“When the real revolution happens,” journalist G.K. Chesterton wrote unkindly, “it won’t be mentioned in the newspapers.” Perhaps a little too unkindly. It will probably be a small item below the fold on page A7 if, indeed, there are still newspapers, which wrote a lot about this “internet” a couple of decades ago without grasping what it would do to their revenue. Just as they may well mention but miss the implications of, oh, say, China ceasing to be the most populous nation in the world.
In geopolitics as in life you win some and you lose some. China is now home to the world chess champion thanks to Ding Liren’s victory over Ian Nepomniachtchi. But it is no longer #1 demographically. Which matters more in the CCP’s drive to world domination? Another thing to which newspapers tend to give little or no attention, even while mentioning its various bits and pieces.
BTW it’s an interesting mark of multiculturalism that the victor’s name is far easier for westerners to pronounce, even if we’re far from sure which is his family name. (It’s “Ding”.) Whereas even guessing where Ian’s family name comes from is a challenge. It’s actually Russian, and includes one of those letters that looks like a bridge, as in the middle of Krushchev, so they’re just pranking us with the “chtch” thing – it’s pronounced NeePOMnishchi.
Lest I seem bigoted, or at least parochial, back in 1972 the English-speaking world, in which every vowel is a “schwa”, was convinced the reigning world champion was called something like Burus Spaskee when his real name was BaRIS SpASSSSkii. But I gress.
The thing is, in 1972 the Soviets were making their ataxic lurch for world domination, having turned Russia into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster still dangerous and even horrifying in disintegration. And though it seemed so preposterous that almost nobody in the west believed it, Brezhnev and his fellow Politgargoyles really thought their collectivist system was better than decadent western individualism. A view apparently fairly widely shared to this day given Putin’s baffling popularity. And so Spassky losing to Bobby Fischer hit them very hard indeed.
Geopolitically they had a pretty good 1970s, all things considered. Economically not so much, but they were kind of used to it and kind of ignorant of how bad it really was. Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko famously had not set foot in the streets of Moscow for 40 years and had no idea how the proles lived. But 1972 saw two dramatic setbacks for them.
One was when Fischer, who really seemed to be a parody of Western individualism and weirdness and actually was going badly off the rails mentally, crushed Spassky. The other was when an ill-disciplined, less-skilled, tobacco-stained Team Canada beat the Soviet elite at hockey in a gritty comeback win. Gritty arguably being a euphemism for some unduly rough play on our side, and typically biased officiating on theirs.
Now fast-forward to 2023 because it does not seem widely understood in the West how pivotal it is in Chinese, as in Russian, culture to see themselves as a dominant force in world affairs. China is, after all, Zhōngguó, the “Central Country” (or “Middle Kingdom” though Communism isn’t big on kings, at least formally). So the rest of us gaijin are the periphery, reluctantly allowed to approach provided we kowtow.
It might be argued that China was not really the central country in the world after about 1800. Or before. And that only parochial ignorance of world affairs had permitted this flattering self-image. But the thing about parochial ignorance is that it is as ignorant as it is parochial, and frequently smug to boot.
Yes, China probably had the world’s largest GDP in 1800. But that fact tells you more about how useful GDP is than how rich China was. Whereas it is of considerable psychological importance that China has been, for longer than anyone can know, the world’s most populous country. (Unless it was India before partition.)
Especially given China’s ethnic homogeneity, over 90% Han, it confers special status, doesn’t it? We are mankind, or peoplekind. We outnumber everyone else. The typical human is Chinese. We are the future. Except um not any more. India now is. Does it matter?
I believe it does, enormously. Far more than newspaper images of the Politburo (which typically fail to mention that every single member, except the bald guy, have the same strange swept-back-left-parted hairstyle as the Maximum Number One Citizen Xi Jinping). For if China is not inherently the centre of the universe, what is it other than a badly-governed, ineptly aggressive, polluted tyranny? Oh dear.
India, incidentally, had the world chess champion for years, the “Tiger of Madras” Viswanathan Anand. But it was never as vital to that nation’s self-image as dominating world chess was to the Soviets because India had rather more going for it. And I don’t think Ding’s victory is going to be the boost Spassky beating Fischer would have been for the Bolsheviks because China has a bunch of other problems including no longer being inherently, naturally and unquestionably the centre of the world demographically.
Ironically the Chinese Communist Party spent years trying to discourage Chinese people from making more Chinese people and it’s one of the very few CCP initiatives that really, truly achieved its aim. Not surprisingly, it turned out to have been a disaster, as China is the first nation in history to grow old before it grew rich, with “little emperor” male only children whose parents will not be amused to see killed invading Taiwan, a shortage of girls and of siblings and a drastic shortage of grandchildren to support the inverted age pyramid.
A number of nations are now in a similar spiral without official encouragement, from Japan to Russia. Indeed, following one of Robson’s Rules of History, namely “Do not attack the Anglosphere”, it is striking that nations that did so went into demographic decline soonest and with dismal predictability. But at least Japan is rich, with robots to keep the elderly company. What has China got?
I remember seeing a video about some vast new mall in China, whose materialist glitter revealed Communism yet again as a cruel parody of capitalism, with all the failings Marx and others hallucinated from impoverishment of the masses to fake democracy and none of the real virtues from enriching the masses to genuine individualism. And they asked some random passerby carefully selected by the Party what he would say to a foreigner who found it overwhelming and garish and he laughed “Welcome to China”.
China is the biggest. China is the best. China will rule the world. Unless um we’re just another country next to a bigger neighbour demographically on one side and geographically on the other, with lousy per-capita income, a cowed populace, an economy and polity riddled with fraud and hopped-up nekulturny arrogance about our “wolf-warrior diplomacy” and vast but dubious armed forces.
We might be the barbarians. And not able to prevail by sheer force of numbers including psychologically.
It’s the beginning of a revolution in world affairs. And you read it here first, folks, on a website not in a newspaper.