Power is a Drug: America’s Historical Amnesia is at the Heart of its Struggle with China
At the basement floor of the Chinese National Museum in Beijing, there’s a curated collection of China’s imperial history from antiquity to the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The basement is where a multitude of visitors from around the country gather. Entry is free for foreigners. At the end of the collection, is a British “waist sword” presented to Emperor Qianlong in 1793 by a London expedition, as a symbol of friendship. According to the archives, during a court etiquette kerfuffle a young British boy stepped forward and resolved it with his plucky antics, the Emperor gifted a scented pouch to the child.
The British child became a lifelong learner of Chinese court etiquette, culture, and language. A predecessor to the thousands of “China Hands” plying their trade in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing from the 1990s onwards. In 1839, the British Parliament enraged by the Chinese incineration of Opium stocks and the Chinese court’s refusal of “free-trade” based on narcotics smuggling, debated on a military reprisal. The young child had become a distinguished statesman and became the prime supporter of a naval strike. He stated that a nation that coerced others to kneel in their presence, would grow accustomed to kneeling in the presence of their superiors. This hawkish Lord, the son of the original Secretary of the British Mission in 1793 (Sir George Staunton), was the plucky child who had neutralized the initial diplomatic embarrassment. The British sword is placed at the end of the gallery, in a massive national museum at the heart of Beijing. Five millennia of immense material progress and near suicidal collapses, human frailties merged with ingenuity. And at the end of the imperial age, a colonial sword hangs in the balance.
The primal lesson that China learned from its disastrous encounter with modernity, was to criminalize all forms of narcotics and adopt Victorian rectitude against leisure. China has had two disastrous encounters with synthetic drugs, between the fall of the Han Dynasty and the establishment of the Sui when large volumes of the elite became addicted to a mineral hallucinogen and its Century of Humiliation during the 19th century. Most Western observers consistently italicize the latter, by extension disputing this version of history that the Communist Party purports, as a form of self-victimization that the state narrates to itself as an excuse for “expansionism.” But the proof lies in the other former colonial territories in Asia, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou which boomed when the East India Company (EIC) secured favorable trade terms and the British possessions in India and South East Asia became narcotics production and repackaging centers to satisfy the China market. “Bukit Chandu” in Singapore literally translates into “the hill for storing packaged opium” right beside the mega-port’s historical Telok Blangah district. The Qing Dynasty smuggled correspondence to London in the hope of appealing to Queen Victoria’s morality on the opium epidemic, only to be intercepted by Lord Melbourne and erased from memory.
But the British Empire is history, its sins expunged. Not exactly, the second historical lesson that modern China learned was the Western self-belief in exceptionalism; it’s habitual for Washington and the EU to utilize moral language in the service of their ends. Washington inherited Britain’s global empire through the Atlantic Charter and utilized moral metaphors for its global causes since 1945. The Cold War, the neo-liberal rollout in the 1990s, the War on Terror, all these utilized universal values in the service of American corporates, security aims and commodities expansion. Since the 1980s, American political scientists and anthropologists have globally preached against the sins of otherization and the rollout continues. The modern resurgence of a post-Capitalist China that organically merged Maoism with corporatized industrialism, is considered an abomination that the post-Fukuyama American elite finds abhorrent. Having proven incapable of neutralizing Islamic terrorism, the internal decline of the American economy and its multifaceted problems must be blamed on an “other.” It is heretical that the Chinese state, subjected to almost two centuries of evangelization and persuasion, is out competing for the colonial metropoles. There is growing realization in the US elite that the military industrial complex in the US is exhausting national resources and over-extending American power at a point where domestic needs are being over-looked. There is a massive community of lobbyists, academics, columnists and politicians gearing up for a “civilizational clash” with Beijing and profiting from it to the extent that ideological nemesis like Charles Koch and George Soros can find common ground and establish a diplomacy-focused institute to counter American blood lust.
But there is no American decline, the NYSE and NASDAQ are posting record highs and employment continues to spike. The above mentioned are just instances of bad Chinese propaganda. The Trump tax cuts have energized corporate performance since 2017 and real-estate speculation has revived across the US. This is the classic bubble model of economic expansion that the US system has relied upon since Reaganomics in the 1980s. But the signs of decay are numerous, the American elite is not acting from a position of strength against Beijing. Infrastructure decrepitude, education, and income inequality are at their worst since the 1920s. The public trust in electoral officials erodes daily from the latest Trump scandal while the frequently touted calls to reindustrialize America are not actualizing. The American middle class continues to be squeezed by high personal debt and the rapid vaporization of industrial employment. Reagan’s America triumphed against Moscow while riding on an economic high in 1989. Trump’s America buys most of its iPhones from Beijing because Tim Cook still can’t find enough industrial engineers to redo designs at a moment’s notice.
Both Beijing and Washington are rushing to embrace 5G technology to gain dominance over the heart of development in the next decade. You can see the signs in America where there is a general reluctance to discuss anti-Trust action against Google, Facebook, and Amazon because they collectively form the best chance against China’s BAT consortium on a global scale. AI and industrialization are globalized technologies that rely on layers of legal specialization, patents, and distributed supply chains. These are classic outcomes of the neo-liberal world that Washington wanted since 1991. But the crux lies in the fact that the US has to enjoy market dominance over these fields, or else. The prospect of impoverished peasants building multinational corporates that out-compete is abhorrent. The possibility that the Friedman/Hayek consensus of turbo-charged laissez-faire is less efficient than industrial policy and greasy Chinese engineers who don’t fully open their markets cannot be countenanced.
As mentioned in previous articles, the US targeted Tokyo and Seoul respectively in 1985 and 1998 under similar circumstances. But the Chinese example is simply too massive for the US to contemplate, an entire middle class larger than the US national population that is partially denied access to Wall Street or Silicon Valley. And therein history returns to haunt, substitute opium for social media, what do you get?