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The Return of History

I’ve only witnessed a couple truly significant historical events in my lifetime. One was 9/11, an event that, while traumatic, turned out to be an isolated incident. The other was the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. The End of History. That’s what one intellectual called it. The evil empire was fallen. Good had triumphed over evil, hope over despair, freedom over oppression, and prosperity over poverty. A new era of peace, prosperity, and freedom had arrived. No more wars. No more oppression. We were on our way to a harmonious globe where militaries, armies, and borders were an artifact of the past. It didn’t work out as well as we planned. For most of us, it didn’t work at all.

I was nine when the Berlin Wall came down, and eleven when the Soviet Union collapsed. I had enough sense of history and intelligence to realize in an intellectual way the historic importance of these events, but being young and emotionally even less mature than my age, I didn’t really feel it. Even were I more normal, I couldn’t experience that moment the way my parents must have, who remember duck and cover drills. I have only vague notions of what living in that world was like, under a constant fear of nuclear annihilation. The USSR of the late eighties was already well into decay and the threat of nuclear war had already begun to fade. I can only imagine what people who had lived under that cloud must have felt, a sense of relief and exhilaration as decades of lurking fear suddenly collapsed. No more war, no more conflict over ideology, and a rising tide to lift all boats. I wonder if, after decades of fear and weariness from the struggle, in that moment of irrational exuberance, we declared victory prematurely.

After all, the USSR may have collapsed, but you can’t defeat ideas by knocking down statues or collapsing governments. Communism, after all, didn’t die as an ideology, and really communism was never the problem. Marxist ideology was simply used to dress up and rationalize a much older idea, an idea as old as humanity itself, that people are tools that exist to serve the the state, the kingdom, the Empire, etc., that ‘society’ as a whole is what matters. People don’t have rights. They aren’t smart enough to have freedom. They need guidance from people wiser and ‘more civilized’. Left to themselves, they’re just dumb beasts, so the state, the king, the emperor, the wise and benevolent rulers will decide what’s best for the group. No matter the justification, that line of thinking always ends the same way. Whether the noble and powerful appeal to Marxist utopianism or Hobbesian pragmatism, the result is always the same, a small group of privileged and powerful people make all the decisions for everyone else. That idea was already ancient by the time of Marx or even Hobbes. The American values of individual rights and freedoms are, historically speaking, a fairly new idea. American freedom, at the country’s founding, was the exception, not the rule. Of course our founders didn’t go far enough. They allowed slavery and ending up paying for that failure in a bloody war. They did what practical adults do when faced with disagreement. They talked things out and compromised where they had to in order to build a new nation very different from any nation of that era. Though imperfectly implemented by imperfect people, the ideas that founded the United States were a fundamental departure from European tradition, and they impacted the French Revolution which occurred just a few years later, and helped to light a spark that would move the world towards democracy and freedom. Perhaps it was understandable then, at the end of the cold war, people perceived that they had reached the summit, that the long struggle for human rights and freedoms had been one, that those earlier ideas of commissars and comrades, bourgeois and proletariat, nobleman and peasant, patrician and plebeian were defeated forever. In the broader context of history, however, it was inevitable that some other threat to freedom would come from somewhere without or within. Freedom is not free. It never has been and it never will be.

There was something else that happened when I was nine. I’m a very visual learner, and I was doubly so when young. Images tended to make more of an impression on me than words then. Probably why I gravitated towards movies, television, and video games rather than books. There was one particular image that captured the spirit of the Cold War for me. It was a famous photograph of a democracy protester standing in front of a tank column, standing up for freedom. Most of us have seen the famous photo. It really captured my idea of what it meant to stand up for freedom. To a young American boy, a single man standing up to a column of tanks, demanding his freedom. That’s what America is supposed to stand for. That’s what the Cold War was about, but that didn’t happen in Moscow, Prague, or East Berlin, it happened in China.

