Critical approaches have done great work in social sciences, adding greatly to our collective insight. However, some scholars have taken the useful viewpoint it brings and turned it into a simplistic replacement of all other social science. For these critical theorists, mere deconstruction has replaced all other scholarship. The notion that all knowledge is premised on power has led the most publicly visible parts of Critical Theory down a path of taking apart all that came before without offering anything in return. However, we still live in this world and it does not go away just like that.
For large numbers of peoples in the world, the decline of Europe meant their liberation. On his recent state visit in China, President Macron confidently stated ‘France is back. Europe is back.’ It is good for the European Union to stake out its own place in the world and develop an independent foreign policy. However, when we Europeans build this future, we have to grapple with the fact that, for many in the world, ‘imperial’ Europe does not refer to imagined ‘EUSSR’ horror scenarios the eurosceptics love to conjure up—but to imperial Europe, coloniser of much of the world.
The process of decolonisation is only a recent one, more recent than the horrors of the Second World War. Many African and Asian colonies only got their independence in the 1960s and 1970s. In East Asia, the Sultanate of Brunei became fully sovereign in 1984. Hong Kong lost its Crown Colony status as short ago as 1997. Liberation from European overlordship was often paid for dearly, with incredibly costly wars, both in terms of people killed and physical destruction. The Indonesian Revolution (1945–9), the Algerian War (1954–62), and the Portuguese Colonial War (1961–74) are only a selection. These bloody struggles were merely the closing episode to centuries of oppression, exploitation, and genocide. Europe—unlike settler colonies such as the United States—benefited from the physical remoteness of the violence in that it can keep it separate from its societies, but that ‘colourblindness’ has also desensitised it to the fact that for the formerly colonised the brutalities are all too salient still.
Before its neighbours would allow Germany to play a leading role again in Europe after the atrocities of the Second World War, the country had to follow a long path of atonement. Without the movement in the 1950s and 1960s that forced the Federal Republic to deal honestly with its past, Germany today would not only have been an entirely different country, but its eventual reunification would have been in question. The most powerful symbol of this atonement was the 1970 genuflection by Chancellor Willy Brandt (the Warschauer Kniefall) before the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It mattered tremendously that the leader of West-Germany fell to his knees in the face of millions of death, not just because it symbolised accepting collective guilt, but maybe even more so the fact that it demonstrated a common European understanding of these past deeds as monstrous crimes.
The Holocaust and other nazi aggressions are unequivocally accepted as extreme crimes against humanity, by Germany and by its former victims. This fact reassures those countries, because this shared judgment means that a reformed Germany can be engaged without fearing that it will do the same again. (On a side note, this fact is also why the current Polish meddling with the common narrative is so potentially dangerous.) There does not exist, however, such a common agreement between Europe and its former victims on its past crimes.
During the campaign for the 2017 French presidential elections that ended with him in the Palais de l’Élysée, Emmanuel Macron was ferociously attacked by the centre-right contender after Macron had admitted France that had committed crimes against humanity in Algeria. Opponent François Fillon claimed that France should not be blamed for ‘partager sa culture’, sharing its culture. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson saw no issue with reciting imperial poet Rudyard Kipling while on an official tour of a Buddhist temple in Myanmar, and has in the past suggested the recolonisation of Africa. There is no universal agreement in Europe about the fact that in scale of destruction and intensity of violence colonialism in a certain view went far beyond what the Holocaust has done to Europe. There is certainly not a shared narrative with its former victims.
In a speech on the Dutch history in what since 1945 is Indonesia, the Dutch Prime Minister stressed the need for a common history before one can move forward. A similar motive underlies flagging attempts to write an ‘East Asian’ history textbook with Chinese, Japanese, and South Korea involvement. However, passively waiting for such agreement to spontaneously arise will not do. The Warschauer Kniefall is an example of how grand gestures can contribute to a closer understanding. Perhaps former European colonisers should start considering symbolic ways to move towards recognition of the perspective of the colonised. Until then, these countries should not be surprised if the West’s Rest is not jumping for joy at the thought of a European revival.
Europe can proudly proclaim to be back on the world stage, but currently it would do so unaware that to others this would sooner bring back nightmares than cause jubilation.
With legislation introduced in Australia’s parliament which Prime Minister Turnbull has explicitly said is meant to counter Chinese interference, the efforts of Beijing to shape the world have been brought to the fore like they haven’t in quite some time. Across the Western world, governments and companies are realising that behind Chinese acquisitions and investment might be a conscious influence-building agenda that transcends economic rationale. The accusations that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) depends on projects that are economically not viable seem less important now. Sri Lanka’s inability to pay back loans led to it handing control over the Chinese-built Hambantota port to Beijing. The power China has over Venezuela and Zimbabwe has been in the press as well.
