July 30, 2017

Eunuchs vs. Civil Servants

You and I, inhabitants of the Americas, should all speak Chinese (or a derivative of it) instead of a European language.

We don't, of course, because it was the Europeans who "discovered" (for the second time) this continent in 1492 and sparked a rat race among European States to stake a territory in the "virgin" lands of the "New World".

China had all in its favor to beat the Europeans in the early 15th century. They led the world then in technological innovation: cast iron was first invented in China; the compass was invented there; gun powder was first concocted there. Not to mention printing; the umbrella, porcelain, the wheelbarrow, hot air balloons, and even seismographs to measure earthquakes.

How can you be that advanced and not attempt to conquer other lands to extract their resources? Well, they did. And succeeded. Decades before Columbus "discovered" La Hispaniola, the Chinese had reached as far as East Africa. Before Vasco Da Gama went around the Cape of Good Hope and reached Kenya, the Chinese had already sent voyages "consisting hundreds of ships up to 400 feet long and total crews of up to 28,000"; taken African emissaries back to China, and established tributary states in Africa and South East Asia.

And then, they stopped their colonization expeditions. 

Turns out the Chinese, then the most advanced power in the world, had a very confrontational political class. The faction leading the colonization expeditions, the Eunuchs, had a recalcitrant counterpart within the imperial system: the civil servants. They clashed and never agreed on the matter of the voyages. When the Yongle Emperor died in 1424, the civil servants gained the upper had in government, and shut down the colonization program led by the Eunuchs, effectively setting China back to the geopolitical backwaters of the world for hundreds or years.

When the world was at the cusp of a new revolutionary epoch (imperialist mercantilism), China had already beat Europe to the punch. But internal petty politics prevented China from truly realizing that geopolitical advantage, allowing a less advanced, significantly more fragmented region (Europe) to kick-start its own era of global domination.

As in the 1400s, we are now at the cusp of a revolutionary epoch. AI threatens to sow chaos, upending the role of labor in the world. The fossil fuel civilization lives its last stage, as market forces exert themselves in favor of clean energy. The internet is killing and remaking entire industries at record speed.

The tectonic plates are moving. A new world order is in the making.

In the middle of all this uncertainty, today's global hegemonic power is in voluntary retreat. And its factions, like China's Eunuchs and Civil servants in the 1400s, refuse to cede or compromise, quarrel constantly; "getting nothing done".

Like Europe in the 1400s, China seems ready to take advantage of the opportunity that falls on its lap. In trade, the environment, and more crucially, in science.

Will today's Eunuchs and Civil Servants keep fighting here while the rest of the world keeps looking forward?

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