The Western myth of universality and China's moment in history

SINGAPORE - China's rise has been psychologically disquieting to many in America and the West generally, because in China, capitalism flourishes without liberal democracy.

This is regarded as somehow unnatural and illegitimate because it punctures the Western myth of the universality of certain political values and of the inevitability of the development of certain political forms.

And unlike, say, Japan or India, China only wants to be China and not an honorary member of the West. The myth of universality is ahistorical, pretentious and parochial.

It is ahistorical because it ignores the inconvenient fact that every Western country was capitalist long before it was either liberal or democratic as those terms are today understood.

The myth of universality is pretentious and parochial because it generalises as universal the highly contingent historical processes that led, quite late in the 20th century, to the current form of Western liberal democracy; processes that there is no reason to believe will be replicated anywhere else.

The empirical evidence of our senses tells us that diversity is the most evident characteristic of the world we live in. Democracy, as practised in Japan, is very different from American democracy and rests on a foundation of different values and traditions.

And Japanese democracy is very different from the practices of other Asian polities that it today pleases America to consider "democratic" - for example, South Korea, Indonesia or India.

For that matter, democracy as was practised in mid-20th century America was very different from contemporary American democracy.

Still, universality as a mode of thought has its origins in teleological and monotheistic Christian traditions and is today deeply embedded in the subconscious of even the most secular of Western societies.

It lies at the very heart of the Western sense of self. It will not go away and cannot be refuted by something as mundane as empirical evidence.

These are not just abstract intellectual considerations because since the end of the Cold War, the claim of the universality of certain political forms and values has been used to justify military interventions to change regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.

This has tempered but not erased the doubts and anxieties that this approach has aroused in many countries, including China. Of course, China is not going to be subject to kinetic intervention. Nobody is that mad. But that is beside the point.

Not all interventions are necessarily military and East Asia, Singapore included, has experienced more than its fair share of Western attempts to meddle in our domestic affairs.

This is a habit that many in the West seem unable to shake off even when they lack the capability to do anything effective.

Recently, I laughed when I read about Lord (Chris) Patten and British parliamentarians talking about democracy in Hong Kong during the "Occupy Central" demonstrations. That only made the British look more hypocritical than usual.

But when 20 members of the US Senate wrote to President Barack Obama on the same subject and when the President of the US feels obliged to pronounce, however carefully, on Hong Kong, that is no laughing matter.

Differing on what's core

Last autumn Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi visited Washington. I was told that the new model of major power relations was discussed.

And I was told there was agreement that under this new model, the US and China should try to minimise their disagreements and foster habits of cooperation.

But the Americans could not categorically or unambiguously endorse a third element that is perhaps the most important element for China: mutual respect for each other's core interests.

Why not agree to something so obvious?

I think one reason is because the US knows that the preservation of Communist Party rule must be the most vital of Chinese core interests and is reluctant to endorse this explicitly.

American leaders and officials often posture for domestic audiences, are often constrained by the attitudes of Congress, and there is often a large element of ritual in their evocations of democracy and human rights. But the idea of universality is so essential a part of the American psyche that I don't think that their words are always just posturing for domestic effect.

More to the point, I think Chinese leaders suspect that this is so too. In any case, the words - and the silences - of a major power echo more loudly than may be intended.

American politicians do not always sufficiently understand how their words may grate on foreign ears or can have strategic consequences.

And Americans should not forget that domestic politics is not an American monopoly. The days when even the most powerful of Chinese leaders can entirely disregard their public opinion or insulate it from inconvenient foreign pronouncements are long gone.

This is a particularly delicate phase of China's development.

Never before has a major country experienced so far-reaching an economic and social transformation affecting so many people in such a short time.

But rapid change is destabilising and China's history has taught China's leaders to fear most those historical moments where external uncertainty coincides with internal restlessness. This is such a moment of history.

Beijing is now embarking on a second and more difficult stage of reforms that must loosen the centre's grip on crucial sectors of the economy while preserving the rule of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Can it be done? One should certainly hope so because all the realistic alternatives are worse. But no one really knows, I think least of all China's leaders, although their determination should not be underestimated.

Under these challenging circumstances, the Chinese leadership can be forgiven for regarding American attitudes towards universality and incautious words on Hong Kong or Tibet or Xinjiang or Taiwan with grave suspicion; as ultimately intended to delegitimise and undermine their rule.

At the very least, it is an additional complication to their already complex problems. But there seems to be great reluctance on the American side to address this core issue.

Perhaps they do not sufficiently understand that this is an existential issue for the Chinese leadership, against which all other issues are of secondary importance.

The US and China working together on such matters as climate change, counter-proliferation and terrorism is certainly all to the good. But unless Chinese concerns on the core issue can be concretely assuaged, I do not think strategic trust will be established.

