On chopsticks people, paper technology and the rise of China

This is an edited excerpt of a broad-ranging speech made by former foreign minister George Yeo on China and history on Wednesday at Hwa Chong Institution, during a discussion organised as part of the Hwa Chong Centennial Insights series. Also on the panel was Professor Michael Puett, Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Anthropology at Harvard University. The discussion was moderated by Mr Warren Fernandez, editor of The Straits Times and editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English/ Malay/Tamil Media Group.

This yin and yang, East and West within the heart of Singapore is what defines us as Singaporean.

Rudyard Kipling in his famous ballad said: "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." Whether we like it or not, the twain is meeting again, and creating, opening a new chapter in history.

When we read about the trade war, about Huawei, about the anti-China and increasingly anti-Chinese sentiments in the United States, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Western world, one recalls Kipling's famous one line. But for him, East was not China. For him, East was South Asia where he spent many years of his life. For my address to you this morning, I would like to confine East to the realm of the chopsticks people. There's a reason for this. There is a coherence to the culture of the chopsticks people, and it's not possible to understand the history of Vietnam, Korea or Japan without reference to the great drama on the Chinese mainland.

Japan was the first to peel off from the Asian mainland to address the challenge of Western imperialism. By the time of the Second Opium War, any Japanese ship landing on the Asian mainland would be inspected by the Europeans, probably a Britisher, and Japan knew that it was only a matter of time before it itself would suffer the same humiliation. And that led to the Meiji Restoration and a top-to-bottom overhaul of Japanese society to the point where it itself became an imperial power ravaging the Chinese mainland.

And when we read about the quarrels between Japan and Korea, the roots are in the encounters of East and West. When the new emperor ascended the throne, the Japanese had to find the reign title. This is an old Chinese tradition of giving a reign title to an emperor. And historically, the reign titles compose of two characters drawn from the Chinese classics.

For the first time, they (the Japanese) decided not to draw from the Chinese classics but from an ancient Japanese poem. So they chose the characters "ling he", "reiwa".

"Ling" has a double meaning. The ordinary meaning is of course "to order". But he said: "No, no, that's not the meaning, the meaning is beautiful." It is an obscure meaning, this is how they interpret it. But in Japanese culture which as chopsticks people we instinctively could understand this double meaning which they like.

At about the same time, from PMO (Prime Minister's Office) an instruction that, henceforward, instead of calling him Shinzo Abe, he would be called Abe Shinzo, the Japanese Prime Minister. As a result of Meiji, the Japanese decided to go Western and inverted their names when they deal with the world outside. He said: "No, henceforth, he will be Abe Shinzo."

I don't believe that the capital markets in China will ever be opened up fully because they want to control their own internal system. They are afraid of the world outside because the world outside can cause them to lose control.

Japan is re-Asianising but very conscious that in this process, it should not become a satellite of China. This is a long process.

You find equivalent processes happening in Korea - North and South - and in Vietnam. But to understand all these things, we have to understand China.

GREATEST REVOLUTION IN HISTORY

The reason why May Fourth happened was because there is such a deep inertia in Chinese society. That period from the Opium War, tai ping tian guo (Heavenly Kingdom of Peace regime ) all the way to yi he quan (Boxer Rebellion), xin hai ge ming (the 1911 Revolution) - all the way to Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, finally, Deng Xiaoping and now Xi Jinping, it is the greatest revolution in human history.

It is the greatest revolution in human history because the Chinese people are the most homogeneous among human beings on earth, and this is the result of centuries of social evolution. If you are small, the change can come quickly. If you are big, it takes a long time to change the internal systems. Each of us has a brain and that brain is probably the most complex assembly of molecules, of atoms in the known universe. Our ability to create civilisation is because we have a collective brain, which means that we are networked together to one another and to our history to all our ancestors. And these operating systems linking us all together is culture.

What is it about Chinese civilisation that gives this homogeneity? China today is over 90 per cent Han over a continent and has been so for a long time.The reason is something which happened over 2,000 years ago, when Qin Shi Huang by force united the warring states.

It was tough employing - in a loose translation - the rule of law (fa zhi). It was so tough that the Qin Dynasty did not survive his son. People were happy to get rid of him and, for a long time after that until the modern era, he was cursed for burying scholars, for destroying ancient books, for his crudeness and vulgarity. Han, when he took over, decided on a different organising principle of Chinese society based on li.