However, the creeping global influence of the regime in Beijing should not lead us in the West to condemn ‘the Chinese’ en bloc. The West has a long history of ‘Yellow Peril’ narratives and while addressing the very serious issue of Communist Party of China (CPC) abusing the openness of Western countries we should take care to distinguish between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and ‘the Chinese’. Already, reports by Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) about the danger of Chinese infiltration has led to some unease in the Chinese community in Australia. Not all ethnic Chinese are a threat. Reporting should take care to reflect this.
This might be even more necessary because often the first target of PRC overseas operations are overseas Chinese communities. Every PRC embassy has an officer for Overseas Chinese Affairs (华侨事务 huáqiáo shìwù, shortened to 侨务 qiáowù) who concerns themself with bringing the local Chinese community in line with the CPC. This includes ensuring joyful flag-wavers whenever Chairman Xi Jinping or another Chinese leader makes a foreign visit, but also organising angry nationalists to, for example, shout over pro-Tibet demonstrations and allegedly to beat up demonstrators. It moreover includes overseeing Chinese Scholar and Student Associations (CSSAs) that keep tabs on Chinese students and impel them to inform on each other. Often, the poorer students are encouraged with financial rewards to do so. Lastly, it tries to keep the local business community in line.
Chinese embassies have this power because of the enormous economic importance of China, especially to Chinese business communities that distinguish themselves based on their ties to the PRC. Perhaps it were these business interests that made ethnic Chinese businessmen in Kuala Lumpur in 2015 happy to welcome the PRC ambassador to tour Petaling Street after Malay riots. Recently, the Chinese ambassador even accompanied an MP of opposition party DAP on house visits. Ambassador Huang’s remarks about anti-Chinese racism and separate remarks declaring the safety of ethnic Chinese a national interests of the PRC only fuel racists in UMNO who still see the ethnic Chinese as foreigners under foreign tutelage.
The year 2016 saw the PRC’s claim of ownership over ethnic Chinese wherever they live in the world also hit Singapore. Various issues—including the remaining military links of the Republic with Taiwan and its pro-international law stance in the South China Sea—had been grating Beijing for a while, and it was probably this older unhappiness that caused such an outburst that year. Talking to people at Peking University, I got the impression that the root of this cause is the supposed ‘Westernisation’ of the Singaporeans, who are losing their Chineseness—no matter that the ancestors of ~25% never had any ‘Chineseness’ to begin with. When Lee Kuan Yew passed away in March 2015, on the Chinese internet several nationalists saw it fit to call him a 汉奸 (hànjiān), traitor of the Chinese race, for selling out ‘his’ Chinese to the West.
Increasingly, as the CPC turns to traditional culture as its source of legitimacy, Beijing has to present itself as the guardian of Chinese civilisation. In a speech to overseas Chinese I have looked at earlier, Chairman Xi Jinping implied that their Chinese heritage ought to lead ethnic Chinese to staunchly support the ‘motherland’ and with that of course the Party. In Chinatowns across the world, Chinese businessmen with links to the PRC take over papers and Chinese schools. A granny who has read her local Chinese-language news for decades suddenly finds her trusty source of news following the Party line, no matter that she herself might actually have fled from that Party. Chinese community organisations abroad are reminded by the local qiáowù official where their business interests lie and need not much further instruction.
The danger of ‘infiltration’ is then much more serious and much further along already for ethnic Chinese communities across the world. This has real-life consequences, especially when ethnic Chinese find themselves in PRC (or Hong Kong) jurisdiction. Australian
citizen permanent resident, professor Feng Chongyi, discovered this as he was barred from leaving the PRC, but we can also see this in much more severe punishment for ethnic Chinese businessmen who find themselves in trouble with the law as compared to other businesspeople with foreign nationalities.
That we have to deal with this issue is clear. As the CPC refines its methods, we will see more stories like the current Australian saga pop up. However, it is essential that we do not chalk this off to interference by ‘the Chinese’. It is true that Beijing seeks to mobilise overseas Chinese communities—in the case of Australia the PRC embassy in Canberra shockingly threatened the government to instruct the Chinese community to vote against the Australian Labor Party—but by talking about the Chinese as one monolith we only give the PRC the ownership it wants. What we need to do is recognise the experiences of ethnic Chinese around the world, since they have battled with this issue for much longer.
