A mind held captive

May 11, 2023
Chinese cargo containers on map of USA.

Edward Said’s “Orientalism” encapsulates the essence of why the West resists the rise of China as a major economic and military power.

Even though “Orientalism” was first published in 1978, just as China was opening up its economy to the rest of the world and well before it acquired its present economic prowess, it provided insightful views about western discourse on the orient and the perception of an unchanging world under Western domination. Take for example Said’s citation of what John Buchan said in 1922:

“The earth is seething with incoherent power and unorganised intelligence. Have you ever reflected on the case of China? There you have millions of quick brains stifled in trumpery crafts. They have no direction, no driving power, so the sum of efforts is futile, and the world laughs at China”

From this Said opines that Europe maintains itself as a powerful machine, “absorbing what it could from outside Europe, converting everything to its use, intellectually and materially, keeping the orient selectively organised (or disorganised)”. He goes on to say that it was through clarity of vision and analysis that the orient can be seen for what it was, otherwise its military, material and spiritual power would overwhelm Europe. “The great colonial empires, great systems of systematic repression, existed to fend off the feared eventuality” (p. 251, Penguin Books, 1991).

This vision and desire to keep the orient under Western domination is embedded in what Said calls “Orientalism” for which he has a long and involved definition. Suffice to say that “Orientalism” is described as a system of cultural and political beliefs hatched out of the Western world’s relations with the East, undergirded by domination, especially colonialism. Said says that one must not assume that the structure of Orientalism is a set of lies and myths. He believes that it is more valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the orient than it is a truth telling discourse about the Orient. Reading through Orientalism, one cannot help but infer that the beliefs came from selective perceptions of the East, subject to the imaginative constructions of the Western intellect to justify colonialism and the place of the colonised, much of which were conserved in Western literature and institutionalised. My favourite book of fiction is Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”. I noticed, even while deeply engaged in the story for the first time, that evil emanates from the east.

The relevance of Orientalism to present day geopolitics derives from Said’s perception that it “disregards, essentialise and denudes the “humanity of another culture, people or geographical region.” To Said, “The West is the spectator, the judge and jury of every facet of Oriental behaviour”. I remember once saying in P&I’s reader’s forum when criticisms levelled at China by the mainstream press was particularly intense, “Who can survive that kind of scrutiny?”

Yet Said saw intrinsic change in the orient coming even in the 1970s. He cited one of his mentors, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (1966), about a new freedom developing in the orient. In order to keep the integrity of the author’s words, I will reproduce his passage verbatim:

“the new [Oriental] leaders, intellectuals or policy makers, have many lessons from the travail of their predecessors. They have been aided by the structural and institutional transformations accomplished in the intervening period and by the fact that they are to a great extent more at liberty to fashion the future of their countries. They are also much more confident and perhaps slightly aggressive. No longer have they to function hoping to obtain a favourable verdict from the invisible jury of the West. Their dialogue is not with the West, it is with their fellow citizens.”

However, this was said only at the beginning of the US’ war in Vietnam and before the US invasion of Afghanistan (2001-2021), invasion of Iraq (2003-2011), intervention in Libya (2011) and intervention in Syria (2014-). These were not wars of colonisation but wars to bring countries that are wandering too far from the US/West led “world order”. Countries like Iraq under Saddam Hussein and Libya under Muammar Gaddafi, those that Abu-Lughod says that were “… more confident and perhaps slightly aggressive” broke the rules to their own peril. The yoke of colonialism was removed, to be replaced by an order called the “rules based order” that ensures the continuous domination by the Western powers.

Today, the stability of the world is further shaken by the Western power’s resistance not just to the rise of China but to an arisen China whose economy and military strength is almost at parity with the US. China appears to want a new world order based on multilateralism and a multipolar world. Under the present circumstances, Orientalism is still alive, a source from which the West derives, and feeds into, its right to rule. China is more threatening to the status quo than what the West has experienced since the 15th Century. China’s economic prowess provides the minor economies of the world an alternative source of trade and technology. They are no longer dependent or beholden to the West for the building up of their economies. Yet there is an ambiguity about China that runs through the Global South, particularly Southeast Asian countries which have an underlying apprehension about the rising superpower, wondering whether it would ultimately rise to repeat the malfeasance of their erstwhile masters.

If one accepts that Orientalism is the occidental discourse on the orient, then with the reduced European-Atlantic power over the east, it has become an area of intense dialectic. I think that Said’s fine conclusion came too early when he said “…although the animosities and inequities still exists from which my interest in Orientalism as a cultural and political phenomenon began, there is now at least a general acceptance that these represent not an eternal order but a historical experience whose end, or at least partial abatement, may be at hand.” This was spoken in 1994. With the war raging in Ukraine and the strategic “containment” of China, Orientalism itself would mutate. It was the discourse of the “old order” that is resisting change. What form it will eventually take brings to mind the title of Kishore Mahbubani’s book: Has China Won?

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