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Opinion
What China Offers and Why The United States Resists
 NO. 3 JANUARY 18, 2018
James Peck, visiting professor at New York University and founder of the Culture and Civilization of China project at Yale University Press and the China International Publishing Group, shared his views on China's rising role in dealing with global inequality in a world dominated by the U.S.-centric globalism. An edited excerpt of his article follows:

In the words of the great African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, "To understand you have to stand under." Today many of us live in the United States in a world of such inequality and global injustice that to live in favored regions is to be virtually cut off from the experience, let alone the reactions, of people outside those regions. We are separate even if our computers pour forth masses of information and detail; for they do not provide empathy, and without empathy there is no basis for genuine understanding or knowledge of others. Having a sense of just how arduous for China and other nations it has been to emerge from amidst the predatory character of the global order constructed by the West is not to dwell on the humiliations suffered by countless peoples; it is not simply to focus on the past. It is to seek some hope for changing the irrational international economic order by understanding how it has worked at such cost against so much of humanity. It is to retain the insights into oppression, and why the development of collective means was so essential to resist it. And it is to reinforce just how important it is to understand how China has accomplished what it has.

Indeed, in dealing with innumerable issues of global inequality and injustice, the widespread labeling of countries as "democratic" and "authoritarian" is a dangerous rhetorical game—and especially so with China. It has led to a preoccupation with processes to the veritable exclusion of results. This is especially misguided given that there remains all too little insight into how to combine economic and political democracy, individualism and collective needs; how to effectively deal with unjust concentrations of wealth and power and rising levels of inequality within and among nations.

In short, the popular American view of a rights-based, democratic American power not only obfuscates the way Washington operates but also advances a one-dimensional and parochial vision of human rights inimical to understanding China and other countries in the South. To understand why this is so we might consider how humanity's emancipatory traditions involve at least two great currents—sometimes contending, sometimes complementary. The first current largely embodies the official Washington view, which emphasizes civil and political rights and embraces a moderate, democratic, step-by-step incorporation of human needs into a kind of rights-based legalism. The modern American Dream—capitalist, individualistic, tied to the careening fortunes of private property—fits well enough into this current. Its liberating qualities are understood in terms of individual freedom: they do more to liberate individuals from the deprivations of caste than of class, freeing them from archaic restraints and traditions but not from economic subjugation. However, the outcome is paradoxical. Violations of women's rights, gay rights, civil rights of all kinds in the United States are increasingly attacked while inequality grows. Diversity and multiculturalism are lauded even as the concentration of wealth and power reaches historic levels. Elections are praised; the outcomes are not. Economic democracy is not even on the agenda. Issues, in brief, are seen more through the individual than a collective prism. It's an approach more prone to universalize by stripping away—down to individual interests and rights, rather than into collective, shared needs.

The second current has less to do with an individualistic vision of freedom and more to do with basic needs, social justice, national independence, cultural cohesion, and equality. Historically, it is associated with popular mass movements, revolution by populations in desperate straits, resistance to foreign occupation, global economic inequality, and collective and often state-centric means to develop societies. This current is now far more prevalent outside the dominant Western spheres of power. What Washington's ideological use of the American Dream and human rights and democratization does is to insist that this second current be judged, evaluated, and delegitimized in so far as it challenges the centrality and primacy of the first current. This in practice turns the first current against the second, and in so doing creates a formidable ideological weapon against innumerable alternatives to the American universalistic model.

In my book, Ideal Illusions: How Washington Co-opted Human Rights, I tried to suggest how and why human rights emerged as such a prominent language in the post-Viet Nam era in the United States. It's not that human rights are unimportant; they surely are. But making them into a weapon of ideological warfare, and turning the two currents against each other as Washington does, can hardly be realistically expected to help achieve those rights in the United States or elsewhere.

The Chinese dream speaks to many aspects of humanity's emancipatory drive. U.S. observers tend to simply dismiss the use of the word "socialism" by Chinese leaders. Its usage is a reminder of a possible commitment that the far wealthier parts of the West have turned away from in ways that ignore significant parts of what any viable human rights thinking needs to confront.

