Life is War: A Lao Wai Perspective on China

Life is war.  This is not a quote to be written on your mirror or a bumper sticker on a redneck’s car.  However, it is possibly the most important phrase to be remembered when attempting to understand the Middle Kingdom.  Competition is the driving force behind this internal war.  Of course, all humanity is at war for survival, but the Chinese have a very clear sense of it.  In their war, attributes such as intelligence, patience and cunning are considered more valuable than brute strength.  If they are able to make their adversary capitulate due to psychological pressure and illusion, then they have achieved the ultimate victory.  The Art of War by Sun Tzu is a philosophy of life, as the multitude of recent self-help books on the subject have made clear.  Geopolitical and social pressures helped shape this philosophy, just as they shape a nation and its people.

China is a country consisting of a massive population and limited resources, infrastructure or opportunities for them.  These factors help push China towards a more structured society where personal freedoms are less important than social control.  China believes it cannot have the majority of its citizens choosing the path less traveled.  They worry this sort of behavior could, and most likely would, lead to chaos.  Instead, social behavior is highly defined, and the path to success along with it.

It is simply a question of numbers.  In regards to resources, environmental scientists have spent the past decade or so attempting to explain the basic math.  If there is a finite resource (and lets face it, everything is finite on earth), then only a certain number of people can have access to the resource before it is gone.  In theory, resources can be shared equally among the global population (forgetting for a second who would pay to distribute it all), however, in the end, the resources will still eventually be depleted.  History has also shown this system to be untenable for a number of other reasons.  One reason is that people begin to take more than their fair share, usually by force.  Opportunities operate on the same basic principal of supply and demand.  When there is a finite number of opportunities and a massive supply of potentials to fulfill them, competition for those positions is typically fierce and brutal.  Fates can turn on the smallest advantage and the ability to separate from the pack is so limited that life becomes a game of dynamic chess, otherwise known as war.

The decades of exceptional economic growth has increased the number of Chinese who are now theoretically capable of upward mobility based on their level of education and professional skill sets.  This specific population growth has helped to create a bottleneck for access into higher social strata.  More Chinese have an expectation of success while a smaller percentage of them actually achieve it.  As China’s youth face ever more competition for fewer spots at the table, the pressure on the individual increases dramatically.  These pressures, and others, drive the war fought in the pursuit of success.    In China’s highly formalized society success is determined in very quantifiable terms.  The path, and the goals that must be achieved along it, is drilled into children from an early age.  They know what they must do, and they dread the ruin that could befall them, and their families, if they fail.  It remains to be seen if this pressure will finally boil over destroying a system that no longer offers them a measure of success.

In reality, almost anyone can recognize and appreciate the forces behind competition within their own society.  Every parent feels the pressure to provide for their children, just as most children want to make their parents proud.  We all fight everyday to succeed, however that is defined, and when we do succeed it is usually to the detriment of someone else.  The degree to which the Chinese must compete to succeed is exceptional.  There are many lessons to be learned from the Chinese about what life can be like when certain geopolitical, environmental and social realities are imposed on a large population of human beings living in a country with limited resources and too few opportunities.  The Chinese are a people forged through generations of competition and atypical warfare.  It would serve us well to learn from them as much as they learn from us.


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