Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Year of the Tiger

The Chinese Year of the Tiger starts tomorrow. The tiger is a sign of courage. Sadly, the statistics reveal an endangered species. It is estimated that there are only 50 wild tigers left in China. Since the last Year of the Tiger, twelve years ago, the world-wide population of wild tigers has almost halved to about 3,200. An international convention on saving the species is to be held in Russia later this year – a hopeful sign I hope.

Less hopeful, I foresee the year as an increasing tussle between China and the USA. Trade, finance and military-might enter the equations. Apparently China is on the verge of overtaking America in the number of motor vehicles on the roads. The selling of arms to Taiwan and President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama outrage the Chinese leadership. Human rights and environmental issues arouse American concerns.

The authoritarian Chinese leadership is in contrast to the gridlocked Congressional system in the USA. Let’s hope cool heads prevail in all camps.

This conflict, with huge implications for us, is interesting in light of the book I’m reading, Jamie Bellich’s ‘Replenishing the Earth’. In the 17th century there were two great empires, the Chinese and the Spanish. He argues that the Chinese turned inward and the Spanish never really moved to the settlement stage.

Bellich’s thesis is that there are three stages of colonisation, networking (trade and outposts), conquest, and finally settlement. In the period covered by his book, what he calls the Anglophone (English speaking) World numbers expanded from about 12 million in 1780 to around 200 million in the 1930s. The settlement of the American West and the British West, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa made this possible.

Bellich rightly rejects the myth of Anglo/Saxon superiority. The industrial revolution, however, enabled the end of settler isolation and self-sufficiency. It enabled urbanisation, communication, transport and the integration of markets. The argument’s complex. It’s vast. It’s exciting. It’s big picture. And it happened. My good fortune to be a very minor bit part of it.

Bellich makes fascinating comparisons of Argentine, Manchuria and Siberia. France and Germany were johny-come-latelies to the expansion. Indeed the European wars of the 19th century and the world wars of the 20th can be seen as extensions of the resulting power-struggles. (This comment is mine. I’m not far into the Bellich and such thoughts have not been even suggested by him at this stage).

The historian in me looks at China and the USA in the present with interest. The citizen in me is rather aghast. When elephants engage let the mouse beware.

Anyway, I’m enjoying the Bellich. His boundless and intelligent quest for knowledge is refreshing. It takes my mind off the plight of the tigers.

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