REG LITTLE. Understanding cultural differences between Australia and China.

Dec 6, 2016

Australia’s most urgent challenge today is overcoming two centuries of ‘false education’ about China. Western thought culture tends to be characterised by assumptions, abstractions, rationalities, theories and belief. In contrast, Chinese thought culture tends to be holistic, fluid, intuitive, reflective, strategic and practical.

China’s Cultural Soil and the Middle Kingdom

The best of Australian diplomacy and forward thinking were on display in an address Peter Varghese, recently retired Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade DFAT), gave to the National Conference of the Australian Institute of International Affairs on 21 November 2016.

He focused attention on three major uncertainties in Australia’s strategic environment. These are, in his words:

  • uncertainty about the position of the United States as a global power over the next fifteen years,
  • the political and strategic settling point of China, and
  • the political economy risk which confronts the broader Asia growth story.

On all these issues his words were elegantly nuanced, balanced and qualified, designed to pay appropriate deference to the people and nations that will most likely shape Australia’s future fortunes. It is hard to fault this work of a highly practiced diplomat.

Unfortunately, however, as Australia approaches perhaps the most definitive period in its history since the arrival of European settlers it is questionable whether Australia’s traditional style of diplomacy can plays an adequate role in preparing for the nation for its future. Inevitably, history dictates that it is shaped by a range of English language and thought stereotypes that offer reassurance from the past rather than preparation for the future.

The limits of Australian diplomacy and forward thinking are likely to be identified by someone who heard, understood and felt the need to act on the significance of the following words spoken by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015 on the 2565th anniversary of the birth of Confucius:

To understand present-day China, to know the present-day Chinese, one must delve into the cultural blood line of China, and accurately appreciate the cultural soil that nourishes the Chinese people.

Before the 19th Century, Western thinkers like Voltaire and Leibnitz were impressed by what they could learn about China’s cultural blood lines and cultural soil. Their insights were over-run, however, by Western imperial aspirations and commercial imperatives. The West won 200 years of empire but now finds itself defined by stereotypes before China’s cultural blood lines.

The conduct and outcome of the 2016 American Presidential election has inspired energetic disputes about “fake news”. The West’s, and Australia’s, most urgent challenge today, however, is overcoming two centuries of “fake education” about China’s cultural blood lines. “Fake news” simply reinforces ignorance about the fertility of China’s cultural soil.

In the 21st Century, China’s cultural soil has nourished a decade of peaceful rise, after demonstrating unique practical mastery of both the West’s dominant, but conflicting, ideologies, Communism and Capitalism. Little researched or understood are China’s discreet moves to assume global leadership in finance, commerce, production, infrastructure, technology, education, strategy and much else. Also little addressed is President Xi’s elegant hint about the power of China’s classical tradition and little understood thought culture.

A harsh reality that is constantly denied through neglect is that Chinese thought culture is fundamentally different from that of the West. The past half century would also suggest it is much superior. Having been shaped and nurtured by endless generations of early rote learning of ancient classics composed over two thousand years ago, it has been constantly refined by access to a continuously recorded history that illustrates both human success and failure.

Western thought culture, on which the Greek Plato exercised a formative influence, tends to be characterized by assumptions, abstractions, rationalities, theories and belief. In contrast, Chinese thought culture, which pervades and shapes East and South East Asia and is readily associated with Confucius, tends to be holistic, fluid, intuitive, reflective, strategic and practical.

One also needs to consider the existence of over a thousand texts on strategic thought and the Chinese capacity to take charge, and take advantage, of a situation with soft, yielding and concessionary gestures. It is hard not to conclude that Western peoples have handicapped, even crippled, themselves with their sense of cultural arrogance, identified by one writer as intellectual apartheid.

The Western sense of superiority and faith in clear but simplistic theories served it well in the building of an empire while it had the advantage of surprise. Its use of corporate structures to mobilize under-employed labor and fossil fuels to deploy greater military power initially allowed it to overwhelm more settled and less aggressive peoples. As the West’s imperial authority has faded, however, this arrogance and belief has become a serious liability.

The end of an imperial period is painful for privileged, core members. It has a self-fulfilling and inevitable dynamic for various reasons. Among these are the disintegration of past core loyalties and relationships, the denial of easy and inexpensive access to distant natural and human resources and the emergence of unfamiliar and alien forms of organization and authority.

The economic advance of China, the growing influence and reach of its thought culture (or cultural blood line) and its strategic leadership in marginalizing the Anglo-centric global order that emerged after 1945 are coming together to deny many of the certainties and structures of the past two centuries. Recent Brexit and American election surprises are symptoms of this.

In a world where America has abandoned the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), Australia has been impressive in its seamless refocus on the China centric Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This, however, leaves Australia and New Zealand with India to negotiate their trade future amongst thirteen other members, which are all profoundly shaped by Chinese thought culture.

In some of his most astute and pertinent words, Peter Varghese remarks that China:

will also look to play a greater role in existing institutions and to craft new institutions and arrangements which place it at the centre in a pattern perhaps reminiscent of the Middle Kingdom.

Reg Little had 25 years experience as an Australian diplomat, with 5 terms as Deputy or Head of Mission and substantial in-country language training for postings in Japan and China.  He became a Founding Director of the Beijing based International Confucian Association in 1994 and was elected one of eleven Vice Presidents in 2009, at the time the only one not of ethnic Asian origin.

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