UNIQUE CIVILISATION: There’s no point judging it by liberal norms

THIS month provided a beauty contest between the two most important powers on the planet right now: America and China. On Nov 6, the United States chose President Barack Obama for a second term in an exciting election that reverberated worldwide.

A week later, the 18th congress of the Communist Party in Beijing began a once-in-a-decade leadership change that lacked for nothing except suspense. Xi Jinping was inaugurated as general secretary on Nov 15. It had been known for some time that he would rise to that pinnacle and become China’s president.

Through narrow Western eyes, the comparison was made as invidious as possible. According to Dominique Moisi, founder of the French Institute of International Affairs, November brought “two victories: not just Obama’s over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the presidential election, but also the victory of America’s democratic system over China’s one-party authoritarianism”.

But even he refrained from saying that the result was unequivocal. American democracy also showed up an outlier Republican Party — “led astray”, Moisi said, “by its ultra-conservative lunatics” — so that the jubilation in which so many non-Americans partook also contained an element of relief at Romney’s defeat.

“Millions of people around the world would rather experience for themselves an election night like America’s than become a part of China’s long-term plans,” he said in his Nov 16 column for Project Syndicate.

For most Asians and Southeast Asians, that is only superficially true. Comfortable in their own skins — their own sovereignty and self-determination — they want no part in an ideological tug-of-war and prefer a balanced understanding to a one-sided glorification of Western values.

That understanding is being articulated by some enlightened Westerners, among whom is Martin Jacques, author of the acclaimed When China Rules The World.

In an Oct 26 podcast on the US-China transitions, he argued that democracy was not everything.

“You probably think that the legitimacy and authority of the state or government is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style. But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy.

“Now let me shock you: the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state.”

The main reason is that China is different. In Jacques’ words, it is a “civilisation-state” rather than a “nation-state”, and should not be judged by the norms of the latter. Roughly the same formulation is employed by the West’s most perceptive and seasoned China-watcher, the Harvard professor and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

His On China, published last year, is a marvel. In his eighties, he has lost none of the acuity that had pushed him to the forefront of one of America’s greatest post-war diplomatic triumphs: a thawing of relations with China from President Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing in 1972.

As a historical figure recording history, he has spoken to them all: Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, down to the so-called “fourth generation” under Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao and beyond.

The Kissingerian analysis is realist, pragmatic and heavyweight — and it makes the standard issue Western criticism look like the nit-picking of amateurs.

He first sets out why the Chinese take a very long view. “A special feature of Chinese civilisation is that it seems to have no beginning. It appears in history less as a conventional nation-state than a permanent natural phenomenon.”

From it a psyche emerged to infer that total control is impossible. “The Chinese have been shrewd practitioners of Realpolitik and students of a strategic doctrine distinctly different from the strategy and diplomacy that found favour in the West.

“A turbulent history has taught Chinese leaders that not every problem has a solution and that too great an emphasis over specific events could upset the harmony of the universe.”

That has usually meant a live-and-let-live foreign policy. Despite periodic eruptions of nationalism, the country’s domestic preoccupations always held it to a certain course.

The course held true even in the new millenium, when China’s arrival into big power status could have caused it to take a less benign posture. Under Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, China “aspired first of all to normalcy and stability.”

“China’s foreign policy aimed primarily for a peaceful international environment (including good relations with the US) and access to raw materials to ensure continued economic growth. And it retained a special interest in the developing world — a legacy of Mao’s Three Worlds theory — even as it moved into the rank of economic superpower.”

“Confronting the new challenges of the 21st century, and in a world where Leninism had collapsed, Hu and Wen turned to traditional wisdom.”

China’s spokesmen have been eager to reassure. They have studied history, too, and say their country will not repeat the explosive rearrangement of powers more typical of the West.

Hu and Wen’s dictum is the creation of a Confucian-tinged “moderately well-off society”, an aim from which Xi and Li Keqiang, who is expected to succeed as prime minister, are not expected to diverge. Western grumbling about the sameness of the new line-up of leaders and its alleged lack of reform potential thus misses the point.

Malaysian and Chinese leaders have got on famously since Tun Abdul Razak Hussein beat a path to Beijing just two years after Nixon in 1974. But Malaysia will miss Wen, who has formed a close friendship with this country and Razak’s son, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. Najib’s appreciation of China, it goes without saying, is both intellectual and intuitive.

For a growing majority in the Asia-Pacific, the more that is known about China, the less scary it looks (except when it is in territorial dispute).

The coattails of China’s ascent has lifted the rest of the region through trade and aid. Most Asians thus want “cooperative co-existence” between the US and China, and “competitive peers” rather than rivals.

They want the US to remain engaged. But between the two, they feel it may be America, used to seeing itself as No. 1, that will need the more persuading about what its role should be.

– Kamrul Idris