05 August, 2020

This is Not The American Cultural Revolution

A book to read before making a poor analogy.
Earlier this week I was interviewed by Erik Torenberg, for his podcast "Venture Stories." The podcast was wide ranging; among other things, we discussed my posts "The World Twitter Made," "On Cultures That Build," "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order," my on-going critique of Patrick Deneen, my essay for the National Review, and my numerous attempts to translate, understand, and explicate Xi Jinping Thought. There was one topic we covered, however, that I have not yet written publicly about. Torenberg asked me to assess what has become a rather common talking point in both Chinese expat and American right-wing circles: the ominous comparison between the BLM statue removal campaign and the Cultural Revolution of Maoist China.

In response, I shared with Torenberg a small letter I wrote in reply to a journalist from a right-wing publication who was seeking quotes on this topic. Here is what I wrote:
The trouble is, [reporter's name], it is not very similar to the beginnings of the Chinese cultural revolution. The cultural revolution began not with defacing statues and public monuments, but with attacks on people: defaming them, publicly, physically humiliating them, imprisoning them, torturing them, and ultimately killing them. People were dying weeks before monuments were being defaced. Tearing downs statues did not lead to mass death; mass death led to tearing down statues. Death was part of the program from the beginning.

This program was egged on, directed, and manipulated by a dictator who feared he had lost control of you might think of as the Chinese "deep-state" and the existing political class. Again, a world of difference from the current environment, where the powers that be are filled with protest-sympathizers and the political class provide active cover for the extremes of the current movement. The major institutions of American life are behind this movement: the major institutions of Maoist life—and more specifically, the individuals who manned them, were the targets of that movement.
Finally, the main thrust of cultural revolution, especially in its initial stages, was dismantling bureaucracies that controlled Chinese life, whereas most of the thinkers that animate this moment (say Ibram X Kendi) call for vast extensions of administrative control over American life, and most of the long-lasting achievements of the movement thusfar  (say the change in hiring policies adopted by firms like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs) have been achieved by administrative fiat. This movement is one big appeal to management; from the beginning, the cultural revolution was about having teenagers drag management out on the street and beat them blue.

Thusfar there are only cosmetic similarities between the two moments (non-state actors taking the fore, ideological fervor, attacks on public monuments) and those similarities are shared by many, many other movements over time, only a few of which led to mass death. Question the intentions or the knowledge base of anyone who blithely compares the two.
Americans are extremely fond of exaggerating the threat their political enemies pose. Histrionics about Donald Trump ending American democracy are everywhere to be found; readers will no doubt remember the protestors who claimed that Dick Cheney was the second coming of Hitler, or that Barrack Obama was a stealth authoritarian socialist. This sort of rhetoric is nothing new to American democracy: look back far enough and you will find prominent politicians and journalists accusing Andrew Jackson of Caesarean ambitions, gold-standard proponents of aiming to overthrow democracy, and railroad strikers of wishing to re-inact the Paris Commune on American shores.

I am afraid we will always have this impulse with us. Everyone wants this vote to matter. Humans hunger for meaning and consequence: we want to be the generation that faced the choice between dark and light, chaos and order, destruction and salvation. More cynically, it is also a lot easier to justify dubious politics—say, voting for Donald Trump—when the alternative is totalitarian cataclysm. The fact that our fear of democratic death springs eternal is in some ways a good thing. It is part of the reason America's liberal institutions have lasted as long as they have: "eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty," Old Hickory said, and we have been nation of paranoiacs ever since. Yet spurring our worries to nightmarish hyperbole has its own weakness. Great powers need not fall with a bang. Many fall apart through drawn-out whimpers. Our fear of the totalitarian murder squads around the corner blind us to the more mundane (yet less imaginary) engines of decay and decline.   

Given this, we ought not confuse cosmetic similarities with deeper parallels. Yes, the emotions that push some kid out onto the street today are not so different from those that pushed kids into Tiananmen Square in 1966. But that could be said for the common emotions that compelled young men into battle both at Verdun and Fallujah. However, the shared experiences of those grunts at war scale poorly. The strategic imperatives of the Western front were fundamentally different from those of an insurgent-infested Iraq, and only so much can be gained from comparing one moment to the other.

To give you a practical sense for what I mean, consider this resolution sent to me by a friend at Georgetown Law, one which chronicles the "revolutionary" agitation of the local Student Bar Association. The "resolved" section of the petition reads:
THEREFORE; be it resolved that:
  • Georgetown Law should mandate a critical race theory unit in all first-year criminal justice courses and require training in preparation for teaching this unit with the opportunity for diverse faculty to provide input. Georgetown Law should also establish a student-faculty committee for the 2020-2021 academic year that will determine how to establish a two-credit racial justice requirement for all full-time and part-time students starting with the Class of 2023, similar to the academic requirement for undergraduates on Main. Campus. 
  • Georgetown Law should mandate annual, expert-led faculty training on implicit bias, harassment, and microaggressions. We recommend offering faculty training twice a year so that professors only teaching during one semester are still able to participate; however, professors would need only participate once a year to satisfy the training requirement. Tenure-track faculty should be required to participate in live training, and adjuncts may participate asynchronously by watching a recording. 
  • Georgetown Law should implement a reporting system that allows students to document bias-related in. cidents in the classroom. This reporting system could be modeled off of the Main Campus Bias Reporting System administered by IDEAA, and is a natural follow on from the 2019 Cultural Climate Survey as it would allow the Law Center to continue gathering data about bias incidents in real time. We recommend aggregating and anonymizing the annual data and publishing it to the Law Center community for transparency.[2]
You can believe that each of these measures is malignant—I certainly do—without pretending that this is anything like what happened in China in the 1960s. What do these student activists want? Mandated classes and grading systems. Additional certification hoops to jump through. An additional layer of bureaucracy to govern and punish their teachers and fellow students.  They are doing the only thing Americans in this century know how to do: creating a ruckus in hope that they can get the management to take their side (and enlarge its own powers in the process).

What would a similar event have looked like in the Beijing of 1966, at the earliest stage of the Cultural Revolution? Students would have begun by identifying counter-revolutionary elements in both the school administration and the faculty in as public a fashion as possible. The student body and the faculty would have divided themselves into factions, mutually denouncing their enemies. They would have proceeded to arm themselves, using violence to humiliate, torture, and kill the professors and administrators that were opposed to their political aims. This was the first step of the Cultural Revolution. Through means like these, cultural revolutionaries in Beijing murdered 1,800 people and drove another 77,000 outside of city limits before the first statue went down.

When statues did start going down in the last week of August, far more than statues were destroyed. Women with 'bourgeoisie' hairstyles or clothes were forcibly stripped and shorn. Flower, barbers, and tailor shops were destroyed, their owners beat or intimidated. The houses hundreds of thousands of suspect individuals were ransacked, street peddlers were beat up, religious figures were ritually humiliated, books were gathered and burnt, and men or women associated with anything old were forced to hand over their property. Some 400,000 were left homeless.

All of that happened in one week in August. In the months to come Mao would redirect the cultural revolutionaries to attack the foundation of the Party itself. Every single bureaucracy in the country except the Army would be targeted. Dissolving the bureaucratic structures that controlled the economic, government, and academic spheres of Chinese life was the central purpose of the Cultural Revolution; the initial waves of violence and destruction were prep work for that end.[3]

Contrast this again with what we see today. The violence and destruction associated with the Black Lives Matter's protests are magnitudes smaller than all of this; the ultimate aim of the movement is not to smash existing bureaucracies and kill or terrorize those who man them, but to increase bureaucratic control over American life. Even the most anarchic slogan of the current moment, "defund the police," betrays the thoroughly bureaucratic mindset of the protestors. China's cultural revolutionaries did not defund their police; they smashed them. [4]  Our protestors petition the government to divert funding away from organs they dislike; China's cultural revolutionaries sought to destroy government itself.