I don’t know what happened to the man standing in front of that tank. Maybe he really did stand there and get run over. Maybe they just stopped, arrested him, and sent him to prison, never to be seen again. Maybe he’s still out there somewhere living anonymously. Who knows, but that image always captivated me. Nobody actually knows for sure what happened to the so called ‘tank man’, though there are theories and speculations about his possible identity, but in truth, we aren’t even sure of his name, and there’s a simple reason why. China was not a free country then and it still isn’t. They had no independent press. They were not allowed to criticize their government. The Chinese government did what authoritarians through history have always done. They forcefully put down the protesters, and the entire incident was censored and swept out of public view. To this day, most of the Chinese people have never seen the photo, because their government still decides what they can and cannot see. Their government decides what words they can read, what internet searches they can make, what foreign products they can buy, and a lot of other things as well. In America, we believe that all people everywhere have individual human rights, and that government’s job is and should be to guarantee those rights against oppression both foreign and domestic. In China, the opposite holds. The state is all powerful and the individual exists to serve the state. Some still call it communism. They call it “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but whatever you call it, it’s the same old tyranny. The colors may change through the tapestry of history, but the pattern is rather predictable. In China, a small group of wise leaders, in this case the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP, decides things for everybody, and the ordinary citizen has no rights for himself, and very little influence over national leadership. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, was not elected by anybody except a small committee of important party leaders. He recently abolished term limits so he can stay in power indefinitely. Starting to sound familiar yet?

A lot of people smarter than myself had a plan. They thought if we traded with the Chinese government, if we welcomed them onto the world stage, they would gradually move towards a more free and open society. It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, but I honestly wonder why anyone thought this. I can’t think of any historical examples of this happening nor any underlying psychological principle that economic prosperity leads to freedom and greater human rights. There’s no obvious connection between trading, economic success, and individual freedom, other than the fact that the one country that based itself on individual freedom happened to have a lot of both. There were and are nations that are both poor and relatively free, and there were and are nations that are autocratic, repressive, yet also wealthy and technologically advanced. It should not be forgotten that at the outset of World War II, Germany was the most technologically advanced nation on earth, and among the wealthiest by most measures. They had largely recovered from the Great Depression by investing in infrastructure, production, and research. At the same time, they built maybe the most evil regime in human history. Had Germany not been defeated, would some magical force have liberalized their society? I doubt it? Should we have stood up to Hitler earlier in the decade, before he started a global war. Certainly, as soon as we recognized what he was and the kind of world he wanted. America now faces a similar dilemma, because once again, we find ourselves dealing with a nation that now, at this very moment, has millions of people in concentration camps.This China is very different than the one we hoped for.

Let me be clear. I don’t blame the Chinese government for the coronavirus. Even if it came from a research lab, that represents a failure of safety protocols, an accident, a most horrible accident with dire consequences, but not an act of war. I do blame the Chinese government for attempting to cover up the threat and silence dissent from their own citizens. I do blame them for placing their information control before the lives of their citizens. I blame them for failing to be open and honest with the world about this threat. Instead of letting international authorities see what was going on, they shut everyone out so they could control the narrative. This, after all, is what police surveillance states do. They control and manipulate information to advance their particular agenda. They jail protesters. They silence dissent. The government’s agenda and image comes before people’s rights and even their lives because individuals don’t matter. Only the group matters, only the state matters. Does anyone honestly believe that if the virus had started here, our media wouldn’t have seized on it immediately? Our media may not be up to the standards of previous generations, but at least it is still free, and people are free to disagree with it. Nearly anywhere else, coronavirus would have been an international news story, as it should have been, because most of the world either has a free press, or doesn’t have enough power to shut out the free press of other nations. America, and most of the world’s people, believe people have the right to information not controlled by the government. If the virus had originated in Germany, England, India, or Brazil would those nations have cut off an entire region and prevented any information from coming out? I doubt it.

We thought China had changed since 1989. We thought that even though their government might be authoritarian, we could trust them to act responsibly as a global citizen. We were wrong. We probably should have seen this sooner. We know that the Chinese have occupied Tibet and suppressed their culture and religion. We’ve watched for several years as the CCP sent ethnic minorities into what they call “reeducation centers” (read concentration camps). Last October, they brutally put down pro-democracy protests from people demanding the rights the CCP supposedly guaranteed them when Hong Kong was annexed in 1997. The CCP are making victims of their own people. It turns out China hasn’t changed much after all. They’ve gained wealth and significant military power, but that famous Tienanmen Square photo could have come from three months ago as easily as thirty years ago. This begs the question, did the cold war ever really ended, or did one side just forget what it stood for and decide to stop fighting?