Joseph Needham once wrote that it is not that China had no law, no legislation. You see, in fact, if you look at history, China had a greater corpus of legislation than the Western world. But in China, when it comes to the emperor, does the emperor decide on the basis of fa or li?

It has to be on the basis of li. So fa can be an instrument, a way of regulating large numbers but, ultimate decisions, especially ultimate moral decisions, are based on li.

Now this is very different from the Western world. Many of us would have watched the hearing confirming Brett Cavanaugh as US Supreme Court Justice. It was almost a struggle to the death. And today, (Donald) Trump has appointed conservative Supreme Court judges. If he can appoint one or two more, the final interpretation of law in the US will be fixed for the next few decades. And, in a sense, this would be much more important than any congressional or presidential election to shape the direction and evolution of US society in this century. But these are the rules and the Americans fight according to the rules. Like hell. So (Robert) Mueller, the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse, impeachment exercises, in the end everything goes back to the law.


Tourists at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. China may be on the way up today. One day it will peak; one day it will decline. There must be humility in whatever stage of the cycle that we are in, says the writer. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The chopsticks people view all this with a combination of disdain, astonishment and awe. How could a system operate? How could the leader of a country be subject to all these pressures and still be in a position to govern?

But if you read Roman history, Cicero, or the debate between Cicero and Catiline, even Jesus Christ, Christians, non-Christians, we know what happened when the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead. They couldn't do it because under Roman law they had no powers to put a person to death. So they had to go to Pontius Pilate. Pilate passed the buck to Herod, Herod passed it back. And he was crucified. Among the Apostles, Paul was a Roman citizen. "I am a Roman citizen" - famous words of Cicero. So he could not be crucified. He was beheaded.

You know, this almost punctilious adherence to legal principles is quite alien to the chopsticks people.

For them, for the Chinese, you know, you got to look at the overall picture. Should you or should you not? If you should, then you find a way to do it. So East is East and West is West.

CHINA'S APPROACH TO FOREIGNERS

Many Americans today worry that as China becomes stronger, it will exploit the system, it will also become imperialistic. I don't think so because that is not in the nature of the history of the civilisation. All of us know that if you go to China, if you don't have WeChat payment, it's very inconvenient. I mean you take out cash, they look at you, "Why are you giving me cash?" But how do you get a WeChat payment in China? You can't get it. You can get it only if you open a bank account and you have a telephone number associated with the bank account. And that telephone number and bank account cannot be acquired online, you must go to a specific location, register there and fill it in on paper. And once you are fixed at that point, then you can swim the ocean freely. But you cannot access the ocean unless they fix you at a particular spot.

So I opened an account in Shantou where my mother came from. I had to show some residential status and so on - very difficult, all in Chinese, and my Chinese is not good. Then there are boxes. You can't tick the boxes. You got to write down zhi dao ... If you can't, well, too bad. That's your problem. They will not help you. Then they give you a space big enough for three characters. In my passport, I only have George Yong Boon Yeo… I asked. No, you just write it in. So you just write it in.

The system is to keep out the foreigner. In other words, we are quite happy within ourselves. If you are not one of us, that's fine. We can deal with you as a foreigner. Don't pretend that you are one of us.

This is very deep. I don't believe that the capital markets in China will ever be opened up fully because they want to control their own internal system. They are afraid of the world outside because the world outside can cause them to lose control.

The financial wizards of New York and London can manipulate the system before they even realise the financial system was open. So when they deal with the world outside, it is always very carefully through portals, and that is why for a long time when the Westerners came, they confined them to the Pearl River Estuary, and Macau was given to the Portuguese - not because they were afraid of the Portuguese, but because it was a way of containing the foreigner.

 
 

And which is why - I spend half my time in Hong Kong now - I believe that Hong Kong has a great future because in the end Hong Kong is useful to China, but provided neither Hong Kong nor Macau tries to change what goes on on the mainland. For as long as you are separate, that's fine. But if you become a point of infection, that's a different matter. Then they will have to extinguish you. This is the reality.

And when the Chinese and Americans are now engaged in this fight, it will go on for a long time. There could be a trade agreement but the technological war will go on. And the people involved in defence and intelligence, it is their job to worry and they worry all the time about the possibility of war.

The Chinese are feeling their own strength. They do not want to escalate. They have a love-hate relationship with America. Many of the leaders send their children to America. They like America. Why do they like America? Why do we like America? Because of freedom. It could be you have the rights of a citizen or a PR or a foreigner. Once you clear immigration, you have rights. Before immigration, you have no rights. And that is one reason why illegal immigration has now become such a big problem in America - because once you enter, you have rights. You can employ lawyers. There are things they can do to you. There are many things they can't do to you.