The comparison just does not stick. Those who use it are either uninformed or more interested in scaring you into desperate action than in understanding or explaining the truth.

This post touches both on American political culture and the Chinese communist political tradition. If you would like to read some of my other posts on American life, consider reading "On Cultures That Build," "A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture," or "The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood." On the other hand, if Maoism is the topic of interest, see the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism,"  "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" or "Meditations on Maoism."  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Erik Torenberg and Tanner Greer, "The Past, Present, and Future of the US-China Relationship With Tanner Greer," Village Global's Venture Stories  (2 August 2020).

[2] Georgetown University Student Bar Association, Resolution 2020–2021–9, "Calling for Academic Racial Justice Requirement for Students, Mandatory Faculty Training on Implicit Bias, and Bias Reporting System," passed on 26 July 2020.

[3] My account is grounded in Frank Dikkotter, The Cultural Revolution (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 66-94; 115-147. The statistics on deaths in Beijing are found on pp. 78-79; those on the number left homeless on p. 93.

[4] And burnt all files of their misdeeds while doing the smashing.

29 July, 2020

The World That China Wants (III): Taking Chinese Communism Seriously

Image source

few months back I promised I would highlight some of the key passages in Dan Tobin's testimony to Congress, “How Xi Jinping’s ‘New Era’ Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions.” Tobin's testimony has since been published by CSIS as a full length report, but in my citations below I will be referencing the page numbers in the original testimony. Tobin's work has strongly influenced my understanding of China's intentions for the global order. You can see the full influence of this testimony (along with the work of Nadege Rolland, whose reports will be covered in a later post) in my recent essays for Tablet Magazine and Palladium.

Tobin's testimony takes as its starting point Xi Jinping's political work report to the 19th Party Congress. I have compared these reports to the State of the Union address, but that is not really very accurate. These reports are less rhetorical and more technical that any SOTU, the product of six months of bargaining between factions, input from various bureaucracies, and ceaseless drafting and redrafting. They are better thought of as the "executive summary" of a planning process that will guide the efforts of the Communist Party, the People's Liberation Army, and the state organs of the People's Republic over the entirety of the next five years.

A lot of attention is paid to these reports. Tobin is not alone in viewing the 19th Congress report as especially significant. What sets Tobin's analysis apart from others like it is his ability to contextualize this report within the history of the last sixty years of work reports, plenum read outs, and major addresses by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jiantao, Xi Jiping, and even Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang, and Hua Guofeng. What results is an incredible synthesis of PRC strategizing and planning over the course of its history.

To give you an idea of what that looks like in text, let me excerpt a long section from the introduction of Tobin's testimony. All bolded emphasis is my own:
Rather than reactive, defensive, and besieged, the Party’s pursuit of modernity, power, and international status for China has been strategic, active, and purposeful. One of the most striking features of Xi’s 19th Party Congress address is its combination of articulating China’s ambitions on an explicitly global scale (a dramatic departure from recent decades) with an assertion of the continuity of the Party’s goals throughout its rule. Xi uses long sections of the speech to reframe his signature formulation “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation” as the Party’s “original aspiration” and “mission.” 
In a nutshell, to read Xi in the context of the speeches of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and their successors—whose language Xi’s is meant to invoke—is to realize that Beijing’s aim is nothing less than preeminent status within the global order. The Party’s consistent focus has been to transform China into a modern, powerful socialist country that delivers a leadership position in the world commensurate with China’s endowments of people, land, and past cultural triumphs. Xi (and his predecessors) have continuously underlined the continuity of their goal of developing China to the point where it can, in Mao’s words (language Xi self-consciously echoes), “stand tall in the forest of nations.” “National rejuvenation” is an effective political slogan precisely because it represents the common denominator aspiration of Chinese elites since the country’s humiliation in the mid-19th century Opium Wars. This aspiration is to transform China into not only a modern, powerful, country, but also a country respected for its achievements across the all fields of human endeavor by which great powers measure themselves, from prosperity to military power to cultural influence, to scientific discovery. Equally crucial, both Mao and Deng Xiaoping identified the goal not merely to “catch-up” with “the most advanced countries,” but to pass them.  
The Party’s past strategy documents and leadership speeches underscore it has been pursuing comprehensive modernity for decades via a state-led process of identifying long-term targets, embedding them in plans, making investments, and adjusting and elaborating on targets as it proceeds. Under Mao, horrific policy experiments caused millions of deaths, but the Party’s leaders today claim credit for taking China from poverty and backwardness to the number two economy (and implicitly, power) in the world in four decades (pp. 2-3).
 This is all very well written. What you do not recognize from this excerpt, however, is the titanic amount of research behind almost every statement made therein. These three paragraphs include twelve separate footnotes. Below is one of those footnotes. Do not feel obligated to do anything more than skim it:
Mao Zedong had originally articulated the goal of modernization by the end of the twentieth century. See his discussions in “On the Dra  Constitution of the People’s Republic of China,” Speech at the Thirtieth Session of the Central People’s Government Council, June 14, 1954, in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Volume V, pp. 145-146, and “Speeches at the National Conference of the Communist Party of China,” March 1955, in the same volume, p. 155. In the early post-Mao era (1976-1987), the end of the twentieth century remained the explicit deadline. This is the objective identified in Hua Guafeng’s report to the 11th Party Congress in 1977 (see note 17 above for the availability of that text) and Deng Xiaoping’s agenda-setting speech in 1980 on the eve of his wresting power from Hua. See Deng, “The Present Situation and the Tasks Before Us,” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume II (1975-1982), p. 226. While there is also more continuity than generally recognized across the Mao and post-Mao eras, the functional policy areas in which the party is seeking to realize its vision of a comprehensive modernity (i.e., not just economics and the military but also culture etc.) exhibits great consistency since the mid-1980s. Then General Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s 1987 encapsulation of the mid-century end state for China as “a strong, modern, democratic, and culturally advanced socialist country” (富强、民主、文明的社会主义现代 化国家) remains the party’s explicit goal as expressed in the preamble of the party’s constitution. Only three words have been added to the phrase since: the word “harmonious” (和谐, in 2007 to reflect prioritization of social welfare), the word “beautiful” (美丽, in 2017 to reflect prioritization of a clean environment), and an extra “强” (strong, powerful) added in front of country (国家), in 2017, which the official translation rendered as “great.” See Zhao, “Advance Along the Road of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” pp. 16-17. From 1992, this description was contained in the party’s constitution, amended at each Party Congress. For the texts of past Party Constitutions, see the pages for each Party Congress available here. On long-term targets, see also note 3 above. Jiang Zemin’s report to the 16th Congress in 2002 identified the goal of achieving a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” (全面建设小康社会) by the centenary of the party’s founding in 2021. This reflected a more comprehensive vision of well-being than Deng’s original target of “a moderately prosperous society” by the end of the twentieth century, which had been expressed solely in terms of per capita GPD. (China hit Deng’s original target.) For Jiang’s explanation of the target, see “Explicitly Set the Objective of Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects,” Excerpt from a speech at a training group meeting for the Sixteenth National Congress of the CPC, in Selected Works of Jiang Zemin, Volume III, pp. 400-404. The 2020 target, however, also includes goals for improving the “complete set of systems” by which the party governs China, identified by Deng Xiaoping in 1992 and conirmed by Jiang at the 14th and 15th Party Congresses in 1992 and 1997. The Chinese texts of these Party Congress reports are available here. For Deng’s original remark, see Deng Xiaoping, “Excerpts from Talks Given in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, and Shanghai,”February 21, 1992, in Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Volume III, p. 360 (p. 20).
I will not excerpt any more of these footnotes. You are free to read the document yourself and peruse them at your leisure, but know that all of  Tobin's judgements that I highlight below have similar footnotes behind them. There are 104 footnotes in total; they take up 20 of the testimony's 35 pages.

