There was a thread running through “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” that demands attention: the issue of slavery. Slavery as a constant. The empires of the past all became wealthy on the slave trade; and it was the primary ‘commodity’ of the traders going back and forth on that ancient stone path. Parthians and Assyrians and Persians – Ottomans and Romans, the Greeks before them, all were enriched by the trafficking of people for sale in the markets of the powerful. And the greatest slave-trade in history? The sale of Caucasians, Slavs and Tatars, rounded up by the Mongols and the Golden Horde given to the Genoese in Crimea to be sold into Asia Minor. A silk road of human misery, stretching backward in time. Slaves making empires great; an industry as ancient as it is modern.
I was recently watching a debate between Steve Bannon and Bernard-Henri Levy about the future of globalization, when I was struck by Bannon’s central thesis. “The fundamental reality that the world is unwilling to come to grips with,” he said (I’m paraphrasing), “is that the dark core of ‘globalism’ is a slave economy that is destroying the wealth and opportunity of free workers. That is what we were trying to fight against.”
“The liberal elites,” he continued, “the oligarchy, the new aristocracy – the party of Davos (as he is fond of saying, gesturing at Henri Levy who has become globalism’s greatest advocate) – you know this, but it is an uncomfortable truth which you are unwilling to accept. Because it would affect your pocketbooks.” I was transported to a visit I made to Monticello, the slave plantation of the world’s greatest liberal who knew well in his heart of hearts he was doing wrong, that he should have the courage of his convictions, but who found the price too high, literally. For Jefferson, too, was enamored with the finer things.
China is a slave economy. That at least we now know. Enslavement is always about the forced labor of ‘others’. To be sure, the feudal system in Russia or the indentured servants in the United States are a form of forced labor, but in those systems there remained a certain amount of noblesse oblige, limited as it might have been, a recognition of the symbiotic relationships between the nobles and their peasants. True enslavement recognizes no obligations, however limited. China’s serf economy – exploiting the workers of the rural areas to serve at the pleasure of the cities – provided the initial inputs of cheap labor. That lasted only until education, ‘entitlement’ and organization increased – and with them hourly wages. The nobility who make up the Chinese Communist Party was forced to bend. They then had a choice. Accept limited growth, improve the quality of their products, reduce the avarice of the nobility – or resort to slavery. They chose poorly, doubling down on the enslavement of the 11.6m Uyghur population. Uyghurs, who since the days of the Mongols have always been ‘others’ – a Turkic nuisance to the political project of the Han Chinese.
Uyghur slavery is making China great.
This is hard for us to accept, especially because the cold truth is that we have plenty of “Made in China” on the labels of our clothes and on the underside of our children’s toys, and this makes us complicit – though we are not a part of the “Party of Davos”. And we know that at the other end of the ever-shrinking chain is a miserable human desperate for somebody to set them free, even if it will cost me an additional dollar at Walmart.