No further comment …
I have heard this observation a few times in China over the years, but it is well expressed by a student who is studying in the UK: ‘The UK is nice but it like an “old man” – rich and comfortable but with no potential. China is like a “young man” who is not perfect, but still has big room for improvement and is full of energy and desire’.
We could replace ‘UK’ with a number of Western countries or indeed the ‘West’ as a whole, which holds only 14 percent of the global population.
Indeed, I have been struck by the way so many places in Western Europe, North America (which I no longer visit) and Australia have really gone to sleep. They have become old and tired, liking a nap whenever possible, not interested in innovating. They have closed their minds to the rest of the world and many within are often stunningly ignorant about the world. At the same time, the bones are not what they used to be, creaking and groaning, and diseases of old age are more and more apparent.
A good example is the tradition of Western liberal (bourgeois) democracy, which arose slowly in Europe after the French Revolution of 1789. It was specific to Western Europe and those outposts – the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – that exported this model. Beyond these contexts, it has certainly not done so well. Above all, it was a tool of governance developed in an earlier time for earlier situations. Now it is increasingly evident that it a rather crude and out-of-date method, needing to be replaced.
Every now and then, I need to address an audience with brains that have been saturated with all types of liberal and bourgeois rubbish. So I have decided to begin my talks as follows:
I am in favour of brainwashing … it is a very, very good practice.
As Mao Zedong said in 1957 to a group of students:
Some foreigners say that our ideological reform is brainwashing. As I see it, they are correct in what they say. It is washing brains, that’s what it is! This brain of mine was washed to become what it is. After I joined the revolution, [my brain] slowly washed, washed for several decades. What I received before was all bourgeois education, and even some feudal education … At that time, none of us knew anything about how the Chinese revolution was to be promoted!
So I ask you to take a moment to wash your brains, as far as possible. Identify all of the liberal, bourgeois assumptions you might have, especially concerning communism. Only in this way can you begin to understand what socialism with Chinese characteristics is.
‘The emperor has no clothes’ – this is the assessment of more and more parts of the world concerning the United States.
It is most notable on the Korean Peninsula, where the two parts have been actively working towards reunification and leaving the USA out of the loop. But one can find it throughout eastern, central and western Asia, as they work out their own regional problems. Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, even the Pacific increasingly have the same sense. This leaves a very small number of countries – perhaps 12 or at most 15 – who would count themselves as ‘Western’; they seem to hold onto the myth of the invincibility of the United States.
Until quite recently, the United States has relied heavily on maintaining this myth. The threat of economic largesse or the cold shoulder – most bluntly manifested through sanctions – has cowed one country after another in the past. But no longer: the more the United States arbitrarily imposes sanctions on all and sundry, the more ineffective they become. Global reserves and transactions in US dollars, which are the hard edge of sanctions, continue to decline (only 39 percent in 2018). And once you do not use US dollars, you can sidestep the sanctions (as is the case with the DPRK).
We may add to this the following facts: the United States internally is tearing itself apart, as it rapidly destroys all of the post-Civil War agreements and thereby the unstable truce of the internal Cold War; it is falling further and further behind in technological know-how, so much so that it is technologically backward; it has been largely de-industrialised since 1989 and its infrastructure is crumbling; its political model – a peculiar version of bourgeois democracy – is not merely a shambles, but a laughing stock of the rest of the world.
Here I would like to focus on another dimension. Many who would agree to some extent with this assessment will still say, ‘But the United States has the best military force in the world, which can defeat anyone’. While pondering this, I began to think back, trying to find a war that the United States has actually won.
Syria: it failed in its effort to topple the government.
Islamic State: this was defeated largely by the Russians, who know how to finish a job.
Afghanistan: ongoing failure.
Iraq (Gulf War): clearly a failure, at immense cost.
Libya: disaster, leaving a country in chaos.
Grenada and Panama (invasions in 1983 and 1989): perhaps these may seem like ‘successes’ over tiny countries, much like its earlier efforts in Latin America, but the result was a significant turn to the Left in Latin America and increasing rejection of US interference.
Vietnam: a major loss.
Laos: lost again.
Cuba (Bay of Pigs): clear loss.
Korea: all they could manage was an armistice.
Second World War: while the Soviet Red Army clearly defeated Hitler’s Germany (with the western front a sideshow), one may argue that the United States ‘won’ the Pacific War against Japan. But they struggled mightily to do so, and – as historians point out – the Japanese began to sue for peace only when the victorious Red Army began to move east. The nuclear bombing of Japan was a rushed job to make it look like the United States was on top. What the United States did do – since its war losses were relatively minor – was make the most of the situation and impose its economic model on a Western Europe bled dry by the war. The United States did so by relying on the long post-war economic depression in Europe to assert economic control.
