The truth about the US-China clash of civilisations? There isn’t one
- Ignore the hype about Eastern versus Western values. Chinese philosophers were advocating individual rights and freedom many centuries before America was indulging in the slave trade
This concept of an inevitable “civilisational” or “cultural” (as distinct from business-economic or political-strategic) conflict between the world’s two most powerful countries is based on both sides’ flawed understanding of China’s supposedly unique national economic policies and cultural heritage.
On the economic policy front, the common belief in “the West”, and to some extent in China itself, is that China’s impressive economic development has been driven by a powerful centralised state now engaged in a strategic nationalist quest to “beat” the US especially, in technological innovation, through aggressive statist industrial policy.
But the historical reality is that China’s growth has been driven primarily by the private sector.
As University of Michigan political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang meticulously details in her award-winning 2016 book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, domestic entrepreneurs worked with local authorities and foreign investors in a complex, adaptive “co-evolutionary process” to deliver economic growth, jobs and rising incomes.
Furthermore, Ang traces a similar sequence – “building markets with imperfect institutions” – in other places and periods, including late medieval Europe, antebellum United States, and contemporary Nigeria, at similar stages of economic development.
There is nothing uniquely “Chinese” about this process, which also occurred in “the West”, and can be emulated in other developing countries.
The state has certainly played an outsize role in China’s history, compared with other countries.
But China’s modern state-owned enterprises have always underperformed as businesses, exerting a drag on the domestic macro-economy through excessive debt and crowding out the private sector.
This is unlikely to change as China seeks to use the state to advance indigenous capabilities in targeted hi-tech industries – which has caused such consternation in Western countries that there is now a rush in Europe to defend against Chinese competition by ratcheting up unproven statist industrial policy.
On the “values”, “cultural” or “civilisational” front, a fascinating new book by University of Michigan historian Martin Powers, China and England: The Preindustrial Struggle for Justice in Word and Image (2019), boldly challenges the long-standing conventional wisdom in both “China” and “the West” that Chinese cultural values and public policy practices are immutable and antithetical to the superior so-called “Western values” of individual liberty, democracy, equality, justice and human rights.
He ingeniously marshals copious documentary and artistic evidence to challenge the stereotype that Chinese history and culture favour hierarchical systems of state authoritarianism which empower the group and diminish the individual.
Instead, Powers shows that influential Chinese philosophers, writers, poets, artists and statesmen over millennia published sophisticated logical arguments, constructed governance systems, implemented legal actions and conducted public advocacy upholding individual rights, fair treatment, the state’s responsibility to citizens, and “the people’s” right to free expression and criticism of state authorities and elites – including the well-known “Mandate of Heaven”, or “When a government fails it is because it runs against the people’s will.” [Guanzi, 3rd century BC]
There was a remarkable continuity in these ideals as they translated into practice in different historical periods.
For example, Mencius [372-289 BC] said government should “Endeavour all you can to render your people happy; take care they are reasonably provided with all necessaries: see that the grounds are cultivated, and that plenty reigns”.
Later, writes Powers, “the Song government [960-1279] … invested heavily in social programmes designed to get the poor back on their feet so they could start functioning as regular taxpayers”, including through progressive taxation for redistribution, with “families … graded by income level, not by social class, family ranking, or occupation”.
Rich and poor were in principle “equal under the law” [Hu Hong, 1102-1161]. “If laws are applied strictly to the poor but loosely to the rich, then they are not uniform. If laws are enforced for people who are distant from power, but are not enforced for those near to power, then they are not uniform.” [Bai Juyi, 772-846]
Further, notes Powers, the ordinary taxpayer could challenge the law, which recognised “the fallibility of government”, such that for some, where there is a difference between “what the state supports and what public opinion supports … the latter is considered a more reliable guide to what is actually right”.
Thus, “classical sources in China frequently defend dissent as an essential feature of government … all governments, being fallible, require popular feedback so as to correct policies that might be harmful to the people or the nation”, says Powers.
Formal protections for free speech date back at least to the Han Emperor Wen [179-156 BC], whose edicts were considered exemplary in later ages, with one protecting even personal attacks on the emperor.
While “men of learning” were expected to publicly debate (hence criticise) government policy, “Wang Chong [27-92] asserted that ordinary taxpayers, with no official position to speak of, not only could but should expose faults in government”, notes Powers.
“Visualisation of dissent” portrayed in landscape paintings, stone engravings and ceramic wares suggest that political speech was widely accepted by the non-literate.
These by then already ancient Chinese arguments were correctly seen as radical in pre-industrial Europe, where power and authority came from privilege based on group membership, particularly of the aristocracy or “nobility”, not individual merit judged by scholarly performance, as in China.
European commentators aware of the Chinese writings and practices either could not comprehend, refused to acknowledge, distorted or misrepresented the Chinese precedents or, less commonly, used them to bolster their own arguments for more progressive policies in their own countries.
The Chinese theories and practices that Powers highlights are remarkably similar or identical to centuries-later pronouncements and policy innovations by liberal intellectuals and statesmen in England, responding to similar structural factors in their society at the time or, more rarely, to explicit “borrowing” from the Chinese.
The current US-China conflict may reflect competing contemporary national interests. But these are not rooted in essentialist “East vs West” differences in ideology and cultural values, which everywhere change over time.
Particularly in a nation as large, diverse and decentralised as China, and over millennia, written policies were not comprehensively, perfectly or continuously implemented, and there were backward as well as forward movements, for example, following dynastic changes.
Thus social theory and policy were more “progressive” (in the current “Western liberal” sense) during the Song than during the preceding Tang or succeeding Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. But even the latter were more liberal in some respects than contemporaneous England.
Just as today one would not characterise 21st century “American values” as they were manifest during the era of English-led slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, so one would not encapsulate “Asian values” as they were expressed in late imperial China, or during the Maoist era.
Yet many in the West now advocate emulating statist, mercantilist Chinese economic policies, thereby enshrining the very “Chinese norms” that they fear today’s China wishes to impose on the world in place of the weakening “Western-led” “liberal-internationalist” post-second world war order.
Others, including Asian commentators, believe “democracy” or political liberalisation should not develop in China (though it has in the other “Confucianist” societies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan).
Both are mistaken to the extent that they ascribe this to enduring cultural, civilisational differences between “East” and “West”.
President Xi Jinping is similarly mistaken in his belief that “restoring China to its central place in the world” requires an authoritarian state that justifies the suppression of individual rights and freedoms on the basis of ethno-nationalist values.
As Powers’ book reminds us, values that advocate social justice and individual rights and freedoms are not “Western” any more than they are “Chinese”. Rather, they are perennial and socially constructed in particular historical periods.
“Socialism” in China today may have “Chinese characteristics”, just as there has been a long struggle to devise an “American” variant of it, including in current US Democratic Party discourse.
But Marx, whose teachings Xi is reviving in China, was Western, while Mencius, whose teachings resonate well with so-called “Western” liberal values, was Chinese.
This suggests that the present US-China conflicts can be more reliably and permanently resolved by reaching for universalist rather than nationalist values and principles, and realising that there is more that unites than divides “East” and “West”. ■
Linda Lim is Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan