Since the Mao era, China has been repeatedly giving assurances that it would “never seek hegemony and never behave like a superpower”.
On 9 April 1974, during the Sixth Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) held in New York, Deng Xiaoping himself made a solemn pledge to the whole world to that effect. As soon as reform and opening up produced substantial results, China began to speak of its “peaceful rise”, but quickly rephrased it as “peaceful development”, fearing that the word “rise” would put other countries on edge.
The PRC’s people too, see the notion of the “Chinese threat” as very laughable.
Until today, the leaders of the People's Republic of China (PRC) maintain that there is no DNA of outward invasion and expansion in Chinese cultural tradition. The PRC’s people too, see the notion of the “Chinese threat” as very laughable. To most Chinese, the desire for peace is sincere and real.
Disbelief in China's desire for peace
In spite of all this, few people in the international arena are buying such an argument, which remains largely a monologue of a major power. There are three reasons for this.
The first is the sheer magnitude of China’s impact on globalisation. The shockwave of the rise of China reaches every corner of the planet, and the challenges it presents are truly global in nature. The uncertainties it introduces in the world will take a long time to resolve.
The second reason has to do with the general pattern of the rise of major powers. Once a country ascends to become the world’s number two, it is bound to face multiple pressures. Not only does the existing numero uno instinctively seek to stymie the challenger’s rise, but the other countries would also weigh the pros and cons between the two and decide on the basis thereof on what strategy to follow.
In any case, the whole world would scrutinise the new number two as the next bellwether of global leadership and apply much higher standards on it as it would for regular states. As a result, at the receiving end of the scrutiny, the number two has a sense of running into harsh requirements at every turn, and enduring the pressure of double standards.
In contrast to Japan, which had eagerly emulated the West when it was rising, China emphasises “confidence in [its own] path, theory, system and culture”...
The third reason constitutes the main point of this essay, which is about the peculiarities of the rise of a major civilisational power. In contrast to Japan, which had eagerly emulated the West when it was rising, China emphasises “confidence in [its own] path, theory, system and culture”, as well as the commitment to establish a “new type of international relations” and a “community with a shared future for mankind”. Such a stance is bound to make the West see China as an alien adversary as it engenders wariness and resistance.
The US, which arguably represents the highest achievements of Western civilisation, changed the meaning of the “rise of a major power”, making it synonymous with “being widely accepted”.
Rise of major civilisational power more difficult
Throughout the history of world civilisations, the rise of major powers has relied on military conquests. Whether the conquering power had an advanced civilisation or not was secondary. In the age of warhorses and hand-to-hand combat, a backward nation of fisherfolk, hunters or nomads could easily conquer highly developed centres of civilisation. It was the northern barbarians, for example, who toppled the Roman Empire and thereby sent Europe into the Dark Ages. However, in the age of nuclear weapons following World War II, such a possibility is basically gone.
That’s because, first of all, the traditional taking of cities and territories by means of military force is no longer acceptable to the world. Since the end of World War II, there has never been a case of a small or weak country being annexed this way. Instead, small countries (even miniature ones) are constantly formed, and most of them manage to survive.
Secondly, hegemonic states must represent advanced civilisation. The US, which arguably represents the highest achievements of Western civilisation, changed the meaning of the “rise of a major power”, making it synonymous with “being widely accepted”. Although brute strength continues to be very important, the fundamental might underlying the rise of an influential state has shifted from traditional hard power to soft power that can rally others.
Given such conditions, the rise of a major heterogeneous civilisational power (MHCP) is much more difficult than the passing of the hegemony mantle between states within the same civilisation, and would have a much greater impact on the world. There has been no historical precedent for a successful ascent of this sort.
This Asian powerhouse is likely to become the next missionary state, and what it will propagate will necessarily be the wisdom of Chinese civilisation.
Historically, the East Asian order established by China on the basis of its highly developed civilisation was restricted to one end of the Eurasian landmass. The Chinese Empire had never spread its wings over the wider global arena. Its sense of civilisational superiority, maintained largely through insulation, was eventually crushed by Western industrial civilisation.
If China’s destiny was historically to attain excellence solitarily, it would truly be hard for it to seek also to uplift the rest of the world now.
The rise of China faces challenges which could be described in terms of five “crosses” i.e., cross-race, cross-culture, cross-civilisation, cross-ideology and cross-political system. As such, China is not only embroiled in the typical conflicts that mark the supersession of leading nations, but also forced to deal with the particular challenges that come with its being an “alien”.
