Many countries in the past half-century have entered into some sort of comprehensive conflict. Samuel Huntington attributes it to the “clash of civilizations,” highlighting the cultural and religious roots of conflict, while others see it as a fight between political systems and values. I personally think it’s a combination of both — things like political systems and culture or religion and values are inseparable in the first place. I don’t agree with perspectives that over-emphasize one side: there is definitely a problem with “cultural determinism,” but it’s also problematic to think that systems determine everything. Confucian-influence countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are all enjoying their democracies, while India, no matter how perfect its democracy, may never reach attain a political environment and social status comparable to that of the United States and Europe.
After World War II, the capitalistic United States, which claimed to represent “universal values,” and the socialist Soviet Union, which pledged to “liberate all humanity,” entered a half-century of tug-of-war. We all know the results. All in all it’s pretty obvious that this was a battle between political systems and values. The Soviet Union basically brought all of Eastern Europe under its cover overnight.
But let’s pick out the points of long term contention between the two rivals: foreign expansion, dissemination of ideas, and methods for maintaining power. Perhaps we’ll discover that these two rivals are virtually the same. There’s no doubt that the Soviet Union sent troops out in defense of its socialist ideal, stationing them throughout Eastern Europe. But the United States’ military history is no less robust than that of the Soviet Union. Why did they both do this? The answer’s quite simple: to promote their values, disseminate the political systems that they believe in, and use the values that humanity accepts — or values they think that humanity accepts — to rule the world. For the Soviet Union, it was communism that could liberate humanity. For the United States, it was “universal values” like freedom, democracy, and rule of law.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China became a force to be reckoned with, and from the beginning raised its own distinctive banner: socialism with Chinese characteristics. Some people call it a meaningless distinction — socialism is socialism, after all. But I think that’s a pointless argument — if forms of socialism were the same, why would we add “with Chinese characteristics?” I think it is pretty clear that China wanted to distinguish itself from the Soviet Union.
But even so, since the world had been tossed around for too long, the image left in most people’s minds is one that’s black and white. Even if you add “with Chinese characteristics,” ideological propaganda and diplomatic rhetoric still place China in “the primary stages of socialism.” As a result, the entire Western world is increasingly moving away from China. The recent “China-as-a-virus” narrative that has been circulating in Western media is one of the most obvious examples. The point being made is that China is infiltrating, influencing, and even changing the world with its behaviors and models. But from the Western perspective the “China model” and its associated behaviors are illegitimate, illegal, and unjust. China, in their view, simply doesn’t play by the rules.
The taboo surrounding “Chinese characteristics” is not new. In some ways, the transition from the “Yellow Peril” to the “China threat” and then to “China-as-a-virus” is actually an improvement. The “Yellow Peril” insinuated that the Chinese people were too poor to even afford food and thus posed a mortal danger to the world’s resources. The “China threat” suggests that China is becoming more militaristic and an increasing threat to world peace and stability. Neither is as impressive as “China-as-a-virus,” which is gradually shaping up to include China’s ideology or value system — like Marxism or “universal values.”
From the “Yellow Peril” to “China-as-a-virus,” Americans are constantly on edge and, frankly, at their wit’s end about China. From George H.W. Bush’s post-Cold War idea of a “war without shooting” (or a “peaceful evolution”) with China, the United States has always wanted to lay a hand on China. But of course it’s a matter of fate, you could say, that every time “Chinese characteristics” come under real threat from American or Western suspicion, Middle Eastern terrorists would jump out and lift China out of its dilemma.
I’ve discussed this in several articles: 9/11 inclined America to adopt the “peaceful evolution” approach towards China. It’s the same story over and over. After last week’s attack on Paris, the West has again entered the eternal quagmire of trying to separate friends from enemies.
The “jihad” of Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists has repeatedly dragged the West down into the ditch from its victory over the Soviet Union. If we say communism is a competitor with a cohesive ideology and baseline, you can at least count on improvements on political, economic, and social dimensions, as well diplomatic means to mitigate misunderstandings. But terrorists can only understand the language of missiles.
Whether it’s “universal values,” communism, or the sudden emergence of jihad, these ideologies are all mutually exclusive and are being transmitted throughout the world by very potent means. It’s worth mentioning that “universal values” are gaining widespread approval, and due to the overall decreasing amount of bloody wars, more and more countries are voluntarily embracing the idea. But essentially, the three players are still employing the same means: traditional communism still wants to use military means to liberate humanity; the “universal values” camp believes that the world needs lasting peace and respect for human rights, and that “universal values” should be truly “universal,” and the ever-more-ruthless terrorists are ready to eliminate all who oppose their beliefs.
But we mustn’t forget that there is something outside of these three players: socialism with “Chinese characteristics,” or “the China model.” As I’ve written many times, there is no world leader who meets another head of state and immediately says: we should seek common ground, respect each others’ choice in political and value systems, respect each others’ differences, work towards peaceful coexistence. Why does China do this? Is it because China knows its own strength, and fears it will be eliminate if it becomes too prominent? Or is it because China wants to use the several thousand years of accumulated Chinese wisdom to find a unique way to solve global problems?
Whether we’re discussing “universal values” or “communist ideology”, “Chinese characteristics” or “jihad,” the focus has been on how these have been promoted abroad. In reality, the focus should be more on how these value systems manifests domestically, and how they fit into the discourse of survival and development, as well as what messages they disseminate about social fundamentals and political systems. There’s no doubt that these factors affect the methods for external dissemination.
The earliest Western countries to espouse universal values still engaged in bloody colonial conflicts and slaughtered Native Americans, but these values have already decided that in the long term social enlightenment and democratic systems should move toward moderation and peace. Those communist states that advocated for class struggle and violence largely messed up their own countries before venturing a foot out. As for jihad, although the Islamic population is now over 1.7 billion, very few Muslims view their religion through the lens of worldwide jihad and terrorist activities and so those who have decided to pit themselves against civilization are unlikely to succeed.
As for the “Chinese characteristics” or the “China model” that makes Western countries so concerned: you’re free to bet your money on one of the “big three,” but why not use it on the China dream instead?
The piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. You can view the original here.