An Honest Demagogue

I recently returned from a three-week visit to China, my first. Shortly after setting foot on Chinese soil I taught myself to say: Wo shi lao wai. ‘I am a foreigner.’ The sign I saw on the Passport Control kiosk at the Beijing airport—it said “Foreigners”—was my inspiration. The comparable sign in Boston reads “Visitors.” At MIT one no longer talks about foreign students. Now they are international students. The word “foreigner” has become exclusionary, non-PC.

I think I have some sense of what the word might mean to the Chinese. One of the places my wife and I visited before going to Beijing was Bishu Shanzhuang ‘The Avoid-the-Heat Mountain Villa’ in Chengde. It is a palace complex consisting of nine courtyards and their attendant buildings. They housed the Emperor and his retinue for six months out of the year when the heat in Beijing became unbearable. Kangxi, the great Qing Dynasty Emperor, began the complex in 1703.

On the wall of the emperor's bedchamber, the so-called warm room, there is a plaque that reads:

No Forgetting the National Humiliation

Emperor Xianfeng signed Beijing Treaty here. On October 28, 1860 it was in the warm chamber Xianfeng was forced to sign Beijing Treaty with Britain, France and Russia which ceded south Kowloon to Britain and to admit Aihui Treaty through which more than a million square kilometers of territory that lies to the north of the Heilong Jiang River and to the east of Wusulijiang River was ceded to Russia.

For most of the past two hundred years China has been a country whose relationship to the rest of the world is rather like that expressed in the plaque, one of humiliation at being pushed around by the British, the French, the Germans, the Americans, the Japanese, the Russians. A milestone of that humiliation includes the capture by the French and the British of Beijing in 1860 that led to Xianfeng's humiliation and the plaque outside his bedroom. The shame of the Second Opium War left China with something to prove, a history to overcome. That is what China is doing now as it is on the threshold of becoming the world’s No. 1 economy.

For the last 100 years China has undergone a set of internal changes beginning with a civil war in 1912 that would certainly have destroyed a lesser country. The Great Leap Forward, an attempt to collectivize Chinese agriculture, resulted in millions of deaths. The precise number may never be known. If Mao was their Dr. Frankenstein, then the Red Guard was his monster. Over a million people are estimated to have died at their hands. And yet, despite it all, China did not fall apart. It thrived.

Is this an indication of a special characteristic of the Chinese? Some special trait in the genes of its people designed to withstand cyclones? I don't think so. I think the secret of China's historical stability is quite simply her size. She is so big she absorbs upheavals the way the Earth absorbs meteors. Several million dead out of a population at the time of something like two-thirds of a billion people may be horrific, but it is not self-annihilating.

Could an upheaval like the Cultural Revolution happen in America? I think the answer is quite possibly. If a demagogue—what Chomsky recently on NPR has called an “honest dictator”—were to emerge beholden to no one and who really and truly believed that foreigners are evil, that church and state ought not be kept apart, that healthcare for everyone is socialistic and therefore anathema, that social security needs to be privatized and that America needs to separate “real” Americans from the rest (the take back America-ists), if such an “honest” demagogue managed to focus the unfocussed anger that permeates America today—of which the tea party movement is the tip of the iceberg—and be democratically elected (not at all out of the question given the current rifts in American society), if such a leader were to become president, then America would certainly experience a monumental upheaval of the sort that plagued China throughout the 20th century. The only difference would be in the process that led to totalitarian leadership. (The recent Supreme Court decision equating money and free speech has moved the country closer to that eventuality since the best indicator of an election win is how much money a campaign spends on its candidate.)

Would American democracy as we know it survive a totalitarian presidency? I think not. Unlike China, America, as big as it is, is simply not big enough.