In competing to shape the twenty-first century, China and the USA seek to forge their societies and others according to different traditions of human self-organisation. Confucian community meets Lockean liberty. Stephen Green reflects on the historical trajectory of the two superpowers and the need for all of us to continue learning from other cultures.
We live at a dangerous moment in history, on the threshold of an era which will see two different perspectives on the human self-understanding contest for legitimacy on the world stage. They are the world views – the deeply rooted instincts – of the two great powers which will dominate the world stage for the rest of this century: America and China.
The American world view has much in common with a European perspective; after all, it inherited much from the Europeans. But from the start it was clearly distinctive. For the American world view sets the inalienable subjectivity of the self at its core. It is what is encapsulated in those great watchwords of the founders of America: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Meanwhile, the great alternative on the world stage of this century – the Confucian-infused culture which is the bedrock of the Chinese world view – is not primarily focussed on the autonomy of the self. It sees the individual in a wider familial, social and even cosmic context; so it has less to say about rights but much to say about position, purposes and obligations in life.
Since China’s evolving world view and self-understanding is less familiar than that of America, we need first to look at the road China has been on in recent years, and which has brought it to that point. Thirty years ago, in the early stages of opening up, Deng Xiaoping famously said that China should hide its capacity internationally, that it should bide its time, that it should be good at maintaining a low profile and should never claim leadership. As time moved on, that position began to shift. China spoke of taking a more active role in international affairs and working to make the international order more just and equitable. Specifically, China spoke of recognising a ‘community of common destiny’ in its regional neighbourhood. In 2014, Xi Jinping took the next step forward when he spoke not merely of recognising China’s neighbourhood as a community of common destiny but of turning it into one. Then in 2017 he began to speak on the international stage of working together to build a ‘community of shared future’ for all humankind.
In other words, this was China’s foreign policy going global. It is certainly not a detailed blueprint for how China plans to act internationally over the coming decades. But it is, to use a business school cliche, a vision statement. President Xi has talked of the need for countries to respect each other and discuss their issues as equals – and of the importance of recognising and respecting the diversity of civilisations, with ‘estrangement replaced by exchange, clashes by mutual learning, and superiority by coexistence’. It is worth savouring some of those words. The reference to diversity of civilisations and to clashes deliberately calls to mind Samuel Huntington’s famous book ‘The Clash of Civilizations’. The crucial point to notice here is that China’s newly articulated vision is fundamentally national and societal rather than individual. The actors in their version of the drama are countries; the vision is not of an emerging global citizenship of individuals. Their starting point is Confucius, not Locke (and is also certainly more Confucius than Marx). The contrast with the strong individualist instinct which underlies the American view of the world is unmistakable.
This is sometimes seen as the great debate between America and China – or between East and West – about the individual and the collective. But it is deeper than that: it is the great question about human self-understanding. What matters to us all is how those two world views of the human self, each of which has a very long trail of history behind it, can be dovetailed into some kind of a synthesis as the human odyssey continues through this century. This question matters for the peace of nations; it matters for successful economic and social development; and it matters for the sustainability of life on our fragile planet. If we treat the question of how China and America will engage with each other on the world stage as just another Thucydidean trap, we are condemned to a dangerous stasis.
But I want to argue that there is in fact a direction of travel, even if the journey ahead is long, just as the journey so far has been. There will be roadblocks and wrong turnings, just as there have always been. But the direction cannot be reversed, and it will not be possible to settle where we are.
The reason is that the individual has always been significant in all human cultures – perhaps ever since the cave art of forty millennia ago. As a result, human art and literature have always explored humanity in its actual experience of being – in all its life, its loves, its losses, its hurts, its transience. The creativity this has called forth is to be found all through the world’s cultures, west and east, and down the ages from very early times. There are many differences in specific contexts and perspective, of course. But some of the greatest such achievements have a strange universality and timelessness about them. A Tang Dynasty poet writing about his grief at the grave of his three year old daughter – or the Lady Murasaki writing her closely observed narrative of the lives and loves of the Heian court in the world’s oldest novel, The Tale of Genji – or Cao Xueqin’s equally poignant Dream of Red Mansions from a Qing dynasty Chinese context – or Hafez and his effervescent love of life and living; or Satyajit Ray’s great film Devi, about a girl who absorbs, and is then destroyed by, an identity given to her by others; or Austen, or Chekhov or Qian Zhongshu or Soseki… All of these deal with human experience in a way that reminds us perhaps of what we all share because we are all descended from those same human ancestors of forty thousand years ago.
Why is all this relevant to the geopolitics of this century? Because the whole thrust of that exploration of the self is precisely that it is a (continuing) journey of discovery, both individually and collectively – which we cannot avoid in our urbanised and connected world. This journey of growing human self-knowledge necessarily means that whole cultures will be taken on this journey and will change.
The essentials for healthy human growth on this journey are the same at any level of identity – not just for individuals, but for societies, for cultures, for nations. At all these levels, we need to come to terms with our pasts; we need to take responsibility for what we are and do; we need to look for the human in the other; and we need always to be ready to learn. Neither for individuals nor for cultures is this odyssey over: in no case have we arrived. In many cases, the state – or the voice of the crowd – may seek to control or impede the journey. And in fact, such controlling or blocking behaviour is widespread in both west and east, as we know all too well. But resistance will not in the end succeed. The universal experience of urbanisation means that connectivity will in the end overwhelm even the most carefully constructed dykes.
I don’t know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the coming decades: but I do know we have to hope, and to act accordingly. The great Catholic philosopher Hans Küng once said to me, whilst he was giving a seminar series about the faiths and cultures of the world: ‘We must learn to judge others by their best, and not just by their worst – as we would want them to judge us by our best and not just by our worst.’ This seems to me as important and relevant now as when he said it some years ago; it applies to each of us as individuals, it applies to each society, and it also applies to the major powers of the twenty first century – America and China – as they engage with each other in this interlocked and environmentally precarious world. Without such a readiness to learn and to seek the common good, the future we bequeath to our grandchildren will be grim.
Note: Stephen Green’s ‘The Human Odyssey: East, West and the Search for Universal Values’ can be purchased from SPCK Publishing’s website here.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.