During the Second Opium War, in 1860, a combined force of French and British troops trampled Old Summer Palace (known in Chinese as Yuanming Yuan 圆明园; 圓明園) on their way to Beijing. The relatively primitive military forces of the then Qing dynasty could do little to stop the cannon and firepower of Europe’s boats and troops.
The story is tragic and brutal. It is one of power, modernization, and technology. In it, the nations with a forward, global purpose and advanced sciences achieve their goals by crushing their foes – behavior that probably seemed perfectly acceptable in the 1800s, and woefully unacceptable today.
Metaphorically, this historical event may mirror the present day arms race of artificial intelligence, and the relative positions of China to what is now the modern West. Particularly, the United States.
China lost its relative position of power due to the combination of outside invaders, and of laxity in innovation, of resting on laurels. The West seems to model this laxity today, with China clearly aware of its rising global influence and economic power.
A poem from the 19th-century poet T. J. Wilkins called “Yuanming Yuan” captures this dynamic, and represents the original event and the present circumstance:
(The breaking of pottery, the trampling, and jeering of troops, the rush of old wood freshly set aflame).Look in mine eyes, my time is short,my final words of great import,be hushed and give me no retort,My flesh and bones are burning..This fate is of no malice borne,this rape and pain, seems cause to mourn,Tis’ vice tho, which my glory shorn,And leave my kingdom burning..My birth was of a promise grand,with forward eyes our king then planned,with vision and with will command,Saw I the wide-eyed future..But prince by prince that vision waned,of progress, will, these kings disdained,’til only comfort was retained,neglectful of the future..To past and spirit realm they ran,on laurels rested, ne’er a plan,’til all of my great kingdom’s clan,retreated from the future..The soul now does abandon me,hear closely now for virtue’s plea,of greatest vice I warn of thee,preserve, will I, your future..When comfort’s felt in rightful pace,refreshes focus, body, grace,full vision can one’s mind embrace.To greatness, this is virtue..But when repose is coward’s screen,then falls the vision, meek and mean,that vice has brought my dying scene,and never is this virtue..When rustic hills remind the soul,of buoyed hearts, of friendship’s role,then swells the heart, as to extol,“To greatness, this is virtue.”.But when bucolic scenes misguide,and feign long happiness inside,and by false safety there abide,oh, never is this virtue..Mine kingdom ends in terror now,my sorrow, pain, and burning brow,instruction must I bring to thou,for safety and survival..My later masters sought to hide,of power, science, they’d deride,with comfort as their star to guide,for safety and survival..The thought of death disturbs men so,all efforts for its overthrow,forget, would men, all that they know,for safety and survival..But fools, the world still march-eth on,with laxity their force foregone,he only who holds strength’s baton,knows safety and survival..These men rip me to burning shreds,’tis progress from which power spreads,they found this force, we lost our heads,for this is nature’s justice..The strong are safe in this here realm,the future one must overwhelm,to take the great soul by the helm,for this is nature’s justice..As me, man will be torn apart,to become more, a higher art,those at the helm will this path chart,for this is nature’s justice..The strong, in future, gods will be,the meek, victims of gods’ decree,and may well share the fate of me,for this is nature’s justice..Those who direct the future’s trail,will make the world to their avail,meek safety, comfort can’t entail,for this is nature’s justice..My later kings ignored this rule,now all my treasures are the fuel,of higher men, it seem-eth cruel,but this is nature’s justice..In thee, though, see I, forceful soul,a vision worthy to extol,if only you’ll pursue your goal,e’er striving for the future..If no pretender you would be,if this great soul exist in thee,then you, my child of destiny,e’er striveth for the future..You see me burn, my death is near!this rule of strength, ye must revere,or e’er live in regret and fear,in meekness ne’er is safety..Repose can never bring thee ease,regret only, the will’s disease,the strong will bring thee to thy knees,then ne’er will find ye safety..See, death is not for you my son,in force ye cannot be outdone,here’s how thy true fulfillment’s won,in this alone is safety..Tis’ Gods that all the strong become,to fire does my flesh succumb,my final screams be battle drum,in strength, go make thy safety..In pain The Spirit leaves me now!My former force, pass I to thou!Build kingdoms, this thee must avow!A million, billion kingdoms!.No refuge be, lest ye be great!Fly now, you fool, through fiery gate!A million, billion, kingdoms wait!A million, billion kingdoms!.(The main halls collapse in towering flames, the night is pitch black and starless)
I don’t presume Wilkins’ poem to be about China, or about Yuanmingyuan. Rather, the poem seems to be about the unfair, unjust, and often violent domination of the less powerful by the power powerful as somewhat inevitable. It mirrors the quote of famed historian Will Durant:
All nations are born stoic, and die epicurean.
China’s leadership at the time of the Second Opium War was mighty in its own lands, but lax in technological and military progress by European standards of the time. Japan, around this same era, modernized its entire country and military at an alarming speed, but China did not. It’s emperors preferred gardens and Daoist religious ceremony to competing on the world stage – to becoming.
And so it was that the nation that brought us paper, the printing press, gunpowder, and so much more was feeble in the face of a relatively modest – but modern – military force.
I’m certainly not a scholar of Chinese history. Reading the biographies of Mao and the First Emperor doesn’t shed light on Yuanmingyuan, and the few documentaries I’ve watched on the topic don’t address the sentiment of Chinese citizens. The period that followed the Opium wars is referred to as the Century of Humiliation (traditional Chinese: 百年國恥). The Americans, of course, never invaded China – not that any modern day French or English would repeat such aggressive behavior today even if they could.
