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Shoe-Nots and Shoe-Haves

Columnist John Li talks about the mentality that a dictatorial state would bring to the negotiation table.

A Chinese saying, "the barefooted are never afraid of those wearing shoes" (guang jiao de bu pa chuan xie de) captures very well the standoff between the West and some states. Traditionally, China, an agrarian nation, has largely been populated by farmers who, for the convenience of working in the fields and saving some hard-earned money, are barefooted throughout most of the production seasons. The tradition was well-kept at least until the Cultural Revolution, when the "barefooted doctors" system — where farmers working in the field received some basic medical training to serve the community — won wide acclaim at the United Nations, a distinction easily recognizable when China was writhing in one of its most tumultuous historical periods.

Now, I can see the puzzlement in your eyes: Does this historical fact about Chinese farmers’ footwear — or lack thereof — go any further? The relation between the West and the axis-of-evil countries are defined by nukes, not shoes, right? I agree; yet, I still believe the Chinese proverb about shoes is penetrating in capturing the essence of the relationship. If you were a poor farmer in China, a barefooted "ni tui zi," (literally, "mud-covered legs,") as you would be called, you have little, if not nothing, to lose in your fight with someone rich enough to buy himself a pair of shoes. Since you don’t have shoes, you don’t need to worry about the stains to your shoes, and may care less about the bruises to your body or mind in case of a fight. Moreover, if you can’t afford shoes or prefer going without them, you may not have much property to start with, while the shoe-haves may have to worry about broken windows or other property damage — so, in the jargon of economics, it is about asymmetrical loss functions. Perhaps, the shoe-haves would warn you that you could be put in jail if you make too much trouble for them, but isn’t that a hilarious proposition? You would be fed punctually while lying on the bed watching TV, no longer having to do the tedious work to earn your take. Speaking of any damages you have to pay, you don’t even have shoes…

Actually, the Chinese proverb became a proletarian formula that released forces more powerful than what Einstein could have imagined in response to his famous energy equation. In China’s most impoverished quarters, Mao Zedong and his comrades led the mob of shoe-nots to rob those shoe-haves. "Farmer friends, you have nothing to fear; you shall go to the beautifully decorated harems of the landlords’ daughters and jump and roll to your whims in their beds on ivory frames," he famously exhorted in one of his many incendiary works, which only set me dreaming about the good times I had missed when I studied it as a mandatory political reading in elementary school. As it turned out, it took Mao and his small farmers’ army less than 20 years (excluding the time to fight the Japanese) to conquer the vast countryside and drive out the rich from the cities for good, to be the creator and leader of the "New China." He called it the strategy of "taking the countryside first and then encircling the cities," a theory that has since mesmerized numerous Maoist guerrillas, including Fidel Castro, Pol Pot, and Bin Laden.
"Aha, I got it now." Your strained face is loosening into a smile — "It is quite an analogy; the shoe-haves are the ones that have nukes, and those ‘shoe-nots’ are the ones without nukes but wanting to get their hands on them." You’re only half right, though. Because the proverb is more about a mentality — those with nuking power can still use it if they have the same mentality.

The Chinese general Zhu Chengwu made it clear to the world that China planned to use nuclear weapons to attack America at the expense of two thirds of its population and all the prosperous areas. His words suggest that China, as one of the five declared nuke powers and the fastest-growing economy, still falls into the trap of the "shoe-less" mindset, which has been so successful for the communist regime to take over the country. Indeed, as in the wars against the Nationalist government and the United States in Korea, the Chinese Communists refuse to see the Chinese people as the rightful recipient of their service and beneficiary of their protection. Rather, they would see themselves as "barefooted," devoid of attachment to anyone or any physical object, including land, so that maximum benefits and concessions can be extracted when dealing with the West, the "shoe-haves."

Now, let’s swap the positions. Suppose you are the one who wears shoes. When someone in the street threatens you, what do you want to do? If it is about your personal security, you probably have to relocate to somewhere else, leaving behind your beautiful house and other properties. That was exactly what happened to the rich in China in the face of the encroachment of the communist-led "shoe-less" revolution — they fled the mainland and stayed on the island of Formosa, until now. Well, if the threat is less serious and you don’t want to leave your home, what do you want to do? You will negotiate. That is right; you want to talk to that "barefooted" guy and cut a deal with him.

But if your attempt to come up with a deal fails, do you still have an option? Yes, you want to get more people involved: your friends, the friends of that "shoe-less" guy — and some people who you thought should be your friends but turned out otherwise. Now, welcome to the six-party talk to resolve the nuclear tension on the Korean peninsula. The North Koreans, the shoe-nots, won again, just as they did in 1994, when they waited until President Carter came to the rescue. This time, it took the Bush administration much longer to blink, but the smile on the face of Condoleezza Rice reminded us of the same one worn by President Carter, suggesting that the North was destined to win from the very beginning. This is a fact that dictated by the different way the United States goes about its business than the North, something even a seemingly hard-nosed Bush with steely resolve can’t change. The good thing about being an unfortunate "shoeless" is that he is somehow the privileged party in any negotiation who can turn the table upside down anytime he needs money, attention, or "formal recognition," just like a three-year-old’s tantrum, as no rules apply to him. If you are not convinced, consider this, the compromising North backtracked only several hours after the handshaking and champagne drinking that celebrated the success of the talk in Beijing.
The terrorists, or "insurgents" as they are more often called in the press, in Iraq are betting on the same strategy. No one, including themselves, would believe they can defeat the Americans on the battlefield. But they believe as long as they endure, they will succeed, because someone will help them out — not necessarily in the fights but maybe in the editorial pages. Indeed, they are the ones without shoes, and when they win, they will get everything; it is always the "advantaged" party that is more eager to cut a deal. Call it a "superiority complex."

Karl Marx proclaimed in the Communist (Communist Manifesto) that "all that the proletariats will lose (in their fight) is their shackles; what they gain will be the entire world." Since then, when Pandora’s Box was opened, a cataclysmic force was gathered to crush the old paradigm, traditions, values, and systems that humankind had respected for thousands of years. They almost won, with the non-proletariats, the ones with shoes, retreating and accommodating as a way of strategy, until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the tide turned, with no foreboding at all. None of this, however, would give us the peace of mind that the lethal maelstrom of this unorthodox thinking has receded once and for all, because if you discount the few bastions it still has today, there will always be people who feel "unfairly disadvantaged" as they don’t have "shoes," and who will find it inspirational to read Karl Marx to make it even. Now, ask yourself — am I going to blink?