Text Messages | The way (or not) of Winnie the Pooh

‘If we are smart, we will choose the way of Pooh,’ writes Benjamin Hoff. But Xi Jinping was having none of it, banning all references to his literary lookalike in the People’s Republic of China.

Why has a bear so offended the world’s most powerful man? And a fictional bear at that?

Power gets more irrational the more potent and unchecked it becomes: a variation on the old adage about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. So it’s not surprising that the president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Xi Jinping, should have an exaggerated opinion of his dignity and be utterly unwilling to see it diminished in any way.

That there is another claimant to the title of World’s Most Powerful Man is beside the point. Right now, the United States hardly qualifies as a single, coherent and governable entity, mired as it is in federal versus state skirmishing over who has the power to do what. And Donald Trump, the putative president of the US – Potus, in that pithy and amusing acronym – rages impotently against all and sundry, hardly the very portrait of a modern major president in charge of matters.

On the other side of the world, Xi presided over the annual gathering of what the world’s media quaintly insist on calling “China’s parliament”. This pro forma, rubber-stamping body of hundreds of delegates is charged with the ritual of approving the Great Leader’s programme of conquest, domination and subordination. Most offensive of this year’s “legislation” was the law extending PRC “anti-terror” laws over Hong Kong, which is legally still a self-governing entity until 2047.

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Make that nominally independent because the One Country, Two Systems apparatus that applied to Macau and Hong Kong is now dead in the latter. Hong Kong, that bare rock 150 years ago, that “fragrant harbour”, is now fully under the thumb of the PRC and no amount of British finger-wagging will change that. Perfidious Albion – aka the United Kingdom – has rarely been as hypocritical, expedient and morally repulsive as in its offer in early June of UK citizenship to about three million Hong Kong residents.

It is odd but true that Britain’s sense of democratic inclusion towards the inhabitants of Hong Kong developed only – and rapidly – as the colony was being prised loose from its grasp in 1997. And now there is a reflux of that reflex, with the Bojo government offering worthless citizenship to millions who don’t have the means to take it up – even if the PRC authorities allowed them to leave the city-state.

Uncanny resemblance

Xi is certain to act swiftly and decisively to kill any British attempts to intervene in Hong Kong. The most ruthless leader – no Dear Leader, this – since Mao Xedong, the most efficient since Zhao Enlai and the best strategist since Deng Xiaoping, Xi brooks no opposition. Imagine what it must have been like for lovers in China of Winnie the Pooh facing the wrath of their president. Anyone able to see will acknowledge at once the resemblance between AA Milne’s much-loved bear, Winnie, especially as portrayed in the beautiful illustrations by EH Shepard, and Xi. That became the nudge to users of social media in the PRC to refer to Xi as Winnie, or other parts of his name and species.

The Leader was not amused. State security instituted a campaign to root out resorters to the Pooh meme and references. Winnie himself was banned, a proscribed presence because of his dangerous ability to spark counter-revolutionary thoughts, let alone deeds. All autocracy goes this way: unchecked and arrogant behaviour that insists on peddling propaganda as truth, denying reality and cracking down on ethical and principled responses and opposition. It is a universal disease, from which no shades of the political spectrum are immune: it afflicts both Left and Right.

Deep wisdom

Unfazed by the PRC president’s banishing, Pooh Bear carries on amusing and teaching valuable lessons to millions of children and adult readers. Like the best, most profound Daoism, Pooh’s simplicity disguises deep wisdom. Pooh and his fellow travellers have inspired philosophical musings and an attempt to popularise and explain Daoism in the book The Tao of Pooh … in which The Way is revealed by the Bear of Little Brain by Benjamin Hoff (1982).

Hoff uses adventures and moments in the Winnie the Pooh stories to brilliant effect. He takes readers on a highlights tour of Daoism’s leading lights and leaves one informed, refreshed and at best illuminated. He ends by reflecting:

“If we are smart, we will choose the way of Pooh. As if from far away it calls to us, with the voice of a child’s mind. It may be hard to hear at times, but it is important just the same, because without it, we will never find our way through the Forest.”

The Hoff book owes its other debt to Dao de Ching (The Book of the Way), the 81 chapters that comprise the classic texts of Daoist wisdom, said to have been written by the Way’s greatest sage, Lao-Tzu, a contemporary of Confucius. And if Xi Jinping focused his mind, it is certain that he would recall its very last words:

“The Dao nourishes by not forcing.
By not dominating, the Master leads.” 

(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

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