After a gap of more than six years, your columnist is once again in the country that a century ago ran half the world. For years, indeed decades, he has been fascinated with the way in which a small island nation expanded across the globe to secure territory and resources to fuel its prosperity. Some say that much of the cause can be attributed to the spirit of democracy that pervaded the United Kingdom. However, this may be a simplistic view, for the reality is that the UK of the Empire period was a class-ridden nation, where the nobility (both economic and ancestral) had privileges denied to the many. Unlike in France or Russia, where there was a revolution against the aristocracy, the English never revolted against their nobility, except for the brief spasm of republicanism led by Oliver Cromwell four centuries ago. Of course, the difference between Britain and Russia was that in the former, it was much more easy for a low-born person to become wealthy than during the reign of the Tsars. When the nobility monopolised top positions the way the upper castes did in ancient India.
Inequality of income is a fact of life, but if this is accompanied by as severe an inequality in opportunity, then the society concerned becomes brittle and easy to break. In any country where a “caste” system develops, in which power and money get monopolised by a small segment on the basis of birth, there will come a period when such a society can no longer meet the needs and begins to fall apart. Such a danger exists even in the country that is today well on the way to becoming the next superpower, China. Should the Communist Party of China (CCP) get dominated by “princelings” (the children of top party leaders), then the hold of the party over the people will slacken, as will morale and motivation inside the party, which would change into an instrument for the retention of privilege created by birth. Already, a disproportionate share of the top echelons of the CCP comprise of cadres who were lucky to be born of influential parents. If this segment grows at the expense of those (such as current CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao) who were born from humble stock, the rapidly-evolving population of China would begin to lose respect and loyalty towards a party that has made China once again a Great Power.