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  • 22

    China Eyes Dark Continent
    Globalism; Posted on: 2007-11-23 22:08:45 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
    China flexes her imperial muscle

    by Andrew Redmond

    While the West is preoccupied with the Middle East, China is quietly building a beachhead in resource-rich Africa. China's booming economy has made her demand for oil surge, and the Chinese are thinking ahead, with one third of her oil needs already coming from Africa as the Peak Oil threat looms. While the West castigates Sudan, using Darfur as a pretext, China has built an expensive 900-mile oil pipeline there. The Chinese have a number of other economic investments on the Dark Continent, part of the benefit they draw from globalization and access to Western markets. Growing Chinese influence in Africa is only one part of a global offensive that challenges the balance of power across the world.

    China has had an interest in Africa since at least the days of Zheng He (13711433), the great explorer also known as Cheng Ho and Ma Sanbao, who may even have circumnavigated the globe and landed in Western America.

    Zheng He was a white man, a member of the now extinct Khwarezmian people, who spoke a language in the Iranian language family in what is now Uzbekistan. Many such white groups lived in Western China and other parts of Central Asia, the most famous being the Tocharians, and had a seminal impact on the development of China. The Khwarezmians were Islamicized by Turkic and Persian invaders, and Zheng He's father and grandfather had been to Mecca on hajj, the pilgrimage required of all Muslims. The journey sparked a desire in the young Zheng He to explore outside the insular bounds of China, which long dismissed the rest of the world as barbaric.

    (Zheng He himself had very syncretic views of religion, and he is known to have practiced both Taoism and Buddhism in addition to Islam, and also honored Hinduism's Lord Shiva. Nevertheless, historical symbolism being as important as it is, Muslims have "claimed" him and have even put up a "tomb" of Zheng in Mecca, despite the fact that he never made the hajj and was buried at sea. Red China (which also boasts an empty Zheng tomb) panders to her own fractious Muslim population by upholding him as a great patriot of an ethnically diverse united China. A politically correct "1421 hypothesis" in the West meant to denigrate the achievements of Columbus by attempting to prove a "Chinese" discovery of America is undermined by Zheng He's own genetic background, and remains contoversial).

    Like most of China's leading figures in that period, Zheng He was a eunuch, having been taken prisoner as a child by Ming Dynasty forces and pressed into government service. Zheng He rose to prominence and led seven massive expeditions, immortalized in Chinese history as "Zheng He to the Western Ocean" or "Eunuch Sanbao to the Western Ocean," sagas as well known and revered by the Chinese as the voyages of Columbus and Magellan once were by the West. The explorations of Zheng He took him to Southeast Asia (where he settled a large number of Muslims from China), India and elsewhere, perhaps, it has been speculated, even to Australia. His Sixth Voyage, which took place in 1421-1422, went to East Africa, at least as far as what is now Mozambique, and may even have gone further.

    His full achievements are obscured by ancient geopolitcal debate: Zheng He represented one of the two competing ideological visions that have dominated China for millenia and continue to this day. Zheng and his patrons at the imperial court saw Chinese potential in an imperial idea that engaged the outside world, as opposed to the protectionist nationalism that kept the Middle Kingdom free of foreigners and their influence. The latter idea won out, and so Zheng's legacy was dismantled, with many of the maps and logs of his voyages being deleted by decree. However, a Christian monk from Venice named Fra Mauro made a map in 1457 that indicates that Zheng He rounded Africa into the Atlantic Ocean in 1420. Zheng He's surviving records claim that he sailed a total of 50,000 kilometers, an amazing feat for those days. By any standard, Zheng He was one of the greatest explorers in history.

    Debates about policy within China are usually veiled in parables or as appeals to historical precedence, part of the dissimulation necessary in a system where the penalty for dissent is often extreme by Western standards. Mao Zedong's court saw such things as the "Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius" campaign, which drew parallels between the supposed ideas of recently killed Communist general Lin Biao and the ancient philosopher Confucius as an attempt to smear another rival, Zhou Enlai. The legacy of Zhou's 1st Century BC namesake was also used to obliquely castigate him. Today, Zheng He is lionized by the ruling caste in Beijing, who seek to use his example to justify Chinese expansion into global markets while loosening economic restraints in China itself. Part of the appeal has to do with China's catastrophic "one child policy," originally designed by modernizers to grapple with Chinese overpopulation. The result has been an over abundance of male children because of Chinese superstition. The first "one child" generation is now coming of marriageable age, a threat for China's near abroad, especially Siberia, where the Russian population has plummeted.

    The Zheng He campaign is opposed by Maoist hardliners, who seek a revival of Mao's isolationism and decry foreign investment and the immiseration of millions of Chinese peasants, who are displaced by a need for work in urban areas and face the loss of "iron rice bowl" guarantees like housing, full employment and health care. The Maoists appeal to atavistic fears among the Han (the dominant Chinese ethnic group) of foreign domination, as well as of separatism among China's own teeming internal non-Han populations. As a Khwarezmian, Zheng He was a "foreigner" for Chinese, with the Maoists of today seeing the government's Zheng He campaign as an attempt to extoll the legacy of multiethnic China at the expense of the Han. Adding to the historical implications is the fact that the Ming, Zheng He's sponsors, were Han who had only recently overthrown the foreign Mongols, and were themselves displaced eventually by other foreigners, the Manchu, whose Qing ruled China until replaced by Sun Yat-sen's Republic of China in 1911. Red China bases its own political legitimacy on the "destroy the Qing, restore the Ming" ethnic Han nationalism that grew out of these experiences. For such an ancient people, such historical facts have great weight, and many Chinese attach the legacy of foreign domination, national disunity and hardship to the policies represented by people like Zheng He.

    Chinese expansion in search of resources and markets is a serious threat to the current balance of power. Not only do the Russians have to worry about China's irredentist claims, but the sheer size of the Chinese population will put a strain on increasingly scarce resources like oil. Unlike the demoralized West, which is weakened by selfishness, consumerism and a self inflicted sense of guilt, China has an historically grounded sense of purpose and direction. While China remains weak, the Middle Kingdom is a danger we will have to acknowledge before long.
    News Source: Andrew Redmond


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