Part of the reason Tobin goes to these extremes is that he wants to emphasize the long-term, strategic planning process of the Communist Party. For
scholarship in English has largely ignored the Party, state, and military target setting and long-term planning processes. Otherwise excellent textbooks on Chinese politics explore the challenges of day-to-day governing and of crisis response, the mechanisms of domestic control, and the Party’s political succession processes, but have not provided students and U.S government officials with a sense of the strategic agency of the Party’s leaders. This neglect may reflect mirror imaging. Our political system is not designed to take the United States in a specific direction (p. 3).
How successful the Chinese Communists have been at achieving these goals is a question I will return to later on. For now, we focus on one of the major items that Tobin identifies as an animating strategic goal for the Communist Party of China—the creation of a Sino-centric world order:
The Party seeks an order in which China’s achievements as a great power are not only recognized but also credited to its particular brand of socialism and lauded as a moral triumph both for socialism and for the Chinese nation. Here, Chinese diplomats’ frequent exhortation to the United States to respect China’s “social system and development path” is not just a call for tolerance but moral recognition (p. 6).
Why is reshaping the world order necessary for China's "socialist modernization?" First,
the current order does not provide security for its political system. Beijing has consistently seen “the West” as seeking to overturn China’s socialist system via “peaceful evolution” and worried about “hostile Western forces” combining with forces within China to “split” the country and change its political system.... [but this new order] would do away with both the norm of democratization and the global and regional system of U.S. security alliances and partnerships that endow that norm with coercive potential (p. 5).
Short-term regime security thus requires a world order whose institutions, norms, and discourse is friendlier to authoritarian system's like the People's Republic of China. This is a largely "defensive" objection to the current order or things.

But it is not the only reason the Chinese Communists wish to change the global order:
Second, the kind of order Beijing desires is not just one where its socialism system is secure, but covered in glory. Xi’s aim is not simply, in the colorful phrase some Western scholars have used: “a world safe for autocracy.” Rather, the Party seeks an order in which China’s achievements as a great power are not only recognized but also credited to its particular brand of socialism and lauded as a moral triumph both for socialism and for the Chinese nation. Here, Chinese diplomats’ frequent exhortation to the United States to respect China’s “social system and development path” is not just a call for tolerance but moral recognition (p. 6).
Part of this is simply the universal and utterly human drive to seize glory, win renown, and celebrate in-group pride. But this quest for glory is also wound up in the survival and continued rule of the Communist Party, or at least of the current generation of its leadership. The "social contract" of the Communist Party is and has always been "we are the only ones who can restore China to greatness." This is not a new goal. Despite talk of bide-and-hide,
every post-Mao leader also vowed the Party would ultimately prove “the superiority” of socialism. This, not convergence with the West as some hoped, has always been the purpose of the “reform” component of Deng’s “reform and opening” that remains part of the Party’s “basic line" (p. 7).
Failure to advance this goal would mean at minimum the disgrace of the current leadership, at maximum the fall of their Party.

There is a strong demand then to remake the world in a fashion that reflects Chinese glory and protects authoritarian norms. Growing integration with the outside world makes this a more urgent task, not a less urgent one:
China must begin shaping international norms and rules precisely because its growing integration with the world constitutes a vulnerability as long as those norms are the liberal democratic ones favored by the West. In the Party’s vision, Beijing’s standards on everything from technology to domestic policing will not only exceed Western ones in influence, but also constitute the sinews of an even more deeply interconnected world where the benefits of the “Community of Common Destiny” are so attractive that no country wants to be excluded from it (p. 9).
Tobin provides a succinct single-paragraph precis of the network of concepts bound up in the phrase "Community of Common Destiny for Humankind:"
Community of Common Destiny envisions that by boosting global connectivity and interdependence such that countries benefit much more from joining the order Beijing is building rather than being left out, they will be motivated to shelve disputes (either with China or among themselves) and bury any criticisms of China in favor of the benefits of common development. In time, deeper connections will produce both “mutual learning” and some convergence. Common development will allow other countries to benefit from China’s emergence as a leading country, and the global network Beijing builds, running on the Party’s standards, will cement the country’s leadership, radiating harmony to the globe.
 The point then is not to force other countries to adopt the Chinese development model, or even evangelize the glories of the Chinese Party-state to foreign audiences, but rather to slowly weave a web of economic and institutional ties that link all countries to a Chinese center, a center which the Communist Party of China has control of. In such a world, few countries would want to risk their share of surging global economic growth by doing things the Party-state might object to (say, hosting Uyghur dissidents or protesting against mass camps in Xinjiang). Common development turns Chinese interests into global interests. 

If in this new world some other countries observe Chinese success and do want to adopt Chinese methods or models for their own political system, Chinese assistance will come as those countries request it.

 Tobin thinks all of this has a few obvious implications for the West:
For Washington, these visions ought to underscore that the trope that Beijing’s ambitions are largely regional—either out of a culturally-rooted aspiration to restore the status of imperial China or because the country has so many disputes and problems along its periphery that it cannot become more ambitious until these are resolved—is a woeful misreading of the contest. The challenge Beijing represents is not to Washington’s status in Asia, but to the nature of the global order’s predominant values, and the vehicle for that challenge is an effort to build both the physical and intellectual infrastructure underpinning the next phases of globalization. China is not exporting violent revolution as in the period of high Maoism, rather it is seeking to rewire the global order from a position of connectedness to it (p. 12).
In this contest, globalization and economic integration do not lower the stakes—they raise them:
The present contest is not between separate blocks or camps as in the Cold War—with each trying to flip individual countries—but over an integrated, globalized world. Yet this raises the stakes over values because we do not have the luxury of retreating to separate worlds and simply comparing which system can generate more human flourishing (p. 7).
 As I was putting this post together over the last few days, I reread David Ornby's translation of a Jie Dalei essay in May's Beijing Cultural Review and realized that Jie makes the exact same point, but from the Chinese perspective. Jie claims that America is more ideological than China is. To my mind this is obviously true. But China is not without ideology, and much of that ideology is a heritage from the Marxist tradition. Tobin identifies one of the big differences between liberal ideology and Leninist values:
Leninism, by contrast, makes individuals into means towards the achievement of collective ends. For Beijing, as for Lenin, collective material welfare (“common prosperity” in the Party’s contemporary official lexicon) rather than political freedom is the criteria by which it judges success (p. 7).
But this conception of individuals as means towards the common end has counter-intuitive effects on how Party thinkers conceive of the task of politics. Westerners understand politics as clashes between competing interests, ideologies, and group identities. One way to think of democracy is as an attempt to channel conflicts over who exercises power into a non-violent and rules-based arena. This is an anathema to the Chinese communists:
Lenin saw democratic institutions as mere tools of oppressive class interests and the democratic process as a mask for the class interests of the group in power. He advocated instead rule by a single Party governing on the basis of its scientific deduction of the laws of history. 
Beijing today continues to argue that the Party, representing the Chinese people’s interests as a whole, is a bulwark against the particular interests that capture the political process in liberal democracies. For the Party’s leaders, the dictatorship remains justified by the need to repress the enemies of the Chinese people’s collective interests. Worse, since Leninism defines the Party’s ideas and decisions as “scientific” and “correct,” for Beijing dissent is not the legitimate expression of individual interests or those of a specific sub-group but rather sabotage of the Party’s collective, nation-building effort. It is not political participation but state subversion. These are precisely the ideas that characterize Xi Jinping’s “holistic concept of national security” and the increasingly stringent laws and institutions promulgated during his tenure under its banner. (p. 7)
A core Leninist tenet is that neither the free market nor liberal systems are neutral. By their nature they benefit most the powers that be. The current set of international institutions largely fall in the same category. They must be reshaped.

