CHINA IN SPACE AND TIME

From the West, we tend to judge today’s China more by its economic presence and the impact of its material development on the rest of the world than by the internal needs in the development of its history; thus giving an overwhelming priority to the geopolitical perspective over the cultural one, which should have at least a comparable importance.

In fact, it is easy to see that China’s overall impact will depend to a large extent on how well it manages to fit this whole period and the foreseeable future into a historical framework for which it would like as little change as possible. A sense of continuity on a large scale is fundamental to Chinese culture, and in the long term it will always do its best to assimilate and make the origin of foreign influences undetectable. It has already achieved this to a large extent with Marxism and capitalism, which lose so much of their original meaning in translation that it is no longer known whether to call the Chinese system “market socialism” or “state capitalism”.

The momentum of modernity is still felt as anomalous for a large part of the world’s population, which only suffers the process of cultural colonization in exchange for the loss of its own forms. But if in most countries this acculturation is a passive and reactive process associated mainly with the consumer society, in China first took the form of an active destruction in the unprecedented phenomenon of the Cultural Revolution, and only later adopted the ubiquitous forms of consumerism. This deep self-inflicted wound will still demand some sort of reparation for a long time to come, and could even lead to some overcompensation.

Those who say that China wants to dominate the world are just retelling us the usual Fu Manchu novels, and they know it perfectly well. Were we to take Wallerstein distinction between world-economies and world-empires, it is clear that the global hegemony has been embodied in the liberal model with its center at London in the nineteenth century and in New York in the twentieth century. On the contrary, China has been for more than two thousand years a world-empire, that is to say, a world-system that, like the Ancient Roman Empire, only exists comfortably within certain natural limits. Globalization is the condition to which China has had to adapt.

The natural thing for China is to be the centre of gravity of the whole Southeast Asia with the mark of Confucian culture, as it has been for so many centuries; but this is almost inevitable since she has about 80 percent of its population in addition to be the origin and reference of this culture. Only the circumstantial American overprojection in the region and our modern habit of thinking in national terms prevents us from perceiving what historically has been the norm.

For China, as a world empire, the ideal condition has been and will always be self-sufficiency. It is quite another thing that in a tremendously impoverished situation it has had no other quick way to recover than through export and a mercantilist model. That model, still present, obliges it to secure suppliers of raw materials as well as markets for its recurrent problems of overproduction. The Belt and Route Initiative also responds to these needs, as well as to a progressive shift in trade partnerships.

In other words, it is not a question of expansionism but of ensuring the viability of the model in the future; these moves are not motivated by a spirit of conquest, but of conservation. Historically, even when China extended its dominions more deeply into Central Asia, as in the Tang dynasty, the consolidation of the defense was the main motivation. In any case, the Middle Kingdom has been more defined by its cultural continuity than by the oscillation of its borders.

In the current Chinese system the Communist Party allows the exploitation of the workers in the name of development while playing its role as the last resort capable of redressing or mitigating injustices. This is the “middle way” that has been chosen, which the radical criticism of the left cannot help but see as a hypocritical compromise. A compromise with a marked vertical logic and a strict separation between the governors and the governed.

Certainly, if anything is to be desired in today’s China, it is not greater openness to foreign capital flows, as the international plutocracy would like, but more socialism and more popular participation —if only to maintain the balance; but nevertheless, the Chinese mixed system, compared to the neoliberal privatizing fury that prevails in most of the world, looks like a model of sanity and good sense.

We know that capitalism without restraint and counterweights can only lead to catastrophe; since the Chinese government is an almost unique example of how to exercise these counterweights, its overall influence would have to be seen everywhere as basically beneficial —were it not for the venom of the propaganda of the one empire that wants it all and does not tolerate the loss of a single piece of pie.