First World War: reluctant to enter into what they saw as a European problem, they arrived late and sustained few losses.
United States Civil War: at last, we can find a major conflict, but is this a loss or a win?
American War of Independence: they did indeed win this one, but it is some time ago now.
In fact, we need to go back to the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to find wars that were won – such as the ‘Indian’ wars of extermination, internal rebellions, those with immediate neighbours (for example, Mexico, Canada and Latin America, as part of expansion and local domination), or occasional raids in the Pacific, to find actual examples of ‘victories’. Hardly glorious.
One may suggest that the United States has managed somewhat better when it has used someone else to do the dirty work. A good example here is the funding and arming of the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to resist the Soviet Union’s invasion of the 1980s (an effort to quell a restless border country). This example could be multiplied, but it came at immense cost, manifested above all in the successful attack on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001. If anything was a symbol of US military weakness, this was it.
The question remains: why has the United States consistently lost wars for more than a century? One answer is the simple fact that United States ground troops are of inferior quality. As Stalin already observed in relation to the Atomic Bomb: weaponry is one thing, but the key is the quality of the ground troops. Thus, the United States loves firing missiles, dropping bombs and (more recently) using drones on all and sundry – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and so on – but when it sends in ground troops they fail again and again. Of course, the use of weaponry ensures that the military industry keeps humming along (as also the sale of such weaponry), but it is never able to win wars.
To be added here is the avoidance of getting too deeply involved in major conflicts – the two ‘world wars’ of the twentieth century being the best examples. In these cases, it has preferred to let others take the brunt and then step in afterwards to impose its will.
In light of all this, why do some people still play up United States military might? This is partly an old line, which follows a well-worn narrative. It is also relatively comfortable: under United States hegemony, the world is a bad place, but it provides a level of known comfort. And one can always feel a little better by harping on about the emperor’s evils. More significantly, it is a myth upon which the United States has relied for more than 70 years. The propaganda machine has been hard at work advancing this myth: Hollywood movies; museum displays for children of United States military hardware; pure spin dressed up as ‘history’ concerning its ‘pivotal role’ in the Second World War; a compliant ‘Western’ media; and so on.
The reality is somewhat different. As Wallerstein already put it some time ago: imperial hegemony works only when no one challenges it. As soon as someone does, one dare leads to another. A little later (2003), he observed that the United States is ‘a lone superpower that lacks true power, a world leader nobody follows and few respect, and a nation drifting dangerously’. These days, this is even more the case. In fact, it is no longer a ‘super’ power, but merely a power.
Perhaps it is time we realised – as the majority of the world has already realised – that the emperor really has no clothes.
(An earlier version of this paper was given at a Sinology conference in Beijing at the beginning of November, 2018)
Has Western Europe lost its soul?
Before beginning, let me set a more personal context. My parents emigrated from the Netherlands to Australia in the late 1950s, so my nationality (or ethnicity) is Dutch, although my citizenship is Australian. To add to these personal connections, my education is in European classical languages, biblical criticism and Western European (and Russian) Marxism. Thus, at many levels I am steeped in the European tradition.
Closed Borders and Closed Minds
Some years ago, a change began in Western Europe. In one country after another, the confidence of the 1990s began to dissipate. With the supposed ‘rolling back’ of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, many had thought the Western liberal tradition had triumphed. But just as it seemed to do so, it lost confidence. Whereas once such countries welcomed foreigners, now they became suspicious. Stricter controls began to appear on the borders, immigrants and refugees were increasingly seen as threats (to jobs, welfare, culture and so on). The targets are only peoples from the Middle East and North Africa – but also Russia, Eastern Europe and even southern Europe. Old denigrations took on a new currency, border checks became routine, more and more people were rejected.
With this gradual closing of the borders – about which much more can be said – came a closing of the mind. True, many Western Europeans have for long held a view of the world that places themselves at the culmination of history. But something has changed. Whereas in the past this attitude may have appeared as a distinct confidence, if not (colonial) arrogance, in more recent years it has evolved into a fearful view of the rest of the world as a threat.
Part of the reason – but only part – may be found in the profound geopolitical shifts that have become clear in the last decade or more. The North Atlantic financial crisis of 2008 brought to the fore a process that had been underway for much longer (think of the Reform and Opening Up in China since the late 1970s). Not only did the shakiness of the ‘world order’ that had been established after the Second World War become apparent, but the financial crisis marked most clearly that the centre of global economic and political power was in a process of shifting. We can use the metaphor of a seismic shift, in which the continental plates shift, grinding away until a series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions make clear what is already underway. Too late has the ‘West’ realised what is at stake. The frantic efforts – for example – by the United States to reassert its splintering hegemony comes far too late. The horse has already bolted, to use another metaphor. But this situation creates a profound sense of unsettlement in many people. Whether they liked the previous order or not, they had become somewhat comfortable. Not now.
