the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world













After the massacre in Tiananmen Square, suddenly every capitalist was an expert on eastern culture. China 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 China 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 Singapore 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 Li Kuan Yew would claim that the people of Singapore wanted just his variety of tyranny. I rather doubt it.

Stalin 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 Confucius. And yet the cold warriors spent fifty years confronting Stalin 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 China 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 Sabah family as the legitimate rulers of Kuwait, and his absolute refusal to countenance the dismemberment of Iraq, even if that meant leaving Saddam Hussein as the master of all the land.) Bush, once ambassador to China, 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 Germany? If the ordinary, decent Germans had simply stood against the Nazi regime, it might have ended before it began. Meanwhile we are perpetuating the spirit of Munich.

All those demonstrators in Tiananmen 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 Hong Kong all belie this nonsensical appeasement policy. The people of Asia, and specifically the people of China, 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


Original version


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