Well, what with the ‘rise of China’ being all over the financial news at the moment, the grand old lady of world politics, the United States of America, might perhaps take heart at being labelled “the new China” by this publication. But don’t celebrate just yet, Lady States, for you might be the new China, but this particular China is late-Qing imperial China.
Here are some key points of comparison:
Was once a great empire: Our cultural memories of the Qing dynasty are mostly those of chronic backwardness and decline, but it is important to remember that imperial China in fact reached its height in terms of territory during the Qing, incorporating Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Taiwan into the empire during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, whose golden reign might be compared to Franklin Roosevelt or maybe Bill Clinton.
Isolationism: Old China was notoriously suspicious of foreigners, the place largely isolating itself from the world outside its field of influence from the Ming dynasty onwards and hence being outpaced in development by Europe (comparatively backwards at the outset of Ming). Likewise, the USA has always had a streak of isolationism about it, which has reared its head recently for example in the expressed wish of prominent Tea Partier Michelle Bachman for the United States to not “be part of the international global economy”.
Treaty ports: The USA doesn’t actually have any treaty ports, but on the other hand, it does have NAFTA, which is a bit like a massive treaty port stretched over three nations.
Over-centralised political system that is gradually losing control of the country as a whole: This is a more complex point of comparison because due to the extreme differences between the political systems of imperial China and the USA, any endemic problems that are dooming the country to long and drawn-out failure culminating in half a century of destructive revolution are bound to be very different also. Nevertheless, it is fairly obvious that democracy in America is broken and that it is only a matter of time before everyone notices and the country collapses. The political culture in America is so toxic that the mere hint that a Republican representative or senator might want to engage in bi-partisan co-operation can lead to serious questions being asked about their sexuality. The system of checks and balances is too complex and prevents urgent, country-propelling-into-future action being taken properly over issues such as healthcare. Debate over gun control and capital punishment reduces to what is written in a centuries-old document as interpreted by a panel of legal scholars appointed so as to reflect the unhealthily vitriolic (but not even politically that wide) left-right split in the country as a whole. It is only a matter of time before everything in the American political system completely breaks down and they all have to sell their police forces like in California.
Foreign encroachment: This is another inexact comparison because foreign encroachment in China came from merchants from the more developed west rather than illegal immigrant labourers from comparatively underdeveloped Mexico. The other reason the comparison is inexact is that in China it didn’t result in everyone speaking Spanish by 2050.
Dowager empress Cixi: Cixi was without doubt one of the top 10 most belligerent, right-wing, vain, ignorant and self-serving awful women of all time and during her long de facto rule all hope of peaceful reform in China was lost. Thus far, the USA can’t quite muster any horrible old cows to truly match her, but this is not through lack of trying: both Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman have something of the Cixi about them, although if they ever do obtain power they are admittedly unlikely to last 47 years. You could easily imagine them imprisoning their nephews for ten years for attempting political reform, though.
Bizarre pseudo-Christian nationalist movements: From 1850 to 1864, as Qing power faltered, the Taiping Rebellion raged across southern China, the rebels occupying Nanjing as their capital. One the most fascinatingly odd things ever to have happened in history, it accounted for the deaths of some 20 million people, mostly through plague and famine (scorched earth tactics were practised on both sides), but more importantly for the discussion at hand, it was led by Hong Xiuquan, a failed student of the imperial examinations who had a nervous breakdown in which he received a vision of himself as the second son of God (only later made sense of by a Christian pamphlet lent him by his cousin), sent to rid China of Manchu rule. He preached an idiosyncratic, heavily Sinosised version of Christianity, and one of his most important generals was an illiterate firewood merchant named Yang who claimed to be able to speak with the voice of God. Such a movement can be compared to contemporary US Protestant evangelicals, who in super-churches preach what is essentially a uniquely American Christianity, based around self-satisfaction and the free market. Of course, it has yet to prove quite so directly destructive as the Christianity preached by the Taipings, but perhaps it is only a matter of time, and certainly born-again Christianity in the states, with its home-schooling, chastity rings and so forth, is fundamentally outside the mainstream political system and cultural discourse, even if Republican politicians may have tried to co-opt evangelicals as voters.
The Boxer Rebellion: Another noted popular movement in late-Qing China was the Boxer Rebellion, a conservative, pro-Qing uprising led by the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists” (or Boxers), whose members went into spiritual frenzies inspired by their practice of martial arts. Their aim was to rid China of foreign influences (ie: merchants, opium, missionaries), and they were co-opted by Cixi and other reactionary Qing forces in the wake of the Guangxu Emperor’s attempt at political reform. Mostly the result was the political situation in China got out of hand and a lot of foreigners got killed, before an alliance of foreign powers actually did intervene militarily in China (though stopped short of actively colonising it). Such a movement could easily be compared to the obviously mystically-inspired (for how else could it be seen as remotely viable?) libertarianism of isolationist nationalism of the Tea Party movement, which has been co-opted by the reactionaries (Republican Party) in the wake of political reform (Obama, esp. healthcare) and also seems likely to get completely out of hand and may yet result in people getting killed. Let’s hope an alliance of China, India and Brazil invades.
Widespread opium use: This one doesn’t hold up so much, but lots of celebrities are on prescription pain medication and suchlike.
Guangxu Emperor: This hapless would-be reformer, imprisoned by his aunt Cixi who was the one who thrust him in to power in the first place in order to prop up her own rule, could easily be compared to the luckless President Obama, whose obvious good intentions and European-esque good sense seem doom to see him imprisoned (politically speaking) inside a Republic house of representatives come November.
Puyi: Who, then, would be Puyi, doomed child-emperor of a moribund empire, forever walking, rumoured homosexual ghost of a bygone age of romantic glory: for the Chinese Puyi, imperial splendour; for his forthcoming American equivalent, a viable non-state capitalism and sparkling images of suburban prosperity. When America elects a toddler (possibly from an established political family? Is Chelsea Clinton pregnant?), we’re sure to find out.