News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Preliminary rough comments on Thunder from the East by Nicholas D. Kristof & Cheryl Wudunn.

The authors claim the Asian financial crisis left Indonesian villagers confused and vengeful, with the result that they ended up blaming traditional bad guys, i.e. sorcerers, for their problems. They called these evil doers ninjas and went around beheading them. From page 9:

"How do you tell who the ninja are?"

"It begins when people see someone suspicious and try to chase him. Sometimes the ninja turns into a cat, and sometimes he stays human. If he stays human, then they cut off his head." Sukiando paused, sighed at the thought of all the beheading that remained to be done, and added: "There are going to be more heads chopped off. Because in every little neighborhood, there are seven or eight ninja who go out every night, and they've got to be stopped."

It sounds like some quaint savage practice, some avatar sprung from the remote human consciousness of the barbarous prehistory of mankind. And yet, this nasty business seems awfully familiar. In Stalin's Soviet Union the sorcerers were called capitalists, kulaks, and counterrevolutionaries. Stalin ordered the execution of individuals in a similarly random fashion. In other words, modern monsters goosestepping to ancient rhythms. A certain percentage of each district's residents were deviants and subversives. Stalin would order the rounding up of, for example, 2% of the population of each district across the country and have them liquidated. Because local party bosses had no idea who the baddies were, they grabbed people at random. Boy Scout meetings, book clubs, what have you. Gathering in groups and associations made it easier for the police to make a conspiracy charge and also made for less trouble than grabbing people at home where the neighbors might intervene. According to Solzhenitsyn, millions of innocents died in these lunatic purges.

Ditto for so many other other socialist paradises. Mao’s ninjas were the landowners and Chinese Nationalists. Pol Pot's ninjas were the educated. If you had glasses, if you could read, off with your head or a bullet in the neck.

The methodology employed in Indonesia for determining who was a ninja is also reminiscent of the British witch hunts of the Middle Ages. The accused were tossed in a river. If you drowned, you were innocent. If you retained the natural habit of doggy-paddling, this was proof positive you were a witch. You were scorched at the stake under a pyre of flaming faggots.

On page 18: "Still, important changes can be pretty awful. In the West, the great depression produced not just Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, but also Adolf Hitler and World War II."

I beg to differ. It was a generation of creeping corruption and the policies of President's Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the spectacularly dunderheaded New Deal in particular which produced and sustained the Great Depression. The Great Depression was not the failure of capitalism, it was the failure of corruption and informed innovation, and finally it was the failure of America's first great attempt at socialism.

Take bank failures, which featured so prominently in that day and age. Not one bank in Canada fell during the Great Depression because Canadian banks were not restricted in how they did business. They were evil corporations, cabals of self-interest, commercial elites strangling the little guy. In the United States, to protect mom-and-pop banking operations of small country towns, congress, in it’s infinitude of wisdom, keeping its ear to the populist ground and watching the polls, did not permit large banks to move into rural areas.

In other words, government intervention; state protectionism; the boosting of local pride.

The result of these good intentions, of keeping large banks out of rural areas, was that when there were runs on these small banks they were quite unnaturally unable to draw on assets from other parts of the country. Why? Because they were small, local banks. Any idiot could have seen this coming. Small banks were already failing throughout the pre-Depression 1920’s at the rate of a couple hundred a year. Evil large banks, by virtue of being large, more efficient, better managed, and diversified, did not fail. Nevertheless, myriad small banks of unblemished virtue went bankrupt prior to the great test of the Great Depression. When the test came, they failed. Had the pious small banks not been protected, the evil large banks would have moved into rural areas and pushed out all of the inefficient in competently run chemically pure small banks. The result would have been that the nationally famous bank runs would not have produced nearly as many bankruptcies and perhaps none at all.

The New Deal paid farmers not to raise crops in order to enhance the price of farm crops. Of course, this made it more difficult for the unemployed who lived in cities to pay for food. Thus, the government had to pay out welfare payments to enable the urban unemployed to purchase the farm crops that were rendered artificially expensive by the policies of the same government. Clearly this is inefficient to the point of being idiotic. But this and many other damn fool policies were formulated by Roosevelt (who, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, despised businessmen) and the so-called Brain Trust.

The opening section of this book is weakened by this all too typical habit of reporters to cover a great many topics without ever developing a profound knowledge of any of them. Rather than retail in ideas, ideation and trains of logic are replaced with the usual sort of reporters stories and vignettes to humanize the situation, to demonstrate the author's oneness with the people, to demonstrate to all that they feel the pain of humanity.

An excellent example of this is the reversion to received wisdoms when the author discusses China. For example on pages 26 and 27 the author writes, "Why did the West triumph over the East in the last millennium? For most of the last thousand years, Asia was far more advanced than any other part of the world. In that time, it would have seemed far more natural that Chinese or Indians would dominate the world in the year 2000 than that Europeans would."

However, the Chinese Empire did not compete with or encompass any democratic state during the last 2500 years. This is naturally quite different from Europe's history which sported a number of democracies such as ancient Greece, ancient Rome, those of many Germanic tribes, and all through to the modern age there's been partially democratic rule and a relative degree of freedom of expression in one part or another of Europe, within the various city states of the Middle Ages for example and so forth. This has been critical to modern intellectual development, movement which has led directly to modern prosperity and technological development. Thus though China was often more advanced technologically, it was retarded in many critical areas such as democracy, freedom of speech, rule of law, and so forth.

2500 years ago, ancient Greece had trial by jury. The heroes of the Icelandic sagas, of the Norsemen, were lawyers, not warriors. The Icelanders invented an ingenious legal system which let the free market set the price of fines and other penalties. And given that the dominance of the state over the individual was far greater in China that in Europe, it is hardly a surprise that free-market economics, democracy, free speech, and so on and so forth developed in the West and not in Asia.

