Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Obama's Society of the Harmonious Fists

A lesson from the past:

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, much of China was in a state of turmoil. Due to a series of natural disasters, the continued presence of foreign missionaries, and the exploitation of the Chinese economy by foreign powers, many people in China were prepared for open rebellion. Members of one pseudo-secret society--The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists--were already engaged in localized acts of disruption. This group, known to Europeans as the Boxers, had been actively suppressed by the Chinese government for many years.

As the century turned and the unrest continued to spread, the Emperor of China--Guangxu--followed the advice of foreigners and some members of the court by enacting a series of reforms, intended to pacify the masses. Instead, it led to even more unrest and--eventually--a coup d'etat by the Empress Dowager Cixi, aunt of Guangxu. Cixi began supporting the Boxers, first secretly then openly, thus setting the stage for the Boxer War.

Cixi had hoped to use the Boxers to rid China of foreign influence, even though she had no intention of actually changing the traditional structures of China, no intention of giving up any power. But she miscalculated and ultimately was forced to rely on the foreign powers to reclaim her throne, though at a heavy cost. China was forced to pay reparations for war, payments that continued until 1939. Really, the Imperial Dynasty never recovered from this period. It was severely weakened in scope and power. The Chinese army was splintered and local leaders controlled their own forces, setting up a scenario for a possible return to the Warring States period in Chinese history. The growth of the communist movement in China and the advent of World War II, however, ended this possibility.

Ultimately, the ruling class of China was wiped away, as the People's Republic of China was realized. Whatever China is today, Communist China became a reality because of the Boxer Rebellion, first and foremost. It was the touchstone. And the crippling consequences for China from that period were a direct result of Cixi's misreading of the Boxers, her mistaken belief that they could be easily used and controlled.

They were a violent and emotional group, sure of their righteousness, yet deeply wrong about most everything else. Leaders--politicians--that would use such groups, that would willingly fan the populist flames of resentment for personal ambition risk much. Too much, more often than not.

Cheers, all.

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