Because the Chinese didn’t stop. They knew they couldn’t match the US militarily in 1989, so they used a different strategy. They feigned friendship to engage the world, and to use the world’s trading network. They built themselves up economically. They built factories and ports and infrastructure. They subsidized entire industries and manipulated currencies to become the lowest cost producer of a whole range of goods. They made themselves into the world’s factory. They bought foreign companies to access new technology, and stole whatever they could. They manipulated foreign businesses into participating in this process when they dangled the carrot of artificially low cost production and a potential market of billions to sell to. Is it any wonder corporate CEOs whose vision is both narrow and profit-focused took the bait? China’s goal all along was self sufficiency, technologically and economically, and they are very nearly there. Once they don’t need the world, the mask comes off, and we see the real villain lurking behind. 

Now in the midst of a crisis, America can’t produce enough virus tests, personal protective equipment, drugs, ventilators, the list goes on. The corporations that could produce some of these things even had to be forced to do so through an archaic wartime law. So much for corporate social responsibility. It bears remembering that the US won two World Wars not because our technology was better (it wasn’t), nor because we had a bigger military (we had almost none at the start of either conflict). We won because we produced more tanks, guns, and planes faster than our enemies. Does anybody believe we could outproduce China today? If China suspended exports to America, we would be scrambling to find ways to get the supplies that are not manufactured anywhere else. Do we trust the CCP that far? That’s not the only card they can play. Many of the rare earth elements needed for electronics are only mined there. Yes, we do have them in the USA, but, surprise, it’s more expensive to mine them here, because we have those annoying rules about worker safety and preserving the environment, which cuts into corporate profits. So America has no mines operating. Sure we could build some, but how long would that take, and who’s paying for it? Further, the Chinese hold massive amounts of treasury securities. They could wreak havoc on our economy by selling them off. They use the same tactics with other nations, using debt as an economic weapon to get their way. They’ve been practicing economic warfare for at least two decades. As they need us less, they’ve been doing it all these things a lot more openly. Trump may be an irritating, hateful, blowhard, and he may have hurt the country in dozens of other ways, but he realized what China was doing before many of our so-called experts. 

In hindsight, one is forced to recognize the brilliance of the Chinese strategy. They looked farther ahead than the CEOs who only looked at profits and losses or our politicians, who didn’t care who did what as long as the ‘economy’ as measured by Wall Street bankers, stayed strong. As a nation, we wasted time and money on endless conflicts in the hopeless quagmire that is the Middle East while we wasted our political capital on fighting such critical issues as microaggressions, trigger words, who can use what bathroom, who can marry whom, and businesses not saying ‘Merry Christmas’. Clearly, we were a nation with some very misplaced priorities.

That has to change, and soon. We can’t fight another superpower if we can’t stop fighting each other over who is offending whom and whose feelings get hurt. Yes, it’s important to have those discussions, but let’s not lose sight of the bigger issues. Let’s find some issues we can agree on, like the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure and manufacturing base, the need to attract the best and brightest minds from around the world through a more enlightened immigration policy, the need to control our technology and prevent it falling into the wrong hands and being used against us. We can even reach compromises on tough issues like emissions reduction and energy if both sides can suck it up and compromise. Maybe the democrats allow a few more dams and nuclear plants to be built alongside those windmills and solar panels and maybe the republicans concede to some kind of carbon tax since we already tax almost everything else anyway. We can’t afford not to resolve these issues, because for the first time in thirty years, we have an adversary, and this adversary is a lot more formidable than the USSR was.

The task before us is daunting. This opponent is not like the Soviets. Russia as a nation always had geographic and economic disadvantages that made it an unlikely superpower. China has no such disadvantages, and based on what we’ve seen so far, their leaders are a lot smarter than the Soviets were. They have more vision. They’ve been weaponizing economics for a long time and they’re very good at it. They have the technology, some of it stolen, to track every citizen through their phone and build a new kind of super hi-tech surveillance state that would make Orwell blush. We have to stand up to the CCP, or accept a world where “reeducation centers” are an acceptable solution to social problems. We should be prepared that our old nemesis, Russia, may choose to throw in their lot with our new one, contributing a still formidable military and vast amounts of territory and untapped resources.

