Sunday, January 6, 2013

Don't Know Much About History (Part of a Series)

One of the things I find fascinating about the internet is that it's treated as a universal good.  People assume that because it allows the spread of information and views as never before it must be some sort of universal improvement for knowledge and democracy.  But there's a flip side to this; misinformation and pig ignorance can be spread like never before as well.  Andrew Sullivan (I don't know why I'm picking on him so much right now but he deserves it) recently made the bizarre claim that China could have become a western style democracy in 1912 if only some guy didn't get assassinated: "Hopes were dashed when Song Jiaoren, leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party and a believer in "Jeffersonian ideals and admiration for Britain’s Parliament," was assassinated."

I am currently reading Barbara Tuchman's great book "Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-45" a great book about this period in Chinese and American relations told through the lens of the life of Joseph Stillwell a American solider who worked in China off and on during this period, eventually rising to command all allied forces in China, India and Burma in 1944, giving him a rank equal to then Generals Marshall and Eisenhower.  One of the main points of the books is that turning China into a Western style democracy after the overthrow of the last of the Qing Emperors in 1911 was an impossible dream. Something that was a doomed to failure as it was in South Vietnam a half century later ("Stillwell" was published in 1970 and in no small way was an attempt to add some context to why the American effort in Indochina had failed.)   Sullivan is highlighting an article in The Economist that swings from statements that sound like racial explanations for the troubles China faced at the beginning of the most violent century in human history: "The Chinese people, long yoked by Confucian tradition and insulated from Western influences, may have been unprepared for the radical terminology of liberty."  And then goes on to explain how since this assassinated fellow read various thinkers from the British Enlightenment (John Stuart Mill! Adam Smith!) and some French dudes he could have led China to a new glorious age.

In the second chapter of "Stillwell" Tuchman points out that turning China into a perfect democracy had roadblocks that Enlightment literature didn't explain how to overcome while describing the American reaction to end overthrow of the last Emperor:
Others, stirred to enthusiasm by the Revolution's promise of liberal, Western, parliamentary ideas, were more optimistic.  "We thought high and noble thoughts," wrote on American trader, "about China and the new era that was dawning."  This was the attitude, on the whole, of the American public which wanted to believe what the missionaries were always promising, that China, of the 400,000,000 was about to transform itself into that desirable and familiar thing, a democracy.  That the 400,000,000 were a people 70 to 80 percent illiterate, who on the average had no milk and virtually no other animal products in their diet, who had no sanitation, no running water, no privacy, no electricity, no vote, whose industry was still 90 percent handiwork and whose transportation was still largely conducted by human muscle, was not considered, if considered at all, incompatible with democracy.  When a rebel leader in Hankow, out of Oriental politeness which believes in telling people what presumably they want to hear, said to reporters that "the object of our revolt is to make the Government of China like that of America," nothing could have seemed more natural to American readers.
Is there something about the people of China that is incompatible with Democracy?  Of course not, no more than Germany or Japan is, but transforming a society from something other than a modern developed state into a democracy takes more that admiring the British Parliament and reading Montesquieu.  That is to say, it takes more than "One Great Man."  Especially when that state is the largest in the world, with huge chunks of it taken over by colonial powers, other chunks ruled by warlords and no functioning central government.  Sullivan was initially a huge supporter of the Iraq War, you'd think he at least would have learned this by now.

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