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Taste of China

So many similarities with Iran

By Amir Khosrow Sheibany
December 18, 2002
The Iranian

My initial observation as an Iranian on a first trip to China, and it's quite funny really, is that everyone is Chinese (ba chesh-haye badoomi). And goodness me there is a lot of them, all busy doing God knows what. Walking around this historic land, I couldn't help but ask myself, "ina digeh chimigan?". And so began the 3rd and last leg of my 2001 summer trip that started in Siberia,continued to Kamchatka and ended with a small taste of China.

I had traveled by train from Vladivostok in Russia to Harbin in China. The most exciting part of this segment of my trip was watching the whole train being raised by some special crane and having it's wheels changed to accommodate the narrower Chinese tracks. Chit chatting with the other passengers I learnt that the Chinese call the Russian the "hairy people". I thought, Wait until they get a load of me!

From Harbin I made my way to Beijing and wow. China is not an adaptation or variation of any other culture. It is an original "other world". First port of call, via Bicycle, was the Forbidden city. Here the Emperor's of this civilisation lived with their 72 concubines. Interesting that there was housing for 72 concubines. Did the Emperors die in "Jihad" and end up here? I remembered on another trip, some years back to Lebanon, I meet a sect called the Druze. They are a sort of hybrid between Muslims and Orthodox Christians and believed if they are good in this life, when they die they will go to China.  Hmmm I thought. 

I asked my tour guide how many main wives did the Emperors have, would it be 4 by any chance? She replied that the last Emperor had 3 "full" wives to the best of her knowledge but the first Emperor of the Communist Dynasty, Chairman Mao, had 4 wives. (One of these wives said in a show trial that she was Mao's dog. She would bite whoever he told her to).

The mystery deepened. There was so many similarities between China and Iran. Ancient history, culture and even modern revolutionary history of war, terror, fatigue and betrayal. The unity of this diverse nation / civilization (much like that of Iran) is reinforced, legitimated and sustained by a strongly felt and deeply ingrained sense of cultural superiority that, in their case, is augmented by Confucianism with its stress on harmony, hierarchy and discipline, and of course an imperially expedient philosophy of life.

With history and cultural books at hand, and smart young (and pretty) university students as my tour-guides, I planned to dig deep and see if I can forecast the future of Khomeini's Islamic Republic from what I see here. 

The Chinese government have asked the outside world to stop using the name Peking and stick with the original name Beijing, which means literally Northern Capital. Nanjing, Xian and Tokyo mean respectively southern, western and eastern capitals. Looking at these words in Chinese characters you get to see the connection in these names.

The country is actually called Zhong Guo by it's people, and it's people call themselves Zhong Guo Ron, it is the Europeans that called it China, just like they used to call our country Persia, where as we knew each other as Irani (Irooni if you're from Tehran). Zhong Guo means literally the middle kingdom. They saw themselves as the center of the world also! What a surprise :-)

China comes from the name of their first important emperor, Chin, who united the various tribes into one big identity. Emperor Chin was the one who made the Terracotta warriors. Before him, emperors would bury their top generals and personal belongings with themselves, kind of like what the Pharaohs of Egypt would do. That would make the wisdom shown by burying only Terracotta warriors, like our declaration of human rights for the newly conquered, an example of tolerance and breadth of vision, that would lead to the improvement of the human condition and what's more Chin was around not so long before our own Cyrus (Kourosh Kabir) united the Pars and Medes.

Communication is impossible in China. Not only are the Chinese characters difficult to remember, not only is the language unlike anything one has heard before, sitting with my first taxi driver made me realize that I couldn't even figure out from my drivers facial expressions if he's happy, angry, anxious oe enquiring? The only light at the end of the tunnel as far as communication is concerned, is the Latin alphabet system of phonetics, (Han Yu Ping Ying which literally means Chinese pronunciation).

After a quick scan of China's revolutionary history it became clear that China's story is going to be the dream destiny of Khomeini's Islamic Republic. Closer analysis might yield, I thought, to greater insight into future Khatami and friends rhetoric. The Chinese Republicans killed 30 to 60 million people in what was known as the 'great leap forward'. Later they butchered the intellectuals and cultured and called it the 'cultural revolution'. The revolutionary leadership then went on and lived in the homes of the rich and Mao lived and behaved exactly the same as the old style, pre-enlightenment Emperors of China. Having exhausted their communist rhetoric they have adopted a more capitalist ideology and subsequently blossomed.

Today they are searching for a formula where the old communist leadership (and their children) can keep their new found homes and unjust privileges, and make a U-Turn back to pre-revolutionary values and rationalities, having realized themselves that their ideology was a waste of national time. Does any of this sound familiar ?

They say on the street Mao was 90% right, 10% wrong. Clearly the number of people killed under his orders, the magnitude of the stupidity of his actions and the actual results in comparison to the original promises are not taken into account in these ratio's. It's the ratio of the number of idea's the revolutionaries "borrowed" that make sense today, against what is now clearly seen as absurd.  So to nip the Khomeini's Islamic Republic future rhetoric in the bud let us all show initiative and say the Mullahs in Iran were 80% wrong, 20% right !

