Monday, March 31, 2008

The Ultimate Intellectual Piracy

The United States may soon cease to be the world’s greatest threat to global peace.

That statement may come as news to those who were not aware that the U.S. ever was a great threat to global peace. And surely, by many measures, it is not. How many countries have a Peace Corps? How many provide real estate for a United Nations?

Let us not quibble about the U.S.’s standing as the world’s leading seller of weaponry. Let us not debate the invasion of Iraq, or the devastation and brutality of the Vietnam War (or, indeed, the murder rates in our own cities).

In fact, let us withdraw that statement about the United States altogether. Because soon, it may not matter anyway.

The U.S. has had its Ugly Americans abroad, as well as its piggish Yuppies cluelessly asking themselves, “Why do they hate us?” in the wake of 9/11. But at least some such Yuppies did ask, and some actually seemed to want to hear an answer. That, however, may not be the way of the future.

Surely there will always be a liberal, educated fringe of Chinese individuals who have not only visited the West but who have also come to appreciate the good things that the West’s liberal, educated fringe try to achieve. Such individuals will undoubtedly be grossly outnumbered, though, by those Chinese people who, in good middle-class American style, neither know nor care, very much, what the rest of the world may think or believe.

Most Chinese may be like most Americans – concerned, that is, with what’s on the barbecue or in the fridge, and not so concerned with what someone with a cause, somewhere else in the world, seems to be complaining about.

China has a reputation, these days, of copying what other people invent. There is no law of nature that limits such copying to the good things. Those who plunder goods from others’ homes may inadvertently haul away some dust and cockroaches as well.

In particular, China may be copying some flaws from America of the 1960s. Chinese responses to Tibet certainly make it seem that way.

On Tibet, as in Vietnam, the world speaks out, in the name of fairness and humanity. The Dalai Lama, like a latter-day Ho Chi Minh, actually talks as if he believed that the leaders of the superpower were reasonable people. But those leaders have their eyes on domestic opinion, and domestic opinion is clear enough.

It took a long, long time for Americans to make up their minds, take action, and ultimately end the Vietnam War. Even in a fairly open democracy, with many fictions exposed by a relatively free press, it took years on end for society to get sick of its own anti-communist rhetoric.

Americans of that era knew what they believed. They knew it because it was what someone had told them, and it was also what their friends seemed to believe. We cannot expect anything different from the Chinese, and we are not getting anything different. The effort to talk sense to Chinese people – even educated, westernized ones – about Tibet, these days, seems much like the effort to talk sense to Americans in 1968 (or, actually, in 2003).

Tibet is not the point. Tibet is merely the illustration. If the Chinese people are presently able to support internal or localized nationalist hype á la the Alamo or Cuba, in the future they may also be able to support nationalist hype focused abroad, á la Saigon or Baghdad.

Things are changing very quickly, these days, in the U.S.-China balance. It is easy to notice the shifts in the balances of finance, military power, and influence. But other things are shifting as well.

Sooner than we expect, people of the whole world may begin to encounter the Ugly Chinese. If such a thing happens, it will not be because Chinese individuals are interpersonally ugly. Much to the contrary, they hail from a culture that seems to foster deference and agreeableness. It will happen, not because of who the Chinese people are, but despite that.

Power tends to corrupt, and the Chinese people are gaining power. There are things they want and, as shown in Tibet, there are things they will take – not because they are right, educated, or caring, but simply because they will be increasingly able to follow their beliefs and feed their desires.

It will be too bad if China copies us so diligently in that mistake. But the writing does appear to be on the wall. Chinese public opinion is harshly set against a fair deal for the people of Tibet. Leaders in China, like leaders in the United States, do not generally tell their constituents to set their nationalism aside in favor of respect or decency to others.

Ultimately, the problem is with the accumulation of power itself. When a nation becomes as big as China or the U.S., it tends to expect its leaders to achieve outsized things at the expense of other peoples. There had never before been a superpower like the United States. And in its own, different but conceivably far worse way – as we may soon begin to see – there may also never be a superpower like China.