But China is backwater no more, and since its swelling economic power under and after Deng Xiaoping (successor to Mao), China recognizes itself as the only true rival to the United States as a world power.
The following seem to be the case within China:
- Power: China’s star of power is rising
- AI Plan: China’s direct and overt plan to dominate the field of artificial intelligence seems vastly more committed than that of America, and it may benefit from continued leadership under Xi Jinping, China’s President for Life
- Societal Alignment: China seems content to Confucian obedience to its leadership, with academia and the private sector serving as extensions of the marshaled will of the state
And the following, with America:
- Power: America’s star of power seems to be falling
- AI Plan: America’s AI plan has come late, and it’s continued commitment by a successor administration is uncertain
- Societal Alignment: America seems content to tear itself to bipartisan political shreds, and to feel ashamed of itself as an oppressive and inherently bad nation
China has no less reason to feel ashamed of itself. From the Cultural Revolution to the strict control of speech and information to the treatment of modern Uyghurs, the list is long. Indeed many within China may lament some of its current and past missteps, as America often do those of America’s missteps. Person for person, the Chinese, as human beings, are no more or less blameworthy or “bad” than the Americans.
What China has now that America doesn’t is twofold:
- An acknowledgment of the good, the strength, the greatness of its traditions (not just bad memories of past actions and events)
- A compelling and powerful vision of the future for its country (including a clearly stated goal of global dominance in artificial intelligence)
Despite its technological prowess and all the aspects of modernity that rural China lacks, America today could be argued to have little but inner division and shame for itself – lacking anything close to a compelling vision for what it should do and be for itself or for the world. Most Americans feel that the international stage doesn’t exist, and that America will be comfortable and rich for their whole lifetimes, and for their children’s lifetimes.
In the Opium Wars, China handed “The Spirit” (Wilkins’ poem) to a stronger opponent (the Europeans), and America seems eager to hand “The Spirit” to China… or maybe America is just too tired to care about it anymore. The Americans will not compete. “In meekness, ne’er is safety,” though.
This doesn’t mean that violence is inevitable between the two nations (see: The Thucydides Trap).
This doesn’t mean that China needs to – or wants to – march on Western soil and burn and loot Western landmarks. Mutual prosperity in trade is probably a vastly more beneficial scenario for the citizens of both nations. That doesn’t mean that the more technologically advanced nation won’t get the rig the game in its favor, and ensure that its own interests are ensured at every turn.
This was almost certainly the case with America after World War II, and it would certainly be the case for any other nation who could become so dominant.
China’s more steadfast vision of its role on the global stage will see that vision vindicated, and that America may be ready to lose a defining role on the global stage.
There is reason for America to be ashamed – and there is reason for America to be proud. The same could be said of China.
There is reason for America to be ashamed of just how ashamed America seems to be with itself. The same could not be said of China.
There is reason for America to lament that America seems to not know “The Spirit” at all – half of America thinking that “The Spirit” doesn’t need to be fervently upheld (Yuanmingyuan befell the fate of this belief), and half of America believing America to be undeserving of even a shred of “The Spirit” itself.
There is reason for China to be proud and excited about its future. This is the right time for one’s star to rise, as the nation that masters artificial intelligence will wield unprecedented global power. Deity-like power, potentially.
Determining the trajectory of intelligence may well be in China’s hands if it can unite its public and private sector, press forward to its compelling vision, forego security and privacy concerns that might slow down its developments, and stave off political upheaval long enough to develop artificial intelligence to a degree that ensures its economic and military might to an unquestioned degree.
I’m not calling any of this “right” in a moral sense. I’m not calling the same motive, which may be taken up by Americans (albeit unlikely in their self-flagellation) “right.” I’m not calling the burning of Yuanmingyuan “right.” I’m merely painting a picture of the motives of man – with few current answers about what exactly to do about them.
The Legalist heart that beats behind the Confucian skin of China’s leadership could – regardless of what charges one could make against it – be appreciated for understanding well what Wilkins’ calls “Nature’s justice” – echoed in the last words of Alexander:
Aide: “To whom will we give the kingdom?”
Alexander: “To the strongest.”
The “kingdoms” of the next 40 years will not be colonial empires or widened national borders. The kingdoms of the next 40 years will be the creation and wielding of post-human artificial intelligence, and drastic human cognitive enhancement.
China’s rise provides it with an opening to learn from the laxity of its past emperors – to take advantage of the laxity and distracted-ness of America, and to win the greatest opportunity for power ever afforded to any nation on earth.
America can choose whether it wants to hand over its technological advantages in distraction and guilt, or if it will be a part of the global progression towards what is after humanity.
NOTE: Not all Chinese are Confucian, just as not all Americans are self-flagellating. Not all Americans are without a vision for Amercia, and not all Chinese are optimistic about China’s rising place in the international order. America still exerts tremendous global power through arguably all-too-numerous military bases. This essay cannot be a comprehensive assessment of two great and nuances nations – I paint with a broad brush here. What I aim to draw out is my own opinions about the relative strengths and China and weaknesses in America in reaching what I believe to be the great and final achievement f our species: The creation and post-human superintelligent AI.
Header image credit: Wikipedia