The Future's Past
Despite the cold rain and mist, I am not lonely on deck as we steam into Yue Bay. Who joined me out of the natural enthusiasm of the tourist and who out of the curiosity of a passerby to a satomobile crash is something I cannot say. Yet as we pass Aang Memorial Island, all of us together crane our heads back to take in the reconstruction work there, where scaffolding rises as high as the monument that once and will soon again stand there.
Just five years ago, Excellence magazine reported on atrocities not seen since the height of the Hundred Years' War as they unfolded in the streets of Republic City. What started as a crackdown against Equalists forces after Avatar Korra's assassination by a disaffected university student quickly degenerated into a bloody free-for-all, with sectarian tensions new and old forming the battle-lines in civil war. Yet from the ashes of that conflict rose a new and unexpected force in the world: the United Peoples' Republic.
My first experience with the new order is at the Customs Office, where an immigration official hands me a white armband along with my stamped passport. Emblazoned on it are the words 'privileged foreign non-bender.' The punishment subsequently outlined to me for non-compliance, two lashings for starters, are enough to see I quickly don it. As I hunt for a taxi to take me to my interview, everyone I see is likewise wearing an armband: black-on-white for foreigners and white-on-black for natives. Bending status and occupation is clear for all to see.
A clear hierarchy is, according to Chairperson Shu Shi, of the utmost importance to maintaining the rule by law. A former political activist and grocer, Shi organized one of the city's first neighborhood militia after the Equalists took control of his district during the early days of the Peoples' Revolution.
Shi cuts a rail thin figure, something unexpected in a revolutionary who can't bend, but his weapons have never been physical. Sharp grey eyes never leave me during our interview, as if I were a potential shoplifter in his old store. Yet besides stacks of paperwork, the only item I could steal from his barren office is a bust of Chin the Conqueror. A man who, incidentally, the Chairperson looks to as a visionary.
"While Chin's methods for controlling an continent-sized territory were necessarily crude because of the primitiveness of his era, his was the first truly functional multicultural state."
And the United Republic of Nations was not?
Shi spreads his hands. "We're sitting here, aren't we?"
'Here' being the Tenzin Memorial City Hall building, where there hang warnings against bender and non-bender supremacism alongside proclamations of the virtues of Neo-Legalism. One such banner speaks of the dangers of free speech; how, like a smokestack, a solitary source can poison a whole community.
I join Shu Shi in his office for conversation over tea, as three silent State Security officers monitor us both while a fourth operates a tape recorder for future transcription. The United Peoples' Republic holds no one is above the law, most especially its rulers. Critics abroad have described the country's new government as a suicide pact. Surprisingly, Shi does not disagree.
In the Chairperson's view, multicultural nations require extra measures that monocultural ones do not. Ignoring those issues is what he feels doomed the United Republic from its onset. "When the Fire Lords colonized the western Earth Kingdom, they failed to grasp what Emperor Chin had: conquerors become the conquered. The Fire Nation tried to export its culture wholesale and failed. Instead, a toxic synthesis was created from the Earth Kingdom's rigid social stratification and the Fire Nation's fetishization of bending.
"For instance, an earthbender and a firebender working at an Early Colonial Era forge could produce steel of such quality that it was only three-quarters of a century ago machine-made steel could match it, and by then the social stigma against non-benders in steelmaking was entrenched in this country. This was true in other fields. Yet Fire Nation colonials regardless of bending could enjoy the benefits of first class citizenship, leaving non-bender Earth Kingdomers a permanent underclass useful for dirty jobs."
"Then Avatar Aang and Fire Lord Zuko, with the best of intentions, made everyone living in the colonies equal citizens under the law. Suddenly all non-benders were in the same boat."
So the Equalist Revolt was due to lingering classism from the Pre-Republican Era?
"In part," Shi replies, leaning forward. "The idea that animated both sides of the Equalist Revolt, that benders and non-benders are separate breeds, is a distinctly Fire Nation one. From the days of the Sun Warriors offering human sacrifice to the dragons, to the Fire Lord basing their legitimacy in blood and fire, to the tradition of agni kai, bending has symbolized supreme authority in their civilization.
"Yet the societal militarization of the Hundred Years' War meant non-benders were commonly trained in some weapon or fighting style, and they became respected by the firebending establishment for that martial skill. Someone like Royal Consort Mai, a non-bender, would have been unthinkable as the Fire Lord's bride pre-war. Such cultural evolution did not take place in the Colonies, as the Earth Kingdom non-bender underclass allowed such backwards attitudes to survive. Although the United Republic's law stated everyone was equal, custom meant that unrighteousness persisted."
It is here I interrupt the Chairperson. Isn't he contradicting himself, talking up how benders were more useful than non-benders to society but chiding the Fire Nation for championing benders?
"Of course not. While technology has and will eliminate their utility in certain fields, benders are undeniably more effective than non-benders where their talents can make a difference. Earthbenders as road repairers, for example. The problem both the pre-war Fire Nation and its former colonies had was that they upheld benders as innately superior. We in the Peoples' Republic understand better. Benders are superior in the right roles, but so are non-benders. What does bending have to do with the intellect needed for bookkeeping? Or schooling? Or politics? Our nation achieves its greatness in that we determine the right people for the right jobs and apply them, without being hampered by the softness and toxic customs that defeated the United Republic."
Such customs are what Chairperson Shu Shi and his cohorts in the Unity Party mean to stamp out with their draconian policies. The early results of the Peoples' Republic creation of a scientifically managed society has won it praise even from skeptical quarters. Tools such as my armband are meant to make it clear where every person stands in society and what expectations there are of them. Failure to meet those expectations results in reprimand for them and harsher reprimands still for those that misestimated their abilities to begin with. As such, crime and social unrest are down to a historical national low.
Shi scoffs at criticism of his government's methods. "Ours is a nation of peoples, not people. Maintaining civil order in our territory requires a firm hand. As Emperor Chin showed when he alone managed to truly unify the diversity of the Earth Kingdom under his banner, an unyielding and cruel law is the only way to deal with the conflicting, contradictory cultures of the peoples within such a nation. One need only look at the historical weakness of the Earth Kingdom's central government to see that truth. That is precisely why forward-thinking men and women in Ba Sing Se are supporting homegrown champions of neo-legalism like the Green Shirts Society."
As our alloted time comes to a close, Shu Shi gestures to a nearby window. "If the readers of Excellence wish to know what tomorrow will look like, they need only come to Republic City. Monarchism, democracy, and equalism are the failed creeds of yesteryear. We here are living in the days of the future's past!"