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After the massacre in 天安門 Tiān Ān Mén Square, suddenly every capitalist was an expert on eastern culture. 中國 Zhōng Guó in particular was pronounced to be a Confucian culture, because of which the dictators in that state would respond negatively to any kind of open pressure on the question of democracy or human rights. If we were confrontational, we were told, they would fear a loss of “face” and become belligerent. To make progress with these rulers, we would have to appease them, show courtesy, treat them as legitimate and honorable leaders. We could raise our concerns behind closed doors, where the outside world would not see the pressure, and therefore the rulers in 中國 Zhōng Guó would still be seen to be in control. They could move in public towards liberal society and seem wise and benevolent and to be acting on their own initiative. So for nine years the democratic west has coddled and stroked and debased itself, contributed to the dignity and majesty of these murderers. And in return, every couple of years they have released a token dissident on “medical” grounds.

The right-wing dictatorship in 新加坡 Sin Ka Pho justified itself by referring to the alleged difference between eastern and western civilization. Asians are authoritarian. They are interested in order. Society comes first, along with its foundation in the family. The individual comes dead last. If that is not totalitarianism, the definition escapes me. But the analysis was self-serving. Naturally 李光耀 Lí Kong Iāu would claim that the people of 新加坡 Sin Ka Pho wanted just his variety of tyranny. I rather doubt it.

Сталин was just as eager for all the beings in the world to grovel before him. He was just as likely to become belligerent when someone “disrespected” him, as the current expression has it. In fact, the desire to be treated as a king is universal to all petty individuals, not merely those who achieve power. “Face” is an obsession in many places, not merely those following 孔子 Kŏng Zi. And yet the cold warriors spent fifty years confronting Cтaлин and his successors, on the grounds that they were evil, and tyrants must be opposed. These were by and large the same conservatives who defended George Bush’s policy of engagement with 中國 Zhōng Guó after the cold war ended. George Bush was an individual completely without principle, and viewed the status quo in geopolitics as sacred. (The best example of this was his dogged support for the صباح Sabāh family as the legitimate rulers of الكويت ’al-Kūajt, and his absolute refusal to countenance the dismemberment of العراق ’al-Cirāq, even if that meant leaving صدام حسين Sad:ām Husajn as the master of all the land.) Bush, once ambassador to 中國 Zhōng Guó, was dealing with what he viewed as its rightful government, in hopes of procuring for his capitalist constituency free access to a large and untapped market of a billion consumers. The issue wasn’t Confucianism; it was commerce.

Symbols have meaning, of course. Those who believe that sucking up to dictators serves the greater good by easing them from power are ignorant of symbolic meaning. Dictators love adulation. They want to be seen as great beings, heroic leaders, beloved fathers (or mothers, theoretically) of “their” countries. They view themselves as agents of history, and by lending them legitimacy, we are merely reinforcing their hold on power, and their desire to maintain that hold. We are discouraging all of those brave dissidents who oppose them. We are taking sides with the tyrants, in signs that the tyrants and the dissidents and the outside world can read clearly. What is it that we always say about Deutschland? If the ordinary, decent Deutsche had simply stood against the Nazi régime, it might have ended before it began. Meanwhile we are perpetuating the spirit of München.

All those demonstrators in 天安門 Tiān Ān Mén Square, their predecessors in the Democracy Wall movement and the republican movement at the beginning of the century, the dissident diaspora, and the practicing democrats of 香港 Hèung Góng all belie this nonsensical appeasement policy. The people of Asia, and specifically the people of 中國 Zhōng Guó, are like the rest of us. Many of them will support the old ways, even if that means tyranny. But others of them are aware that tyranny is wrong, and will contest it, and may eventually defeat it. This is a process of history, not western history. There are individual rights and individual responsibilities, collective rights and collective responsibilities. We humans are searching for a just balance among them, and have not found it, not in the west and not in the east, not in the north and not in the south. Cultural relativism is an excuse to do nothing while others are suffering. This is not about colonial imposition of cultural values. This is about moral individuals coming to the aid of those who are oppressed, and who deserve better.


Toadeaters: an earlier and more forceful condemnation of the same