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ambitions

Bear with me. I’m going to kick off today’s post with a snapshot about how we organize the blog’s content week by week in order to set the stage for then revealing the slight wrinkle with today’s post. Boring. Hang in there, though … there’s a good reason.

 

The TEA Collaborative produces three blog-posts per week: on Mondays (aspirationally, at least) we put out a tech-related post which takes care of the T in our name; on Wednesdays (ditto) an energy/environment post which covers the letter E; and on Fridays (ditto) an A post for Ambitions (by which we mean the effort to chronicle the seventy-year undertaking by the government of the People’s Republic of China to leverage their huge population, along with other assets, to confront the world with a new, ambitious model of change at vast scale and speed).

So as not to get trapped into rigidity, we have also been planning all along to fold occasionally a so-called X-factor post into this T-E-A formula.  X-series posts will generally be the contribution of an invited guest blogger who is an acknowledged Xpert (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the broad field of U.S.-China relations.

Today’s post turns out to be a bit of a hybrid between A and X.  Originally, we were lining up an X-series post which I thought might appear today but, for various reasons, that expert will need to hold off her appearance until September.  Since I did not myself have anything particularly cogent prepped for Ambitions as a fall-back, I went through much of the day yesterday mentally open, in equal measure, to either inspiration or dumb luck. Dumb luck won the day.

As a result, I am able to present here both a fortuitous hybrid — content that actually does fit the A-Series perspective but happens to be delivered by a different X-series expert.  (The wrinkle is that the X-series expert is not yet aware that he is filling in this way.  I’ve written him today to explain and to get his blessing.  Having gotten to know him in a sense after listening to more than 100 hours of his podcast series, I’m pretty sure he’ll go for it.  If not, though, I’ll have to pull this from the blogsite.  So, you might want to read fast.)

OK, here we go …

In our T(ech) post from last week, Fiddling Around with U.S.-China Tech, I asserted: “there was undoubtedly a measure of optimistic naïveté in the West in assuming China’s willingness to dutifully assume the role of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the post-WWII world order.  If the Chinese had conceived of their nation as only having been born in 1949, assuming the mantle of responsible Pax Americana stakeholder might have fit more comfortably. As it was, Chinese conceived the People’s Republic of China as the heir to a Chinese polity which had been the dominant economy in the world for sixteen of the previous eighteen centuries.  They weren’t predisposed to simply adopting some newcomer’s rules and norms as to how China should conduct itself on the world stage.”

Today’s post is going to put meat on the bones of that assertion.  In order to do so, I will turn to Mike Duncan — creator, author and narrator of the magisterial History of Rome podcast series.  On the occasion of the 100th episode of his series, Mike took listeners’ questions.  For the remainder of this post, I am going to take his answers to two questions from that podcast, reverse the order in which he answered them, and share his erudition here to shine a bright light on the two component parts of my assertion:  first, why would the Chinese not naturally think of themselves as heirs to something very special which pre-dated 1949 by quite a few years; and, second, why would the Chinese not naturally have some skepticism about falling in line with a new-fangled U.S.-led world order dating back to 1949.

Except for the headings, the following two points of text are entirely drawn from the 100th episode of Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast.

  1. China Has More Historical Continuity Than The Roman Empire (And That’s Saying Something)

Question:
What, if any, relationship existed between ancient Rome and China?

Answer:
The majority of the contact between Rome and China was indirect, but the two great bookends of the world certainly knew that the other existed. The Han Dynasty, which persists in one form or another from about 200 BC to 220 AD was rising at the same time as the Romans, and as Rome headed East, the Han headed West. And it was during this period that the links became more overt. With the stabilizing hand of the Han in place the famous Silk Road was able to knit itself together, carrying silk and other Oriental treasures from China all the way to Antioch, and from there to Rome, while, among other things, Roman glasswork made their way back to the Chinese.

In 97 AD a Chinese embassy was sent West to try to make contact with the kingdom of the Da Qin, which is what the Han called Rome. But apparently they were stopped short in Mesopotamia after the Parthians explained that the difficult crossing to Rome would take another two years at least. This bald faced lie was meant to keep the two poles of the lucrative trade routes, which Parthia controlled, from ever meeting and working out a way to bypass the Parthian middlemen.