Chinese leaders and officials too do not sufficiently understand that their own words and actions can evoke distrust.

If a new equilibrium requires the US to acknowledge that different political systems can have their own legitimacy, it requires China to resist the temptations of triumphalist and at times xenophobic nationalism.

China dream or nightmare

China can be rightly proud of its achievements.

But Chinese leaders and officials may not sufficiently understand how China's sense of destiny in reclaiming its historical place in East Asia can evoke anxiety in its neighbours and how one country's dream could be another's nightmare.

The simple fact is that China is big and growing bigger and all the rest of us are small. No matter how benign or bountiful the big country - and China has been very generous in the ASEAN region - some anxiety will linger.

Big countries have a duty to give reassurance, which China has as yet only partly fulfilled.

Chinese nationalism is today primarily focused on Japan, although the US and the West in general have not been spared attention.

The Chinese public is subjected to a steady drumbeat of reminders of Japanese atrocities in China to fan and keep alive bitter memories of World War II. But it was not always so.

Consider, for example, this statement: "As you have formally apologised for the debts you incurred in the past, it is not reasonable to ask you for payments of those debts. You cannot be asked to apologise every day, can you? It is not good for a nation to feel constantly guilty."

This is not some right-wing Japanese politician trying to justify Japan's wartime record.

It is a statement by Chairman Mao himself to a delegation of the Japanese Diet that visited China in 1955. And when Mao Zedong met former prime minister (Kakuei) Tanaka in 1972, he brushed aside Mr Tanaka's attempts to apologise, saying that he was grateful to Japan because without the war, the CPC would not have been able to seize power.

The CPC's primary claim to legitimacy was then class struggle. It emphasised its defeat of the Kuomintang as representative of old China.

But once China began to embrace the market economy, this became less and less sustainable. And when in 2001, at the CPC's 80th anniversary celebrations, President Jiang (Zemin) announced that businessmen working in private enterprises - in other words, "capitalists" - would be allowed to join the CPC, class struggle lost all credibility as a means to legitimate CPC rule.

The emphasis then increasingly was on the CPC's defeat of Japan and Japan's wartime record.

There is no doubt that since the end of the Cold war, Japanese politics has steadily moved rightwards and that Mr (Shinzo) Abe's political stance on many, though certainly not all, aspects of Japan's wartime record reflects that shift.

China has attempted to use history as a means of turning ASEAN countries and even the US against Japan. The attitudes of several members of ASEAN towards the Japanese Occupation are not entirely unfavourable.

Thailand was a Japanese wartime ally. Japan played an important role in nurturing Indonesian and Burmese nationalism.

Most of East Asia, the two Koreas excepted, long ago decided to look forwards and not backwards in their relations with Japan. This is not costless to China.

It has not been lost on ASEAN that China's attitude towards Japan's wartime record has undergone several shifts according to political needs.

Since the target of Chinese nationalism has been politically determined, it can well shift again to other targets as political needs change. This does not help assuage anxieties or build trust.

The history that resonates with Chinese nationalism is not confined to World War II.

In February last year, President Xi Jinping met Mr Lien Chan, the former Taiwanese vice-president, in China in what was described as the highest-level meeting between the two sides since Mao Zedong met Chiang Kai-shek in 1945.

In a speech that the People's Daily published on its front page under the title, "The Chinese dream to fulfil the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people together", President Xi cast the meeting in the historical context of how Taiwan had been occupied by foreign powers when the Chinese nation was weak.

The speech was about Taiwan and reconciliation between the two sides is to be welcomed.

But by casting reconciliation with Taiwan as an instance of rectification of historical injustices inflicted upon a weak China, it suggested and left open several questions.

Many injustices were done to China during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Does a rising China intend to rectify all of them? How will it choose which to rectify? By what means does it intend to rectify historical injustices?

Sovereignty claims are always highly sensitive. China is increasingly defining its claims in the East and South China seas in terms of its historical rights rather than international law.

This causes great anxiety across the region, particularly in South-east Asia.

No one is looking for trouble. The primary risk is conflict by accident, not war by design.

Rules of engagement between the US and China and between China and Japan are still at a rudimentary state of elaboration, as is the code of conduct to govern areas in the South China Sea.

Navies and air forces are bound to brush up against each other from time to time. If an accident occurs, the highly nationalistic public opinion that the CPC both uses and fears may force China down paths it never intended to travel.

China could be trapped by its own historical narratives.

This is an excerpt of a keynote speech by veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan at the Regional Outlook Forum yesterday organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). He explains that the Western claim of universality of certain political forms and values, which has been used to justify military interventions to change regimes, has aroused anxieties in countries including China.

This article was first published on January 9, 2015.
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