International Relations

The Cultural Messages of a Rising China

Written by Tongdong Bai.

In spite of Chinese leaders’ effort to reassure the world about China’s intentions, much of the rest of the world is deeply concerned with China’s rise. An important reason is that present Western political models are taken as the only correct models, dominating the political discourse, while the present Chinese models seem to be in conflict with the Western models.

Domestically, the Chinese regime is not liberal democratic. In the area of international relations, China adopts the idea of absolute sovereignty and follows the nation-state model, which is in conflict with the Western ideal that human rights override sovereignty. Does it, then, mean that China should simply embrace the Western models, so as to let history “end” in liberal democracy?

We have seen, however, that Western models have encountered their own problems. Domestically, Western liberal democratic regimes fail to face up with many challenges, the failure to prevent the recent financial crisis being the latest example. Internationally, first, an irony is that the nation-state model that China so firmly embraces also comes from the West. But the nation-state model (one nation, one state) is the root-cause of ethnical problems within a state, and internationally, it has led to two World Wars, among many other smaller conflicts. If China adopts this model, a logical conclusion seems to be that it will follow the path of Germany and Japan before and during the two World Wars. Learning from their own lessons, more and more, Western countries adopt the principle that human rights override sovereignty, while China (and much of East Asia) still seems to linger on the previous stage in which Western countries were. But the rights-based diplomacy, although looking attractive, is so demanding that oftentimes Western countries can only give lip-service to this principle, leading to skepticism and cynicism. In sum, the root of many political problems is the inadequacy of contemporary political models. To address these problems, we should reject the myth that history has already “ended,” recognize the problems with present models, and explore new political possibilities and models with an open mind.

I believe that Confucianism can offer solutions to some of the problems above. Here I understand Confucianism to be a political philosophy that is meant to be universal, not something applicable only to the Chinese. Early Confucians faced a world in which small, close-knit communities (in the form of feudalism) collapsed, and there emerged large, populous, and well-connected societies of strangers. The nobility-based ruling structure was also gone, and de-facto sovereign states emerged in the “world” (the world known to the Chinese). Thus, three key political problems had to be answered: What can bond a large state of strangers together? What are the principles of international relations among sovereign states? Who should be the ruling members of the state and even the world? These questions were also faced by early modern European thinkers, and in a sense, our contemporary world is but an enlarged version of the Chinese world for early Confucians. But different from the ones offered by the Europeans, Confucians offered their own answers.

On the issue of a new social bond, Mencius discovered that all human beings have the sentiment of compassion, a sense of care toward strangers. But he also realized that this sentiment, though universal, is also very fragile. In order for it to be strong enough to hold strangers together, it needs to be cultivated, and family is the first and most important institution in which this cultivation can take place, which is why familial care is so important to Confucians. By learning to care about family members other than oneself, one learns the existence and significance of others. But Confucianism is no philosophy of the God Father (“never go against the family”), and one should push this care outward, until it embraces not only every human being, but everything in the world. Even at this stage of universal care, however, Confucians think that one still does and should care about the closer ones more than the more distant ones. That is, the Confucian moral ideal is universal but unequal love. Therefore, by compassion, the whole world can be bonded together, but at the same time, one is justified to care about one’s own state more than other states. Patriotism is thus justified. But while caring about one’s own state first, one should not disregard the interests of other peoples completely because we, as human beings, also care about other peoples. Indeed, if our state and its allies are compassionate and strong, and the people of another state suffers so greatly from a bad regime that they are ready for a change, the humane states have an obligation to help, even “invade” or liberate this people. For Confucians, humaneness (compassion or benevolence) overrides sovereignty. But unlike cosmopolitanism, a radical version of liberalism, according to which everyone should be treated equally (with equal care?) and states should eventually be abolished, Confucians consider the existence of states legitimate. But unlike in the nation-state model, this legitimacy is limited (by how humanely the state treats its people). This model, being more realistic than the cosmopolitan model and more idealistic than the nation-state model, is a “realistic utopia.”

Domestically, Confucians also believe that the service to the people offers the ultimate legitimacy to the sovereign. Indeed, they believe that the state is of the people and for the people, and it should be held accountable for the service to the people. People know the best about whether they are satisfied with the service offered, and if the service is inadequate, a failed ruler or a failed government can be removed, even by force. But a crucial difference between Confucians and democrats is that the former do not think that the state should be by the people. For they believe that although people are the best judge of how they feel, they are not morally and intellectually competent to judge how they get here and how their lives can be improved through state policies. Thus, Confucians would endorse a hybrid regime that combines democratic elements (through which people’s will is expressed) with meritocratic elements (through which morally and intellectually competent political decisions are made), for example, a bicameral legislature with a democratically elected lower house and a meritocratically selected upper house. (At the same time, this regime should be firmly built upon constitutionalism that protects rights and liberties.) In contrast, the present democratic institution, especially that of one person one vote, has four problems: 1) it encourages radical individualism and anti-intellectualism; 2) it gives all the political authority to the present voters; 3) it often overly or tacitly encourages the majority to silence the minorities; and 4) it builds upon an unrealistic premise that voters are rational about their own self-interests. These problems are the root cause of many problems plaguing democracies today. If democracy was introduced in the past to correct the excesses of the nobles, perhaps now it is time to correct the excesses of the uninformed and immoral masses. The Confucian ideal regime, like its models of state identity and international relations, offers the golden mean in politics.

Tongdong Bai is professor of Philosophy and director of an MA program in Chinese philosophy with courses taught in English, School of Philosophy, Fudan University. His more recent book is “China: the Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom”. Image Credit: CC by

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