The Century of National Humiliation narrative that shapes Chinese nationalism bemoans the loss of Chinese dominance. This is said to have not only lead to the lamentable loss of geographical bodies, but also to the humiliating loss of human bodies. Rejuvenation or restoration (复兴 fùxīng), the core of Chinese ambition, would in the eyes of nationalists include restoration of Chinese control over ‘Chinese’ bodies. Other countries thus have to spend more attention to protect those among their citizens who happen to be of ethnic Chinese descent. This requires distinction between the country and the civilisation.
Saying that Chinese increasingly assertive nationalism has a rather ethnocentric streak is nothing new, at least not for those who follow China. However, only when you actually read the source material in Chinese, is the starkness of the PRC’s racialism really driven home. This is something analysts, and other people paid to have opinions on China, should do more often, especially when the English translation often softens the edges a bit.
To demonstrate this, I will quote a paragraph from Mark Zuckerberg’s favourite Xi Jinping book—The Governance of China. This collection of formulaic speeches—complete with hagiographic pictures of Chairman Xi doing important things—contains a speech he gave on 6 June 2014 to the Seventh Conference of the Friendship of Overseas Chinese Associations (世界华侨华人社团联谊) entitled ‘The Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation Is a Dream Shared by All Chinese’. The title already confronts us with translation issues: In the Mandarin name of the association, ‘Overseas Chinese’ is written as ‘华侨华人’, which introduces is to the difficulty of the English word ‘Chinese’.
Later this afternoon I leave for the People’s Republic to start my first of two semesters at Peking University, close to Beijing’s beautiful Summer Palace in the northwest. While I like to kid that I look forward most of all to the food, I will also enjoy the opportunity to study and learn about China. But coming to China from Europe, where you cannot help but be exposed to all sorts of stereotypes, assumptions, and truisms, it might be healthy to reflect a bit on how exactly I will study there before I leave.
The evil of colonialism is not expressed in a sum of its benefits and downsides. These debates over British railways in India and economic development miss the point of colonialism entirely. Colonialism is violence. It is not just that it entails violence as an inevitable product of its system, colonialism itself is an act of epistemic violence. Colonies require colonial subjects, which needs a cleavage to separate the humans from the lesser creatures.
In my Dutch primary school our teacher would illustrate history class with the school’s antique school prints. They piqued my interest in East Asia, but in hindsight they were rather orientalist. Invariably, you would see a pittoresque landscape, a mise-en-scène of stern Dutch overlooking interchangeable inlanders going about their daily business, or unwavering Dutch ships of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). For a little bookish boy longing for a more exciting world these heroic tales of ‘discovery’ were enthralling.
Our classes put less emphasis on the unfortunate collateral damage of these exciting adventures. The prints perpetuated the unaddressed colonial gaze, as the teacher left out the fundamentals of the story: the dependency of colonialism on violence. First, metal violence, in the mind of the colonist. After that, physical. Then, after armed resistance has been eliminated and the people’s bodies are subjugated, the work of mental domination begins. The tools: dichotomies. A community is taken and carved up into slices. Those slices are carved up again: superior versus inferior, salvageable versus beyond civilisation, useful versus useless, rational versus irrational, etc.
Besides ‘we do not accept,’ another legal argument China used to argue that the Philippines case before An Arbitral Tribunal under Annex VII of UNCLOS was inadmissible was that the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea prevented arbitration as per UNCLOS Article 281. This article states that if states have agreed on a way to settle the dispute, no case can be brought in that area. However, the tribunal quashed the reasoning that the DOC prevents it from judging in this case in its award on admissibility of 29 October 2015.
Following the frenzy after the tribunal released its final decision on 12 July 2016, there have been various attempts to lower the tensions. Both sides appear committed to keep the peace, even if reaching an agreement proves difficult. At the same time, however, states are positioning themselves for future possible legal challenges. Some claimant states may see the Philippines’ success as encouragement to start their own cases. China must be preparing for such eventuality already by beefing up its legal defences. One area I think we should keep an eye on is Article 281.
Former High Court of Australia Justice Michael Kirby once termed the sodomy offence ‘England’s Least Lovely Criminal Law Export.’ Much has been said about this nefarious side-effect of the supposed rule of law exported throughout the British Empire in the form of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. There is a certain irony in seeing non-Western leaders defending this colonial law implementing colonial values as protecting local tradition against pernicious Westernisation. However, noticing this irony also directs the observer to something often missed in discussions of the prohibition of ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ between consenting men: it is racist.