On page 28, the author compares the vast scale of the Chinese fleet of Admiral Zheng He with that of Columbus. The former has 28,000 sailors on 300 ships whereas Columbus had 90 sailors on three ships. But this is an error confusing quantity with quality. Throughout history, in the realm of the military, democratic nations have consistently defeated autocratic nations with far smaller armies. This is because democratic armies to be of much higher caliber. They fight much harder, have far fewer deserters, and tend to be much better informed and intelligent in their combat because of the greatly increased flow of information throughout the ranks which comes about via traditions of freedom of speech, the stress upon individuality, and the greater degree of informality between men and social divisions.

Admiral Zhengho may have had a great number of men under his control, but at the end of the day it was only himself and perhaps a few advisers who made all the major decisions. However, had this same vast fleet been split into 30 fleets of 10 ships each, much greater by way of exploration, discovery, and diplomatic works could have been achieved. What the Chinese expedition suggests to me is the perennial folly of state rule and weakness in the face of societies whose norms stress individuality and personal freedom. Columbus did not need a fleet of 28,000 sailors to make the first announced modern European discovery of the American continents. Nor did he need 300 ships to drop maps, navigation charts, and returned to Europe to spread the news and inspire a whole new era of discovery, economic growth, national expansion, and so forth.

On the other hand, due to an inauspicious thunderstorm in Beijing, there was a change in heart with regard to exploration. The fleet was shut down and the ships destroyed. Further exploration was banned. Incredible? No. Typical. The state had been in charge from start to finish. Had the exploring been performed by private entities such as Columbus, with the state keeping its fingers out of everyone's business, there would have been other individuals who, just like Amerigo Vespucci and Captain Cook who would have continued exploring the maritime world and eventually discovered Europe and America for China.

Again, China's problem is the problem with monolithic states everywhere and key to the problem of socialism everywhere as well. When the state gets involved heavily, it squashes private initiative, directly or indirectly. The US Post Office filing legal injunctions against Federal Express when it first got going is a perfect example of how the state fights free enterprise when it finds it's own interests threatened, the body politic be damned.

Thus I'm not impressed when the author writes, "The treasure ships had luxury cabins with balconies for the top officers and for foreign princes who would be brought home, and these ships were backed by specialized vessels including horse carriers, troop transports, cargo ships, two kinds of warships, and water tankers carrying drinking water. The crews included 10 translators, five astronomers, 180 doctors and pharmacologists to treat the sick and gather foreign herbs, and even to protocol experts to ensure that Chinese treated foreigners just a proper degree of politeness.

The sophistication of the fleet underscores how far the East used to be ahead of the West."

I think he has it completely backwards. Columbus was able to sail freely, something Chinese sailors could not do. He had a whole range of legal protections that Chinese captains did not have. He had a superior tradition of record-keeping which is why we still have the records many of the early explorers had. Not so with China because the records of the voyages were deliberately expunged, wiped out. Forget freedom of speech. All that proceeded from these explorations, all that wealth of knowledge, wiped out at a word from the palace.

Also, Columbus could engage in free trade. He traveled not only for glory, but also for personal profit. And the profit motive is a very healthy one in my view. Trade outside of China's borders was highly restricted and indeed at one stage of the 17th-century all Chinese residents along the southern coast were forcibly removed and brought inland several kilometers to prevent trade with various entities deemed dangerous by the central government. Was the power of a government in a position to do so impressive, or is it a sign of how absolute power corrupts absolutely? After all, eliminating trade, also eliminated interaction, which must've held back the country's development quite a bit. Not to mention impoverishing people who had made their livelihood of the ocean for generations.

Was it important that the Chinese admiral Zhengho had luxury cabins with balconies for his top officers? Is it important that he had water tankers carrying drinking water, or is it simply important that he had sufficient water for his trip? Translators would have been useful to Columbus, though all the wealth of Europe would not have enabled him to procure one. Noone in Europe spoke the Carib language. He did not require a herd of astronomers because he was capable of piloting his ship himself. I do not know whether he had doctors onboard, but I'm sure he had people on board with a knowledge of general pharmacology as this was usually the practice with expeditions. And Columbus did not seem to need protocol experts as he and his crew managed to have a great deal of sex with the Carib Indians while he was there.

My point is not to belittle the achievements of the Chinese Empire of the day, but simply to attempt to persuade you that quantity is not a substitute for quality, and that excess quantity does not amount to an improvement over quality.

The author also gets carried away with the larger scale of Chinese cities, forgetting how many times Chinese cities were sacked and demolished due to insurrections, serial famines, and the civil wars that broke out with every collapsing dynasty. The city of Nanjing, for example, suffered large-scale massacres in 1867 and 1912, for example, not just in 1937 at the hands of Japan's Kwantung Army.

China is also alleged to be "more... cosmopolitan than any place in Europe." My grasp of European and Chinese history is weak to be sure, and yet I immediately associate cosmopolitan with the latter Roman Empire, the Carthaginian empire, Byzantium, Moorish Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and so on and so forth. Sixth century England, a European backwater at the time, had an amalgam consisting of the original tribes (many of whom still spoke their original languages), Scots clansmen, Roman citizens, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Jews, Christians, and animists, and other pagans. Backward it was, but if even England has this level of mixing, I find it hard to believe that the various empires on the continent were not even more cosmopolitan. Not to mention the fact that the Chinese Empire, like other empires, was vigorous about assimilating and erasing local cultures.

Anyway, that's all for now. I've got a lot of catching up to do.

Biff Cappuccino

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