Tacitus traps people who quote him

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).

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8 Responses to Tacitus traps people who quote him

  1. Jasper (I’ll-give-myself-a-ridiculous-upper-class-English-villain-name-to-show-them-how-much-I-hate-the-British) Tsang is all Pony and Trap rather than Tacitus.

    Tsang also has an uncanny ability to bend back his spindly fingers, reminiscent of ET.

    He used to look like Emperor Hirohito. Now he looks more like a frightened mollusc.

    SONG: “Everybody’s got something to hide except for me and my monkey” surely??

    A perfect piece for Tsang. The monkey on his back is called anti-Colonial bigotry. His brother Tak-sing has an even bigger monkey to carry at the Home Affairs Department.

  2. NENT PropertyDeveloper says:

    Certainly Jasper should get his teeth looked at.

    Good to see you debunking the CP-inspired rhetoric washing over us. It’s not really a trap, more like a political truism: “just deserts”, “bear the consequences”, “do unto others”, “rubbish in, rubbish out” or “serves them right” might be better English.

    It does seem that those using this rather inaccurate phrase have not bothered to check their sources, but simply recycled government press-releases.

    Sounds familiar?

  3. Old Timer says:

    Perhaps this explains why Paul Chan MoFo has been so Taciturn?

  4. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Tsang is returning the favour for “May you live in interesting times”.

  5. Jeff says:

    The thing is, Jasper has it entirely wrong. Had the government formulated ANY good policies the last 16 years, the people might love them, or at least tolerate them.

    There is no such Tacitus trap, because there are no good policies, and never will be with these dimwits.

  6. NENT PropertyDeveloper says:

    The correct quote is: “when a ruler once becomes unpopular, all his acts, be they good or bad, tell against him” (The Histories, Book I, trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb(?)).

    The immediate context is the suppression, by the most violent of means and without due process, of opposition to the central government, which must be why Jasper likes the idea.

  7. Local Tax Payer says:

    The deservedly unpopular ruler in question is Galba, who reigned for only 7 months before coming to a sticky end, inaugurating the Year of the Four Emperors.

    We live in decadent times, so can do nothing better than the Year of the Four Development Ministers.

  8. Joe Blow says:

    Any chance Paul Chan Mo-Po will sink the CY Lie ship ? It’s not like the good ship can get much lower.

    Interesting times indeed.

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