Niall Ferguson’s one hour history and sketch of China started with him admitting that he didn’t really understand it – in fact he feels like he is an alien when he visits. Not a promising introduction, but he soon starts giving the lie to it by pointing out some of those obvious facts that stare you in the face but that you never really notice.
For a start, what is China’s biggest problem? Well what is likely to be the problem of the biggest state on the planet? How do you hold together a fifth of the world’s population? As Ferguson points out, this is bigger than the combined population of northern America, Europe and the former Soviet Union. How would a state like that hold together? As Yugoslavia shows, even much smaller entities cope badly with ethnic differences. China has over 50 to cope with.
Looking at history, it is not too hard to see that the Chinese have often failed to hang together. And when it does work it only works thanks to a firm autocratic hand at the centre. Today’s Communist Party politbureau behaves in basically the same way that the first emperor did 2,300 years ago. In fact much that he did was still in place until the last century, and some things such as the script is still used today.
With the long history of autocratic rule, and even more the periods of chaos when there was no autocratic rule, the Chinese have become accustomed to live with order trumping freedom. Ferguson looks around an large Bejing bookshop, and finds that there are no biographies of the likely next leader of China. Confucian philosophy emphasises harmony rather than individualism. Harmony is used as a code word for what in the West we would regard as repression. Dissidents joke that they aren’t censored, they are harmonised.
The Chinese civil service required the applicant for admission had to write what is known as the eight legged essay. What is an eight legged essay? Ferguson struggles to understand it. If someone who has written as much as him can’t get his brain around it, I don’t suppose the rest of us have much chance. The exams don’t exist any more but the Communist Party now runs the world’s biggest bureaucracy. It stretches out from some anonymous buildings in the capital right down to the local party officials in the villages. They keep the population under very effective control.
Are the Chinese yearning for western style democracy? Ferguson cannot find out because the party officials don’t let him speak freely to them. But the lack of democracy has some serious downsides. The one that bothers Ferguson, an economic historian most, is corruption. Corruption is never far from any autocratic government. There was plenty of it in imperial China. One of the many continuities between the emperors and the communists is that same corruption. Without a free press and a political opposition, there is not much to stop it. The Chinese official press itself estimates that 123 billion dollars have been transferred out of the country to the bank accounts of ‘missing’ executives and apparatchiks. Corrupt bureaucrats are executed, but that doesn’t seem to stop it.
The corruption is on a such a scale that it might be enough to cause serious social unrest. Again, there is plenty of historical precedent. Turmoil was a common and could be enormously bloody. The Tai Pen rebellion cost some 60 million years, led by someone who was under the impression that he was the brother of Jesus Christ. In most of the twentieth century things weren’t much better, with civil war and invasion by the Japanese costing nearly as many lives. It does make you understand why human rights are not as precious while order is, in a population of 1.3 billion people who have to be stopped from killing each other.
All in all, this programme was classic Ferguson. Easy to watch, easy to follow and thought provoking. He tells a good story. If it weren’t for the sneaking suspicion that he has oversimplified some points in favour of making the narrative compelling and to fit in some of the more interesting footage, it would be impossible not to recommend it. But despite that, I wouldn’t want to miss it.
I have done a review of Niall Ferguson’s TV Series on Western Civilisation
There is also his Ascent of Money
And quite a lot more if you click on the Niall Ferguson tag.