All the same, these developments may be seen as external factors, however important they might be. Let me now turn to more internal features, of an individual and collective nature. To begin with, one notices a profound lack of purpose in many parts of Western Europe and North America. I think not so much of drive to make short-term profits at the expense of the long-term future, but of the purpose of life itself.
Let me give an example from the Netherlands, although it could be replicated again and again. The only remaining sense of life is to ‘live well’. You may ask: what is the problem with this? It all depends on what ‘living well’ means. It comes down to nothing more than eating at expensive restaurants, having a nice home, travelling to selected destinations, and if one is no longer able to ‘live well’, opting for euthanasia. Further, if anyone else in the world who is not able even to find enough food for a day wishes to share a little of this ‘well-lived’ life, then they are rejected and reviled.
Perhaps there is indeed an awareness of something amiss. Of late, an increasing number of research projects have begun to dig back into Western European history to identify what is unique about this culture. The history may not be as long as many other parts of the world, but signs of a search have begun.
For example, a very large project, funded by the European Council, examines the origins of the idea of ‘privacy’. This is a large team project based at a leading European university, with eye-watering funding and a somewhat new approach that turns on privacy as both a quality and a risk: too little privacy threatens the individual while too much may ruin society. While the project claims to be ‘international’, a careful look at its focus reveals that the term ‘international’ refers to countries in Western Europe, in terms of both its research scope and team.
Clearly, the project sees privacy itself as a distinctly Western European discovery, although its agenda is to find a new way to trace the emergence of privacy. While the project risks a Euro-centric view, it also indicates that the very idea of privacy in this framework is specific and culturally determined. In other words, it is part of a European tradition that cannot simply be transposed and imposed elsewhere.
Further, the time period under investigation is telling: 1500-1800, precisely when capitalist market economies emerged in Western Europe, liberalism began its long road to dominance and this part of the world emerged from its backwardness to global colonialism. This is when Western Europe as we know it began to take shape not so long ago. With this focus, the project reveals a desire to re-anchor a relatively short cultural tradition that many sense has lost its way. What is it that makes Western Europe unique? Is it worth recovering and, if so, how?
In order to do so, a thorough reinvestigation of the role of religion in Western European culture lies at the core of the project. Tellingly, the project may be interdisciplinary to some extent, but it is based in a Faculty of Theology.
On this note, let me use another example. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of Western Marxists turned to the Bible and theology to find a new revolutionary model. Their names may be familiar to you: Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton – to name only the most well-known – turned or returned to the Christian tradition to find new ways to speak about the revolutionary tradition. The specific contributions may differ in the details, but the underlying claim was the same: Christian theology, and especially the Bible, provides the origins of the idea and practice of revolution. In other words, this is a uniquely European discovery and needs to be reclaimed.
Rather than pass judgement on this effort (which is highly problematic), we need to ask why they did so. Here the date of 1989 and the ‘fall of the Berlin Wall’ had a profound effect. We have not yet realized the full impact in Europe of this development, but one feature was the sense of crisis many Western Marxists felt. Although many had already given up on actual socialism further east, the breakup of the Soviet Union led to them to believe that all the old models were no longer workable. So they began to seek out a distinctly Western European model – based on theology.
My final example concerns cultural products, such as films, novels and so on. More and more of these products attempt to recover what is distinct about the Western European tradition. For example, a recent German film – called Ich bin dann mal weg, translated as I’ll Be Off, Then – tells the story of a successful comedian who collapses on stage. Aware that something is missing in his unhealthy and pointless life – he drinks too much, smokes heavily and makes much money – he decides to set off on a pilgrimage.
His destination is Santiago de Compostela, a distance of some 800 kilometres. He follows one of the ancient routes – known in English as the Way of St James – to the cathedral in the city. Dating from the ninth century, the pilgrimage was popular in the Middle Ages, only to see a gradual decline with the onset of modernity. Tellingly, since the end of the 1980s it has once again grown in popularity (note again the importance of this period).
At first, the film’s character is not quite sure why he has undertaken the pilgrimage. He continues to smoke, pays for an expensive hotel, catches a taxi and then a bus in order to avoid walking. Gradually he comes to spend time with a couple of other pilgrims, who learn to help each other. Now he walks, stays in hostels, and begins to ask questions about the meaning of life, if not God. By the time they reach the cathedral in Spain, they have come to an awareness – partial though it might be – of what a full life might actually mean.
