Acorn | A world full of barbarians

China is unlikely to succeed in using moral power to upstage the United States

Yan Xuetong is one of China’s finest minds on international relations. His recent volume, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power is an excellent introduction to the schools of political philosophy in the Chinese civilisation. His op-ed in the New York Times today presents his view on the essence (if at all an essence can be distilled from diverse, rich strands of wisdom) of what ancient Chinese thinking might mean for contemporary geopolitics.

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.
..
How, then, can China win people’s hearts across the world? According to ancient Chinese philosophers, it must start at home. Humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad.

This means China must shift its priorities away from economic development to establishing a harmonious society free of today’s huge gaps between rich and poor. It needs to replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness. [NYT]

Mr Yan argues that China must display humane authority abroad by developing better relations with other countries than the United States does. China must protect weaker states and strengthen regional security arrangements like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. He calls for China to be open to foreigners and attract talented immigrants. This is the way, he says, China can defeat the United States—not through hot or cold wars, but through strategic competition.

There’s much to recommend Mr Yan’s vision of China’s role in the world, not least because it might be a better template for Beijing’s foreign policy than whatever is on offer today. However, Mr Yan’s conceptualisation of humane authority being the route to global hegemony has two fundamental problems.

First, nations of the world resist the idea of an external authority, humane or otherwise. This resistance grows when the said authority is illiberal and inequitable. It is unlikely that nations that have tasted freedom, or are yearning for it, would willingly accept authoritarianism even of the humane variety. The best that can be said is that China’s civilisational ethos makes its people accepting of authoritarianism, but a look at Taiwan and Hong Kong suggests otherwise. If people value liberty more than whatever domestic or hegemonic humane authority offers them, then China is unlikely to gain influence. Mr Yan might be betraying the Middle Kingdom mindset, implying that “what Chinese people consider good, everyone else ought to consider good”.

Second, if China interprets ‘humane authority’ as discarding the Middle Kingdom mindset and accepting liberalism, plurality and diversity, then it might be indistinguishable from the United States. What then would be China’s competitive advantage vis-a-vis its primary rival? To defeat the United States, China will have to become more like the United States. If it becomes more like the United States, would it be a victory for China at all?

Traditional Chinese political philosophy is at its weakest when analysing a diverse, heterogenous world with multiple sovereignties. As Mr Yan’s arguments show, it finds it hard to reconcile values, beliefs and behaviours that are just different. In ancient China, people who didn’t subscribe to the norms were termed “barbarians”, to be kept out using great walls, kept away through diplomacy or subdued by military force. Chinese strategy has the unenviable task of dealing with a modern world that is full of such ‘barbarians’.

Related posts: On the Middle Kingdom mindset; and how it interacts with India’s geopolitical worldview.