This post was edited by markwu at 2017-10-18 09:33|
WE'RE NUMBER ONE
The cultural differences between the United States and China are aggravated by a remarkable trait shared by both countries: an extreme superiority complex. Each sees itself as exceptional — indeed, without peer. But there can be only one number one. Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, had doubts about the United States’ ability to adapt to a rising China. “For America to be displaced, not in the world, but only in the western Pacific, by an Asian people long despised and dismissed with contempt as decadent, feeble, corrupt, and inept is emotionally very difficult to accept,” he said in a 1999 interview. “The sense of cultural supremacy of the Americans will make this adjustment most difficult.”
In some ways, Chinese exceptionalism is more sweeping than its American counterpart. “The [Chinese] empire saw itself as the center of the civilized universe,” the historian Harry Gelber wrote in his 2001 book, Nations Out of Empires . During the imperial era, “the Chinese scholar-bureaucrat did not think of a ‘China’ or a ‘Chinese civilization’ in the modern sense at all. For him, there were the Han people and, beyond that, only barbarism. Whatever was not civilized was, by definition, barbaric.”
To this day, the Chinese take great pride in their civilizational achievements. “Our nation is a great nation,” Chinese President Xi Jinping declared in a 2012 speech. “During the civilization and development process of more than 5,000 years, the Chinese nation has made an indelible contribution to the civilization and advancement of mankind.” Indeed, Xi claimed in his 2014 book, The Governance of China, that “China’s continuous civilization is not equal to anything on earth, but a unique achievement in world history.”
Americans, too, see themselves as the vanguard of civilization, especially when it comes to political development. A passion for freedom is enshrined in the core document of the American political creed, the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The declaration specifies that these rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and asserts that these are not matters for debate but rather “self-evident” truths. As the American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” In contrast, order is the central political value for Chinese—and order results from hierarchy. Individual liberty, as Americans understand it, disrupts hierarchy; in the Chinese view, it invites chaos.
DO AS I SAY . . . AND AS I DO?
These philosophical differences find expression in each country’s concept of government. Although animated by a deep distrust of authority, the founders of the United States recognized that society required government. Otherwise, who would protect citizens from foreign threats or violations of their rights by criminals at home? They wrestled, however, with a dilemma: a government powerful enough to perform its essential functions would tend toward tyranny.
To manage this challenge, they designed a government of “separated institutions sharing power,” as the historian Richard Neustadt described it. This deliberately produced constant struggle among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, which led to delay, gridlock, and even dysfunction. But it also provided checks and balances against abuse.
The Chinese conception of government and its role in society could hardly be more different. As Lee observed, “The country’s history and cultural records show that when there is a strong center (Beijing or Nanjing), the country is peaceful and prosperous. When the center is weak, then the provinces and their counties are run by little warlords.”
Accordingly, the sort of strong central government that Americans resist represents to the Chinese the principal agent advancing order and the public good at home and abroad.
For Americans, democracy is the only just form of government: authorities derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed. That is not the prevailing view in China, where it is common to believe that the government earns or losses political legitimacy based on its performance.
In a provocative TED Talk delivered in 2013, the Shanghai-based venture capitalist Eric Li challenged democracy’s presumed superiority. “I was asked once, ‘The party wasn’t voted in by election. Where is the source of legitimacy?’” he recounted. “I said, ‘How about competency?’” He went on to remind his audience that in 1949, when the Chinese Community Party took power, “China was mired in civil war, dismembered by foreign aggression, [and] average life expectancy at that time [was] 41 years. Today [China] is the second-largest economy in the world, an industrial powerhouse, and its people live in increasing prosperity.”
Washington and Beijing also have distinctly different approaches when it comes to promoting their fundamental political values internationally. Americans believe that human rights and democracy are universal aspirations, requiring only the example of the United States (and sometimes a neoimperialist nudge) to be realized everywhere.
The United States is, as Huntington wrote in his follow-on book, The Clash of Civilizations, “a missionary nation,” driven by the belief “that the non-Western peoples should commit themselves to the Western values . . . and should embody these values in their institutions.” Most Americans believe that democratic rights will benefit anyone, anywhere in the world. Over the decades, Washington has pursued a foreign policy that seeks to advance the cause of democracy—even, on occasion, attempting to impose it on those who have failed to embrace it themselves.
In contrast, although the Chinese believe that others can look up to them, admire their virtues, and even attempt to mimic their behavior, China’s leaders have not proselytized on behalf of their approach. As the American diplomat Henry Kissinger has noted, imperial China “did not export its ideas but let others come to seek them.”
And unsurprisingly, Chinese leaders have been deeply suspicious of U.S. efforts to convert them to the American creed. In the late 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, who led China from 1978 until 1989 and began the country’s process of economic liberalization, complained to a visiting dignitary that Western talk of “human rights, freedom, and democracy is designed only to safeguard the interests of the strong, rich countries, which take advantage of their strength to bully weak countries, and which pursue hegemony and practice power politics.”