was the very emblem of Chinese righteous pride when he stood above Tiananmen in October 1949 and declared, “The Chinese people have stood up!” That was a glorious moment for China, marking the end of 100 years of colonialism and civil war. Mao was dishonest, however, in claiming that he represented independence, while the Nationalists he had defeated represented continued colonialism. Mao, after all, was as much indebted to the Russians for their support as his Nationalist enemies were indebted to the Americans. This is a point the Chinese Communist Party insists on obscuring in order to strengthen its own claim to the moral high ground.

 Mao can also be criticized for dragging the Chinese economy through decades of communist doctrinaire programs which resulted in the deaths of at least 20 million citizens and which retarded China’s development for about 30 years. 

 Worst of all, is the ruthless suppression of freedoms that Mao instituted, the lingering effects of which triggered this year’s protests in Hong Kong.

 Hong Kong was formerly a British colony but, when it was turned over to China in 1997, London and Beijing reached an agreement that guaranteed a 50-year period of relative freedom for the Hong Kongers. Beijing has been undermining that agreement for years, and, finally, earlier this year, when it tried to impose a new law on extraditions further stifling free speech in the former colony, the Hong Kong protests began.

 Let me take a moment here to again express my admiration for the Hong Kong protesters. I understand that not everyone in HongKong supported them, and I realize that part of the motivation for the protests was a measure of unbecoming anti-Mainland-Chinese tribalism, but nevertheless, the essence of the movement was for democracy and its watchwords were courage and determination.

 Now the protesters, having forced Beijing to give up on its extradition bill, are demanding action on other issues, including attention to acts of police brutality and the freeing of jailed protesters. Even though they haven’t been granted everything they asked for, the dropping of the proposed extradition law has to be seen as a significant victory for them and for democracy itself.

 Which brings me to Confucius and those of his virtues I admire. Admittedly, the Great Sage’s philosophy has its drawbacks. For one thing, his ideas about male superiority, though normal for his era, make no sense in the modern world. Secondly, as a Han Chinese, he can’t properly represent Tibetans, Uighurs and other Chinese minorities. But I still admire him enough that I believe his portrait should replace Chairman Mao’s over Tiananmen, at least for this month during which his birthday falls. As a matter of fact, it might be a good thing if the Tibetans and other minorities were also to get a turn with portraits of their culture heroes over Tiananmen.

 But back to Confucius. The Sage believed that people are at their best in a society that promotes human decency, honesty, humility, conscientiousness, and respect for education. He also believed that in a world of rival nations, the country whose leaders encourage these virtues will ultimately triumph because people will be drawn to it in a way that undermines its less ethical rivals. One of his sayings is, “Government is good when it makes happy those who live under it and attracts those who live far away.” If Beijing’s leaders lived by this principle, they could easily avoid further trouble with Hong Kong and might even look forward to a peaceful reunification with Taiwan. 

But, of course, they won’t. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, and President Xi Jinping in particular, have one overriding idea and that is that they should remain in power indefinitely. Even though their bulging bank accounts show quite clearly that they are not really communists at heart, they still embrace the Leninist idea of secretive, one-party rule. And, as long as they do, China’s citizens will be subject to their government's self-serving propaganda and will find themselves unable to understand people, like those of Hong Kong, who live where the press is free.

I recall from the 1960s anti-Vietnam-War protest era a proclamation that went something like this: “The government treats us like mushrooms – it keeps us in the dark and feeds us shit.”

I look forward to the day when China’s Leninist leaders stop treating their people like mushrooms. The world then will be a much better place.

 Lou Fu Ji - A Favorite Memory from My Hong Kong Days

Monday, August 19, 2019

World War III - It's On

About one hundred years ago, Germany’s leaders, then at war with Russia, decided to undermine the Russian government by infecting it with the political equivalent of a dread disease. To do this, they put Vladimir Ilyich Lenin on a train and sent him off to Petrograd. According to British historian Edward Crankshaw, the Germans saw Lenin as “one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection.” The German scheme worked. Within a year Lenin took over Russia and pulled out of the war against Germany.

And now Putin, it seems, has followed the German example by helping put Trump in control of the U.S. Will Putin’s plan work as well as the Germans’ scheme worked a century ago? And, by the way, given Putin’s hatred of the U.S., why are so many Republicans loyally supporting Donald Trump, a leader whom Putin, by his own words, wanted to see in the White House? Where does your ultimate loyalty lie, Republicans – with the U.S. or with the GOP? Or are you just throwing our well-being under the bus for the sake of your personal careers?

German meddling in Russia in 1917 and Russia meddling in the U.S. today are not perfect parallels. Lenin neutralized Russia and helped Germany in World War I through his political acumen, while Trump has strengthened Russia’s hand by virtue of his incompetence and his contempt for democracy.

Evidence for Trump’s anti-democratic sentiments is everywhere, but just as an example, let’s highlight one minor clue to this point. Last June when Putin had declared that Western liberal democracy was obsolete, Trump, in a news conference in Osaka, Japan, utterly failed to defend democracy. Instead he went off on a bizarre rant about the Democratic party in California.