My youngest son had leukaemia and went through two rounds of chemo. He was very sick. In the end, he had a bone marrow transplant in the US at St Jude Children's Research Hospital, which is one of the biggest charities in the US. Because we didn't have insurance and they did not want costs to affect their research into new treatment modalities, they said no, you don't pay. And not only did we not pay, the entire family - apart from me, my wife, the siblings, the grandmother all went to Memphis - they're put up in an apartment provided by corporate philanthropy.

Before Christmas a note went around to my kids. "What are your Christmas gift wishes? So they wrote, 'snooker stick', this and the other, not expecting that any of these wishes would be fulfilled. All of them were fulfilled by charity.

While I was there - I visited them many times when I was foreign minister, seven times in nine months - I was told this story that there was a child of an illegal immigrant who was in the hospital. And you can't treat leukaemia without the mother next door because the chemo is very tough and throughout the night the mother has got to nurse the kid. But the child is illegal. So they appealed to Senator Ted Kennedy who then got the mother in, so that the child could be treated. Whether eventually they remained in the US or not, I do not know.

But this is the generosity of the American people.

So even though in recent years with the Trump administration the moral standing of America has come down, deep down there is a feeling that, no, they are good people. And the Chinese are trying not to escalate and trying to tell the Americans, look, you can be the policemen of the world. We don't think it's wise of you to be but anyway, if you want to be, very good, carry on. If you want to have aircraft carriers going to the Baltics, to the Black Sea to maintain freedom, carry on. You know how expensive aircraft carriers are? How expensive it is to maintain these battle groups, the weaponry? Does China want to be like the US? I don't believe it. Does China want to increase its populations so that it will have hundreds of millions of non-Chinese? I don't think so. I think they are quite happy where they are and they are quite happy just dealing with Han people because with Han people there is a predictability.

MULTIPLE IDENTITIES

Here in Singapore, we are in between two worlds. We got to deal with the West and we got to deal with the East; and we ourselves got a bit mixed up.

I always remember something which Lee Kuan Yew said in private but never in public. He said we must accept that every Singaporean has two identities. You could be Chinese. You could be Muslim. You could be Eurasian. He's also Singaporean. I will take it a step further - that a mono-identity person cannot be a Singaporean. A Singaporean is someone who accepts multiple identities and because I have a multiple identity, I respect your multiple identity. If I do not accept multiple identities in myself, it is harder for me to accept it in you and I will try to assimilate so as to standardise.

So this is an ideal of Singapore, which is very precious and which can be a light unto others because the world is mixed up now - movement of people, globalisation, the Internet. And if we cannot accept each other for what he is, not only to tolerate but sometimes to celebrate his other identities, then how can we live in harmony? Then what is the solution? Is it to fight until one is finally removed or fully absorbed? And it can never be fully absorbed because the cultural DNA in each and every one of us goes back a very long time and operates at a subconscious level.

It was the church - the Jesuits, when they went to China and wanted to convert China - who began to interpret China to the West and they were astonished by the fact that China had a moral system without religion. And in the West, they were looking for moral systems without religion because the encrustation of the church on all aspects of society was too tight. So it led to the Protestant Reformation, it led to the Thirty Years War and finally when intellectuals like Voltaire found in China a system that could operate morally without religion, it inspired a new generation of idealists - away with the church, away with clericalism - a new Western society.

But this removal of religion from European society is creating new issues. In America - which was founded before the French Revolution - religion is still a very important part and the big struggle in America today is between secularists and those who are believers in one religion or another. It is complex; I'm just simplifying.

But in Europe today, if you go to the churches, they are mostly empty and this secularisation is creating a new age of confusion in Europe, but that's a different story.

What I want to conclude is to say that as the I-Ching teaches us, there are cycles within cycles. China may be on the way up today. One day it will peak; one day it will decline. Europe may be struggling now, but one day it will recover, it will come up again. The US is also going through a cyclical change.

There must be humility in whatever stage of the cycle that we are in, particularly if we are up, that we'll one day be down. And when we have that humility and see in the other person an identity with an old history as my own, which has his good points and his own wisdom and from whom I can learn and benefit, then we will have a better world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 28, 2019, with the headline 'On chopsticks people, paper technology and the rise of China'. Print Edition | Subscribe