Legislative Council President and pro-Beijing loyalist Tsang Yok-sing warns that the Hong Kong government risks falling into the “Tacitus trap” over the Paul Chan-New Territories land outrage/uproar/thingummy. In its online report yesterday, the South China Morning Post explains…
The term “Tacitus Trap” comes from the Roman historian Publius Gornelius Tacitus (56-117 AD), who argued that neither good nor bad policies would please people if they resent their government. This was later called the “Tacitus Trap” by scholars.
The Standard concurs.
While knowing that Tsang is a bookish type, I still can’t help but be impressed at his knowledge of classical Western writings. And an obscure one: imagine my surprise on Googling in English “tacitus trap” as one phrase and finding only 1,690 results, many of them in Chinese publications. I then Googled the Chinese equivalent “塔西佗陷阱”- and found 714,000 results.
A closer (though hardly exhaustive) rummage through the digital detritus suggests two things. First, the ‘Tacitus trap’ concept seems to have been created in (or originally adopted in and confined to) China and Chinese-derived media. Second, it is a pretty recent invention, perhaps dating back no further than 2011. There is no evidence that Tacitus himself ever said anything of this sort; rather, it seems to be a sort of meme or urban myth apparently given the stamp of approval in Mainland media for use in those incessant warnings in China Daily and elsewhere about the quality of governance in the Mainland. China Daily also mentions a Confucian quote on the same subject, but apparently prefers the idea to come from a Westerner. One Chinese writer has already used the phrase in a US magazine, so perhaps the ‘Tacitus trap’ will end up being a part of Western political science after all.
Tacitus is famous for saying “the more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the state,” or something very like it. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have become so well-known in the Mainland; they could call it the ‘Bo Xilai trap’.
If the Chinese Communist Party really wants to start using classical Roman slogans, it could try “If you wish to be loved, love!” (Seneca) or the even better “If you wish to be loved, be lovable!” (Ovid).