Think that in the past the Chinese economy could account for 30, 40 or even more of the world’s wealth, and Europeans did not even know that such an empire existed. A 30, 40 or even 50 percent of the world’s wealth that was based on their own talent and work and not on the plundering of other countries. [1] Now it is about one-sixth or 16 percent of the global product, and we are told they want to devour the world. Why such hysteria? We all know the answer.

It is true that the Chinese model is neither exportable nor has it ever been intended to be exported. But in Europe we had prosperous mixed economies, in countries like France, until only a few decades ago; what is completely unreasonable is how far we have come. The problem is not that the Chinese model is not exportable, the problem is that now in most of the developed countries one cannot even consider that the state can put severe constraints on corporate interests.

China always tries to maintain balance and reciprocity, both in the foreign relations and the internal affairs; this is not difficult to understand, after all, even if in practice it becomes a difficult art of compromises. However, this is not just a matter of diplomacy, but involves also an ethical component that in this political tradition the ruling class tries to assume. The political image that the United States projects today, by contrast, is one of extreme imbalance, blackmail, abuse and disregard.

It would be truly incredible if China were ever to become the first power in a world that it does not even understand and in which it has had enough to adapt. It is even unthinkable, for anyone who has even the slightest idea of how the global financial system works, and all the other parallel systems of domination. China is not about to devour the world, on the contrary its main rival tries to encircle it persevering in all sorts of harassment. It would have the most decided sympathy of us all were it not for the nefarious and toxic influence of the neocolonial media of propaganda that sets the tone in almost the entire world.

To say that the Chinese, the other par excellence, are a threat to the welfare of Westerners, is the perfect way to divert attention from those who really subjugate and plunder us. These “others” are much more alien than anything, so much so that they do not have even faces, or at least one will never see them on the screen. It seems unbelievable that people can take this bait, but they do, because the important thing about propaganda is not the plausibility, but the insistence and pervasiveness. So we can be sure that not only this state of affairs will continue, but that they will turn up the noise of the megaphones.

The cybernetic temptation

In reality, China has to deal more with the time and rhythm imposed on it than with the delicate geopolitical lineaments. The time we are talking about is that of modernity itself, now coated with the attributes of the technological and digital tsunami; a time perpetually accelerated and increasingly alien to nature, a time governed by the neoliberal logic of dissolving absolutely everything except the concentration of power through capital.

And here, again, we are deluding ourselves about China. Since it already leads on strategic fronts such as 5G, this nation is seen as particularly well positioned to be at the forefront of technological development; but even if these kind of deployments really take the lead and are an exhibition of muscle, at heart they are a reaction, or if one prefers, an overreaction. China does not control the logic of this great process, but tries its best not to be a subject of it. It tries to master its forms, but does not control the dynamics, the momentum or the content. This is where the greatest dangers lie.

It is well known that the three main sources of inspiration for Chinese culture have been Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. To these three a fourth must be added, especially with regard to the forms of government and the shape of the state: the so-called “Legalist school” developed since Han Fei, or going back further, since Shen Buhai and Shang Yang or even since Guan Zhong. This “Legalism” or Fajia would be better called “technocratic realism”, or objectivism of government standards. Undoubtedly the technocratic trend is very strong in China today, and its tradition of objectivism in standards is seen as a way more akin to tackle with the challenge of technology.

For the Chinese ruling class the technocratic temptation of creating a closed cybernetic system with feedback in real time that seeks to control everything is really strong. If Chile was already on the verge of implementing its famous Cybersyn project in the 1970s when Allende was killed, imagine what the rulers of this great nation can achieve with today’s technology and the developments already in the making [2].

Such a system may seem ideal for maintaining hierarchies while controlling monetary flows or permanently negotiating decentralization and popular participation. The temptation is even greater when one considers that China is not alone in the world, but permanently harassed by a United States that tries to destabilize the country by every means at its disposal —and cybernetics is nothing but the theory of control and stability. Cybernetics and governance are the same word, the kybernetes being the helmsman.

