Why I Worry About ChinaMay 16th, 2013 by Dean Foster | Discuss This »
There are the obvious reasons, the most obvious being that China is the second most economically powerful nation in the world today, and anyone who appreciates the global interconnectedness of human endeavor in the 21st century has to come to terms with an economic power of that magnitude. China has the fastest growing military in the world today. And any of the statistics regarding China’s rise over the last decade that are periodically trotted out are always sobering: i.e., the standard deviation when calculating China’s population is itself greater than the entire US population; China is the world’s largest English-speaking nation; China is the second greatest contributor to global warming (the US is #1), but trumps the US as #1 in the pace at which it continues to add to the problem.
But none of the above really keeps me awake at night. Any nation – including the US – claiming a superpower position, economically, socially or politically, should justifiably be a cause for concern. There has, is and always will be a nation or supra-national entity (like the EU) holding the top power spots, and if it weren’t China or the US today, it would be someone else.
No, what worries me about China is something specific to the nature of China. I am speaking of certain genes in the Chinese cultural DNA that, when magnified through Chinese power, present some terrifying scenarios for the rest of the world. Specifically, I am referring to Confucian situational ethics, and the challenge that presents for the world as China makes the kind of political, economic and military decisions that great powers make. This issue is beginning to be reflected in the headlines, from China’s cozying up to African regimes so reprehensible that the rest of the world has refused to work with them, in order to satisfy its voracious appetite for natural resources; its continuous selective interpretation of history in order to justify domestic repression of minorities and political reformers; and its willful irresponsibility for global ecology. All of this is occurring precisely because Chinese decision-making is premised on Confucian ideas of situation-based or contextual truth, which at the end of the day, despite Chinese claims to it providing more nuanced interpretations of right and wrong based on situational context, actually allows for decision-making in the absence of a moral north star. Present actions can only portend what we cannot imagine for the future.
While 5000+ years of Chinese civilization has certainly provided a philosophical tradition rich in intellectual treasures that contribute to human thought, the glaring absence of a legacy that searches for moral right and wrong is significantly worrisome as Chinese power is exerted around the world. While Confucian situation-based ethics has increasingly been incorporated as an intellectual counterweight to equally dangerous sterile rationality – and its sometimes awful consequences – that has historically emerged from time to time in the west, there has been little in the modern Chinese experience that actively seeks to incorporate western notions of moral right and wrong. The western legacy of a search for a moral north star began with Plato and his notion of “ideals”, runs through Judeo-Christian notions of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not”; and is fundamental to the continuing western philosophical pursuit of “truth” and “knowing”. Nothing of this kind exists in Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist thought, and if the west has achieved anything, it is the establishment of the need for a moral standard.
Without such a base, decisions can more likely be made based on situational expediency, a frightening and ultimately self-destructive scenario for any nation as powerful as China.
Greg James, August 4th, 2013 on 2:45 pm
Wow, I’m very interested and a bit disturbed by your blog about Chinese cultural DNA and Confucian “situational ethics.” First, as someone who has lived in China for three years over a 12 year period, and has both undergrad and grad degrees focusing on China, I don’t remember ever hearing about Confucian “situational ethics.” Guess I need to research that. My personal experience of China is that taking status, relationship, etc. into consideration is a reason why Chinese people’s actions can seem situational to a U.S.-er.
I would posit that China’s actions around pollution, supporting dictators has something to do with Communism – they still are, after all, a somewhat Stalinist country organizationally and politically. Also with the “central kingdom” worldview that is still pervasive with many Chinese. . . . . As for supporting dictatorships, the U.S. and other western countries certainly have done and sometimes still done that! Not that it’s right; but all powerful countries rationalize this kind of hypocrisy!
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