Tuesday, 14 December 2010

China, stay true to civilisation

By Wang Gungwu

If the Chinese were true to their history, they would understand that the meaning of China lies in the ideals of its civilisation. Its leaders failed when they neglected creativity and lost confidence in the civilisation. 

THE question many analysts are focused upon now is how China would use its wealth to strengthen its armed forces. The Chinese word used to describe the link between prosperity and military power has historically been fuqiang.

This compound word comes from the ancient phrase fuguo qiangbing – enriching the state and strengtening the armies. It was first used in the classic text Chronicles Of The Warring States to describe the ideas of Shang Yang and his disciples.

They helped the Qin state in the 3rd century BC to overcome its six rivals and to create a centralised Qin dynasty, under its first emperor, Qin Shi-huang.

The phrase fuguo qiangbing has always been closely associated with the so-called Legalist or Realist thinkers who helped Qin. The dynasty did not last long. A century after it fell, Confucian officials were brought in to help manage the successor Han empire. These Confucians chose to be soft and turned away from explicit appeals to fuqiang.

The word fuqiang was not extolled again until the Meiji Revolution in Japan in the 19th century. Fukoku kyohei – Japanese for fuguo qiangbing – became Japan’s national slogan in following the model of Western imperialism. The goals of government were modernised to seek wealth through industrialisation and power through modern armaments. The slogan has since become associated with imperial ambition.

The analogy between the German and Japanese empires and China today is an easy one to make. But it arises from a very narrow view of history, drawing its lessons only from the modern European experience.
If we believe that industrialisation determines everything, new wealth and the power it creates can only advance in one direction: that is, towards rivalry and competition for dominance. The consequences are obvious.

We know the Industrial Revolu­tion led to Britain becoming the pre-eminent superpower for over a century, and that the Americans succeeded them. We also know that the Soviet Union tried to avoid the mistakes made by Germany and Japan.

They used a different ideological means of becoming No 1, and they failed. As a result, the Anglo-American dominance of the world was further extended. It could last a long while yet.

It is easy to understand why so many who talk about China as No 2 today warn against it following the examples of either Germany, Japan or the Soviet Union. China is actually very conscious of these modern examples and has consistently proclaimed that it would never seek hegemony or chengba.

This idea of chengba (hegemony) comes from the Warring States period, and is another goal that Confucian thinkers have systematically rejected. I believe Chinese leaders today are intelligent enough to have learnt the obvious lessons. But as China becomes more prosperous, and when its people know less of their Confucian heritage and admire more the wealth and power of the West, how are they to convince anyone that they would never go the way of fuguo qiangbing?

China’s history alone will not be sufficient for that purpose, since most of it is hard for non-Chinese people to appreciate. In any case, modern Chinese are not Confucians. On the contrary, the robust language of 20th century Chinese revolutions, the high emotions that Chinese nationalism has aroused, are closer to what Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union sounded like.

The modern language used conveys quite a different image. Thus China seems to be locked into the prevailing strategic thinking that sees any rising power as a danger to the status quo.

For the sole superpower today, the status quo does not refer to any institution or ideology, but to its remaining the only superpower. To remain No 1 is a duty. This means not only wealth and power but also the totality of ideals that Americans believe are universal.

If rising China were no more than what Japan and Germany have become today – wealthy but without military power – there would be little reason for the United States to be concerned.

However, China does not appear to be content to be rich but militarily weak. Thus, American leaders would not be reassured unless and until the Chinese are prepared to settle for the current German and Japanese model.

Different models of civilisation

THE Chinese say they would like the world to be a place in which there are several civilisations, with each modernising in its own way, at its own speed. That was the world they were accustomed to when there was no insistence on a single universalism. In such a world, if any civilisation considered itself to be universal, it would not have the power to impose its world view on others.

One can see a China enjoying a No. 1 position in a sort of local or regional “league”. It does depend on how China is defined.

In the beginning, there was a “China” centred on the shared cultures of the peoples of the middle and lower parts of the Yellow River valley. It took about 1,000 years during the Shang and Zhou dynasties – mainly the first millennium BC – for these peoples to recognise themselves as the Hua-xia of Zhongguo, quite different from those around them.

That Zhongguo consisted of many states, each with its own institutions, even scripts for the languages they spoke.

