Empires and Memory

Long history post today. You have been warned. 🙂 Edit: N.B. This was written before V. Putin appeared today (3/16) but the premise still holds, given the assorted rumors about Russia.

History and current events recently seem to be haunted by the ghosts of empires. Some have vanished, likely forever, such as Rome, the Habsburgs, the Incas, and Aztecs. Others appear to be on the edge of returning, perhaps in a different form, like the Russian/Soviet/Russian and Chinese Empires. ISIS/Daesh and the Iranians seek to recreate the Suni caliphate and the Persian Empire in their own images. Empire and Imperial border on being pejorative terms, probably in part because of Star Wars and partly because of 60 years of Communists/Progressives/isolationists complaining about the American Empire (which has yet to exist and quite likely never will. Americans are about as imperial as a herd of Jack Russell terriers). But Russia and China are a different story, one that bears and will bear watching over the next ten years or so, pun intended. Pride and memory are powerful, powerful things, both in individuals and in states and nations.The Chinese never forget that the Han-dominated Chinese Empire was once the strongest, most technologically advanced on earth, dominating eastern Asia for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The Middle Kingdom controlled an enormous swath of territory and exported its culture to Southeast Asia and Japan, as well as exporting goods to the western barbarians. However, for various reasons that include a fossilized bureaucracy, internal disunity, and perhaps too many centuries of isolation and superiority, by 1900 China had become a fourth-rate power at best, subject to the whims of European powers, argued over by Americans, and for a time terrorized by the Imperial Japanese. Their technological advances had stopped, only to return in far more useful and dangerous forms after passing through the West. Riven by civil war, China shuddered with near anarchy for almost 50 years before the Chinese Communist Party established iron control over much of the old Chinese Empire, as well as Tibet, and began re-developing its connections with Southeast Asia.

Today, the Chinese government nurses the memories of both the glorious days of the empire and of the evils inflicted by the barbarians, western and otherwise. The Japanese atrocities are not allowed to fade from memory. Neither are events such as the burning of the summer palace at Peking/Beijing by the British and French armies during the Second Opium War and the looting inflicted after the Boxer Rebellion, or the European involvement in the Taiping War. They serve to stir pride in Han culture and traditions, and to distract the average Chinese from the corruption and disorder within China (or so the Party hopes). Problems like the increasingly skewed sex ratio (120 males to 100 females in some areas), crippling economic weaknesses, and rampant corruption that has turned the Iron Rice Bowl, the Peoples’ Liberation Army, into a graft machine are suppressed. Expansion into the Yellow Sea, Philippine Archipelago, and other areas, including de facto economic colonialism in Africa, are depicted as signs of China’s renewed vigor and might. China will regain her rightful place as the Middle Kingdom, or perhaps rather as the Middle People’s Republic.

Russia too nurses memories of past glories and works to regain them. There is a reason I and my friends tend to refer to the current (?) head of Russia as Tzar Putin or Tzar Vladimir I. We in the west, especially in the US and Canada, tend to forget that Russia was an expansive and aggressively developing empire prior to WWI, massive internal problems notwithstanding. The Russians have not forgotten this. Nor have they forgotten how they alone defeated the Nazis in WWII. Yes, if you go to Russian schools or universities, the Great patriotic War is told about how the Soviet Union alone fought Nazi Germany and defeated it. The Brits and Americans played a minor role, if that much, and then turned and attacked the Soviet Union, just as they had during the Soviet Revolution/ civil war of 1917-1921. After the collapse of the USSR, the west tried to smash Russia, but it has recovered and will once more play a major role, its rightful role, in the world. It is also the New Rome, center of the true Christian Church, according to some Orthodox priests.

This ferocious clasping of the lost past would be sad if it were not so serious. I grew up in a country that has barely 200 years of history as a country, 60 years with its current borders (counting from the statehood of Alaska and Hawaii). Historical greatness when I grew up was winning WWII (with the Brits, Canadians, ANZACs, Soviets, and French and Chinese), winning the space race, homesteading and the Oregon Trail, and later, outlasting the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War. That’s what . . . 150 years? Add the American Revolution and you get 200-225 years. No empire, no long traditions of lost glories that were destroyed/stolen by barbarian outsiders. We in the U.S. tend to listed to the internal propaganda of the Chinese and the plaints of Russians and wonder why they can’t just get over it, let the past be the past, and move on. That is, when we’re not wondering why the Chinese Communist government glorifies the achievements of the old Empire while levelling anything historical that happens to get in the way of the current version of a 5-year Plan.

The Russians and Chinese, and others, argue that territories held in the past are still theirs by right. Now, the Poles, Ukrainians, Vietnamese and others will argue that vehemently. And the treasure fleets of Admiral Zheng He aside, I have no idea how economic colonies in Africa can be tied into Imperial Chinese history. But there the argument is “well, the west did/does it, so why not us?” And “we’re here. Deal with it,” followed by the snick of a rifle bolt and the sound of ruffling currency. Russia uses oil and natural gas to play Europe, establishing economic levers where once Tzar Alexander used his army. And in some places the Russians and Chinese use their armies as well.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the current US government has no historical clue. Love or hate Henry Kissinger, he brought a European’s awareness of the weight of the past to US foreign policy. We don’t even have that. history stops with Ronald Regan, apparently, and the Anointed seem to blow off Chinese, Russian, and others’ faith in the power of rebuilt empires and the power of oooold grudges. If you look at Vladimir Putin in the light of both the Soviet Union (recall that he was/is KGB) and the Russian Empire (he’s from St. Petersburg), his actions to keep a large neutral to friendly buffer zone between Moscow and the West make perfect sense. Ditto his actions in the Caucasus.  As was pointed out to me, if the Ukraine joined NATO, there would be less than 150 miles between Moscow and NATO. That’s nothing: two hours on a main road (ignoring the state of Russian roads and traffic) in a car. An eye blink for a fighter or bomber or missile.

The Chinese, while protected by greater distances in most cases, face internal problems that one suspects the Party is not going to be able to solve without a massive change in governance and economics. The previous heads (between Deng and the current Premier, Xi) tried allowing a freer market while restricting freedom of expression, perestroika without glasnost. It had mixed results at best, leading to the Great Firewall of China and the crackdowns on the princelings and military (and on other beliefs, including Christianity) that are currently ongoing. In some ways I suspect China has the worst of both worlds: corruption (like Russia and much of the 3rd World) along with a command economy that is charging full-steam ahead into a mountain. One of the best ways, traditionally, to distract from internal problems and to unify a nation (and justify eliminating the “other”) is an outside threat. China has that in the form of Japan, Taiwan, and the US and our allies. And they have a tradition of empire and a sense of historical justice being on their side that many on the western Left agree with. After all, the Chinese are/were victims of Western discrimination and theft and imperialism and they are just trying to regain what was rightfully theirs.

Now, I’m not a Sinologist or Russia specialist by any means. I’m just a history-minded individual who believes in taking people at their word, and in watching what they do after they say things. If the rumors are true that Tzar Putin is getting ready to star in the biggest state funeral since Stalin kicked the bucket, it’s going to be a very interesting few months in Europe. If the Chinese Communist Party cannot find a way to diffuse the internal tensions starting to boil within their borders, the Pacific is not going to be pacific for much longer. Because when empires fall, the crash leaves a h-ll of mess. And very long memories.