The missionary zeal that informs American hegemony originated from the founding philosophy of the US. In a similar fashion, the true rise of China as an MHCP must be grounded on civilisational advantages, and not merely military strength and GNP. This Asian powerhouse is likely to become the next missionary state, and what it will propagate will necessarily be the wisdom of Chinese civilisation.
For its own rise, what China has to transcend are the mighty, modern Western civilisation and its liberalist ideology.
China has to transcend mighty, modern Western civilisation
The rise of a heterogeneous civilisation is necessarily accompanied by the spread of new ideas. It would also pose a challenge to the prevailing ideals, and be subjected to suppression from them.
For the ideas and systems of the rising civilisational power to gain widespread approval, their superiority in relation to those of the old civilisation has to be demonstrated, so that the major power behind them may truly rise. For its own rise, what China has to transcend are the mighty, modern Western civilisation and its liberalist ideology.
Liberalism and modernisation are a pair of twins, such that it is impossible to cast the former aside and still engage in the latter. Liberal capitalism has created the miracle of modernity and propelled unprecedented progress in world history.
While its impact inflicted “the century of shame” on China, it also allowed China to find salvation from poverty and backwardness and a secluded, conservative way of life. It enabled China to compete with advanced countries in a wide range of domains.
The rise of China is thus predicated on Western modern civilisation, yet it must transcend this foundation to accomplish its rise. That’s because no matter how well China does according to the yardstick of Western civilisation, it would only end up as a servile follower like Japan.
China’s development and progress have gone beyond the expectations of the West. This indicates that many factors not of Western civilisation are incorporated in the country’s praxis. These need to be taken stock of and elevated to systematic ideas and institutions, so that the rest of the world may comprehend, accept and willingly emulate them. That’s called transcendence.
On human rights and governance
Take, for example, the concept of human rights. It is a construct of modern Western civilisation, not a reflection of human nature. Originally the concept did not exist in Chinese civilisation. But when it gets constructed within Chinese culture, it would necessarily be different from the Western version.
There are two possibilities for it to differ.
The first is that the Chinese version turns out to be more practical, encompassing and humanised than the liberalist notion of human rights, and thus it is able to elevate to a common understanding for the international community.
The other possibility is the dilution and lowering of standards, which could be used to justify violations of human rights. The former is transcendence, whereas the latter is not.
Take another example: the role of the government. In the West, the government is a necessary evil. Liberalism focuses its attention on ways to prevent the government from doing bad things. So-called “minimal government”, as well as institutional set-ups like the separation of powers, checks and balances, the rule of law and electoral democracy, are all for this purpose.
Chinese cultural tradition, on the other hand, stresses that the government should stick up for the people, and therefore shoulder a wide range of responsibilities. For this reason, the government needs to hold on to a great deal of power and resources. The economic miracles of the East Asian countries since World War II are all inseparable from the “developmental state” rooted in such traditional cultural role expectations. This counts as transcending the Western paradigm too.
But China obviously has not done its homework adequately. The reality is that China’s ideas, values, system and many of its policies and practices are far from gaining widespread approval...
Wrong timing to push China’s values and system?
Even so, such breakthroughs offer no escape from the insight of Western political philosophy on the “corruption of power”. The Chinese Communist Party’s “whole-process democracy” can be considered an attempt at transcendence in resolving this perennial problem, provided that it is earnestly practised and not merely a slogan.
After the financial tsunami of 2008, the narrowness and limits of individual-centred liberalism have become increasingly clear. Because China pulled out of the crisis remarkably well, it may have better alternatives to offer the world.
China apparently also seized it as a historical opportunity. It has sought to upgrade its role on the world stage through pushing for a “new type of international relations”, more actively participating in global governance, and launching monumental undertakings like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Droves of Chinese scholars eagerly tout the superiority of Chinese civilisation and the Chinese way, dreaming of a future sino-centric world order.
But China obviously has not done its homework adequately. The reality is that China’s ideas, values, system and many of its policies and practices are far from gaining widespread approval in the world. Instead, they are posited by the US-led Western camp as reasons for believing that China is incompatibly different, and become the basis for them to push for decoupling from China.
The international situation China currently faces is rather grim. How the Asian colossus may make the right choices and avoid fatal mistakes is a test of the Chinese leadership’s wisdom. The two aspects in which China is most likely to make disruptive mistakes are its reversion to Marxism and cultural restoration.
