One day in Rome, I asked the policeman, “Is it okay if I park my car here, partially blocking the emergency entrance to the hospital? I just want to go across the street for a coffee for a few minutes.” And he said, “Sure, but leave the keys in it in case I have to move it quickly.”
Italy is not renowned as an authoritarian environment. It is so interesting to observe Americans, and indeed all those in Western Right-Wing politically-conservative societies like Canada, the UK and Australia, gleefully condemn other nations as ‘authoritarian’ when the US is by far the most authoritarian country in the world, excepting only a few theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Americans condemn politically Left-Wing, socialist nations as authoritarian when they are in fact the antithesis of authoritarianism, and where the authoritarian mentality flourishes only in a religion-based Right-Wing society. It is only these places and peoples who live in a black and white world that are authoritarian by definition. The fact that Americans have this understanding exactly backwards is due 50% to propaganda programming and 50% to native ignorance.
Authoritarian means “Do as I say, or else …”. It means you do it my way, or you don’t do it at all. It means there is no leeway when breaking rules or disobeying even minor laws about things like jaywalking. It means if the policeman sees you, you get a ticket. No warnings. It means that those in positions of authority, like policemen, can even shoot and kill you with impunity on the grounds you broke some minor legal code. It means paying your electric bill by the due date so you don’t freeze to death in the dark. There is no forgiveness built into the system, no leeway, no understanding government mother who will say “Okay, but try to do better next time”. A twisted evangelical religious base, a Right Wing mentality, political conservatism, and authoritarianism are part of the same package and cannot easily be separated, these terms describing the US more or less accurately.
By contrast, China, which is constantly denounced in the US media as being authoritarian, is in fact and reality 180 degrees from this position, lacking all the above negative elements including the twisted religion and shrunken Right Wing brains. China is far more tolerant and forgiving a society than the Western Right-Wing countries precisely because it has not been corrupted with religion (as opposed to faith in God, which are not only not the same thing but are not even related), because it is politically liberal and socialist (caring for people) rather than capitalist (caring for companies and the money men). It is of great interest to me that Italy and China share many social characteristics, perhaps because they are ancient societies, but one of these shared attributes is a relaxed liberalism very far removed from anything we could call authoritarian.
It is in China and Italy where you can temporarily park illegally without incurring the wrath of god’s tow-truck. It is in China and Italy where you can be late with payments and not be punished, where the world and life are not experienced as black-and-white constructs but as infinite shades of grey, where encounters with the system or with bureaucracy are most often met with tolerance and understanding rather than harsh judgment.
One visitor to Shanghai made a delightful internet post describing an encounter he witnessed of two policemen handling a driver who was falling-down drunk, and claimed to be astonished at how gently they handled him. In the driver’s favor, he wasn’t violent or abusive, just very drunk, but still … I could testify to countless dozens of similar examples that, rather than displaying an authoritarian mentality, were pictures of tolerance, the precise opposite of authoritarian America. Westerners, and Americans especially, won’t want to hear this, but their willful blindness does not change the facts.
Westerners were born into a Judeo-Christian, Right-Wing, black-and-white, individualistic world. The Chinese were born into a Confucian, socialist, shades-of-grey, pluralistic world. We cannot use Western measures to understand China any more than we can use liters to measure distance. America is simplistic, almost a caricature of a society, while the East is deeply complex. With effort, the East can come to understand the West, but the West may never understand the East.
Right-Wing societies and peoples cannot easily relate to shades of grey pluralism. Their right-wing black and white religion creates for them a simplistic black and white world, with little room for ambiguity or what we might call soft skills or methods of evaluation and judgment. For Americans, conflict, confrontation, battle, winners and losers, are necessary conditions for dealing with differences, while Chinese and Asians generally prefer to avoid conflict and search for peace. They aren’t interested in winners and losers but in harmony and stability. They instead try to achieve a consensus that everyone can live with, which is why China sometimes drags out border disputes for decades, waiting patiently until everyone is in a mood to agree, and they often make large concessions in the name of harmony.
Right-Wing black and white societies like the US are belligerent and combative by nature, their warped religious morality seeking out conflict even where it doesn’t exist. Shades of grey societies tend naturally to negotiation and conciliation rather than war. When you enter a local police station in many Chinese cities, the first thing you see is a Mediation Room, where a policeman can help disputing parties settle their differences without resorting to the courts. Understanding and implementing such a socially excellent solution is impossible in a nation like the US where the entire social infrastructure is based on a model of conflict where, in any dispute, I must be “right” and you must be “wrong”. And that means morally wrong. When infused with their religious moral supremacy, these Right-Wing, black and white societies have all been Imperialist, looking to conquer, subjugate and control other nations. They are also inherently racist, which trait does not exist in a vacuum but is justified by social Darwinism and sanctioned by God. The entire collection of American values is essentially Social Darwinism writ large, the concept that social survival belongs to the “fittest” which, on an international scale, justifies the invasion, colonisation, and ultimate domination, of the world by the strongest nations.
The differences between China and the West are matters of deep fundamental values. Chinese people value a society of peace and social stability more than they do freedom of information or personal liberties. Americans derive supremacist self-satisfaction in believing they have more “rights” than do the Chinese, but this based on ignorance of the Asian culture of shared values where collective rights are often more important. Due to this plurality, the Chinese are quite willing to forego much of what Americans might term ‘private rights’, but it goes much deeper than this, in terms of values resulting from civilisation and national identity, extending to what we might call ‘national dreams’. The American Dream is about an individual – me – I can have it all, while the Chinese dream is plural, for the rejuvenation of China. The number of Chinese (probably about 90%) who will work hard and make real sacrifices for the overall good of their country is likely in inverse proportion to the number of Americans (probably about 10%) who would give up anything or make any kind of sacrifice for the good of their country.
In this sense, among many others, China and the Chinese have been badly misrepresented by the West. The Chinese have no interest in remaking anybody to be like them. They think their system (political and economic) is good for them and they are happy with it, but will not try to inflict it on anyone else. The Chinese do not meddle, and the reason is that they don’t have the Judeo-Christian stem cells to tell them they must either convert or kill anyone who is different. China is not an imperialist nation because the Chinese have not been infected with religion. They are free of the repugnant supremacist belief that they are in some way divinely favored, hence the absence of racism and birth of tolerance.
Americans, emerging from their individualistic, law of the jungle mold, and infused with their thinly-disguised racism presented as a somewhat less inflammatory American Exceptionalism, cannot accept this because it would destroy the only argument they have for attempting to force their laws, values, beliefs and standards on the rest of the world. If you accept that all people and nations are equal, that there is a natural and desirable diversity in nations and cultures, you cannot justify forcing your values and institutions upon others. The American way of dealing with this is to deny reality, to treat claims of cultural or other differences with contempt, accusing nations of using their cultural diversity as an excuse to escape their true Christian destiny to become American clones.
We see this most particularly in the pressure to adopt US-style multi-party politics where the Americans use India or the Philippines as examples of societies that haven’t entirely self-destructed as proof of the ability of Asian nations to survive the American political system. But the hunger for world domination plays a much larger role in this evangelising than the Americans are willing to admit. They have so deeply embedded their lust for global supremacy into their so-called democratic value system that they pretend to ignore the deliberate and very real political threats underlying their proselytisation, as if their recommendations were based on humanitarian concerns – which they manifestly are not.
Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. His writing has been translated into more than 20 languages and is available on more than 100 foreign-language websites around the world. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Larry Romanoff is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new COVID-19 anthology ”When China Sneezes”.
Copyright © Larry Romanoff, Moon of Shanghai, 2020