For rising China, an identity crisis

By Sebastian Mallaby
Friday, March 26, 2010

In the early 1990s, when I lived in Japan, its people embarked on a search for their identity. The country had become an economic superpower, but its politics had not caught up; it did not know what to do with its weight in the world.

Some believed that Japan should become a global player without changing the global game; it should accept the international system as the West had created it. But a rising chorus wanted more than that. Japan should challenge the "Washington consensus" at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, break out of the cocoon of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, and forge a distinctive foreign policy. In other words, modernization should not mean Americanization -- least of all in the case of a proud and ancient Asian culture.

Of course, Japan's extended slump has muted its ambitions. But the debates of the 1990s came back to me this month, when I spent nine days among Beijing intellectuals. Like the Japan of two decades ago, China's economic miracle outstrips the maturity of its statecraft. As Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University in Beijing puts it, the country today brings to mind the early NBA appearances of Chinese sensation Yao Ming, when his confidence under the hoops had yet to catch up with his 7-foot, 6-inch frame. And like the Japan of two decades ago, China is searching for its identity.

In the 1980s, Chinese intellectuals saw the West as a model. "In the United States, even the moon shines brighter," went a saying of the time. The Tiananmen Square protesters erected a 30-foot-tall Goddess of Democracy, inspired by the Statue of Liberty. But, fairly or not, the Iraq war, the financial crisis and the stumbling efforts to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina have all contributed to the sullying of America's image in China. "We learned from the Soviet Union, and it collapsed. We learned from Japan, and it collapsed. We learned from the United States, and it collapsed," was a joke making the rounds in Beijing recently.

In Japan, nationalist stirrings involved a renewed interest in history. Takamori Saigo, a samurai who rebelled against the country's 19th-century opening to the West, became the subject of a series of books that sold 8 million copies. In China, I found people talking about the work of Yan Xuetong, another professor at Tsinghua. Yan's writing connects China's modern aspirations to its ancient philosophy. In a book whose English version will feature an approving blurb from Henry Kissinger, Yan sketches out what might be called a Confucian foreign policy.

From the perspective of the West, some of the tradition that Yan has unearthed seems reassuring. He quotes the ancient scholar Xun Zi, who taught that great powers must respect others if they aspire to be "as secure as a boulder." Moreover, Yan says, the Chinese tradition requires powerful states to help weak ones. If pirates menace citizens of countries that lack the seapower necessary to fight back, a country with a strong navy has a duty to enforce order on the oceans. If this means that a powerful China will be a benign global cop, its rise may turn out to be welcome.

But Yan's conclusions can also unnerve. He explains, for example, that the Chinese tradition rejects the idea that human life has an intrinsic value. "Not everyone's life is equal," he maintains. "[A]n uncivilized person -- a barbarian -- his life is less meaningful." It follows, Yan says, that a powerful China would see no strong argument for combating a global health crisis such as AIDS. Barbarians are not worth saving.

Might a powerful China want to help barbarians attain a state of civility? Yan says no: In the Christian tradition, missionaries strive to make converts, but in the Confucian tradition, teachers are not supposed to recruit pupils. In the Chinese view, barbarians are welcome to learn from China's example, but if they don't, that's their concern. China will do business with barbarians -- think Zimbabwe, Burma or Sudan -- but it will not try to change them.

The musings of one professor do not necessarily predict policy. But like Britain and the United States before it, China cannot invest and trade globally without eventually projecting power globally. As its citizens and businesses develop networks around the world, its government will want to stand up for their interests. The respectful hearing that Yan gets from his compatriots suggests that his ideas fill an important void. The Chinese have lost faith in communism, but even the feistiest professors I talked to were not willing to embrace Western democracy. So China is seeking its future in its own past, resurrecting the history that the communists once buried.

As a result of this process, whimsical ideas will rise to the surface, and given the inevitable disputes over currencies, Internet freedom and so on, some Americans will react angrily. But the smart option for the West is to let China's voyage of self-discovery take its course. China's rise is inevitable, and the Chinese must decide who they are and what they want. Embracing Western norms may well turn out to suit them.

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