How exactly the party-state should go about doing that is not made clear in any of these speeches beyond broad generalities. In the Chinese party-state system, party leaders often articulate new goals as broad slogans or slippery generalizations. It is then the job of think tanks, academics, and various government bureaucracies to propose initiatives that fit in with the general vision. Some of these proposals are mere exercises in branding; many others are bureaucratic infighting by another name, as one organization or working group tries to claim ownership over something near and dear to the Chairman's heart. 

That process happens below the level of Congress political reports or Xi Jinping speeches. The best summaries I have read of how these directives and priorities are being debated and implemented a level down are found in Lee Jones and Zeng Jinghan's paper, "Understanding China’s “Belt and Road Initiative," (which I discussed with some depth in my post "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road") and Nadege Rolland's China's Vision for a New World Order, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.

If you are interested in other things I have written about China's Communists, you might also find the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road," "Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping" and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

22 July, 2020

Solidarity, Weapon of Modernity

Dexter Filkins's The Forever War is aptly titled for a memoir that narrates the waves of death that washed over Iraq and Afghanistan in this new century. Readers today might be surprised to learn that the book was published in 2006. Filkins worked as a conflict journalist for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times first in Afghanistan (from 1999 to 2003) and then in Iraq (from 2003 to 2005).  The book is a masterly crafted man-on-the-scene account of what the words "civil war" actually mean.

Various words come to mind when I search for adjectives to describe the book, the events it describes, and the prose it describes it with: "harrowing," "savage," "beautiful," and "deadening" are a few of them. Filkins does not provide any sort of sustained historical narrative in his book: his eye is always on the man right in front of him. But he does have a talent for showing how the isolated incidents he observes connects to the larger story. Take his account of the dynamics of warlord fighting in the Afghanistan of 2001:

People fought in Afghanistan, and people died, but not always in the obvious way. They had been fighting for so long, twenty-three years then, that by the time the Americans arrived the Afghans had developed an elaborate set of rules designed to spare as many fighters as they could. So the war could go on forever. Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got under way. Shirts today, skins tomorrow. On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of the Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again, holding up your Kalashnikov and promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.

Battles were often decided this way, not by actual fighting, but by flipping gangs of soldiers. One day, the Taliban might have four thousand soldiers, and the next, only half that, with the warlords of the Northern Alliance suddenly larger by a similar amount. The fighting began when the bargaining stopped, and the bargaining went right up until the end. The losers were the ones who were too stubborn, too stupid or too fanatical to make a deal. Suddenly, they would find themselves outnumbered, and then they would die. It was a kind of natural selection.

One of the Afghan militia commanders with whom I traveled, Daoud Khan, was a master of this complicated game. He was portly and well dressed, and he ate very well. The Afghans spoke of him in reverent tones, but he didn’t seem like much of a warrior to me. He’d never fought for the Taliban himself, but thousands of his former soldiers were now in the Taliban ranks. Why kill them when he could just bring them back to his side? Khan captured his first city, Taloqan, without firing a single shot. He did it by persuading the local Taliban leader, a man named Abdullah Gard, to switch sides. Gard was no dummy; he could see the B-52s. I guessed that Khan had probably used a lot of money, but he never allowed me to sit in as he worked the Taliban chieftains on the radio. The day after Taloqan fell, I found Gard in an abandoned house, seated on a blue cushion on the floor, warming himself next to a wood-burning stove. His black Taliban turban was gone, and he had replaced it with a woolen Chitrali cap just like that of Ahmad Shah Massoud. “All along, I was spying on the Taliban,” Gard said, his eyes darting. No one believed him, but no one seemed to care.

On the first night of the long-awaited offensive against the Taliban, carried out at the urging of the Americans, the Alliance commanders bombarded the Taliban lines and then, as night fell, sent their men forward. Yet when I arrived the next morning, the Alliance soldiers stood more or less where they had the day before. They’d run, and then they’d run back. No one seemed surprised. “Advancing, retreating, advancing, that’s what you do in war,” Yusef, a twenty-year-old Alliance soldier, told me with a shrug. He was sitting in a foxhole. It wasn’t that the Afghans were afraid to fight, it was that they’d fought too much. And now, given the opportunity, they wanted to avoid it if they could. 
“My dear, I am your brother, you know how much affection I have for you, there is really no point in resisting anymore,” Mohammad Uria, a Northern Alliance commander, said into his radio to a Taliban commander a few miles away. Of course, there were plenty of Taliban soldiers who wanted to fight forever. Fight to the death. They were the Pashtuns from Kandahar, for the most part, a different breed. “I’ve seen them run right into the minefields— they want to die,” Pir Mohammed said, shaking his head in awe. But where I was, in northern Afghanistan, many if not most of the Taliban soldiers weren’t from Kandahar, they were from the north— Tajiks and Uzbeks who’d switched sides when the fearsome Kandaharis rolled in. Now the northerners wanted to quit. The one group of people who really took fighting seriously were the foreigners— that is, the Americans and Al-Qaeda. They came to kill.[1]
This passage stood out because I have written about the general issue it describes before. This was the central topic of my post "ISIS, the Mongols, and the Return of Ancient Challenges" and a secondary theme of my essay "Introducing Asabiyah." To restate my argument: Americans in particular and Westerners in general have an understanding of warfare that does not match the way most humans throughout human history--including the humans of the premodern West--experienced war. Americans come from a land of mass literacy and mass politics, a country where even the country rube has received a strong education in his duties, rights, and membership in the American nation. American soldiers go into battle as part of a rigid hierarchy with officers inserted deep into their ranks and receive elaborate training designed to instill in them both discipline and an overwhelming espirit de corps. They also are heirs to a political culture that has never seen a coup nor suffered from a serious military challenge to civilian leadership in its history. 

Because of all of this, one has trouble imagining a possible timeline where the Third Army abandons its posts to join the Wehrmacht, Pershing's American Expeditionary Forces devolve into a patchwork of hostile war-bands,  or Ulysses Grant turns his guns on Washington and declares himself America's new leader.  Yet most wars in most places for most of our civilized history were running catalogues of just these sorts of sordid happenings! The conquests of every Chinese conqueror right up to the Communists, the wars of Medieval Europe and the early Renaissance,  the conflicts of 'feudal' Japan, most of the fighting and in-fighting seen on the Eurasian steppe, the squabbles of the Greek city states, the terrific civil wars of the Roman empire, and the greater part of Arab warring right up to the present day looked more like Filkin's Afghanistan than the Western Front. 

Solidarity is a social technology--on the battlefield, an extremely lethal one. In the pre-modern world, societies and leaders able to engineer their followers into loyal wholes often possessed an unbeatable advantage (see my post on the Mongols for more on this). But the advent of modern nationalism and the spread of professional military training has spread this technology about the world. The character of warfare over the last two centuries has been determined as much by the proliferation of this social technology as it has by the proliferation of actual weapons.

