Recently, this reporter chanced upon an article in China’s official news agency, Xinhua, which talks about the need for members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to serve the people and bring about the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Laudable and indeed understandable thoughts, except that two words in the article had me confused. These refer to ‘Tacitus Trap’. Considering myself fairly well informed, I was foxed by this term, and wondered if there was a typographical error instead of Thucydides Trap, another recent favourite of the Chinese media.
A visit to Google, however, reveals an interesting story. Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a historian of the Roman Empire, who lived till the year 120 A.D. Tacitus wrote at least five histories of the period, which have had significant influence on Western philosophy over centuries. However, from a reading of what is available, Tacitus seems to have gained many powerful admirers in China.
Internet searches on Tacitus almost consistently reveal his name to be Publius ‘Gornelius’ Tacitus. The reason is that the most quoted article on the matter (China Daily, 4 September 2012), mis-spelt Cornelius as Gornelius, and obedient Chinese netizens picked it up without any attempt at fact checking. The concept of the Tacitus Trap apparently posits that ‘neither good nor bad policies would please the governed if the government is unwelcome’. It also warns leaders that ‘when a government loses credibility, whether it tells the truth or a lie, to do good or bad, will be considered a lie or to do bad’.
Except that no student and expert of Tacitus has ever heard of this ‘trap’. There is, it seems, real innovation taking place in China, perhaps as desired by Supreme Leader Xi Jinping. This involves making up non-existent quotations, from people long dead (nearly 1900 years ago in this case), who are not there to clarify matters. Thankfully, the works of historians like Tacitus have survived in original Roman and English translations. And, these by no stretch of the imagination, seem to even remotely contain concepts attributed to Tacitus.
Xi Jinping and his propaganda team in the CPC have been looking to Confucius and other Chinese thought leaders of the past to justify the harsh measures to purify a corroding party. They have also made it explicit that Western philosophy and philosophers are persona-non-grata in today’s China.
In the past five years, professors teaching Western philosophy as part of their courses have been punished, the curriculum in leading universities suitably ‘de-westernized’, and a general clamp down has been in place on the freedom of academic thought.
It is a contradiction, therefore, that a Western historian has been revived (artificially, as it turns out) to push the party’s policies against corruption and mismanagement by senior party cadres.
Paradoxically, the manufactured quotations from Tacitus seem to indict Xi Jinping and the CPC! It cannot escape even the casual viewer that the kind of government currently in place in China surely is unwelcome. It, therefore, follows that no policies of the present government would please the people.
It is also useful to mention here the broad popularity of another ancient ‘trap’, the so called Thucydides Trap, which is meant to imply that whenever a rising power becomes strong, the existing established power feels threatened. This is often quoted by Chinese experts to try and explain the ‘insecurities’ developing within the US, stemming from the rise of a confident China.
Here too, respected professors from Yale and Harvard have pointed out years ago that the so-called Thucydides Trap does not exist in the original Greek texts. A tenuous link can perhaps be drawn, but only after putting into perspective the actions of the stronger established power, an exercise that is completely different from the Chinese narrative.
So, the two ‘traps’ again prove the success of Xi Jinping’s policies of bringing innovation into manufacturing. In an innovative manner, the ‘Tacitus Trap’ has been manufactured by Chinese propaganda, and is now being foisted upon an unsuspecting world.