Part of an email exchange
[On the Meiji Restoration]
I’d argue that China *did* have its own Meiji Restoration, and the chaos of
the early 20th century shouldn’t cause us to overlook the tremendous progress
in the economy and in institution building that was made in the late-19th
century. My own reading of history is far more sympathetic to the Qing
Dynasty than someone living in the 1930′s, because I see different things
when I look outside.
When someone talks about history, they are often really talking about the
present. This isn’t a bad thing as long as you realize this. When I talk
about 19th century Qing dynasty history, I’m influenced by different things
than someone who lived in the 1930′s or 1950′s and I’m going to see different
things. In particular, the difficulties that Iraq has in creating a unified
country and Russia has in creating its economy, makes me look at the Qing
The thing that I think that the Qing dynasty was most successful at creating
was the idea of “China.” The idea of China comes so naturally that people
don’t realize that like all national identities, the Chinese national
identity was constructed, and the Qing dynasty was far more successful at
creating this idea than the monarchies of Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans, the
Romanovs, or the Arab socialists.
[On general statements of history]
I’m very skeptical of general statements like this from a philosophical
standpoint. You can easily say that A happened then B happened, but how do
you establish that A caused B. How do you falsify your statements? How do
you test your hypothesis?
What I try to do is to look at a lot of cases, and then try to look at
patterns. It helps if those cases have nothing to do about China since it
means that I have fewer obvious preconceptions. How do Hispanics in Texas
see themselves? What are the major issues? And thing if you see a pattern,
you try to falsify it, and then if it seems to hold then you try to see what
the implications are for China.
In general, I’m very suspicious of classifications that clearly divide people.
It’s not clear at all if I’m an American or Chinese or Taiwanese or Texan or
Floridian or Zhejiangese or Han or Buddhist or Christian. As long as the
boundaries are unclear, this is good for me. If people have to choose sides
at a point of a gun, this is bad for me. It is good when I work in a
multi-national corporation, because people don’t care too much about national
identity, they just care how much money you can make for them. It is bad if
I’m in an situation where people do “ethnic clensing” since there is no side
that I can run to.
Curiously, I’m in the same situation that the Manchus were in in the 19th
century. They had the big problem of trying to define an identity that would
allow them to be accepted, and they did so by defining “Chinese” in terms of
mastery of ancient Confucian texts. The defining moment that proved their
success is when the gentry fought with the Qing in a multiethnic army to
defeat the Taiping. The ability of the Qing dynasty to create a multiethnic
army to fight the Taiping is something that we need to look at since the
Taipings are *exactly* the same type of people that we are all fighting
against in Iraq and the Middle East.
[On when China will have democracy]
Define democracy and I’ll tell you.
Personally, there are so many and conflicting definitions of democracy, that I
don’t think it is a very useful term. I support a rich and powerful China
based on constitutional government and transparent rule of law. That’s a
different vision of democracy that those that a lot of other people have, and
the inability to discuss and resolve these conflicts causes a lot of
In particular, I’m actually opposed to visions of democracy that rely on
utopian visions and the “will of the majority.” Talking about the “will of
the majority” is scary if you are a highly visible minority.
[On multinational corporations]
My experiences in multinational corporations have been generally positive.
There is a lot of corporate stupidity and self-destructiveness, but I’ve
generally been seen as a asset to the corporation because I can help people
make money, and the fact that people just don’t care about what language I
speak at home.
The second I stop being profitable to the corporation, they’ll kick me out,
but I find this less frightening than a lot of other people, since I have
useful skills, and I can learn new ones. Corporations are all about money
and power. If you can convince someone you can get them money and power,
they’ll be nice to you. If you can’t, they won’t.
These are cold rules, but they are one’s which are easier for me to accept and
use than other ones.
[On tolerance on China]
I think that that statement is too general to be useful. I can’t think of a
way to falsify that statement (and I doubt that a Tibetan nationalist woud
agree with it).
Also it is in some ways irrelevant. The behavior of China or Japan in the 2nd
century says nothing about the behavior of China or Japan in the 21st and
22nd. Sweden was one of the most imperialistic countries of the 17th
century, and Germany in the form of the Holy Roman Empire is one of the
I think the challenge for our generation and my kid’s generation will be to
figure out how China can use its growing political, military, and economic
power without destroying itself.
[On the perception of China as soft]
I think that is more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Just as a random
point, the notion of Chinese as “feminine” was really a major disadvantage in
getting dates in college.
Materialism and hard power is necessary for survival. There are some people
in the world that you can’t negotiate with, and you have to fight them. This
is where I disagree strongly with the Dalai Lama. To survive you have to be
willing to be materialistic to some extent. You have to have money, you have
to have tanks, you have to have armies, you have to make it clear that if
some lines are crossed, you will use your money, tanks, and armies.
But how to do that without becoming a monster and without destroying oneself.
That is hard. I think the key is to realize that every human being has the
capacity for great evil, and once one stares at the evil that one is capable
of, then one can manage it. It is only an accident of history that I was
born in the United States in 1969 rather than in China in 1940 or Germany in
1920 or Russia in 1900. The fact that I’m both an American nationalist and
Chinese nationalist rather than a Tibetan nationalist or an Taiwan
independence support or a Jihdadist in Baghdad is also another accident of
The thing that I keep in mind is that I’m a partisan in the Long War. Zheng
Guo-fan’s fight against the Taipings or those of the last generation against
the Japanese, that was their war. The struggle against Bin-Laden, that is
our generation’s war, and right now, we are losing.
Right now, there is someone very, very similar to me in personality and
temperment in some cafe somewhere in Baghdad posting onto his blog. I’m
trying to figure out how to get the PRC government to unblock wikipedia. He
is trying to figure out where to put the next car bomb, or the next death
squad attack against the people in the wrong neighborhood. He probably has
some very interesting ideas about how to overthrow the World
Zionist/Imperialist/Crusader conspiracy and is as frustrated as I am that
people don’t seem to be listening to him.
I wish I could read Arabic so that I could see what he is saying in his blog.