Like many advance weapons platforms, the social technology of solidarity degrades when not maintained. Thus the terrors of Filkins' second war. The same dynamic he saw in the valleys of Afghanistan played themselves out in the alleys of Baghdad:  
As the fighting between the Mahdi Army and the Americans unfolded in the days before the truce, the Iraqi residents of Najaf, caught in the grip of Muqtada’s militia, had professed in near unison their undying love for the young rebel. Every souvenir shop and every pilgrim hotel carried photos and posters of Muqtada on their walls. It was uncanny. And within hours of the Mahdi Army’s evacuation of the shrine, Muqtada suddenly became a pariah to every Iraqi I could find. 

“Muqtada and those people around him, they know nothing,” said a cleric who had studied under Sadr’s father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr. We were a block from the shrine. “Muqtada, he just sat on his father’s computer. He is not an educated man.” With that, the cleric began to tell me how Mahdi Army fighters had threatened him during the tense times of the previous three months. The cleric produced a small handwritten letter. “Some clerics sell their consciences to Jews and foreigners,” the letter said. “If you are not careful, you will be killed.” 

“Tell the truth about Muqtada,” the cleric said to me, and then he walked away.[2]

In the '80s, Iraqis fought and died by the hundreds of thousands in real trenches. It took an entire totalitarian machine to keep them in that fight. When that machine fell apart in the years that followed, so did the social technology it maintained. The tragedies that Filkins narrates were the consequence of its loss. 

If you this post on military affairs was to your liking, you might also like the posts "ISIS, The Mongols, and the Return of Ancient Challenges," "Islamic Terrorism in Context," and  "Introducing: Asabiyah." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2006), 50-54.
[2] ibid,  124-125.

17 July, 2020

Why Banning All Party Members is Stupid

The New York Times reports that the Trump administration is considering proposals to ban all members of the Communist Party of China, and their families, from obtaining a visa to visit the United States.[1]  If implemented, would this accomplish what the administration hopes it will?

Does the administration even know what it hopes to accomplish with these measures?

The United States of America is now engaged in open competition with the People's Republic of China over the future course of world history. This competition has geopolitical, military, diplomatic, economic, and ideological elements.[2] The leading members of the Communist Party of China believe that to secure victory and to bring about the restoration of the Chinese race to a position of preeminence, severe domestic repression is necessary. This includes stripping the people of Hong Kong of their freedom, the persecution of China's religious, and a campaign of terror and coercion whose ultimate goal appears to be the demographic death—that is, the genocide—of the Uighur people. 

There is no consensus in the West or among the democratic nations of the Pacific rim as to how to respond to all of this. Something must be done, but what should be done, and what so doing is supposed to accomplish, remains unclear. This is especially true in regard to Party aims in Xinjiang. Thusfar, most analysis of the problem has been devoted simply to uncovering what is happening. Far less thought has been given to whether we can change what is happening, and how we might do so. 

I am pessimistic. I believe there is little the United States government can do that will change the broad strokes of Party policy in Xinjiang. At this point the Party has locked itself into a very dangerous position. They did not heed the old Machiavellian warning to would-be despots and tyrants: "A Prince should inspire fear in such a fashion that if he does not win love he may escape hate." [3] The scale and ferocity of the terror that the Party has inflicted upon the Uighur of Xinjiang preclude "escaping hate." A population once indifferent to the Chinese state is now alienated from it. Intellectuals who once felt genuine love for their country now know they have no place inside it. A whole people have been treated as enemies to the Party-state, and view that state as the armed servant of a hostile race. There is no "return to normalcy" in these circumstances. The Party did away with calls for normalcy, appeals to good conduct, patriotic fanfare, the promise of shared wealth, and all other manner of carrots and positive incentives the month the Mosques started coming down. It is a sad truth. The Party's decision to rule Xinjiang through naked tyranny means that naked tyranny is the only tool of rule they have left.

At the level of individuals, organizations, and corporations, the moral argument for treating China the way Westerners once treated South Africa is strong. If nothing else, their own integrity is at stake. But government officials—say, the sort who decide visa rules—have a different task. They are charged with changing the world, not simply "taking a stand" within it. What change is possible here?

For reasons stated above, it is unlikely that the Party will stop its repression in Xinjiang. It is more possible for Western action to accomplish one of the following: 
  1. Directly make it more difficult and costly for the Party to carry out its repression campaign. Sanctions and restrictions on companies that provide the technical infrastructure  (such as Hikvision) are a good example of this. 
  2. Make it more difficult and costly for individual Party members to take part in the repression campaign. The Magnitsky Act sanctions we saw a few weeks ago are an example of this strategy; coordinated name-and-shame campaigns that make turn the people involved into internal pariahs might accomplish the same thing. The goal here is to change the decision calculus of talented Party members, giving them an incentive to avoid working in XUAR, for the United Front Work Department, and so forth.   
  3. Take actions that undermine China's growing "comprehensive national power," and by extension, the Party's ability to take control of and export these tools to other "separatist" regions (e.g. Taiwan).
  4.  Take actions that undermine the Communist Party of China's hold on power, putting them in a position where liberalization is their most likely path for survival.  
I am not endorsing any of these four goals here, only noting that all four are within the bounds of what America can actually attempt. Does the "ban all Party members and their families" policy accomplish any of these aims?

I cannot see how it does.

I am not against using visa bans, even visa bans on family members, as a tool of policy. In fact I have argued vigorously (on Twitter) that this is one of the only effective sorts of leverage we have against the Party. When an American journalist is expelled from China, I argued, the right response is not to expel some nobody working at Xinhua, but to find a grandson of Zhao Leji (or Yang Jiechi, or Miao Hua, or whoever) that is studying at Harvard and send him packing.[4] That is an argument for narrowly targeted, tit-for-tat measures. The ban being debated by Trump's officials is different. It is far too broad to accomplish anything useful.

 The Communist Party of China has approximately 90 million members.[5] When you add that together with the immediate relatives of these members you have somewhere between 180 and 270 million people—that is, somewhere between one eighth and one sixth of the population of China. A very large number of these members are not especially political, and joined on with the Party sometime in the last few decades for the sake of business connections or to improve their chances of getting a desired job as a government employee (say, as a teacher or state contractor). This includes many Uighur, Tibetans, and so forth. 

 A lot of the folks arguing against the ban on twitter bring all of this up as a question of culpability. Just how responsible are these 90 million people for policy in Xinjiang or Hong Kong? (Not very). From the perspective of policy, a better lens is leverage. A ban on this scale reduces, not increases, our leverage over the Communist Party.

 Consider aim #2 in my list above. This ban makes no distinction between those with authority to craft policy and those who must implement it, nor between those who implement Party directives and those who just pay their dues, nor between those who are actually implementing genocidal directives in Xinjiang and those who are implementing anti-pollution directives in Guizhou. From the perspective of leverage this matters. Those already damned have no qualms with murder. Party members already punished for actions they have not taken will lose nothing by taking them. 

 Perhaps then the aim is closer to #4—destabilizing the Party writ large. If the goal is to divide the Chinese people from the Party (which recent administration rhetoric suggests is an important aim of the administration's policies)[6] it will not work. I promise you,  the average man on the Chinese street will not view this as an attack on the Party, but an attack on the Chinese people. How could they think otherwise, when one out of six Chinese is being targeted? Instead of dividing the people from the Party we would instead be rallying them around the Party flag. 

