China marches again, tyrannous and toxic

Go, if you possibly can, to see The First Chinese Emperor, the exhibition devoted to the Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuangdi that opens next week at the British Museum. It is at once enthralling and intimidating.

If you are anything like me, you will be captivated by the exquisite craftsmanship of the artefacts on display in the old Reading Room. Pride of place rightly belongs to the 17 terracotta warriors the Museum has borrowed from the army that guards the Emperor's vast (and only partially excavated) tomb at Xi'an. These clay soldiers are indeed Qin (pronounced "chin") Shihuangdi's most famous legacy, and deservedly so. Ever since a farmer stumbled upon the buried army in 1974, they have symbolised the vanished might of an ancient empire.

The figures are slightly larger than life. They are also exquisitely detailed; no two are the same. And they look formidably well trained and armed. The most important point about the terracotta warriors, however, is that they were mass produced. One fascinating exhibit portrays what must surely have been the first ever production line, with a long row of skilled workmen assembling the moulded clay components just as Henry Ford's workforce assembled Model Ts two millennia later.

advertisementAnd that brings me to what is intimidating about the First Emperor: the sheer scale of his economic achievement. I was lucky enough to attend the preview held for the exhibition's sponsors, Morgan Stanley. All around me, the bankers were marvelling not just at the craftsmanship on display, but also at the sophistication on which it so clearly rested. A group of us clustered around a glass case full of ancient coinage, for among Qin Shihuangdi's many achievements was a unification of his realm's monetary system. We were stunned to learn that the simple circular coin he introduced - with a hole, like a Polo mint - was the standard Chinese means of payment right down to the 20th century.

Nor was that all. The First Emperor also erected the precursor of the Ming-era Great Wall, an extraordinary edifice that snakes over impossibly hilly terrain in north-western China. Under his rule, hundreds of thousands of labourers toiled to build roads and canals. The vast subterranean palace at Xi'an, where he intended to rule for all eternity after his death, was only the last of many astonishing feats of construction.

We should not, of course, succumb to uncritical Sinophilia. Qin Shihuangdi may have claimed to rule "all under heaven" after uniting the Middle Kingdom in 221 BC, but others in the Occident had similar aspirations. In the same year, Hannibal conquered Spain for Carthage and Ptolemy IV succeeded to the throne of the pharaohs. But it would be the Roman empire that triumphed in the West. By 117 AD the Emperor Trajan ruled from the borders of Scotland to the Persian Gulf.

Nor did Qin Shihuangdi's empire endure for 10,000 years, as he intended. Periodically, as happened after his death, the empire would fall apart as a result of foreign invasion or civil war. That was also China's fate in the mid 20th century.

Nevertheless, the First Emperor unquestionably laid the foundation of what has been, for most of history, the world's most populous state. And that is really the point that this exhibition is intended to convey. Other empires may come and go. China's is eternal. The years of decay in the 19th century and upheaval in the 20th were mere interludes. Today the Middle Kingdom is back. And the First Emperor's legacy is very much alive.

It is not terracotta soldiers they mass-produce in China nowadays, needless to say, but plastic dolls. Nor does China's wealth any longer take the form of coins with holes. According to a report published last week by Institutional Investor, total financial assets under management in Asia surged to a record high of $9.2 trillion last year, with China's growing the fastest. While the rest of the world is feeling the pain of a credit squeeze triggered by US sub-prime mortgages, China's economy continues to expand at a blistering pace. It is an amazing 10 times larger today than it was in 1978, and continues to grow at around 10 per cent per year. As an exporter China is poised to overtake the US this year and as a producer in 2027. Not surprisingly, China's domestic stock market has gone through the roof. (Ironically, a Morgan Stanley report last week warned of a Shanghai "super bubble" that would very likely burst next year.)

This empire, in short, is shaping up to be the mightiest empire of them all. And unlike previous Chinese empires, this one has overseas ambitions. Anyone who visits Africa returns with tales of Chinese engineers building roads, bridges and port facilities, to expedite the extraction of the Dark Continent's raw materials. In Asia the talk is of China's "soft power", designed to lure neighbouring countries into Beijing's diplomatic embrace. And, since the purchase of IBM's PC business by Lenovo, Chinese investors have become players in the West as well. China's foreign reserves now exceed $1 trillion - quite a war chest for its new "sovereign wealth fund" to draw on.

The alarming thing about this new Chinese imperialism is, however, its illiberal character. At home, the authorities drum it into a population of 1.3 billion people that unity and order matter more than freedom. Abroad, they have no qualms about doing deals with dictatorial regimes, regardless of their human rights records. Two-thirds of Sudan's oil output goes to China. I have even heard tell of Chinese restaurants in Darfur.

That too is Qin Shihuangdi's legacy. For the First Emperor was a tyrant who forcibly suppressed Confucianism and feudalism because, by their very existence, scholars and landlords challenged his claim to a monopoly on power. He imposed laws by diktat, sentenced hundreds to death and, by one account, ordered the burning of books.

It is not merely free speech that the Chinese empire has a history of restricting. Equally circumscribed is the most basic of all economic rights: the right of private property ownership. That matters because, in the absence of clearly defined and extensive private property rights, it is well-nigh impossible for individuals or communities to resist that systematic despoliation of the environment that is a direct consequence of China's rampant state-led industrialisation. There is nothing to stop local Party hacks and their cronies from grabbing land to build factories. And there is nothing to prevent them from treating neighbouring land as a dumping ground.

In terms of conventionally measured growth, China is a miracle. In terms of pollution, however, it is a catastrophe so bad that the latest edition of Foreign Affairs calls it "The Great Leap Backward". Coal-burning power stations spew forth sulphur dioxide and particulates. Acid rain and soil exhaustion are inexorably enlarging the Gobi Desert. Dust storms and brown smog clouds are becoming commonplace. So are pollution-related cancers. And China's water supply is so contaminated with chemical fertilisers, toxic pesticides, industrial effluents and untreated sewage that it kills about 400,000 people a year. Some cities in the north-east could run out of water in five to seven years. At this rate, the Chinese President Hu Jintao may go down in history as the Thirst Emperor.

But these are not just Chinese problems. China leads the world in carbon dioxide emissions and illegal timber imports. Fish in the Pacific are swallowing Chinese toxins. People in LA are inhaling them. Symptomatic of the unfolding environmental catastrophe in China have been recent scandals about poisonous substances in Chinese-made pet food, toothpaste and now toys.

The Chinese empire began, spectacularly, with an army of terracotta soldiers. But it is no coincidence that the effigies it now mass-produces are lead-painted dolls. Perhaps a few thousand of these should be set aside to be interred with Hu Jintao when he, too, finally goes the way of all emperors.

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