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Oct 2004 Journal

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A game of (dire - if unintended) consequences

Earlier this year a Chinese judge, acting as collegiate spokesman for the International Court of Justice, declared Israel's 'security fence' illegal. This brought to mind the 1930s joke pronouncement by the appointee of a regime to which the notion of a separation of powers between executive and judiciary - the foundation of law since Solomon's time - is quite alien. A foreign visitor to Berne notices a building called Ministry of the Navy and expressing his surprise at this to a local is told: 'If Germany can have a Ministry of Justice, and Italy a Ministry of Finance, then Switzerland can have a Ministry of the Navy.'

As for Peking sitting in judgement on other people's walls, let them reflect on the catastrophic impact the Great Wall of China had on world history. The motive behind the construction of this 2000-mile-long barrier was to keep out the Mongol hordes. In this it succeeded - but at what cost! Frustrated in their lust for plundering China the Mongols turned westwards in their search for loot, and thus triggered the Great Migration of the Peoples (Völkerwanderung).

The advancing Mongols set off a westward chain reaction among other groups of hunter-gatherers whose vanguard flooded into Europe and eventually threatened the Roman Empire. The movement of diverse races - Huns, Avars, Turkic peoples, Northern and Southern Slavs, Vlachs, Ostrogoths - across the vast Eurasian landmass permanently altered the population pattern of the Old World. It also dealt a deathblow to the Roman Empire. This was a huge setback to the advance of civilisation - how huge is indicated by the fact that the centuries after the Fall of Rome were commonly called the 'Dark Ages'.

TV has lately been churning out programmes about our debt to ancient Rome, focusing on such material achievements as the provision of clean drinking water. However, posterity's greatest indebtedness lies in the non-material sphere. The Pax Romana put an end to endemic inter-tribal wars from the Atlantic to the Black Sea, and from Hadrian's Wall to the Sahara. Just as importantly, they allowed their subjects religious freedom - alongside the obligatory worship of the deified Caesars (The Jews, it goes without saying, were too stiff-necked to accept this.)

Another huge boon was their bestowal of literacy on the top stratum of the hitherto unlettered ancient Britons, Gauls and other Celts. In addition, Rome acted as the conduit through which the legacy of Greek culture reached more backward regions distant from the Eastern Mediterranean. But Rome also bequeathed a beneficent legacy of its own in the form of the Latin language - the medium of communication among all educated Europeans right up to the seventeenth century.

The Great Wall of China meanwhile enabled Chinese civilisation to flourish free of the threat of Mongol invasion. However, by the thirteenth century the dynamic impetus behind China's cultural ascent petered out, and the country entered half a millennium of stagnation, which by the 1800s turned into cumulative decay.

There can be no doubt that, thanks to Communism, contemporary China has turned a corner and is on track to becoming a major player in the global economy. This incipient boom goes hand in hand with the claustrophobia of living behind a metaphorical wall which is most acutely felt in hitherto Western-influenced Hong Kong. Could the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong be the first sign that it is pay-back time for what the Chinese unwittingly did to the West - alias the Roman Empire - when constructing their Great Wall?
Richard Grunberger

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