Then came the Qin dynasty, which imposed a single script, a single coinage, a single set of weights and measures, and so on. The civilisation that emerged was identified as something unique. The foreign peoples on its borders were seen either as hostile and greedy for China’s wealth, or friendly and willing to live peacefully with China. Being Zhongguo, in the centre, actually meant that China was the regular target of external tribes that did not share its civilisation. It was essential that China should always be strong enough to defend its borders.

China was severely tested after the Han dynasty, from the 4th century AD on, by a series of tribal invasions. These non-Chinese preferred Buddhism over Confucian and other Chinese ideas, and drove large numbers of Chinese from the north to the lands south of the Yangzi river.

By the time of the Tang dynasty in the 7th century, an amalgam of peoples and cultures began to define a new period of Chinese civilisation, one that the Chinese still consider glorious.

By confirming the elite’s belief that China’s civilisation could withstand any attack and still thrive, the elite could well have seen their China as some sort of No 1.

This faith sustained them during several centuries of division and weakness – from the declining Tang dynasty of the 9th century to the Northern and Southern Song dynasties of the 13th. These were centuries when China desperately defended itself against its enemies.

In the course of that defence, China acquired a powerful self-conscious identity. It was so strong that none of the Turkic, Tungusic, Tibetan and Mongol forces that had defeated them could overcome it. Even when the Chinese became subjects in the Mongol empire, they did not lose a keen sense of their own civilisation.

Eventually, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) produced the first Han Chinese rulers for 500 years to rule over all of China, and they reaffirmed the ideals of the Han and the Tang. Fortunately, after the 17th century, the Manchu Qing dynasty did little to change the fundamentals of that civilisation.

In the light of Chinese history, what does it mean for China to be seen as No 2 now? Does it even matter, for the criteria used are not China’s? But for Chinese leaders to say that, they would have to have a keen sense of China’s history.

If the Chinese people were true to their history, they would understand that the meaning of China lies in the ideals of its civilisation, that China failed whenever it became closed. This was especially so when its leaders rejected change and experimentation, when they neglected the need for creativity and lost confidence in the civilisation’s ability to adapt to change. Clearly the civilisation faltered during the 19th century.

New leaders like Mao Zedong then emerged, eager to replace what they had with what they barely understood. And they were prepared to do this even when ideas and institutions they borrowed from the West brought their people almost to the edge of destruction.

The past 30 years have seen a remarkable turnaround. The willingness to be open has been moderated by wariness that the Chinese should not be carried away again by the urge to copy and imitate what has been successful elsewhere. There is a new caution that the revolutionary urges of the past have brought too many unsustainable ideals that destroyed more than they constructed. Lessons have been learnt about the importance of traditions that had served the people well before.

There are many in China today who appreciate that being impatient in the 20th century, as Mao was, was as dangerous as having been complacent before.

This is not the time for China to be ranked in a league with polities that are so different from it. Almost overnight, there has been the highlighting of something called the Group of 2.

Almost overnight, the US and China have been coupled as if they were in some race to become the world’s fastest gun or the fairest maiden. Who gains from this exercise of trying to fit China into a league defined by others who care little for its heritage?

There are many questions facing the Chinese. They need to remain cool and be neither boastful nor alarmed. For one thing, 30 years of reforms is too short a period to be more than just a beginning. For another, there is no single league for comparison.

The League of Wealth and Power that has been trumpeted is a poisoned chalice. Even if China does not drink from it but merely tries to hold it in its hands, there is a real danger of self-deception.

The most dangerous moment would be when China’s frustrated and excitable youth, with little interest in their country’s political traditions, are aroused by the idea of being just No 2. If they believed that, then China would find itself entering the bloody arena that the country’s literati ancestors had spent centuries warning against. I hope that wiser heads in China will not allow that to happen.

What many are seeking now to do is to restore faith in the idea that there are several legitimate civilisations in the world and therefore many other kinds of leagues that China could try to play in. There is, after all, no reason to compete in a league that is not of your own choice.

If China is true to its own civilisation, it would know that only a League for Cultural Achievement is worth the effort to compete in. Chinese civilisation has been much weakened, but this would be a league in which the Chinese people’s ancient and resilient civilisation could give them some advantage. — The Straits Times / ANN

> The writer is chairman of the East Asia Institute