Sunday, December 23, 2007

Geography and Fate

John L. Thornton, Chair of the Board of the Brookings Institution, has written one of the better analyses of China's current stage of political evolution. He gives a rather evenhanded assessment of the democratic processes in the People's Republic of China, PRC. Being a teacher at Tsinghua University presumably helps him discern subtleties which are usually obscured in stories about Chinese domestic policy.

However, while the text may be more than adequate, it is lacking context. Such context may be had by reading China: A New History by John K. Fairbank. Although China has 23 percent of the world's population, it contains only 7 percent of the planet's arable land. Ninety percent of cultivable land in China is used for agriculture compared to forty percent in the US. The population which is five times that of our own is encompassed in an area about one half the land mass of the US.

With an immense quantity of muscular energy and a tremendous need to reap maximum benefits from a limited supply of land under adverse conditions, nature held primacy over the individual. Collective action and strict adherence to obligations to family and the state became prerequisites for thriving in a harsh, isolated environment. The spirit of exploration and personal freedom essential to the West would have had deleterious consequences in China.

Based on descriptive pictographs, the Chinese language is believed to have developed strongly as a tool for assisting in the administration of government functions and recording family lineages. Trade and commerce seem to have had a secondary role. Historical periods were named after dynasties and the state dominated life. Keeping this unique history in mind along with the recent examples of Russian and Iraqi experiences, the reticence of the Chinese Communist Party to impale itself on the spear of reform becomes much more understandable. Perhaps it is a mistake to believe that the Chinese conception of democracy will ever converge on the Western ideal.

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