 The same is largely true for Party members themselves. As mentioned earlier, a substantial percentage of the Party are not Marxist faithful. They joined up for crass, materialistic reasons. At first glance one might assume that a ban like this would set them against Xi and the powers that be, perhaps even cause some people to leave the Party. But this is silly. Xi has spent the last decade purging and repurging the Communist Party of China. He just announced a major new "rectification" campaign last week. These campaigns are cloaked in anti-corruption and anti-privilege rhetoric. In this kind of environment, no Party member in their right mind is going to leave the Party for the sake of their son at Wharton. Leaving now is simply too dangerous of a signal to send. If anything, this sort of ban drives the due-payers into the arms of the Party ideologues, confirming what they have been saying all along: uncommitted Party members can no longer live in the muddled middle. They have to pick a side, and the only safe side to pick is with Xi Jinping. 

 If visa bans are the tool of choice, use them with discrimination. It is not hard to identify who is actually responsible for policy in Xinjiang. An expansive list might include the full Politburo, members of the 19th National Congress of the CPC, current members of Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, attendees of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, and key personnel staffing the Central Secretariat staff, the United Front Work Department, the Ministry of State Security, and the People's Liberation Army. This already provides us with a few thousand people, but the list can be expanded to include various officials working at the provincial level (or in this case, the "autonomous region level"). Add in their family members and you may well have a black list of 5,000-6,000 people. Creating that list will require some grunt work, but going forward, anything involving China should. In the world of "great power competition" lazy, ineffective short-cuts (like attempting to block out 200 million people) should not be seriously contemplated or tolerated.

To read some of my other pieces on the Chinese Communists, see the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "The World That China Wants," "Xi Jinping and the Laws of History," "Case Studies in Communist Insecurity,"  "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II." For posts specifically about the situation in Xinjiang, you should read "Moral Hazards and China" and "On the Terror of Uncertainty." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Paul Mozur and Edward Wong, "U.S. Weighs Sweeping Travel Ban on Chinese Communist Party Members," New York Times (15 July 2020).

[2] For Chinese perceptions of this conflict, see Nadege RollandChina's Vision for a New World Order (Washington DC: NBER, 2020); Dan Tobin, "How Xi Jinping’s “New Era” Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions," CSIS Brief (8 May 2020). See also my writing on this topic.

[3] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, translated by Hill Thomson (1910),  chapter 17.  Find it on Wikisource here

[4] I understand that there are legal reasons for why this is not done, but those could be changed if we wished it so. 

[5] Neil Thomas, "Members Only: Recruitment Trends in the Chinese Communist Party," Marco Polo (15 July 2020).

[6] Here is FBI director Christopher Gray at the beginning of his speech two weeks ago: 
 But before I go on, let me be clear: This is not about the Chinese people, and it’s certainly not about Chinese Americans. Every year, the United States welcomes more than 100,000 Chinese students and researchers into this country. For generations, people have journeyed from China to the United States to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their families—and our society is better for their contributions. So, when I speak of the threat from China, I mean the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party. 
A week before him NSA O'Brien made a similar statement: 
 As I close, let me be clear – we have deep respect and admiration for the Chinese people. The United States has a long history of friendship with the Chinese nation. But the Chinese Communist Party does not equal China or her people.

Notice also that in both speeches the "Communist Party of China" not "China" nor the "Chinese" are identified as the challenge to be overcome. See Christopher Gray,  "The Threat Posed by the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party to the Economic and National Security of the United States," speech delivered at the Hudson Institute (7 July 2020); Robert O'Brien, "The Chinese Communist Party's Ideology and Ambitions," speech delivered at the Arizona Commerce Authority, Phoenix, AZ (24 June 2020).

10 July, 2020

The World That Twitter Made

Allow me to explain something important about Twitter.

 This something is obvious to anyone with more than 10,000 followers on the platform but not so readily apparent to those with only 500 or so. My girlfriend is in the latter category, and she struggles to understand my animus for for it. The difference in follower counts partially explains the gap. But she also came to America's public sphere late, and never really experienced the world before twitter. That was the public sphere of blogs and forum posts, not tweets and retweets. She can be happy with what she has: she knows of nothing of what was lost. 

In many ways the twitter experience of the user with a low follower account is somewhat similar to the experience of the old blogosphere. Many of my readers came to the internet in the 2010s; before I proceed with this point it is probably sketching out just what the internet was like in the world before them. That internet was organized differently. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Medium, Reddit, and Instagram either did not exist then or were the preserve of teenagers and university age students. Those platforms were for flirting and goofing off and gossiping behind your parents back. People who wanted to discuss bigger things—culture, art, history, science, business, politics, or what have you—went to the blogs. Well, the blogs and the forums. 

There were two aspects of this older internet ecology that set it apart from the current get up. The first was its clear division into hundreds of separate communities. This was most explicit in the forums, which usually did not allow users to comment unless they created a log-in and agreed to very specific community rules. But this was true even of the blogs that anyone could view or comment. No blog was island—or if an island, each was part of an archipelago, a constellation of commentators interested in a specific topic or problem. Perhaps you cared a great deal about the Iraq War, or peak oil, or New Atheism. You would find people blogging about it, read their posts, write your own posts in response to what they were typing,  and try to leave incisive comments in the threads attached to posts you liked. If you were leaving quality comments and writing up quality posts eventually members of your chosen section of the blogosphere would click on your name, explore what you had been writing, and start linking to it and writing responses to it themselves. 

In practical terms, this meant that most communities were siloed off from each other. While a very few people with national prominence might be blogging to the masses, most people were blogging and commenting for a more select community. People thought of themselves as part of a select community. There were many incentives for treating each other as community members should. Because these communities were relatively small and contained, everybody involved was soon familiar with everybody else. There was nothing to be gained but much to be lost by turning disagreements personal.  Bloggers and forum moderators had full control over their own sites, and did not shy from banning and censoring people they believed were poisoning the conversation. Each community had its norms, and people were happy to shun those who did not follow them.

This leads to the second big difference between the internet of the aughts and the internet of the 2010s: the standards for participation were different—in some ways the barrier to entry was both higher and lower than on twitter. In the old days people used to say "if you don't like it, make your own blog!" That directive was easy to follow. It is near impossible for someone de-platformed from twitter to create some new twitter to replace it; in contrast, anybody really could create their own blog (and forums were not hard to stand up either). 

But if writers were to have people read their blogs, then their blogs had to be good. This was the price of participation. On twitter, anybody who can think up a snarky 140 characters retort can contribute to the "conversation." In the blogosphere, you had to create your own blog and write up your thoughts in long-form. For this reason, blog debates were simply more intelligent than today's twitter debates. Idiot bloggers were ignored and usually did not last. Idiot tweeters cannot be shunted to the side—especially if they have a blue check.

The existence of the blue checks points to the way in which the barriers that a new blogger faced entering a community was far lower than is currently the case on twitter. The start-up costs of blogging were higher, but once somebody integrated themselves into a community and began writing, they were judged on the quality of that writing alone. Very little attention was paid to who that person was outside of the blogosphere. While some prominent and well known individuals blogged, there was nothing like the "blue checks" we see on twitter today. It is not hard to understand why this is. Twitter is an undifferentiated mass of writhing souls trying to inflict their angry opinions on the earth. Figuring out who to listen to in this twist of two-sentences is difficult. We use a tweeter's offline affiliations to separate the wheat and the chaff. 