We will face great challenges. We are not starting from a good position economically, and we have a lot of ground to make up in terms of matching China’s manufacturing base and infrastructure. It won’t be cheap. We will immediately find ourselves in a technological race similar to the arms race of the last war, and we must do whatever it takes to win, just as we did what it took to win the space race. What could the CCP do to expand their surveillance state with artificial intelligence. Can we afford to lose that race? We must spend to ensure our military is prepared for this adversary and this threat. We cannot afford to keep fighting the last war. Future wars are as likely to be fought in space or cyberspace as on traditional battlefields. Above all, we cannot afford to waste more resources on the hopelessly corrupt nations of the Middle East. They seem incapable of letting go of their affinity for religious fundamentalism and repression. We should not be engaging with them either.

We will face an entrenched business community that stands to lose billions on what they have already invested in China and lose access to that market. Already the billionaires and multinational corporations that spent millions building factories in China are marshaling their remaining political clout to advocate a return to business as usual. They don’t want to pay for the lack of vision that led them to spend billions in a country led by an authoritarian government, and they’ll try their best to steer our course back towards the status quo as if the virus never happened. Just pretend we didn’t see an attempt by a police state to cover up a health disaster. Just pretend that their actions didn’t put the world at risk. The voices of economic reason, as they will declare themselves to be, will say things like ‘decoupling is impossible’ or ‘we can’t undo globalization’. Let’s not listen. After all, what if Washington and Jefferson had believed the experts who said it was ‘impossible’ to overthrow the British crown. What if Lincoln had believed it was ‘impossible’ to free the slaves? What if Martin Luther King had believed his dream was ‘impossible’. Impossible is just a word, a word often used by people who want to avoid making the tough choices, the right choices. Some people would rather sacrifice our values to save their stock prices. Some people, to save their personal fortunes, would pay instead with the soul of our nation. Let’s not let them. Something is only impossible until it isn’t.

Let’s demand our leaders, be they Republican, Democrat, or Independent, put our values first. Let’s demand our leaders bring some manufacturing back, and let’s make sure that globalization in the future means trading with nations that are friendly, environmentally responsible, and most importantly free. The USMCA was, IMHO, a good start. Let’s work on similar deals with other allies like the U.K., Japan, India, and South Korea. Let’s recognize Taiwan, who should be the world’s model of how to handle the coronavirus crisis, but is denied a voice in international bodies like the WHO because of China’s claim to the island. Let’s guarantee Taiwan’s freedom against a hostile China. Let’s strengthen our ties with other nations that share our common spirit of human freedom, and reject those that do not. Let’s demand better of our leaders now and in the future. The era of putting profits before principles needs to end immediately and decisively.

I’m almost forty, and maybe it’s naive, but I’d like to believe the America of my early youth isn’t just a ghost of history. I’d like to think that we as a nation can still come together and stand for something, even when we don’t agree on everything. I’d like to think we can resist the radicals on all sides and confine them to the fringes where they belong lest they sell the freedom hard won by generations of Americans for the sake of whatever extreme dogma they preach. I would hope we can come together and work out compromises like rational adults rather instead of throwing tantrums like spoiled children who don’t get their way. We’ll see if America is up to the challenge of another cold war, because one side never really stopped fighting, and they aren’t going to stop until the rest of the world bows to their ambitions. Doing business in China means accepting that censorship is OK, dissidents get arrested, and ‘reeducation centers’ are not concentration camps. The information control is perfidious. The CCP is already trying to influence the speech and conduct of foreign citizens (see last October’s NBA controversy), companies, and governments (see Chinese diplomatic attempts to influence the EU’s coronavirus inquiry). The implied threat is economic retaliation the way governments once threatened military action. Warfare has changed a lot throughout history, but it’s always been there, and I don’t anticipate it ending anytime soon. History, it seems, hasn’t ended after all.

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