...the publicity department of the state bandies a preposterous claim about the reason for China’s immense success in reform and opening up as being “Marxism works”...
China has failed to reflect honestly on itself
By reversion to Marxism, I mean the return to the doctrines of the Marxist orthodoxy. Perhaps out of political needs, force of habit, or the lack of innovative imagination, the publicity department of the state bandies a preposterous claim about the reason for China’s immense success in reform and opening up as being “Marxism works”, instead of reforms in decentralisation, marketisation, globalisation and converging on the best practices in the capitalist world economy.
What we have here is not only a lack of theoretical imagination, but also sheer dishonesty that resorts to switching out the facts. In so doing, the Chinese are effectively passing over the opportunity to rise above the West through proper explanatory reflection and useful sublimation.
Consequently, ossification on the theoretical front deprives China of international appeal, and is easily framed by the West in terms of a revival of the Soviet spectre, the resurgence of the “red peril”. China thus becomes passively reactive in international relations. Its “grand external publicity” efforts are often an embarrassment.
Within Chinese borders, the state relies on suppressions and information restrictions to maintain an official discourse that forces far-fetched connections. Much of what China is doing simply serves to confirm foreign impressions of a brutal Stalinist regime, causing people to fear the rise of China.
All this is feeding into the idea of the “Chinese threat”, creating the conditions for Western countries to establish a united front to contain China.
The purported sinophiles celebrate “Chinese characteristics” with such excessive zeal that they oppose all things Western, embracing even the dregs of Chinese culture uncritically.
Cultural restoration is equally confused in its logic. Although the source of its confidence is the success of China’s development, what it rallies against are the very reasons for that success.
The followers of the trend seem to have forgotten so much, including the shackles of feudal society, pre-revolutionary China’s poverty and backwardness, the May Fourth spirit, the sacrifices made by the honourable revolutionaries, and the blood they shed for their great cause.
The purported sinophiles celebrate “Chinese characteristics” with such excessive zeal that they oppose all things Western, embracing even the dregs of Chinese culture uncritically. This is a mirror image of how many in the West oppose all things PRC. Both sides fail to understand that human civilisation makes its progress in the midst of accretion and learning from different sources, not mutual cancelling and opposing.
Finding common ground amid global distrusts: A long term strategy
While China genuinely wishes for a peaceful rise, it lacks an effective strategy for achieving this goal. The reason is that it has an inadequate understanding of the immense difficulties and complexities of its own emergence as an “alien” civilisation.
The propagation of civilisation is a long-term process of subtle influence. The most important thing in this process, first of all, is to have patience, to not rush things, and to take the long view.
Secondly, while gaining approval is critical for the rise of any big power today, the rise of an MHCP further requires differences to be honoured in the midst of seeking common ground.
All of the major powers of today are founded on the same bedrock of modernisation, so they share much in common. For example, the “core socialist values” and the “common values for humanity” (for international relations) as proposed by the CCP are not that different from those of liberalism.
Beyond the intangibles, there is also a need to bond with the other countries over as many joint undertakings as possible, such as those pertaining to counterterrorism, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the North Korean nuclear issue, WTO reforms, UN reforms, peacekeeping operations, tackling climate change, environmental protection, etc. The BRI can also be expanded into a vast project of connecting economies and building infrastructures worldwide, allowing developed countries to participate in a big way.
... what China needs is a grand vision of winning the international community’s willing support, not a wild ambition to dominate the world.
Thirdly, China needs to secure the independence of its economic fundamentals. Xenophobia, aversion to “the other”, an in-group mentality that draws a line between “us and them” — all these are deep streaks of behavioural malignancy rooted in human nature itself. China must therefore prepare itself for the isolation and suppression it will face for a long time to come.
China is heavily dependent on other countries for industrial design software, photolithography machinery and some other aspects, and has yet to put sufficient counteractive hedging in place. This is probably due to too much blind faith in capitalist globalisation and the liberalist theory of the international division of labour.
At the end of the day, what China needs is a grand vision of winning the international community’s willing support, not a wild ambition to dominate the world. It must open up itself to absorb criticisms, even malicious ones.
As an ancient Chinese poet put it, “A mountain does not tire of taking in more earth to grow taller / The waters do not tire of taking in more influxes to grow deeper / The Duke of Zhou [repeatedly] spat out the food in his mouth [during a meal, as he hurried to meet potential contributors to the kingdom] / [And thus] the hearts of all under Heaven were won.” Such is the magnificent breadth of mind that China should have.
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