Illustration: Craig Stephens
Peter T. C. Chang
Peter T. C. Chang

Are Confucian China and the Christian West destined to clash? How religion can explain the new cold war

  • Peter T. C. Chang says China’s Confucian heritage means it can tolerate multiple belief systems ‘under heaven’, but the US’ insistence on liberal democracy has echoes of Christian exclusivism
The ongoing trade war is just one front of an expanding all-out US-China tussle for world dominance.

And unlike earlier great-power rivalries, this has the trappings of a civilisational showdown, as the pre-eminent Christian West faces off against a resurgent Confucian East, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the existing global order. 

Anxieties abound over whether these two giants share enough core values to manage a peaceful balancing of power, and can avert the dreaded Thucydides Trap.

These fears are not unfounded. While similar in some ways, Christianity and Confucianism are distinct traditions, with theological assumptions that, if unchallenged, could set the US and China on a collision course.

Christianity, like Judaism, believes in the existence of only one true God. But, unlike the latter, the former transcended Judaic ethnocentrism to embrace Christian universalism. The Abrahamic god in Christianity is no longer just for the Jews, but for all peoples.

Still, Christianity remains monotheistic, exacting absolute allegiance to the one God. For Christians, to be saved one must embrace the biblical faith. Put differently, humanity’s fate lies with Christianity, the sole gateway to heaven.

Imprints of these Christian motifs are unmistakable in Pax Americana. Stepping out of isolation, the US played a central role in stabilising the post-second-world-war order. Hailed as the American century, the 20th century has had its lows, surely. But it was also marked with historic accomplishments.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one. This and other US-led initiatives set the framework of a new international order, whereupon people everywhere could aspire to a dignified existence free of tyranny.

As US president John F. Kennedy eloquently acclaimed, “...not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace for our time but peace in all time”.

And Americans embraced this mission as a “manifest destiny” to guide humankind like a “shining city upon a hill”.

Reminiscent of Christian exclusivism, the Americans believed in a singular path to realising this free world: the liberal democratic process, exalted as the historic culmination of human political progress.

The Wenchang Confucian Temple in Hainan province. Photo: Simon Song

In Confucianism, the ancient Chinese sages also envisioned a “tianxia”, where all peoples could coexist harmoniously under heaven.

But, unlike Christian monotheism, the Chinese are polytheistic, pledging allegiance to Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism all at once. These multiple allegiances underscore the Chinese pluralistic approach to achieving the Dao in this and the afterlife.

Certainly, not every tradition is equal. Confucians do assert dominance. But there is no equivalent Christian doctrine of “God’s elect”. Moral pre-eminence is not predestined but merit-based. If proven worthy, anyone can take the lead under heaven.

In the nascent Pax Sinica, one can discern the Confucian impressions. Following the epochal Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping, at the 13th National People’s Congress, introduced another grandiose vision: a “community of common destiny”.
Emulating the Confucian “tianxia” concept, Xi vowed to “let the sunshine of a community with a shared future for humanity illuminate the world”. The aim is to herald a global “ new era” of stability and prosperity.

While matching the US in aspirations, China differs on how to actualise these ends.

Repudiating the West’s “one way only” democratic liberalism, Beijing championed the Confucian “many ways” multilateralism, defending nations’ prerogative to chart diverse ideological progress. The China model, Beijing assured, is unique and will not be replicated elsewhere.

Earnest in intent, China’s campaign to forge an alternative, pluralistic world order is nonetheless facing a hard sell.

State suppression of dissent, and a violent clampdown in restive Xinjiang, among others, have tarnished China’s image abroad and eroded confidence in Beijing’s credibility to assume global leadership.

Last year, US Vice-President Mike Pence delivered a stinging speech, labelling China authoritarian, Orwellian and expansionist.

It was widely interpreted as the declaration of a new cold war, and a wake-up call to contain a menacing power antipathic to the liberal, democratic values of the West and civilised societies.

Civilisations ought to hold each other accountable. But the West’s rebuke of China is tinged with disquieting self-righteousness.

Americans would, of course, readily concede to failings of their own. Yet a quasi-religious conviction persists: the US remains the divinely anointed “first among equals”.

In much of the world, religion is an integral dimension of human existence. But unbridled faith can be perilous, as students of European history are painfully mindful.

One such dark blot is the merciless violence Catholics and Protestants inflicted on each other during the Reformation.

Reeled by the barbarism committed in God’s name, Europe turned to enlightened philosophy to curb myopic theology.

In America, the founding fathers secured the new world from religious persecution. But the “land of the free” is not entirely liberated from religious zealotry.

US President Donald Trump meets Chinese Vice Premier Liu He (right) in the White House in Washington on January 31. Despite ongoing friction between the US and China, Trump signalled that progress had been made in talks between them and called Liu one of the world’s “most respected men”. Photo: AP

A “messiah complex” continues to plague America, with the tendency to demonise foes and treat challenges to its pre-eminence as a battle between good and evil.

The US sense of exceptionalism as the only force of good is anachronistic. To diminish others as innately different (read “evil”), when the world is in a tectonic-geopolitical flux, is dangerous.

The moral underpinnings of the Confucian East and Christian West are not fundamentally at odds. Admittedly, China’s track record, on human rights, for example, remains wanting. But these are more due to flawed practices than nefarious principles.

China shares America’s core values: to advance the universal good. They disagree on the means, one must concede. But disputes over liberal democracy are more differences of degree than kind.

US leadership was pivotal and will stay so in the 21st century. But America must shed that “manifest destiny” of an exclusive superpower, and embrace the likes of China as worthy partners in humanity’s quest for an inclusive “community of common destiny”.

In so doing, Pax Americana and Pax Sinica are more likely to reach a peaceful power equilibrium, thus averting the dreaded collision postulated by the Thucydides Trap.

Peter T. C. Chang is a senior lecturer at the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia