Friday, May 03, 2013

The Clothes' New Emperor

Yesterday I wrote a squib about how Franco and Gorbachev, fecklessly and at last with futility, sought to loosen the reins on their too-dynamic societies while retaining control.  Reading this week's Economist, I'm reminded that my vision was all too blinkered.  I could just as well have expanded my vision to include Xi Jinping, the new leader of China as he tries to mount his tiger the same way one might stuff rattlesnakes into a Vokswagen--i.e,., very carefully. Xi seems to encounter his new (Subjects?  Children?  Brethren) with an attitude common among Chinese leaders down through the ages: deep-seated belief in the entity, coupled with a conviction that by herculean effort it can  be made to work--and stark terror at the spectacle of a billion (plus) individuals, each with his own hopes, fears and convictions.

My guess is that Xi Jinping never heard of John Keats and would have dismissed him with contempt if he had.  But he might want to pause over the oft-quoted excerpt from Keats' letter 280 (to his brother, George):
"I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a field-mouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it – I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along – to what? The creature hath a purpose and his eyes are bright with it."
 It is tempting to patronize anyone so presumptuous as to try to exercise leadership over so many creatures with so many purposes, but it's probably fair to reserve a bit of compassion for Xi. That is--it's easy from far away to dismiss China as a monolith but even a bit of reflection we can see that it is nothing of the sort.    Just a few moments' thought should remind us that it is a monolith with a nasty habit of exploding, perhaps unexpectedly but still often, into  a chaos of private purposes.  Chinese themselves, when they consider the problem, are tempted to dismiss their afflictions as a curse imposed by insolent outsiders and their is just enough truth in that view to distract them from the fact that it is not only outsiders who create so much trouble.  Or if outsiders, at least outsiders with a lot of local help.

I'd say the Economist has at least a crude handle on an inevitably complex problem: Xi has to choose whether to nurture "the people" or "the state."  And given his (and China's) long history, it wouldn't be surprising to find that he thinks he can tilt to the state--for which read "the party," the supposed benign parent, guiding and protecting is charges to a fuller maturity.

But as any number of examples prove, there's only so much guiding and protecting that you can do--perhaps especially (but not merely) when all that blather about guide and protect is just a self-justifying hoax to guide and protect the activity of lining your own (or your children's) pockets.  I'd say Xi needs just a dash of humility here or he might be in for a world of disappointment.

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