THE CENTRALITY OF CHINA: THEN AND NOW

By Thomas Hon Wing Polin

The best single expression of China’s vision for the 21st century is its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the most ambitious development project ever. It is a contemporary version of the original Silk Roads (one land, one maritime), which helped the ancient world flourish for more than a millennium.

“BRI’s success would help bring about the “Community of Shared Human Destiny,” Xi Jinping’s oft-cited vision of the future. When all is said and done, that may be the most sensible way ahead for humanity — if it is not only to survive, but thrive.”

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In ancient China, the concept underpinning inter-state relations was known as “tianxi” 天下. It was pioneered some three millennia ago by the Zhou Dynasty. The term is usually rendered in English as “all under heaven” or simply, the world.

At the time, of course, tianxia meant China’s World — the world as known to the Chinese. At the core was China, the “Central Realm” 中國. As the centuries and millennia went by and the necessary knowledge emerged, the term was extended to cover the entire globe.

What tianxia really means is a universal order regulated and sustained by a state of harmony among its constituent parts. Confucius (551-479 BCE) was the first to crystallize the idea into a philosophy for a world order. He taught that among states, “one becomes established if and only if one lets others be established, and one is improved if and only if one lets others improve.” In other words, interdependence — and win-win.

For China the core values of tianxia have remained unbroken to today. In the Asian landmass, they were vastly influential. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, China had been the world’s wealthiest, most advanced and most powerful civilization … until the West mastered the Industrial Revolution and weaponized its fruits to subdue the world.

Unfortunately, the individualist values of Europe, then America, were the opposite of tianxai. Applied internationally, they were predatory, zero-sum and racist, even genocidal. Wedded to military supremacy, they led to imperialism and its countless discontents. Thus began two centuries of global domination by the Western powers.

But the return of China to the front ranks in the the 21st century is again shaking up the world order. Tragically, the US-led Western Empire has been too obsessed with its own hegemony and, fearful of losing it, to recognize the immensely positive opportunities the Chinese renaissance can bring the whole world. A few years ago, the Imperial mandarins decided to beat down China, rather than work with it to achieve win-win for all humanity.

May be an image of skyscraper

Given the West’s relentless hostility, how is China responding? Indeed, what are the Chinese thinking? So far, the West’s aggressive measures haven’t done much to dent the Chinese advance. If China matches or overtakes the US in the not-distant future as the No. 1 power, how is it likely to behave? What are Beijing’s intentions towards other countries, and how will its policies shape up? What are the dimensions and prospects of Chinese “soft power,” now beginning to make itself felt in the wake of the country’s epic economic, political and technological achievements?

These are critical questions for all people in positions of influence worldwide, be they in government, politics, business, academia, science or culture. Certainly, these questions are not being answered, or even framed properly, by mass media in the English language. These days mainstream media have shown themselves not only woefully ignorant and biased in their coverage of China, but also obsessed with demonizing the country. Naturally, MSM merely reflect the preferences and values of the Western elites that control them. And China’s media, when they speak in English, lag those of the West in terms of sophistication, articulateness and idiomatic expression.

My blog is a tiny attempt to address this gaping hole in the global discourse. Its aim is not only to stimulate awareness and discussion of China’s historic return to the forefront of the world’s nations and its consequences. It is, above all, to reflect Chinese perspectives on global affairs. It hopes to foster genuine, non-Western-centric understanding of China, a country and civilization that has long puzzled outsiders, especially those who do not know the Chinese language. Such comprehension will be critical to the maintenance and promotion of world peace in our perilous 21st century.

Is there even a “Chinese perspective”? Despite the diversity of globe-spanning Chinese communities, the majority do share certain basic views. One is a conviction that the long-cherished Chinese goal of national “prosperity and strength” is about to be realized — after a traumatic “Century of Humiliation.” They are determined to see it through.

Does that mean an aggressive, even vindictive, approach to international affairs? No. Throughout their history, harmony has always been a treasured ideal for the Chinese — as mentioned above. It makes possible the peaceful, creative interaction between yin and yang, opposite forces that synthesize into positive new realities and sustain life itself.

Moreover, the profound sufferings undergone by the Chinese people the past two centuries have chastened the nation and its leaders. The last thing they want is more war, devastation, suffering. Having been carved into de facto colonies, China would not wish to inflict the same fate on other countries after it becomes powerful again. Thus the repeated stress by Chinese leaders on “never seeking hegemony.”

Ultimately, the Chinese are a nation of merchants and traders, not warriors, adventurers or marauders. Their long history attests to the fact. When they could have taken over much of the world early in the 15th century, they — in the mirror image of the Europeans — retreated behind their own borders to mind their own business.

The best single expression of China’s vision for the 21st century is its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the most ambitious development project ever. It is a contemporary version of the original Silk Roads (one land, one maritime), which helped the ancient world flourish for more than a millennium. It is another focal point of this blog.

BRI can also be seen as a blueprint for international cooperation this century, where all parties gain some benefit. It could not work otherwise. The other giant of EurAsia, Russia, will be an indispensable partner. So will Southeast Asia, Iran and — if it eventually makes up it mind — India. BRI is expected to cover two-thirds the world’s population, 35% of the trade and a third of the GDP. It is in fact a direct descendant of the ancient notion of tianxia.

The unprecedented megaproject focuses on not just economic development, but also cross-cultural understanding and connectivity. It is intended to be highly flexible, accommodating all who wish to join. Still in its early stages, it has no rigid parameters; its specifics will evolve with time and be determined by real needs and possibilities. Ultimately, the scheme will connect and integrate the entire EurAsian landmass. And if nations elsewhere want to participate, it could even encompass the globe.

BRI’s success would help bring about the “Community of Shared Human Destiny,” Xi Jinping’s oft-cited vision of the future. When all is said and done, that may be the most sensible way ahead for humanity — if it is not only to survive, but thrive.

Source: China’s World, 19 Sept 2021

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