The examples could be multiplied (The Dutch film Tulipaner is another), but in many ways the film functions as a European allegory. The man in the film stands for a Europe that seems to have lost its way and is searching for a soul. That this search inevitably involves religion – especially in light of the complex intersections between religion and European culture – should not surprise us.
Let me examine the implications of this distinct loss of soul. To begin with, looking back can have many functions. Obviously, historical investigation is necessary and important for charting a path into the future. But it can too easily fall into a conservative search for the mythical lost Golden Age – politics in the United States is an excellent example. In the case of Western Europe, it is more about a sense that something has been lost. Whether what is lost is valuable or not is another question.
A significant part of this loss concerns religion, for the obvious reason that Western European culture cannot be imagined without religion – as the examples of research projects, cultural products and the work of some Western Marxists indicates. But here we face a paradox: on the one hand, the churches are virtually empty and few see religion as important in their lives; on the other hand, in the face of perceived threats the Christian nature of European culture has been increasingly asserted. I leave aside here the more intriguing suggestions for answering this problem (such as the sinification of religion), for the paradox itself witnesses to my main point.
What are the implications? These thoughts were originally part of a paper delivered at a Sinology conference in Beijing. To my surprise, the paper generated much discussion, for it obviously has implications for Sinology, let alone China in the world. Let me identify three implications.
The first is negative, with the small club of ‘Western’ nations closing their doors out of fear and rejecting the rest of the world, apart from sporadic efforts at neo-colonialism.
The second is more intriguing, for – as was very obvious to these participants – the developments I discussed witness to the distinct nature of the Western European tradition, which must be understood but cannot be transposed to other cultures without serious disruption.
Third, are their other models where a purpose is quite clear? The Chinese project, with Marxism at its core, is an obvious candidate. Observers from different backgrounds – from the Vatican through to a small but growing number of Western Marxists – have become aware that Chinese Marxism does provide a clear purpose and goal, if not a soul that has been lost elsewhere. This is not to say that Chinese Marxism should become a new global hegemony, and thus a false universal, but that it can perhaps provide a model for how one might shape such a soul in a new way.
 The project focuses on eleven case studies deemed important for the development of privacy: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Dresden, Westminster, La Rochelle, Helmstedt, Chatsworth House, Versailles, Altona, Glasgow and Arc-et-Senans. Clearly, all are in Western Europe.
This is a short note to point out that for some time now I have not read newspapers – especially ‘Western’ ones that may be desrcibed as corporate, state-owned (Dansk Radio, BBC, ABC etc) or even supposedly ‘independent’ operators (like The Guardian, but also many more), let alone the various ‘grey zone’ outlets.
There are a number of reasons. The first is that there is precious little actual news reporting. Much of the material contains gossip (for example, personal life matters, a certain person’s ‘tweets’), opinion and advertising disguised as news.
The second is very little in-depth analysis that tries to consider the whole picture. When they do appear, the items end up propogating a particular view of the world that derives from the Euro-American situation. This ideological framework is like a slow drip of toxins into the brain. At the same time, there are profound absences concerning important developments in many other parts of the world (Africa, Eurasian integration, among other examples).
The third is perhaps the main reason: selective sensationalism. When there is something from, say, China or the DPRK, one or two pieces of half-truth or simple falsities are selected, spun into a certain narrative and then sensationalised. Highly unreliable stuff. I can guess some of the content, even though I have not read this material for some time: life and politics in the DPRK; the situation in Xinjiang (China), the social credit system in China, as well as the widespread use of facial recognition software.
Reading such material, as they say, rots your brain.
What do I read, if anything? From time to time my preferred location is Xinhua News. Why? It is government funded and properly resourced, with an emphasis on in-depth analysis and study by its journalists. Usually, they take time to research an article, with a number of contributors. Opinion is restricted to where it should be: occasional editorials. And it steers clear of anything like gossip.
This happened faster than one might have expected, even with the 300 year history of the ‘Chinese Rites controversy’. They key, however, was not so much whether traditional Chinese rites were compatible with Roman Catholicism, but who would appoint the bishops. Would it be the Vatican or the state, an old controversy indeed even in Europe? Thus far, no agreement had been reached, so two branches of the Roman Catholic Church have been operating in China, one recognised by the state and the other by the Vatican (more detail here).
China and the Vatican signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops on Saturday, China’s Foreign Ministry announced later that day.