In 166, though, a Roman embassy was sent east and was able to make contact with the Chinese emperor. Debate still swirls about how the Romans got there, whether by sea or overland, but a meeting definitely occurred and the Romans offered up all kinds of gifts from the West, including a book of Greco-Roman astronomy. Nothing concrete seems to have followed the meeting though, and thereafter the two sides continued to simply trade with one another indirectly via the Silk Road or by the sea routes around India.

For the remainder of the Empire, Chinese silk remained a highly sought after luxury item in Rome, and was a major point of contention, both for old school conservatives who found how revealing the fabric was disturbing, and proto economists who worried about how much gold was disappearing east for nothing but a few scraps of cloth.

2.   What’s the Enculturated Chinese Attitude Towards a ‘Pax Americana’ Dating Back to 1949?

Question:
“One of the earliest topics that was brought up is the purported similarities between ancient Rome and the US. What are the main similarities and differences between ancient Rome and the present and historical US?”

Answer:

Well, let’s go through the obvious list. The United States kicked out a monarch, founded a republic wildly skewed in favor of a rich aristocracy (that was self-consciously modeled on Roman institutions), dealt with violent upheavals as the lower social classes attempted to capture some power for themselves, expanded aggressively on their own continent before accidentally capturing overseas territories, and is now utterly dominant militarily, politically and economically. What else do you need to know?

Throw in the fact that if you believe the Soviet Union was Carthage and that the Cold War is our equivalent of the Punic Wars, then you can even locate us within the larger timeline right around the rise of the Gracchi brothers and, hey, look, Tea Parties.

Except that one thing that’s really been driven home to me lately is that while you can find these superficial similarities, there are much deeper differences. Every powerful nation follows its own trajectory, for its own particular reasons, towards own particular end, though usually at the height of each one’s power, they claim that they are the rebirth of the Roman empire.

For me, the biggest difference between America and Rome is that compared to Rome, the United States is a baby and could be very well proved to be merely a flash in the pan. The Roman Empire became the dominant state in the Mediterranean around 200 BC and remained as such in one form or another until the fall of Constantinople in the 1450s. I mean, we are talking about a nearly 2000 year period where you simply cannot talk about anything that occurred in North Africa, Europe, or the Middle East without talking about Rome. America, by contrast, was a pretty decent regional power for about a century, a pretty major world power for about 75 years after that, and has been living with the kind of unipolar prestige Rome enjoyed for centuries for about the last 20 years.

If the United States of America is still around in 3010, I think maybe then we can start talking about comparisons to Rome. Until then, things happen, nations rise and fall, and borders shift. I’m not saying America can’t dominate the world for a millennia. I’m just saying that it’s an awful lot to ask of anyone.

Rome was all about longevity and stability, and that is a test that no one in the West has been able to pass since.

My Personal Postscript

We live in a polarized time.  Many people who I encounter in the blogosphere will be inclined to take this post as evidence that I am somehow an apologist for the PRC.  Let me set the record straight on that possible perception:

  • My entire professional life has been dedicated to supporting U.S. Government institutions (e.g., the U.S. Foreign Service), U.S. Government programs (e.g,. the U.S.-China EcoPartnership program) and U.S.-led People-to-People cooperative programs such as The Philadelphia Orchestra’s engagement with China
  • Above and beyond my professional involvements, I personally believe that America’s multi-cultural, future-oriented perspective is the world’s best path forward, at least as far as I have so far encountered
  • I do not believe in historical determinism.  There is nothing about either Rome’s or China’s longevity which I find instructive for understanding their futures, except for the single fact that the people who grow up in that cultural tradition feel it in their bones
  • But, as I took pains to lay out in my Where I Stand post, I will never shy from seeking to understand, take into account, and respect my counterpart’s reality when grappling with a shared problem so that solutions which work for “my side” will also work for theirs.  Those are the solutions that stick.

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Assessing China /The TEA Collaborative blog, please visit us at www.teacollab.org

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