It was not like this in the old world. One of the remarkable things about the blogosphere was how many people wrote under pseudonyms. The quality of a blogger's insight and the esteem of other community members was the main metric by which blog-readers divided up those who were worth following from who were not. There was something remarkably democratic about this. A whole host of "citizen reporters" and "citizen bloggers" who had neither special pedigrees nor special connections rose to national prominence between 2000 and 2006 on the strength of their writing alone. I came a little bit later—I started this blog in 2007, and it did not have anything worth reading on it until 2010—but I credit my success to these same dynamics. I was an un-credentialed, pseudonymous nobody when I began this blog. Had I started writing in 2017 instead of 2007 I do not think I would have ever became anything else. 

The twitter user with 500~ followers in some ways exists in a world similar to the blogosphere of old. She is part of a small, self-selected community. Her followers chose to follow her because they are sympathetic with her ideas or at least interested in them. It is not difficult to have open and honest exchanges when you swim in safe waters. Most people in her network know her, and she knows most of them, so there is little incentive for mischief. 

This changes with scale. 

To some extent this was always true, even in the days of the blogs. Bloggers had an adage about comment threads: the more popular a blog, the worse its threads. Much of this is simply a number game. As the number of people who follow you grows, the likelihood you will encounter a troll, asshole, or other internet fiend grows as well. But on twitter something more interesting than this is happening. 

See, twitter is not a constellation of carefully moderated communities. The users of twitter are one great mass. The ponds and lakes of the blogosphere have emptied into a heaving sea. In this sea, twitter users are linked together, but linked weakly. They are unmoderated, unorganized, atomized—but stuck all together. A retweet can roll through the lot in a day. 

Communities of a sort still exist on twitter, but they are mashed together in an unhealthy way. Many of these communities will be filled with people whose base assumptions about how the world works are 100% different than your own. That is fine. It is quite possible to talk honestly to people who don’t share your commitments—but of course the way one does this is very different from how you talk to someone whose world view aligns 85% with your own. On twitter you do not get to refine your message for either group. On twitter you project to everyone at once. 

This is the first difficulty that comes with a growing follower count on twitter. As the count grows, the number of different communities you are projecting to grows as well. Soon, large numbers of people start to follow because they see you as a representative of a certain strain of thought, or as a key voice in a particular conversation they care about. They are not are sympathetic to your ideas or even merely intellectually interested in them; instead they follow you to keep tabs on what you and people like you are saying. Many actually despise you and your ideas to their core (in twitterese, they are a “hate follow”).

 My friend Matthew Stinson described this shift as that point where "interactions stop being inquisitive and start getting accusatory. “Points for my side-ism” becomes a real thing." Twitter's retweet mechanism makes this problem far worse. All one needs is a snarky RT for these people to take what a thought they dislike and BOOM!, project it into communities it was never intended for as the perfect example of what they all should be hating at that moment.

Thus if you have a large follower account your experience on twitter goes like this: you share a thought optimized for Group X. Members of Group Y, Group Z, and Group V automatically start sharing it as the textbook example of why Group X deserves crucifixion. 

This is what happens in an online ecosystem where the boundaries between communities are gone, and moderators (by nature of the platform's universality) cannot exist. To run a high-follower account on twitter is to be constantly exposed to entire communities whose members will treat you as an enemy to be defeated or a buffoon to be humiliated the minute they become aware of you. People with 500 or so followers (e.g. my girlfriend) are rarely trotted out as the example of all that is wrong with the world. Anyone with a higher follower count knows this is the default state of their mentions on any given weekend. 

Does any of this matter? If high follower accounts equal fame and influence, all of this may discounted as the sniveling, pathetic complaints of the privileged. Maybe that is all it is. But then I read threads like the one below and start to think otherwise. It was written by Lili Loofbourow, staff writer for Slate, in response to that notorious letter on free speech and civil discourse. 

She has 30,000 followers.
I get the longing--I even share it--but the naivete is annoying. Online pundits should know (and factor in) that social media as a "public square" where "good faith debate" happens is a thing of the past. Disagreement here happens through trolling, sea-lioning, ratios, dunks.

Does that lead to paranoid readings and meta-debates that seem totally batshit to onlookers who aren't internet-poisoned? Yup! "All Lives Matter" sounds perfectly reasonable--as a text--unless you know the history of that discourse. (And you'll sound pretty weird explaining it.)

"Why would you refuse to debate someone who's simply saying that All Lives Matter?" is the kind of question an Enlightenment subject longing for a robust exchange of ideas might ask. Well, the reason is that most of us know, through bitter experience, that it's a waste of time.

It wouldn't be a true exchange. We know by now what "All Lives Matter" signals and that what it signals is orthogonal to what it says. Your fluency in this garbage means you take shortcuts: you don't have to refute the text to leap to the subtext, which is the real issue.

To outsiders, that leap will look nuts. That's obviously what all the coded Nazi shit is for and about--the 14 words, the numbers, the OK hand sign that both is and isn't a white power sign, the Boogaloo junk. They're all ways to divorce surface meaning from intentional subtext.

Yes, this is bad for discourse! Yes, it inhibits intellectual exchange! Yes, it makes productive dissensus almost impossible. But that's not because of "cancel culture" or "illiberalism." It's because in this discourse environment, good faith engagement is actually maladaptive.

It's possible and likely that knowledge gaps between people who are online too much and folks who aren't are making things worse. If Atwood (or whoever) isn't online much, she might be shocked to see people accuse a nice-looking boy in a Hawaiian shirt of wanting a 2nd civil war.

It might indeed look like cancel culture gone mad. He's just standing there! Civilly! Offering support to Black Lives Matter protesters, of all things! Can't we all, whatever our disagreements, come together in support of a good cause?

It's *also* possible that people who've learned to read *through* stuff (to whatever bummer of a subtext we're used to finding there) sometimes overdo it. Some of us might reflexively ignore the actual text--fast-forwarding to the shitty point we "know" is coming even if it isn't

"Free speech defender," for ex, will mean something different to an idealist than it will to someone who watched reddit hordes viciously defend revenge porn and sites like r/beatingwomen, r/creepshots, and r/Jewmerica while people whose pictures got posted there begged for help.

Free speech! they were told. 

Anyway. Sure, good-faith debate would be nice. Instead, the internet pressure-cooked rhetoric. Again: people can watch the same argument be conducted a million times in slightly different ways, and that's interesting, and a blessing, and a curse

It produced a kind of argumentative hyperliteracy. If you can predict every step of a controversy (including the backlash), it makes perfect sense to meta-argue instead--over what X *really* means, or implies, or what, down a road we know well, it confirms.

This isn't great. People talk past each other, assume bad faith. But it's not the fault of "illiberalism" that good faith is in short supply. And if that's where your analysis begins, I can't actually tell whether you're naive or trolling. And I'm no longer sure which is worse.

That is the problem with Twitter and the other aggregator sites. See the beliefs of the next generation of public intellectuals before you! See what happens to those who have only experienced America's public square through high-follower account on twitter! 

Loofburrow is not alone in these beliefs. I suspect an entire class of pundits has internalized the idea that all of this is what public discussion is. Of course they don’t believe in free expression, civil debate, the spirit of liberalism, and all of that jazz. To this generation those things are just words. The public sphere they have known has always been a bare-knuckle brawl.

Welcome to the world that twitter made.


Readers who enjoyed this post might enjoy my other look back at the blogosphere of old, "Requiem for a Strategy Sphere." Others mights be interested in other posts that assay the state of our new American culture: "On Cultures That Build," "A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture," "The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood," and "Pining for Democracy." To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.


