“China has a continuous civilisation for 5,000 years” Sun Yeli, CPC central committee member said when launching the World Conference on China Studies in Shanghai. The challenge is to promote understanding of this continuity and the way it shapes current policy. Civilisation is more than culture. It’s the way China approaches the world and that is very different from the way Western countries think about the world.
There is no greater challenge to civilisational interactions than misunderstanding. The world knows a great deal about the values of America but has a very poor understanding of the values of harmony that are the foundation of Chinese civilisation.
Poor quality translations from earlier periods help explain why many in the West find it difficult to accept that China’s global perspectives favour harmony rather than hegemony. The legacy of these errors is that the West prepares for hegemonic conflict rather than harmonious cooperation.
Historically, the west has described relationship that existed between China and the surrounding kingdoms as vassal states. This has profound impacts on the way the West assesses the intentions of modern China policy.
In European understanding, tributary states were vassal states who owed their allegiance and fealty to a central feudal lord. In Europe it was a relationship of enslavement, exploitation, and military obligations.
The Europeans assumed that the behaviour they observed in China was evidence of a European-style tributary or vassalage system. That erroneous view persists to this day and shapes the way the West assesses China’s modern global programs, including the Belt and Road Initiative and the Global Development Initiative.
Western leaders talk of smaller nations becoming vassals to China. This leads to the idea that China’s civilisational ambitions are hegemonic rather than harmonious.
The so-called vassalage relationship was in fact a harmonious relationship. The peace and stability of the region relied on smooth and stable trade relationships. The tribute paid to China was not paid for military protection. It was an integral part of a two way trade relationship. The exchange of gifts – of tribute as the West called it– in the Chinese court, was not about vassalage and hegemonic domination. It was about harmonisation.
The states surrounding China, the kingdoms of modern day Asia, and Japan, all aspired to emulate the sophistication and culture of China. The evidence of Chinese influence dates back centuries and it continues in many aspects of modern society in these countries. It is not, as some in the West believe, a recent attempt by China to extend a hegemonic reach. It is an historical choice that reflects the peaceful and harmonious spread of Chinese culture throughout the region.
It is not the same as the hegemony sought by Western powers that is based on domination and exploitation of colonised peoples. China’s influence in the region was not based on stationing troops in foreign lands.
Western analysts reach back into European history for solutions to geo-political contexts which are inevitably based on concepts of hegemony. The West sees China through its own eyes, and ascribes to China the actions that it, the West, would take in similar situations. They believe the aspirations of the Global Development Initiative are a cover for hegemonic ambitions.
A better place to start understanding the current Chinese approach is the diplomatic model of the Tang Dynasty. The Tang approach to diplomacy was based on the need to recognise mutual interests, as well as self-interests, in determining policies. This approach favoured openness to trade, ideas and peace and it lies at the heart of the Global Development Initiative.
Tang diplomats held a pragmatic view of how countries pursue their own interests and those they share with others. Harmony was an antidote to the poison of hegemony.
This Tang diplomatic imperative underpins the implementation of Belt and Road Initiatives, the Global Development Initiative and the way the digital economy provides a foundation for harmonious development.
These modern policy approaches recognise that poverty is always a threat to stability and security. These policy approaches recognise that harmony, not hegemony, should be the guiding principle of civilisational interactions.
It was the West which weaponised gunpowder and that captures the difference between those who value harmony and those who value hegemony. However, getting the West to understand this requires an improved level of civilisational understanding. This is the purpose of the Chinese Civilisation and the Chinese Path policy. It is a large task to overturn centuries of poor understanding.
Harmony or hegemony? China’s contribution is clear but remains misunderstood in the West.