Thursday, January 18, 2007

Historical Discussion: From Iraq to China

On April 2, 2003 the Guardian, one of England's preeminent journals, published an article by a prominent Indian author, Arundhati Roy. Evoking names from the dawn of civilization, Roy called her essay "Mesopotamia. Babylon. The Tigris and Euphrates". It was a scathing, eloquent attack on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and it inspired an exchange of letters between the author and others on an e-mail list -- a wide-ranging debate that started with Baghdad and ended with in China, with stops along the way in Japan and Turkey.

Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz


The article is so well written. No surprise there. Roy is a fine writer. That's why she won the Booker Prize. But she thrives on controversy... and this article is no exception. Is she right? It's too soon to say. If we succeed in creating a democratic, prosperous Iraq, a new golden age to rival the caliphate of Rashid, Roy's article will be consigned to the dustbin of history. If not, well, her article will be quoted by every future historian.

Sixty years ago, after a long war of unparalleled brutality, the US occupied Japan. The Japanese did not welcome our troops as liberators. If I recall correctly, thousands of Japanese killed themselves rather than live under US rule.

The US occupation lasted several years. Fortunately for all, some bright soul conceived of the idea of using the occupation government as a dumping ground for American socialists and left-wingers, and this idea was followed for the first 2 years, during which time a program of land reform broke up large landowners' holdings. A constitution was drafted, and Japan today is one of the freest, most democratic countries in the world. Instead of retaining control of Japan's economy, or looting it, we transformed it into our biggest economic rival.

In "The mouse that roared," a British comedy film made a few years later, in 1959, a bankrupt country declares war on the US, reasoning that they will be quickly defeated, and then reformed, refinanced and rebuilt. I hope the same happens in real life.

Is Japan a special case?

Thinking about it, I realized that Japan's transformation was not unique. Other countries did the same, albeit less successfully: Turkey under Ataturk, China under the last emperors (their slogan was "learn from the barbarians in order to defeat the barbarians"), Thailand under King Chulalungkorn. What all these countries had in common was they were among the very few never to have been colonized by Europe. Iraq was colonized, and never had a similar transformation, but is one of the most resilient regions in history: Sumer, Assyria. Babylon, the Caliphate, etc..

It's true that Japan learned from Tang dynasty China, but then they shut their doors to the outside world for a thousand years.

Is China a special case?

China was poised at the edge of economic success 700 years ago, but, like Moses, never quite made it to the promised land. The neo-Confucian philosophers of the 13th century should have triggered a scientific renaissance. They didn't. The global voyages of Admiral Cheng Ho in the 15th century should have led to an era of world domination. It didn't. The textile factories of Suzhou in the 16th should have been the vanguard of industrial revolution. They weren't. Why? One possible answer (which I don't totally agree with) is that the Chinese upper class looked down on merchants, commerce and industry instead of nourishing them. Since the Chinese upper class was in part selected by IQ tests (sort of...they emphasized crystallized g), this should be a warning to high-IQ societies.

Communist China, as you say, is a lot like ancient China. I wrote this in 1986 [in Brian's book A World of Villages, page 432]: "In China, as in India, history moves in circles. During the past thirty years, China has undergone radical transformation, but all of China's changes find their roots in China's past. China has been cut off from the rest of the world for so long that even when its people are seeking to break with the past they turn to it for guidance."

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