Xi’s China, Sandworms, and Lost Fremen

Josh Chin and Te-ping Chen have a great piece at The Wall Street Journal about the growing sense of national self-confidence among many Chinese, and their accompanying rejection of Western examples. The article begins with Cambridge and Harvard alumnus Li Xiaopeng, whose experience of the West destroyed his former illusions about it and left him singing the praises of China’s superior model to an enthusiastic domestic audience.

It’s a thought-provoking piece. Provoked in me, not unusually, were thoughts of Frank Herbert’s scifi classic Dune. The eponymous planet is dominated by vast worms whose blind consumption of everything in their path has brought unimaginable wealth and power to a remote few while reducing most of the world’s surface to desert. In other words, they’re much like modern human consumer societies, perhaps a little further down the road. Some of Dune’s inhabitants have learned to ride the sandworms, planting hooked poles between their segments to gain a degree of steering control and stop them rolling over and crushing everyone on their backs. It’s like mastering a dragon (to drift towards a trendier allegory) using a pair of toothpicks.

Li Xiaopeng seems to have had a strangely rosy view of the West before his epiphany. In fact, it’s just a group of sandworms. What makes them different from the others is that the riders have the slender, delicate hooks that rein the beasts in, to some limited but crucial degree. The hooks include rule of law, human rights protections, and so on. These aren’t the nature of the beast, as we might like to think: they’re tiny, imperfect, but essential restraints upon the nature of the beast.

We’ve been riding these sandworms of ours for a while now so, as in the books, they’re not moving as quickly as they were. The Chinese only clambered onto their current one a few decades ago, and it’s steaming along nicely. They don’t have any hooks, but so far only a few million people along the edges have been tipped off and flattened or devoured. That was unavoidable, and in many cases probably their own fault. Some used to look at the hook-wielding Westerners on their sandworms with a mixture of admiration and envy. Many now think, hooks? Who needs them?

(Meanwhile, atop the biggest Western sandworm, a braggadocious and small-handed Fremen pushes his way to the front, and says look! They’re overtaking us! These crooked sticks are slowing us down! Let’s throw them overboard.)

We’re lucky to have the hooks. It will take more than luck to keep them. But the ability to steer hasn’t helped us work out where to go. So we’ve more or less let the beasts do their thing and circle the equator, eating and eating and shitting out dust. At one point, perhaps, China might have charted a new course south to leave the sandworms behind and help the rogue planetologist reclaim the desert. Instead, while rejecting the hooks and declaring that it’s doing its own thing, it's fallen into the same circuit at higher speed. So for now we all roar on, hooks or not, until the giant worms roll over and crush us, or just die of exhaustion, and there’s nothing left but sand.

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