Beijing is tweaking the rules of the Western order to reflect its revitalized geopolitical and economic power, but some Americans see this as a threat to their way of life…
Embedded in the now dominant US narrative of “Chinese aggression”, Sinophobes claim that China is not only a threat to the American way of life, but also an existential threat to the American republic.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the American way of life has long ceased to be a model to be emulated all across the Global South and that the US walks and talks increasingly like an oligarchy.
Underneath it all is a huge divide, in outlook and cultural beliefs, between the two great powers, as some leaders and writers have attempted to explain.
President Xi Jinping’s speech last week does make it clear that Beijing is engaged in tweaking the rules of the current Westphalian system to truly reflect its reconquered geopolitical and economic power.
Yet it’s hardly a matter of “overthrowing” the system established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. As much as trade blocks are ruling the new geoeconomic game, nation-states are bound to remain the backbone of the international system.
One of Beijing’s key foreign policies is no interference in other nations’ internal affairs. In parallel, the historical record since the end of WWII shows that the US has never refrained from interfering in other nations’ internal affairs.
What Beijing is really aiming at is what Professor Xiang Lanxin, director of the Centre of One Belt and One Road Studies at the China National Institute for SCO International Exchange and Judicial Cooperation, referred to at a crucial intervention during the June 2016 Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore.
Lanxin defined the New Silk Roads, or Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as being an avenue to a ‘post-Westphalian world’, in a sense of a true 21st century geoeconomic integration of Eurasia acted out by Asian nations. That’s the key reason why Washington, which set the current international rules in 1945, fears BRI and now demonizes it 24/7.
The notion that imperial China, over the centuries, obtained a Mandate of Heaven over Tianxia, or “All under Heaven”, and that Tianxia is a “dictatorial system” is absolute nonsense. Once again that reflects the profound ignorance by professional Sinophobes about the deepest strands of classical Chinese culture.
They could do worse than learn about Tianxia from someone like Zhao Tingyang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and author of an essential book first published by China CITIC Press in 2016, then translated into French last year under the title Tianxia: Tous sous un meme ciel.
Tingyang teaches us that the Tianxia system of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC) is essentially a theory – a concept born in Ancient China but not specific to China that goes way beyond the country to tackle universal problems in a “process of dynamic formation that refers to globalization.”
This introduces us to a fascinating conceptual bridge linking ancient China to 21st-century globalization, arguing that political concepts defined by nation-states, imperialisms and rivalries for hegemony are losing meaning when faced with globalization. The future is symbolized by the new power of all-inclusive global networks – which is at the center of the BRI concept.
Tingyang shows that the Tianxia concept refers to a world system where the true political subject is the world. Under the Western imperialist vision, the world was always an object of conquest, domination and exploitation, and never a political subject per se.
So we need a higher and more comprehensive unifying vision than that of the nation-state – under a Lao Tzu framework: “To see the world from the point of view of the world”.
You are not my enemy
Plunging into the deepest roots of Chinese culture, Tingyang shows the idea that there’s nothing beyond Tianxia is, in fact, a metaphysical principle, because Tian (heaven) exists globally. So, Tianxia (all under Heaven), as Confucius said, must be the same, in order to be in accordance with heaven.
Thus the Tianxia system is inclusive and not exclusive; it suppresses the idea of enemy and foreigner; no country or culture would be designated as an enemy, and be non-incorporable to the system.
Tingyang’s sharpest deconstruction of the Western system is when he shows how the theory of progress, as we know it, clings to the narrative logic of Christianity; then “that becomes a modern superstition. The mélange is neither scientific or theological – it’s an ideological superstition.”
From the point of view of Chinese intellectual and cultural traditions, Tingyang shows that since Christianity won over pagan Greek civilization, the West has been driven by a logic of combat. The world appears as a bellicose entity, with groups or tribes opposing one another. The (Western) “mission of conquering the world destroyed the a priori integrity of the concept of ‘world’. The world lost its sacred character to become a battlefield devoted to the universal accomplishment of Christianity. The word became an object.”
So we came to a point where a hegemonic system of knowledge, via its mode of diffusion and monopoly of the rules of language, propagates a “monotheist narrative on everything, societies, history, life, values”.
This system “interrupted knowledge and the historical thread of other cultures.” It dissolved other spiritual worlds into debris without meaning, so they would lose their integrity and sacredness. It debased “the historicity of all other histories in the name of faith in progressivism (a secular version of monotheism).” And it divided the world into center and periphery; an “evolved” world which has a history contraposed to a stagnated world deprived of history.
This hardly differs from other major strands of criticism of Western colonialism to be found all across the Global South.
Yin and yang
Tingyang finally reverts to a Lao Tzu formula. “According to the Way of Heaven, excess is diminished and insufficiencies compensated”. And that ties in with Yin and Yang, as referred to in the Book of Mutations of Zhou; “Yin and Yang is a functional metaphor of equilibrium, meaning that the vitality of every existence resides in dynamic equilibrium.”
What irks the Sinophobes is that Tianxia, as explained by Tingyang and adopted by the current Beijing leadership, striving towards a real “dynamic equilibrium” in international relations, poses a serious challenge to American leadership in both hard power and soft power.
It’s under this framework that Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s crucial, wide-ranging commentary on Xi Jinping’s diplomatic strategy must be interpreted. Wang stressed how Xi “has made innovations on and transcended the traditional Western theories of international relations for the past 300 years.”
The Chinese challenge is unprecedented – and no wonder Washington, in tandem with other Western elites, is stunned. In the end, it’s a matter of positioning Tianxia as a superior promoter of “dynamic equilibrium” in international relations in comparison with the Westphalian system.
As a result, immense political and cultural repercussions may be lost in translation, and China needs some serious soft power to get its point across.
Yet instead of producing reductionist diatribes, this process should galvanize a serious global debate in the years to come.