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Letters from Downunder


Submitted by Lindsay
Melbourne Australia!

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
          - Shakespeare, sonnet 53

(7/2015) One of the world’s greatest pianist is a young man born in China in June, 1982. His first solo performance was at age five, and by fourteen was at the Curtis institute in New York, having already won many international and national competitions. Returning to his homeland in 2012 with a reputation for flamboyant, even wild playing and brilliant performance, he was televised playing one of his favourite works, The Rachmaninoff second concerto. His name in Lang Lang.

The audience, and the video of it, went wild; taking piano lessons suddenly became the thing to do for many young people. OK, it happens in every field when stars are presented to their contemporaries, but this was rather different, because forty million – yes, 40,000,000 – made enquiries about learning piano. This is almost twice the population of Australia, and surely is unprecedented. Can you imagine that many people anywhere else in the world taking up anything at all as result of sudden excitement? Especially when it’s in the classic arts? Again – 40 million, about the same as the population of California. Unbelievable.

It surely tells us things about a China that we are unlikely to know or have guessed at. The sheer size of the numbers, around four billion (it keeps changing) means there is diversity of the highest order; the range of activities, the expertise, the learning, the culture deriving from one of the oldest civilizations, all moulded by very powerful forces, (especially from the beginning of the 20th century), have led to something the like of which has never been seen before. When the median age of the population is added to the mix, the motivation for success becomes more apparent, the desire for good standing, adventure and excitement overwhelming; the probability of success in any and all fields is then enormous.

Their form of government is also unique – totalitarian, open to corruption, non-elected, ruthless when it suits them, yet tolerated and even loved by much of the populace. Dissent is allowed if it is kept isolated, human rights are not in their lexicon, yet in some respects they appear to be no less tolerant than western nations, including yours – just with different viewpoints. Their suppression of religion has not led to a greater propensity for immoral or unethical conduct than your avowed religiosity, while their love of western culture has grown enormously, as the above story shows. They have also a culture of artistry of the highest order, honed over millennia, that has withstood the ravages of dictatorships over those years.

The sudden spurt of reasonably well taught young workers occurred at just the right time for the new industrial revolution to take place. The American desire for profit fuelled it, allowing China’s coffers to fill, for unprecedented growth to produce mining and mineral booms around the world, and for the rise of their version of capitalism to begin the climb towards financial independence and possible superiority.

With a median age of 32, with a military that has increased exponentially, the urge to show off their growing might is obvious. The leaders certainly do not forget the Japanese war, the powerlessness felt in the face of American dominance, and the need to prove to the world that they are worthy of a place in every aspect of world leadership. This has become a mantra they seem determined to make reality.

So now they are building islands to house military equipment, this after sending their fleets into the oceans and seas for exercises – actually shows of strength – that caused alarm through the governments of every unaligned nation. This new initiative is more than just pushing the boundaries, it’s a demonstration of intent. It’s not saber rattling, it’s scarier than that. It’s in the open, not spun into something above suspicion, and they are not concerned. It is as if they are saying, ‘so what are you strong guys going to do?’

And that is the question. The only one that matters. Forget ISIS, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Ukraine; China is the only game in town.

This is indeed a problem without precedence or easy solution. Some among you may wish to follow the age-old formula, kill the enemy, but that is to commit suicide. This is an enemy that cannot be killed, which those same folk would not believe, for their blinkered view allows no show of ineptitude or weakness. Their role of sheriff to the world has done no one, apart from a few of their fellows, a bit of good, but their hawkish eyes can only see the ground below when there were a few rabbits to catch, but not the land in the distance.

No, this is a time for talk, bargaining, diplomacy. Regretfully, now from a position of some weakness, for what can be offered? China has enough, and will soon have somewhat more than enough, and whereas enormous technical expertise and research had been created during the heyday of your prime, the Chinese have caught up. Not in every field, true, but in those that are critical to shows of strength.

As the opening story shows, their population is so large – almost 50% of the world – that it is inconceivable that they could be squelched. Apart from the inhumanity of trying, of course, what would be the point? The planet itself would not survive such a confrontation. When it comes down to the wire, the only appeal that may work is to their sense of world community. And that is something we probably believe they do not have - but they do. No one, no nation can develop a culture of fine art, of appreciation for beauty, of the joy of life and not respond to the same in others.

They surely do not desire to rule the world; the only way to do that would for everyone to become Chinese, and even then it would soon fall apart. New boundaries, new accommodations, new alliances, these will be the probable results. Not happy ones, but the status quo has already gone, and turmoil on more than this front is rolling, fog-like, across the stage, where the same Shakespeare quoted above made Henry the fifth prescient when he said ‘The youth of England are aflame.’ He just got the country wrong. I hope that the future shows you did not get the answer wrong.

Lindsay, in Melbourne, Australia.

Read Past Down Under Columns by Lindsay Coker