Saturday, October 6, 2012

China now, Imperial Germany then - Democracy, Nationalism and Militance

It has been fascinating to watch the rise of Chinese Nationalism, particularly as expressed by the current argument over a group of rocks (the Diaoyu's) in an ocean that China has traditionally ignored ,or indeed outlawed traders from using.

What is particularly alarming to me though, is the historical parallels it draws with other historical powers making very bad choices for very regrettable reasons.

Just to list some recurring historical issues:

1. Too many young men...

The Crusades (for good or bad, and arguments can be made both ways) can be read as an exercise in exporting excess younger sons of noble and knightly families to find fame and fortune, and of course lands to rule, a long way away from home. (In fact I once did an old fashioned - and statistically suspect - cumulative frequency graph for the crusades, compared to the rise and then fall of population in Europe pre and post the Great Famines of 1314-15, and the Black Death. The steep rise in both prior to 1300 matched beautifully. The rapid fall in population thereafter led to a much flattened gradient that quickly died out.)

This is what nations have almost always done with excess testosterone, from Alexander, Attila and Ghenghis, to Conquistadore and boys from the playing fields of Eton. To paraphrase Mussolini, 'Italy has two many children to support, so we must produce more men to conquor new lands'.

But in China's case a one child policy in a nation biased to male heirs has produced an excess of aggressive young men of military age, with little chance of ever marrying, such as has never previously been seen in human history. Potential problems with militaristic nationalism?

2. Too much propaganda..

The first media war was the Crimean War, where a reluctant British government was driven into a conflict it didn't want by the power of press manipulated public opinion. In the end the Turks deliberately sent their fleet on a suicide mission for the sole purpose of making the British public believe Britain's guarantees had been flouted by the Russians.

A similar media motivated/manipulated war was the Spanish-American War of the turn of last century. (The Democrats and media barons used the media to force the reluctant Republican administration into fairly blatant imperial conquests - including several territories like Peurto Rico and Guam -  still held by the US and still treated as non voting colonies).

China's Communist Party has played with media manipulation for quite a while now, and perhaps it is finally dawning on them that the result may unleash the populist dragon... in a most uncontrollable fashion.

3. Too many chattering classes...

China is also facing the impact of the inevitable rise of an educated middle class that comes with industrialisation, whether you like it or not.

Traditionally this newly awakened group of shallow, but sincere and well meaning, new activists has been an easy target for populist movements and demagogues of all sorts. Think of the cretinous young chattering class opera lovers who think 'a new world awaits beyond the barricades' in Les Miserables, and you get a fair idea. These are the 'useful idiots' who can be convinced to support Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Madame Guillotine (or the even more simplistic and unrealistic formulas of modern green movements!)

A recent example of how NOT to deal with such emerging chattering influences was the Argentinian Military Regime's decision to distract them with what sic-fi maestro David Weber amusingly calls "a short victorious war". Popular outrage against your incompetent and corrupt government rising, declare war on someone you can rely on the idiots to rally against. Las Malvinas sounds easy and popular.. let's invade the Falklands! (Note to idiots... if your government is desperate enough to think this is a clever idea, you are already on the road to disaster. this will just add revolt, possible civil war, and almost inevitable even nastier dictatorship to the mix.)

When I was at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU I managed to provoke a certain scorn by suggesting that Australia was infinitely less threatened by tinpot Indonesian dictators than by the genuine possibility that an elected Indian President might some day need to redirect public anger away from their own party in just such a way... (India, unlike China, actually has the military hardware to invade Australia if it actually wanted to... If a World War Two type situation, where our main protector was just a bit busy somewhere else, ever rose again, India could conquor Australia much, much more easily than Japan could have even considered in World War Two!)

The Arab Spring (a re-run of 1848 if ever I saw one), is just starting to produce the results that might lead to similar threats of 'short victorious wars'. The likelihood of conflict between branches of Muslims and anyone unfortunate enough to be in their way (like Israel, or Christians, or Kurds or other minorities), have been vastly increased by the introduction of democracy. Particularly by letting the brakes off the shallow thinking but well meaning new chattering classes. These are the people who are likely to lead the ignorant masses into the bright new uplands of progress... like communism and nazism and all those other clever new ideas.

China is likely to learn that steering the beast is a lot harder than creating it.

4. An excess of democracy...

Strangely, giving the new classes a say in your society when they are relatively ignorant of the naunces of politics and international relations, does not tend to good results. You get stupidity such as the Napoleonic wars (or the American subset, the War of 1812), or Nazism or Communism, by well meaning idealists leading gullible masses into terrible disaster.

The best example of this is not often recognised as democratic pressure. The decleratioin of war by Imperial Germany in 1914 is usually seen as an imperial war by an imperial regime. But in fact the democratic pressures of the new chattering classes and their Navy League, and Colonial League and all the other democratic movements that were nationalistically aggressive, had a real effect on the pressures the German government felt under, and felt they needed to control or guide.

China may well soon face a perfect storm of exactly the sort of issues that authoritarian regimes cannot cope with when they need new middle classes to run their industrialisation.

A combination of threats...

Ridiculous as it may seem, it is unexpected arguments over useless little islands (Cuba 1898, Cuba 1962, Falklands 1982, now the Diaoyu's)  that are historically more likely to cause regimes to lose control of the tiger they are riding than great and recognisable historical issues they feel they have a handle on.

Danger to government stability comes in many forms, but an oversupply of testosterone, propaganda, idealism and ignorant democratic pressure is the most dangerous of all... for authoritarian regimes as well as for democratic ones.

Maybe China would be better for a Falkland's experience? Pity about the cost.

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