A Tale of Two Politics and Two Logics



What is right about China? And then what is right in politics altogether? At the end of the day, this is at the heart of the friction between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, due in Rome next week, and the Pope. The two were supposed to meet early in the week, but on Sunday the story came that the meeting would not take place because the Pope doesn’t want to look as if he favored the Republican administration during an election campaign.

Four years ago, the Pope refused an official meeting with Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. The circumstances may be different now, however, as the Pope may feel that the Trump administration has been playing up the widening rift in the U.S. Catholic community between conservatives, who support the Republicans and are critical of the Holy See, and progressives, in favor of the Democrats and more loyal to the Pope.

The end of an honeymoon

It is the end of a long honeymoon between the United States and the Vatican, but it’s not the end of the matrimony. The honeymoon started at the end of World War II, when the U.S. led the onslaught against the Soviets, and the Holy See, frightened by the communist atheist challenge, excommunicated Moscow and its minions. For the USSR the Cold War was a total conflict with geopolitical ambitions on economic and political systems and also on sets of beliefs.

So, the Vatican had common ground with the U.S. and for that Washington shelved centuries of distrust for the “papist religion” — that’s how Catholicism had been branded, and its suspicious attempts to interfere with American politics, through immigrants like the Irish, Poles, or Italians.

The U.S.-Vatican alliance turned out to be a powerful way to consolidate the home front against attempts to lure people in the West to communism, and also to find support in the East with people who were still Christian, despite the official restrictions and prohibitions.

Yet on China, there are differences of opinion between the Pope and the present U.S. Trump administration. Neither side wants to break with the other, but it is also unlikely that either will fully submit to the other, and this could actually de facto improve bilateral relations, deepening ties.

Dealing with China is a global effort, can’t be handled just by one country or one organization, and is very different from dealing with the USSR. For example, Soviet citizens traveling abroad came home shocked and disappointed with their country. Nowadays when young Chinese travel abroad they love their country more[1]. That is: the Chinese government is far more effective than the soviets in building internal consensus.

Moreover, the Trump administration has little appeal outside of the U.S., and this is one of its greatest weaknesses, where its China policy, that would need a global reach, could stumble and fall if he is reelected. Conversely, the Pope, despite all controversies at the Vatican, is extremely strong and appealing worldwide. Then both may have an interest in collaborating about China, despite the many differences, or maybe because of the many differences. It is not like the Holy See has an uncritical approach to China and is willing to turn a blind eye on everything Beijing does. Here there are difference in methods and approaches. This could be room for cooperation even without taking into account the obvious: that in the U.S. Catholicism is the single largest religion and its bipartisan cultural clout is rising.

Anyway, it’s better to have more than one voice on what is right, no? While this is obvious in the West, which hears melodious polyphony in different voices singing at the same time; it is less obvious in China, where many voices singing together sounds more like cacophony.

An Ancient Phenomenon

This hearing difference between polyphony or cacophony in the many voices speaking together is a massive issue that can lead us to a maze of rabbit holes. But let’s just look at the cultural roots.

In ancient Greece, cradle of the Western civilization, there was a loose “illogical” politics. Even without thinking of the inconsistent and capricious democracy in Athens, we had the tradition of two kings in Sparta or two consuls in Rome, who ruled by taking turns every other day.

At the same time, Greece first adopted a very strict logical reasoning, from Parmenides to Plato and Aristotle, with rigid methods to reach the truth in a very exact way.

Logic in China was not as rigorous. There were early attempts to reach processes of deduction and induction, similar to Aristotle’s logic, like with the Mohists[2] in the third century BC. But they were soon sidelined and discarded from the main philosophical debate. Later attempts to introduce firmer Indian logical deduction, following the spread of Buddhism in China in the sixth and seventh centuries AD, were soon cast out of the mainstream culture[3]. The idea of logic became so alien to Chinese philosophy that when in the twentieth century the Chinese were bitterly confronted by it, they used a loan word for the sound (luoji), underlining there was no real native cultural concept for it. It is not that China was a place of madmen, but logic there was of a very different kind than in Greece.

At the same time, politics in China was far more “logical” and straightforward. The emperor owned the country and was the only and ultimate decision-maker. He trusted ministers and a body of officials whom he appointed through direct selection (he nominated the people) or indirect selection (exams) to run the country according to his wishes and desires. It was a very straightforward dynamic, much clearer than the confusion of democratic or senatorial debates, consular turns, or even the later division of the Roman empire into the eastern and western parts.

Of course, there are different short circuits between politics and “logic” if they don’t work in orderly in alternate currents, like electricity. In the West, when strict logic tries to translate directly into politics, there are absolutist regimes trying to apply an orderly set of ideas on a complex reality. On the other hand, if “fuzzy” Chinese logic is translated into politics, it results in indecisive, confused politics as the structure is not geared to an orderly process of different thoughts/voices.

They are mirror images. From the West, the Chinese system is an exotic variant of an absolutist regime. Looking at Western politics from a Chinese historical perspective, it simply doesn’t make sense — and yet it works.

Jewish politics, which absorbed the Greek tradition, perhaps is the extreme example of this. There is a total difference of opinion but also total unity, like a phalanx, when facing an external threat. And also in the Catholic Church, there is total difference of ideas, and there are centuries of backstabbing, infights, and animosity behind friendly smiles—but there is also total unity in defending the Pope even over oneself.

Why China developed logical politics and loose logic and why the opposite was true in the West are immense questions that go well beyond the scope of this small essay, and the abilities of a tiny brain. But as a result, in China we have the tradition of loyalty to a man, the emperor, the apex of the logical political system. In the West, we have the tradition of loyalty to an idea, the apex of the local construction of thought. The consequence in China is that if the man fails or falters, the whole unity falls apart. An idea can be challenged, improved, or adapted — something that can’t happen with a man — and it is far less likely to fail.

Then in a nutshell, does China want unity and continuity? Then it should loosen the tight political system and embrace a tight scientific logic. It should learn to hear polyphony in the squabbles of Western voices, and perhaps this visit by Pompeo to Rome could be a first glimpse.

[1] See https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/u0zl7iabp56oyWjIk5dNOQ

[2] See A.C. Graham, Later Mohist Logic: Ethics and Science, 1978.

[3] See C. Harbsmeier in Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 7,  Language and Logic in Traditional, 1998.

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