Monday, 9 May 2011

Chris Port Blog #252. Tiananmen Time Lords: Did China just lose the plot, the future, and an empire?

© Chris Port, May 2011

“China bans time travel”. Wow. Who’d have thought the future of the world would turn on such a silly little horseshoe nail of a story?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single mind in possession of a good imagination, must be in want of an empire.” (Marty Gull)

At the beginning of the 15th century, China was the world’s leading naval power. The Ming emperor dispatched vast armadas - massive treasure ships, hundreds of vessels, tens of thousands of men. Chinese ships ventured as far as Africa, the Persian Gulf, and perhaps Australia. If these expeditions had continued, they would probably have reached America a half century before Christopher Columbus. What if China had colonized the New World instead of Spain? China might have become a superpower hundreds of years ago.

But the Ming rulers retreated into their Forbidden City. They outsourced their power to bureaucrats. The bureaucrats sought to preserve the status quo. Any outside influence was to be feared and distrusted. This is not how empires are built. So global domination slipped through the aristocrats’ long finger nails. Xenophobia made them insular. Technology and culture petrified. Smaller, nimbler nations nipped in to grab their place in the sun. Poor, walled-up China. All that native wit and energy, bricked-up by paranoia. The West (and Japan) mercilessly exploited China’s backwardness for hundreds of years. Is she about to make the same mistake again? Lack of imagination. It kills…

"I felt as if I were talking with children, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this tale." (Marty Gull)

There is a common theme running through art, science and politics. Sometimes great events are tectonic - the gradual accumulation of vast, impersonal forces. Under this interpretation, individual human beings are irrelevant. They don’t affect the outcome. History is merely an inexorable force, like gravity.

But there is another theme - co-existing, incompatible - no less important. History is the accumulation of small details. On the small scale, everything is uncertain...

Sometimes history behaves like a supertanker. It’s a behemoth with a massive turning circle. Quick course corrections are almost impossible. Such a history needs sharp-eyed look-outs indeed to avoid disastrous collisions.

Other times, history is more fluid - a chaotic conflict of currents and temperatures - like the stormy Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet.

And sometimes, history turns on a horseshoe nail…

Anyone who doesn’t study “What if’s” and counterfactuals really doesn’t understand the way that history works…

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

It’s no accident that the mythology of sci-fi fantasy - Doctor Who above all others - perturbs patrician politburos. The Time Lords were initially portrayed as omniscient, omnipotent beings - oligarchs keeping a paternalistic watch on the workings of the universe. However, these were librarian gods. They preferred to catalogue rather than take part.

“And what of the Time Lords? I always thought of you as such a pompous race. Ancient, dusty senators, so frightened of change and chaos.” (Doctor Who, School Reunion, Toby Whithouse)

The Doctor rebelled. He ran away - an individualist, an idealist - to see the universe for himself. He wanted to live in the universe rather than just observe it. To live is to interfere. Wisdom is knowing when (and how) to interfere - and when to leave well alone. Some things are destiny. Some are chance. Some are fixed. Some are changeable. Eventually, we create stories to understand our interference. We create narratives - good and evil - and we choose sides. No-one can live in the world and remain aloof from humanity.

No Man is an Island
(John Donne, Meditation XVII, 1624)

No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
it tolls for thee.

History is not fixed. It’s eternally in flux, a quantum foam, endless stories popping in and out of existence whenever we look at it.

“There is no such thing as a fact. There are only stories. Choose different facts, and you get a different story.” (Marty Gull)

What story are the frightened Chinese bureaucrats trying to tell here? That there is only one ‘reality’? The Party Line? Oh dear. Look at history. This story has always failed, and always will. The imagination rebels against it - and flees from it. The mind wants to explore. That exploration is the future. Without imagination, people (and empires) stagnate, rot and perish. Art, like life, will always find a way…

Marty is thinking of shifting his bets from China to India…


  1. Watched the Paxman interview Prof. Joseph S. Nye Jnr. on Newsnight about 'soft power' last night. Key influence on Marty. Paxman (unusually) was more sycophantic than supercilious. Nye has been ranked as the 6th most influential scholar of the past twenty years.

    Here he speaks on China's soft power...

    Some other useful stuff if you want to have opinions and (unusually) actually know what you're talking about...

    The Future of American Power: Dominance and Decline in Perspective by Joseph S. Nye Jr.

    The Future of Power by Joseph S. Nye

    The War on Soft Power

    Joseph Nye

    City Club of Cleveland Speech: 15th April 2011

    Future of Power and Afghanistan

    Diffusion of Power

    Three Dimensions of Power

    Conversations with History

    Is America in Decline?

  2. And when I get excited
    My little China Girl says
    "Oh baby just you shut your mouth"