China’s destiny is being defined as much or more by this type of temporal process than by the interplay of inclusions and exclusions of geopolitics. But not only China’s, because we must not forget that the same techniques are already being applied in the rest of the world by the great digital giants —giants that also “collaborate” closely with Western governments, although in a totally different balance of powers.

The symbol of cybernetics would be the snake that bites its own tail. The rulers of the great Asian dragon seem to be even more compelled to make their own these kind of feedback mechanisms because for them it would be tantamount to immunizing themselves against the destabilizing dangers of a technology already so difficult to control —just as the Western plutocracy seeks to use it to isolate itself from the masses and control them.

But dataism is only a substitute religion that cannot hide its abysmal shortcomings. In China, as elsewhere. Most extreme of all is that the Chinese mentality cannot even see Western science and technology as its own, but remains a foreign body, even with all these titanic developments. From this the worst and the best can arise; the worst is that they merely reproduce the forms, the best, that they get to the bottom of it.

The Chinese are fascinated by crabs, with which they share the same atavistic reflex for defending and grabbing. The other symbol that best defines them is the balance. The first is the symbol of the people, the second of the ruling class. They match with the zodiac houses of Cancer and Libra, the two cardinal signs that mark the beginning of summer and autumn, and, in the Chinese calendar, the centre of both seasons.

These would be the nodal points of the Chinese spirit within the wheel of the year, the first symbol of wholeness for us all. Interestingly, the homologous signs of the Chinese calendar are the sheep and the dog, which do not define so sharply this specific constellation. There is always something about yourself that only others can see well; I do not know if we ask ourselves what it is about us that the Chinese perceive best.

Capitalism and Marxism are the thesis and antithesis in the time bomb that is modernity. Each of them oscillates between the dissolution and concentration of capital, and a correlative impoverishment and agglutination of public opinion: they come to embody the “double contradiction” that Mao Zedong already spoke of, the cross of the helm in a dialectics that is not based on the Hegelian idealist sublation or on the idea of history as an irreversible progress.

Capitalism and Marxism each have their own cunning of reason, and the Chinese idea of equilibrium in government, its own too; but it goes without saying that the expectation of bringing together the majorities by Marxism failed miserably in the West, partly because capitalism has managed to create all sorts of wedges, and partly because Marxism itself has no divine right to claim exclusivity for either opposition or resistance to the abuses of capital.

The problem is that the operating system that runs it all is still the liberal one, and Marxist or any other criticism is external both to its design and operation as to its use. The operating system is modern technoscience as a whole. Without a change in the operating system, liberal capitalism set the rules and always has the time on its side.

Of course, it is totally false to say that the Chinese lack initiative —one just have to see that they cannot stand still. On the contrary, they have demonstrated an unshakable faith in continuous and persevering action. That they know the many advantages of not showing it is a different issue; or that their political system does not exactly encourage the expression of personal views. Or that they have on their shoulders a modernization that they cannot grip.

The Autonomous Cybernetic System, a self-referential monster so similar to the Great Animal that is society, is so much a temptation for the ruling class on account of that same unshakable faith in continuous improvement and rectification. But it would be a great mistake to be content with that —everything that tends to close in on itself is courting disaster, as it loses contact with the most basic reality.

This is what China needs most now in order to attempt to tackle the great problem of a new cultural synthesis up to the challenge of modernity: contact with this basic reality that is not mediated by political opportunism or socio-economic coordinates. More than fifteen centuries ago, something similar was triggered by the penetration of Buddhism, which has so far been almost the only “beneficial invasion” that China has suffered, without ignoring the multiple intrigues and adverse reactions that it provoked in the already established traditions.

A much more modest and recent, though not negligible, invasion was that of the European piano in the Far East sensibility, that it was like giving a pond to the moonlight. At least it shows that the West can also tune in to the deepest fibers of this culture, provided that there is a contact zone and the indispensable affinity.