A Vatican delegation held talks with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Chao on Saturday in Beijing, after which the deal was signed, read a statement from the ministry’s website.
The two sides will continue communicating to promote bilateral relations, said the statement.
The two sides put in great effort to achieve the agreement and their good intentions deserve to be known, said Bishop Fang Jianping, deputy head of the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China.
The provisional agreement will open a new page for the China-Vatican relations, Fang told the Global Times on Saturday.
“Provisional” shows this agreement will be improved and expanded over time, Vatican affairs expert Francesco Sisci told the Global Times on the signing of the provisional agreement between China and the Vatican on Saturday.
The Vatican is the historical continuity of thousands of years of Western civilization. The Chinese government is the continuity of three millennia of history. This deal signals that, for the first time, these two civilizations are meeting as equals, in peace, without the hatred of war or the petty calculations of trade, Sisci said.
The deal does not deserve criticism from Catholic groups as it was reached out of practical needs and to further the global development of the Catholic church, Fang noted.
Critics of the long-waited agreement are merely a “loud minority,” said Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, also chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
“In our interpretation, the critics are a little minority group of people, people who wanted to create trouble,” the bishop told the Global Times in an exclusive interview on Friday.
Sorondo explained the importance of having this deal, or having China better involved in the Catholic world, is that “the country has a large population with good quality people, it observes the common good and it has proved its ability to great missions like fighting against poverty and pollution.”
Note: this is the same Sorondo who observed last year:
Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese …
They (the Chinese) seek the common good, subordinating things to the general good … The dignity of the person is defended …
Liberal thought has liquidated the concept of the common good, not even wanting to take it into account, asserting that it is an empty idea, without any interest. By contrast, the Chinese focus on work and the common good.
These curious reports keep appearing. I have already mentioned the Ipsos survey from last year, which found last year that 87% of people in China are confident in the direction the country is heading. Now we have the Edelman Trust Barometer, which finds the following for China:
Trust among the ‘informed public’:
In government: 89%
In business: 85%
In media: 80%
In NGOs: 76%
Trust among the general population:
In government: 84%
In business: 74%
In media: 71%
In NGOS: 66%
Overall, this is up by 27% in one year, the highest in the world:
Or in a slightly different graph:
Yes, the USA is by far the worst (Australia dropped 10 percent), while China is followed by UAE and South Korea. Or to put this in another perspective (since South Koreans were at rock bottom):
In this light, you can understand the significant changes to the Chinese constitution proposed by the Central Committee, just before the two sessions of parliament open (next post).
This one is causing no small brouhaha among reactionary Roman Catholics and others. Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who is chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, made the following observations in an interview:
“Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” a senior Vatican official has said.
Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, praised the Communist state as “extraordinary”, saying: “You do not have shantytowns, you do not have drugs, young people do not take drugs”. Instead, there is a “positive national conscience”.
The bishop told the Spanish-language edition of Vatican Insider that in China “the economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States, something Americans themselves would say.”
Bishop Sánchez Sorondo said that China was implementing Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si better than many other countries and praised it for defending Paris Climate Accord. “In that, it is assuming a moral leadership that others have abandoned”, he added.
As part of the diplomacy efforts, Bishop Sánchez Sorondo visited the country. “What I found was an extraordinary China,” he said. “What people don’t realise is that the central value in China is work, work, work. There’s no other way, fundamentally it is like St Paul said: he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.”
Bishop Sánchez Sorondo concluded by saying that China is “developing well” and now has “many points of agreement” with the Vatican.
I never thought I would be quoting the Catholic Herald, but there you go. All of this is part of a serious historical deal in the making between the Chinese government and the Vatican over the appointment of bishops. For the last few centuries, there have been two Roman Catholic Churches in China. One is officially recognised by the state – the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) – and the other is not. A root cause of their difference is an old problem: who appoints bishops, the state or the Vatican? The officially recognised church has bishops who are recognised by the state, while the unofficial church does not. This has been the status quo for the odd century or three.
Now a breakthrough is in the works. Pope Francis has actively encouraged a deal in which future bishops would be appointed by a process that includes input from the government and the Vatican. Things move slowly in the Roman Catholic Church, since this little conflict goes way back to the efforts by Matteo Ricci and then the ‘Rites Controversy’ of the 17th and 18th centuries. But now it may well be resolved and the two branches of the Roman Catholic Church in China may become one – following the model already in place in Vietnam.
The book is now out of print, which is a shame, but Another Vietnam is a stunning collection of photographs from Vietcong photographers of their side of a long, long war they won. It makes you wonder what the situation would be like if the DPRK had won their revolutionary war against the USA. The images may be found here, along with descriptions (ht: cp).