The lessons of intersectionality are still often ignored in studies of both sexuality and colonialism. Race is important to understand the views on sexuality on colonies, since it is the concept at the base of the subjugation of entire peoples. In order to justify such complete exploitation, you need the ultimate dichotomy of humans versus non-humans, or: Europeans versus non-Europeans. Literature written during the colonial period highlights this process: the strong and vigorous white European, epitome of human rationality, is juxtaposed with the corrupt and incomprehensible colonial subject, cesspit of carnal vices. In Dutch Indies literature this takes the shape of the tropics intruding on the white, clean houses of the Europeans, slowly corrupting the white world.
Any review of the argument for democracy as the best form of governance as a matter of tradition starts with Churchill’s citation in the House of Commons of the quote that
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. I oblige. Its popularity shows how wary many people have become of democracy. Gone is the faith of Enlightenment that the sublime wisdom of the people would lead us to a glorious future once education would have been sufficiently perfected. Instead a disenchanted Churchill-like the-alternatives-are-worse attitude has taken hold of an elite that vaguely remembers being told that democracy is morally superior, but is increasingly hard-pressed when having to say exactly why. Even a partial challenge arising in the nineties from the Asian Values debate already caused great panic. Only the Asian Financial Crisis saved the democrats when it appeared just in time to undermine the credibility of the Asian Values proponents.
Now the world is turning multipolar, the challenges to the democracy of the West will only gain in strength. This time it will take more than a short financial crisis to dislodge the counterarguments. Meanwhile, the structural problems facing the West only seem to become worse and worse, while the success of extreme right and populist politicians show a powerful desire for a strong leader to solve all the woes in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, less and less people are prepared to boldly state the case for the compromise-based, inclusive democracy we need. That is the following:
The argument for democracy is that it produces mediocre outcomes.
It might sound rather disappointing and of course: democracy as a provider of information from bottom to top, and as way for the bottom to be represented up high are both essential as well, but they are both not the ultimate argument for why democracy is the best form of governance. The latter point might even at times be present in other regimes when the leadership is particularly charismatic.
It is very tempting to look at so many success cases of developing countries where strong leaders seem to have produced such impressive results. The smart and capable strongman seems to have lead his country to improbably heights by developing a system that is not entirely democratic But without checks such a system also allows the leaders to drive the country into the ground once their excellency starts to fade and the products of meritocracy become less suitable.
History is about cycles. nunc obdurat et tunc curat Leaders and their genius rise and fall. Bad judgements follow good judgements. In democracies, too, good governments can be followed by bad governments. What is important is whether a system is capable of dampening the extremes of the inevitable highs and lows. In an autocratic or oligarchic system really smart people might in theory be able to achieve greater things more rapidly than you see happening these days in the ‘mature’ democracies. But those very same systems also allow less qualified leaders to destroy many things more rapidly than is possible in a proper democracy
The points democracy is so often criticised for are precisely what creates this dampening effect. Socialisation into party machinery and the lagging effect in representation of shrinking societal support for a party sometimes seem archaic, but they create stability. Taking a true democratic decision requires taking into account views from a large majority of the people, necessitating compromise. Media and societal forces can make the government more cautious, but also ensure it goes not too far beyond what its citizens are comfortable with.
Say there is a plant which grows best when the temperature is as high as possible, but dies immediately when it goes below zero even once. There is country A where the temperature during the day is 15° C and at night 5° C, and country B where during the day it is 35° C but at night -5° C. Land A surely is preferable if you want to have at least something left to grow. The days in country B are much warmer and the average temperature is 15° C, 50% higher than country A’s meagre 10° C. Still, even if it were one million percent better, in country B our precious plant dies when night falls.
Surely, the outcome of a democratic process might not always inspire the greatest enthusiasm. But a meh view of politics is still much better than the thrill you get from the swift and well-executed destruction of your economy. When choosing a system to govern a country, it is imperative to think long-term, to think beyond the current generation. And that is precisely where its tepid results start to shine.
Long live democracy’s mediocrity!
NB: I purposely ignore the debate in developmental studies about democracy versus autocracy in developing economies. That is an entirely separate discussion besides this more general argument about democracy long-term.
NB2: Yes, this is a pro-stability post: I could write a whole separate post on how revolutions often end up benefiting mostly the mobile higher classes and only hurt the downtrodden they are supposed to help, because they more than anyone are helpless without any system. (Unless the system is designed to kill or dehumanise them.)
Wir sind ganz angstallein,
haben nur aneinander Halt,
jedes Wort wird wie ein Wald
vor unserm Wandern sein.
Unser Wille ist nur der Wind,
der uns drängt und dreht;
weil wir selber die Sehnsucht sind,
die in Blüten steht.