Mon | Dec 10, 2018

Walter Molano | The obsession with walls

Published:Friday | September 22, 2017 | 12:00 AM
A US Border Patrol vehicle drives in front of a mural in Tecate, Mexico, just beyond a border barrier in Tecate, California, on Friday, September 8, 2017. A French artist aiming to prompt discussions about immigration erected the 65-foot-tall image of a Mexican boy, pasting it to scaffolding built in Mexico. The installation overlooks a section of wall on the California border. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Donald Trump's obsession with the construction of a wall to separate the United States from Mexico is a theme that has resonated since the early days of civilisation.

Barriers, from the Walls of Jericho to Hadrian's Wall, mark important milestones in history. However, none is more impressive than the Great Wall of China. Understanding the role it played in the development of Chinese identity may provide important contrasts and insights.

In reality, the Great Wall is not a single structure. It is a series of barriers that were constructed over a period of two thousand years to protect China from warring nomadic tribes, mainly from Mongolia and Manchuria.

The works stretch from the shores of the Yellow Sea, just outside of Pyongyang, to the rugged edges of the Tibetan plain. Estimates of the length vary from 5,500 miles to 13,000 miles, depending on what branches and structures are included. Although defensive in nature, it played important political, economic and social roles in shaping China's development.

The first walls were built by the so-called Warring States. Not only were they constructed to keep out the Mongol hoards, but they were erected to defend against each other. However, they were eventually used to bring the states together, by unifying the fortifications into a single defensive structure.

In other words, they were used to unify China as much as to divide it. This is a theme that would be repeated over the next 2,000 years. The construction of the Great Wall also coincided with the development of the Silk Road.

One of the wall's functions was as a conduit to facilitate and protect the caravans that made the long journey. Therefore, in addition to serving as a source of economic activity, through the construction and maintenance of the structure, the Great Wall served an important role in facilitating international trade.

By the end of the Roman Empire, the export of Chinese porcelain and silks contributed significantly to the prosperity of the Tang Dynasty. Roman coins have repeatedly been found in ancient Chinese archeological sites.

Other economic functions

Interestingly, the Great Wall had other economic functions. It served as a meeting place for groups from both sides to meet and exchange goods. Hence, it was as a marketplace where Mongol tribesmen would bring horses, livestock and agricultural products to exchange them for Chinese textiles, furniture and pottery. The structure was also used as a means to communicate across the vast empire. Horsemen galloped along the stone steps to deliver messages. It was a superhighway of information and ideas.

It was through the Silk Road, and under the protection of the Great Wall, that the religious precepts of Buddhism made their way from South Asia into East Asia and China. The wall also served as a signalling device. A network of watch towers, guardhouses and fortresses were used to dispatch sound and visual signals up and down the line.

Last of all, the Great Wall marked the edge of civilisation. One side of the barrier represented stability and order, while chaos and savagery reigned on the other side. This served to heighten the attractiveness of China, while fanning the passion for the barbarians to invade.

In the end, the Great Wall failed to live up to its main purpose. It was breached countless times, and China eventually fell under Mongol, and later Manchu, rule.

From the perspective of the Great Wall, the Mexican Wall is rudimentary. It has few complementary features. Besides Trump's notion of lining it with solar panels, which is risible, the structure is unidimensional. Instead of fostering trade and commerce, it seeks to stymie it. Its only political feature is to unite the xenophobic fringe of the American electorate.

At the same time, like the Great Wall, it will be perceived as a target to be breached and circumvented. Tunnels will be borrowed underneath it, and millions of dollars will be needed to monitor and guard the structure.

Yet, the Mexican Wall will not prevent the demographic change that is transforming the US. From Texas to California, Latinos are becoming the prevailing part of American society. Latin culture dominates the region, and Latinos control both sides of the political spectrum. From the far-right rants of Ted Cruz to the liberal populism of Bill Richardson, Americans of Latin descent are becoming the defining voices of the US political system.

This is a fact that has not been lost on defence and security analysts. In 2009, George Friedman, one of the founders of the private intelligence group Stratfor, wrote The Next 100 Years, a forecast for the 21st century, where he argued that the blurring of the border will eventually lead to the rise of a transnational Mexican party that will represent constituents on both sides of the border.

Although farfetched, it is a reality that will not be altered by the construction of a wall. Just take a look at what happened in China. In the end, walls often serve more as a way to unite rather than to divide.

- Dr Walter T. Molano is a managing partner and the head of research at BCP Securities LLC.