If the first instinct of the Chinese is to grab like the crabs and hold on, they have also shown that they know how to give back what is given to them in good faith and without ulterior motives. It is said that the Chinese are the least idealistic of people, and in an important sense this might be true, but the stories of heroic commitment and sacrifice of countless monks, peasants, and rebels of all kinds along the centuries say otherwise, and their moving example has not yet been erased. And the Chinese, unlike the Japanese, appreciate the mixture of the comic, the tragic and the sublime of a character like Don Quixote.

Only when we give do we bring out the deepest of ourselves. It is sad that relations between China and the West are dominated by the most immediate and petty interests, and that there is no willingness to reach deeper areas of our common ground. Even most of cultural relations and exchanges are hardly more than diplomacy and business. It is one of the many things we should rebel against.

The great problem for Chinese culture today is not the assimilation of technology, but of the historical hard core of modern science and how this spreads to the softer adaptable parts, which are precisely those relating to the category of information. And its insertion, precisely, within parameters akin to those of its objectivist spirit, the most basic ideas of Taoism, the internal axis of Confucianism and the identity in Chan Buddhism of the immanent and the transcendental.

The technocratic-cybernetic dream is equivalent to having the genie of the lamp circulating in a glass carefully designed to both work for you and not escape. Of course, if you torment the genie so much, chances are that he will eventually break free. The moral is that in the end one can only count on one’s own spirit and not on bound spirits, and this applies equally to the West —but maybe the West does not even suspect where their chains are.

The internal axis and culmination of Confucianism is the Doctrine of the Mean or Zhongyong, which is also the natural point of connection with Taoism and the transcendental Buddhist doctrine. The meaning of this doctrine has been almost completely lost, and political leaders such as Mao Zedong reveal by their commentaries that they were totally clueless about its intention, since it has nothing to do with “eclecticism”. This should not surprise us, if Confucius himself had already said that it had long been rare among people. It should be evident that the Invariable Mean is not the ultimate degradation of Confucianism, but its highest aspect.

In a recent book I have tried to trace some basic connections of this hard core of European science, calculus and classical mechanics, with the doctrine of the Invariable Mean, the reversible and irreversible in Taoism, the transcendental plane of knowledge or the problem of standards and measurement theory. Of course, sometimes the relations are so obvious that it seemed to me unnecessary to make it more explicit. Certainly I have not write it only with the Chinese culture in mind, but thinking of a common problem still to be solved and on which modern science has preferred to turn the page [3].

I believe that these fundamental issues, so hidden, are much more interesting than the hocus-pocus of contemporary science and also have much more potential —for anyone who knows how to take advantage of it.

The contact of the Chinese tradition with modern science seemed an impossible task, if we take into account not only the difficulty of the Chinese scientist to interiorize its spirit, but also the destitution occurred with their own tradition. However, I believe that here we have begun to connect both spheres in a truly natural way. The only thing I can say is that I think this path should be followed, and that it applies to both the East and the West.

In a forthcoming article we will discuss the little finger strategy, or how to deflect the technological tsunami with minimal effort.

Notes

[1] The United States of America also had about 50 percent of the world’s wealth in 1945; but, although at that time most of that wealth resulted from domestic production, that country was carrying on half a century of neocolonial adventure in Latin America, the Pacific, the Philippines or China. Moreover, by 1945 most of the world’s wealth had been destroyed in a war in which the United States had intervened in earnest to consolidate its hegemony rather than to “defend freedom”.

[2] “Project Cybersyn was the Chilean attempt at controlled economic planning in real time, developed in the years of the government of Salvador Allende, between 1971 and 1973. In essence, it was a network of teletype machines that connected factories to a single computer center in Santiago, where the machines were controlled using the principles of cybernetics. The main architect of the system was the British scientist Stafford Beer”. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cybersyn

[3] Miguel Iradier, “Pole of inspiration —Math, Science and Tradition”.

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