When China's leaders speak of win-win and emphasize the need to build "a new type of international relations," of going beyond the traditional understanding of international relations based on realism or realpolitik, U.S. observers, as is well known, often as not bring up the Thucydides trap. As an analyst asks, why should we expect China to act any differently than the United States over the course of its history? Are they more principled than the Americans? Are they less nationalistic than the Americans? Less concerned about their survival? They are none of these things.

To which the beginning of an answer might be—a changing historical context; the development of a genuinely multi-polar, non-colonized world; the emergence of a China whose security involves partnerships, not alliances; an Asia able to fully connect with the rest of the world that can also be compatible with China as a great power; a country that does not need wars to become a strong power; a nation without a proselytizing ethos that requires others to follow in its path; a nation whose policy is not predicated upon seeing itself as the center of the world.

With few exceptions, none of this lessens the negative vision of China in the U.S. context. Yet much of this is nonsense. Indeed, this vision of China as a frightening, rising new superpower reflects in some distorted way a projection onto China of the dark underside of what American globalism actually is.

China, unlike Washington, will not have 800 overseas military bases, launch a widespread program of drone assassination, or be invading and overthrowing other governments, or committing regime change actions throughout a large part of the planet. Its military or security presence will not be in 171 countries. I doubt this will happen to China. In his discussions with Henry Kissinger, Premier Zhou Enlai spoke of China's earlier "expansionist traditions." But this is hardly comparable to what has been involved in American globalism. China is certainly profoundly changing the world. It is growing and developing; its size, cultural density, and independence matter greatly. And it's worth noting the obvious—that Asia is a rather different place historically and culturally than the Western Hemisphere. "Asia for the Asians," after all, is not an updated version of the Monroe Doctrine. To members of my generation, the "containment" of China seemed a misnomer at a time when the United States was the great power that was not being contained. I'm hardly persuaded that this reality has changed enough.

Let me try to summarize. In Washington's world an accurate, non-ideological understanding of China rarely emerges—and the reasons are analogous to why the United States refuses to accept a multi-polar world. China's independence, and the efforts of other nations in the South to find their own independent ways, arduous as they are, still run up against Washington's intensely ideological American-centric globalism. Most China observers who debate whether or not China is a rising potential superpower, practically never question the legitimacy and character of Washington's globalism. And there's the rub. For you can't accurately see China or the rest of the world as they are through the prism of an American-centric global mission.

Washington's decades-long drive to be the globe's predominate power makes it inclined to see aggressive drives that are in reality often reactive, defensive efforts to protect or project quite legitimate rights. And more: this globalist ethos repeatedly injects itself into a host of issues a wiser course would have sought to avoid—such as the extension of NATO to the East or the intricate and extensive involvement of the United States in the South China Sea and the various islands disputes. Rather than discussing the merits of the specific issues, Washington often as not weaves them into a complex, interactive dynamic of analysis and conviction so that global issues—their global big picture—overrides specific issues, making them all the harder to either resolve—or in the U.S. context—to intelligently debate. Almost every time American "credibility" is invoked, you'll find this "big picture" descending into each specific issue in ways to muddy the waters. So much so that every time American credibility is invoked, almost all sensible thinking and strategizing stops.

I'd like to close by reiterating a fundamental point. Humanity will not progress much further unless the right questions are asked. In many ways, China is doing so. By contrast, too many of the questions being asked both before and now during the Trump administration reflect a near historic failure to ask the right ones. Cynics may say China is simply shrewdly talking the talk, but Washington is not even doing this. In 1945, shortly after the dropping of the atomic bombs, Albert Einstein said: "Now everything has changed except our manner of thinking. Thus we are drifting toward a catastrophe beyond comprehension. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive."

We have the possibility of entering into a very different world from that of the last 500 years. It will not be easy. But to do so we need to draw on new ways of thinking capable of taking us into a very different era and with the insights from all of humanity's diverse civilizations. And toward this, China is making an enormous contribution.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

Comments to baishi@bjreview.com

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