09 July, 2020

Xi Jinping and the Laws of History

Two years ago I translated a major speech of Xi Jinping's for the magazine Palladium. This translation was well received and has since been quoted both in Congressional testimonies and international editorial pages. I am generally pleased with this. So are the editors of Palladium. They approached me a few months ago wondering whether I would be willing to do a similar translation for them again. My problem: there was no speech of Xi's (or other Standing Committee members) that I felt was of comparable importance and clarity that had not already been translated into English. Most of Xi's thought makes it into English sooner or later. As of last week, there are now three volumes of Xi's collected speeches published under the title The Governance of China; major political reports, Party constitutional amendments, plenum reports, and white papers are regularly published in English as they are released, and Xinhua translates excerpts of high level addresses every day. That mostly leaves things published in Seeking Truth (Ch: Qiushi) as the last bastion of authoritative, publicly available, yet untranslated, material to turn to—and most of that compliments or extends the stuff mentioned earlier, not supersedes it.

Translation is not the real bottleneck. Better than translating this material is contextualizing it. This means spotting the patterns and framing that connects various speeches and documents together and performing the intellectual archeology that makes sense of otherwise opaque Communist slogans on the other. Perhaps more important than translating any individual speech is showing how the collected speeches of Xi and company communicate a coherent vision. I told Palladium I would like to try my hand at this task, and pursue one theme across many documents and speeches.

Palladium published my piece today with the title "The Theory of History That Guides Xi Jinping." I encourage you to read the full thing. But as folks are always pestering me about my "production function," I want to write a few paragraphs on how I actually went about writing the thing.

Behind the piece is a question I have been pondering for a while: what to make of Xi and company's constant insistence that China is committed to the "path of peaceful development" (和平发展之路). It is easy to look at the PRC's soaring defense budget and conclude that this sort of talk is cheap, more propaganda than policy. I am uncomfortable with this conclusion. I have argued vigorously that the leaders of China believe that they are in a state of ideological competition with the United States, and have done so with the same sort of sources—indeed, some of the very same speeches—that affirm China's commitment to peaceful development. I have argued before that these documents and the meetings that produce them are not exercises in rhetoric, but an attempt by Party leadership to train their cadres and coordinate the behavior of Party members. As as I say in the piece,
dismissing all of this as mere rhetoric is hard to square with the settings in which Xi appeals to “the pulse of times.” One does not call every ambassador to Beijing just to bore them with the latest propaganda hacks. Xi calls these meetings because he has an exact idea of how he wants his diplomats, bureaucrats, and generals to do their job. Addresses like these are less like stump speeches on the campaign trail than they are like instruction manuals. [1]

This talk of peaceful development needs to be taken seriously. So I set about combing through my two English volumes of Xi Jinping's Governance of China looking for the phrase and sentiments similar to it. Occasionally I would consult the Chinese edition of the same books when I wanted to see how a certain phrase or idea was conveyed in the original. I then tried to think of major events in the years since Volume II was published where Xi would have had cause to touch on these themes, and eventually realized that the most important certainly would have been the 2018 Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, which gathered together the politburo, the heads of the intelligence, united front, and foreign affairs bureaucracies, and all of China's ambassadors under one roof to learn about "Xi Jinping Thought on Foreign Work." Xi's speech at that event has not yet been published, but I spent some time going through the Xinhua read-outs of it, as well as reading Yang Jiechi's two lengthy precis of XJP Thought on Foreign Work for Qiushi.

I prioritized Yang's pieces on this because he is arguable the second most authoritative voice on diplomatic policy after Xi himself, and he seems to have been given the responsibility for explaining it where Xi does not. Occasionally I was willing to look much further down the chain. If a specific set phrase seemed especially ambiguous (like "The modern world is undergoing great changes unseen in a century" 当今世界正处于百年未有之大变局), I would put the phrases in Google or Baidu and read through commentaries on the phrase that have been written for The People's Daily, the Party School's WeChat account, and so forth. (I link to all of the useful ones in the Palladium essay).

When reading these sources I first try to determine how similar the meaning of the words they use is to the commonly understood meaning of these words in English (or for that matter, in Chinese). This is not something that should be assumed. Often times a word (say, "democracy") means something very different in Party speak than it does for us. To make things more difficult, it is rare for Xi Jinping or Yang Jiechi to precisely define the terms they use, or rigorously present any of Xi's ideas. Terms like "path of peaceful development" have to be understood more as a composite of all the ideas and slogans associated with them.

One of the ideas most commonly presented alongside talk of "peaceful development" was this notion of the "trend of history." I had already highlighted almost every instance of this "trend of history" stuff in my first read through Xi's Governance of China. I did that because I am interested in what Marxism means to the modern Communist Party, and saw how that was also closely associated with the Party's claimed ability to discern "scientific laws" behind the course of history. I am not the only person who has dwelt on Xi's historical determinism—Andrew Batson often blogs about it, Kevin Rudd once gave a speech on the topic, and just this week Chris Johnson was talking about Xi's "dialectical, almost millenarian certainty that the West’s decline is both permanent and accelerating" to newspapers. [2] Less attention has been given to Xi's millenarian certainty's and China's vocal and persistent commitments to peaceful development. I saw its connection as I read, and from this comes the thesis of the piece.

My thesis goes as thus: Xi Jinping believes that the course of history follows "laws." Forces that operate beyond the grasp of any individual leader's agency determine the broad contours of the future. The role of the Party and its leader is to discover these forces. They will chart these forces' future course, and having done so, guide the nation to move with, instead of swim against, the currents of history. Xi has done this. He knows the world hurls towards a new order—an irreversibly globalized, economically interdependent, fundamentally multi-polar world order.

In this international environment, armed intervention frustrates those who resort to it (see: the Iraq War). Peaceful economic integration is the trend of the times, and economic statecraft is statecraft par excellence. "Peaceful development" is the Party term for this sort of statecraft. Peaceful development is more than just a commitment to peace. Peace is not the end goal of peaceful development, though Chinese leaders describe it as a state to be treasured for its own sake. Rather, peaceful development is a strategy (or as the Party documents call it, a "strategic choice" 战略决策) designed to pursue a different end: the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation to their ancestral glory. That has long been the goal of the Communist Party; given their assessment of the times, a strategy of "peaceful development" that uses combination of integrated economic development and targeted economic coercion is the most sensible path to greatness.

In the actual essay I provide a bullet list summary of how the Party has implemented the "peaceful development" strategy, but none of that is done with much depth. This piece does not focus on the what of China's grand strategy so much as the why. Likewise, I do not really explore the seeming contradiction between China's military modernization drive and their commitment to peaceful development  (my short answer goes like this: Taiwan). A future piece might be needed that explores the "what" more thoroughly. For now I am satisfied with what I have written. It is important to understand the teleological assumptions that lay behind the Party's current course. China's path over the last few decades is not the expression of some peace-loving strand in the DNA of the Chinese race, but a purposefully chosen decision contingent on specific features of the international order. The implications of this are worth pondering over.

If you would like to read my other attempt to peer inside the mind of Xi Jinping, read "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "The World That China Wants," "Case Studies in Communist Insecurity," "Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping,"  "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II.To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, "The Theory of History That Guides Xi Jinping," Palladium (8 July 2020).

[2] From Andrew Batson's Blog,"Does China Have an Ideological Red Line?" (25 July 2019); "There Are Laws of History, and They Work in China's Favor" (28 June 2018); "Reading the Communist Manifesto With Xi Jinping" (30 April 2018); For Rudd, see the Asia Society event, "Kevin Rudd on Xi Jinping, China, and Global Order," held in  Singapore, 26 June 2018;  Johsnon is quoted in Iain Marlowe and Daniel Flatley, "Hong Kong Power Play Puts China at Odds With the West," Taipei Times (5 July 2020)