Beijing was ultra modern and efficient. A far cry from the weakness China felt 100 years earlier when British armed forces burnt the magnificent summer palace as a punishment for the then Empress for not accepting extremely one sided treaties that would have left China a vassal state of Britain. This profound sense of cultural humiliation has motivated the Chinese throughout the twentieth century.

A trip to Xian, it's excellent dumplings restaurant, Muslim quarter with fantastic street food and nearby Terracotta warriors is highly recommended to all would be Iranian travelers. The Terracotta Warriors left me with the same impression as Takhte Jamshid (Persepolis), except it is presented to tourist in a much better way. The building protecting their national treasure is constructed in such a way to magnify the scale of the site and suggest that today's China is as alive and as magnificent as their ancestors once were.

The Muslim quarter is very serene and unpretentious. The style of the mosques are derived from the Chinese style. The behavior of the Muslims men and women, some of whom are covered, is dignified and noble. Walking around here, one does not think whether Islam can be reformed or not into the modern civilized world, one wonders whether the Shiite mullahs of Iran, who have made Islam their 'eternal' business, will ever be able to join the modern civilized world. Ever?

Next was Hangzou. Considered the most romantic location in China. A very interesting national tea museum (worthy of an article in itself), grotto caves and mountain walks much like Tehran's stone park. I was taking it easy here on Sept 11th and heard nothing of the plane that struck my colleagues at Marsh in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center.

And finally Shanghai. Double Wow. It is bigger and better than London or New York. A center of arts and culture. I went to the Shanghai club, in the old British concession area, with its 110 foot bar. It was here that the British were drinking gin & tonic while the Japanese bombed the city. Shanghai's city plan is good example of why the "market" should not decide everything and a bit of central planning by government technocrats is a blessing.

When I left China, the seriousness of the events of Sept 11th were not yet evident to me. I left thinking whether the mullah Khatami and friends in Iran are hoping to prolong their own "cultural revolution" by following the path taken by the Chinese communist? And whether there would be any chance that they would succeed?

For the Khomeini Islamic Republic to be successful, like the Chinese communists, the scenario would have to be (1.) the death of the Valayat Faghi, through prostate cancer or bullet or something, (2.) a show trial of Khalkhali, Rafsanjani and a couple of other senior mullahs and blaming everything on them, and (3.) the whole Khatami team, under a well groomed successor, then turning up one day in suits and ties (or something other than their turban and superman cape) and taking the position of the opposition and saying they were morally on the peoples side all this time.

Would it work? No chance!

The Chinese communist took on an old, weak and economically backward (and humiliated) Imperial system and forced it into the 21st century. The mullahs instead cheated a population groping for greater political participation, a population that had achieved a living and educational standard comparable to that of Spain, a rate of growth in excess of Malaysia and a strong, distinguished military that kept the peace and instead forced us into the 7th century with the associated poverty, misery and of course war. 

To top this up, the disruptive consequences of a population explosion (encouraged by the Khomeini Islamic Republic's promotion of the 3rd pillar of it's ideology), poverty-driven migration (as a result of Khomeini Islamic Republic's economic policies) and the resulting radicalizing urbanization, will mean that at some point the politically and the socially disaffected in Iran are likely to join forces in demanding more freedom of expression and respect for human rights. That did not happen in the 1998 student uprising, but it will probably happen next time.

The more realistic scenario, and the one we in the Diaspora should plan for, is that the mullahs and their relatives can see the demise of their lovely regime as inevitable. They will thus try and stay in power (in the shadows of the Khatami / Khamenei game) until just before the end. In this time they will intentionally create such mischief and economic malaise in the country that when they run, the country is so devastated that for several years no one can even start to think about where in the world these people are, who they are, and how did they manage to accumulate their golden nests. At a later date they will probably return as wealthy expatriates, in a different attire supporting whoever happens to be in power at the time. 

This group would already know that the disadvantaged and unemployed and increasing restless young (who's level of frustration is growing at an exponential rate), along with the ability of modern communication to intensify their rupture with traditional authority while making them increasing conscious and resentful of being cheated by the "Khatami and Khamenei good cop/bad cop game" make the demise of the IRI an inevitability. Any talk of a national referendum to resolve Iran's political deadlock would be like taking a second cup of poison for them.

Unlike a booming China, a real regional super power (on par with the pre-1979 Imperial Iran), Mullah Iran is an outright economic and political failure - though much of this malaise will be obscured until the very end by the systemic secrecy and self-isolation of the "bonyads" and other government organs. I am sure we will all be stunned by the seeming rapidity of the "religious democracy experiment's" self-destruction.

Should, God forbid, those who advocate prolonging Khomeini's Islamic Republic perish as the final sacrifice to the Great Imam, they can at least have the sense of peace and serenity that it is possible, just possible, that they will be re-incarnated in eternal China.

Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell me to fix it.

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By Amir Khosrow Sheibany




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