China confronts many dramatic choices and contradictions in this crucial historical moment for the country and the world. Facing American failures in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it may well draw many wrong conclusions.
Nationalism is ultimately a zero-sum game; it pits my country against yours, my interests against yours. Cooperation can only be short-term and occasional; ultimately, you and I are enemies even as we split the shares of common loot.
Liberalism, ideally, isn’t that. By fits and starts, since the late 17th century in Europe and its colonies, it replaced an old international order based on religion, Christianity, with one based on the ideas of fair trade and liberty. Then it exported this model worldwide. Liberalism isn’t perfect, and nationalism isn’t all bad. But it was liberalism that produced a qualitative giant hike in economic and social growth for the first time in human history. It rapidly multiplied resources and thus led to a massive increase in population and incremental improvement of quality of life.
What path will China choose?
On the other end of the spectrum, “Confucianism”—or however we may choose to call the traditional Chinese imperial order—caused China to miss two opportunities to join a globalized order in the 17th and 19th centuries, when it was challenged by the Spanish/Portuguese then by the British. Both times it succumbed to foreign domination, first by the Manchu and then by several Western states.
It was terrible for China both times, but at least the second time one foreign power, the Americans, saved China from a second Manchu-like domination led by Japan, and China retained its independence. The US did not try to invade and conquer China when it could have. It didn’t do so for many reasons, including because it believed in the efficacy of a liberal international order.
Mao, inspired by the thinkers of his time like Hu Shi and Feng Youlan, saw ancient Chinese Mohism and legalism as ways to approximate China to the Western world and fight “Confucianism,” deemed the main culprit of China’s decadence.
In the first half of the 20th century, Chinese intellectuals took on communism, believing it was the latest Western political tool and technological idea, more modern than democracy, by which they could leapfrog their underdevelopment. At the 1942 Yan’an conference, Mao won the intellectual debate in the country by arguing that China could not go back to Confucian ideas.
Is China now reversing the conclusions of the Yan’an conference?
The US made many mistakes in the past 18 years, but does it prove that Confucianism will work better in the world and China than liberalism?
If China pursues its Confucian mold again, like in the 17th and 19th centuries, it could be lost by refusing to modernize and dragging its feet ideologically. That doesn’t mean that all tradition must be abandoned—quite the contrary. Not all traditions followed Confucius; he might have been a minority at the time, and many advocated fei ru 非儒, opposing the Confucians, well before Mao did.
Certainly, Mao played with ideas for his own purposes of power. But ideas need to be respected in their own logic; otherwise, picking and choosing logic for temporary power gain will destroy countries, as happened to Maoist China.
Presently, China doesn’t want a trade and economic decoupling with the world, but does it want to abide by fair trade rules, pivotal for the balance of international liberalism? China doesn’t wish to decouple but pushes a nationalistic agenda; how can the two square off?
Exporting democracy can be a mistake, but if the US hadn’t done it in the 1940s, Europe would still be fascist or communist. Democracy can make mistakes, but to correct them, do we want to abolish democracy? It’d be like saying: to avoid falling ill, let’s kill the patient. Are we serious?