Here’s an excerpt from Trump’s response when he was asked about Putin’s claim that “Western-style liberalism is obsolete.”

TRUMP: Well, I mean he may feel that way. He’s sees what’s going on, I guess, if you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco and a couple of other cities, which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people.

What an idiot.

But more to the point, what a pathetic excuse for a defender of American values. He apparently doesn’t know what Putin and other authoritarians mean when they use the phrase “western liberalism.”

Note to Trump: It means democracy and you are failing to defend it.
We can think of the democratic alliance as including North American, European, and Pacific rim democracies like Japan and Australia, as well as those nations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia whose governments embody “Western-style liberalism.” Traditionally, the U.S. has played a central role in this liberal-democratic coalition, but today, with Trump in the White House, it cannot. And, consequently, the entire coalition is starting to come loose. God help us if it falls apart completely.

What we are about to face is a kind of World War III. This war will most likely not involve massive armies and navies maneuvering across oceans and continents. It will be focused on cyber warfare and a general struggle for influence through economic means and control of information. Trump, who is widely despised in the world at large, is not a positive force on the side of democracy in this struggle. Quite the opposite.

Democracy’s main adversary these days is not Putin, but rather Chinese President Xi Jinping. Like Putin, Xi Jinping hopes to see democracy decline. China’s rapid economic growth and increasingly aggressive international posture has made it the primary opposition to the worldwide spread of democracy. If the American-led coalition of democracies holds together, the anti-democratic push of Xi Jinping will fail. But if the coalition falls apart, as it has been starting to do under Trump, Chinese authoritarianism will most likely prevail.

The ideal scenario right now, as I see it, is for Trump to be replaced in January 2021 by a leader who believes in America’s traditional role as a leading defender of institutions like freedom of the press, independent judiciaries, and national leaders who are accountable to voters. With such an American leader, and, given enough time, Xi Jinping’s (and Putin’s) war against democracy will probably fail.

Since World War II, the world’s democracies have generally held the high ground, both morally and economically. I realize I have to disregard, for the sake of this brief argument, a host of bad actions by the western democracies. But I hope a brief mention of colonialism, Vietnam, and Iraq will suffice for the moment as acknowledgement of this bad behavior. But even given these sins, I believe the world will be much better served in the future if “Western-style liberalism” holds its own against the current authoritarian thrust.

A better world would be one in which China, Russia, and other governments join the established democracies on the high ground and we all find issues to argue about that do not include “whether or not individuals should be jailed or murdered for criticizing their leaders.” Such a world is not an impossibility, but it can only come into being when Donald Trump, with all his moral and intellectual failings, gets out of the way.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Creeps and Cowards

Trump is not a drinker. In fact, he’s a teetotaler. This makes it doubly weird that his tweets sound like the crapulous drivel of a drunken buffoon.

But not always.
The racist rant that appeared on his twitter feed Sunday was grammatically correct and thoroughly coherent. Because of this, commentators have been speculating that it may well have been composed not by Trump, but by one of his henchmen. 

 Here is what the tweets said:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly......

....and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how.... is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!

                                       -    -    -

Except for a missing question mark, that tweet series was quite coherent - albeit ignorant and racist.

So, who do they think they're kidding? Nobody who tweets about the “Prince of Whales,” as Trump recently did, could compose those lines. If Trump himself had authored these tweets, they would have come across something like this:

Those four Black, Muslim and Mexican girls are DUM and DISGUSTING! They shuold go BACK to the SHITHOLE countries they CAME FROM!

So, who authored the racist tweets? The prime suspect is Stephen Miller. You remember him, right? He’s that creepy, skinny guy who slithered into the inner sanctum of the Oval Office alongside Steve Bannon when Trump first took office.

           Secretary of Bigotry Stephen Miller

The other big question raised by these White House tweets is, “Why don’t Republicans loudly denounce them?” Other world leaders have done so, some with gusto. British Prime Minister Theresa May criticized them sharply and so has her probable successor (and Trump friend), Boris Johnson, who said they were “totally unacceptable.” Johnson went on, “If you're the leader of a great multiracial, multicultural society you simply cannot use that kind of language about sending people back to where they came from…I simply can't understand how a leader of that country could come to say it.” [Editor’s note: I can.]
Even George Conway has spoken truth to power. (His wife is, after all, Kellyanne). Conway declared, “That’s racist to the core. It doesn’t matter what these representatives are for or against — and there’s plenty to criticize them for — it’s beyond the bounds of human decency. For anyone, not least a president.”
Conway was also scornful of Republican leaders in general for not condemning Trump’s remarks. And well he should be. Their lack of outrage is disgraceful.

I, for one, would like to know what my own senators have to say, especially the Honorable Marco Rubio. Is he, like the other Republicans in Congress cowering in the shadows of Capitol Hill like a fearful mouse? Or is he just playing a soulless, political game.
What’s the story, Senator Rubio – are you not the child of immigrants? More to the point, have you no courage?

¿No eres valiente?

If you still see yourself as presidential timber, Senator, speak now or forever hold your peace.