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Dreams of Empire - PETER BERGER

The americain interest

Chinese President Xi has found in Confucianism (as he understands it) an ideology useful to the construction of a Chinese model of modernity—which is intended to contribute to the task of empire-building.
Published on: August 5, 2015


 On July 25, The Economist in its regular Asia section had two stories about religion in China. Both should be read in the context of the centralizing of power in the hands of Xi Jinping, who within just a few years has personally acquired the most important titles in the Chinese regime—General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (2012), President of the People’s Republic of China (2013), and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (2013). Still missing: Emperor of the Middle Kingdom, under the Mandate of Heaven. A modest suggestion: Just wait!

Not since Mao Zedong has so much power been vested in one man. Any hopes that some people may have had in a liberalizing of the regime under the ever-smiling Xi have been disappointed. The only liberalizing factor is that the growth-generating capitalist economy is allowed to roar on, just as long as the monopoly of power by the Communist Party is not challenged by any element of “civil society.” Domestically, lawyers and human rights activists have been harassed, the regime maintains its tight control over the media, the judiciary, and academia, and the ritual affirmation of Marxist ideology continues to be maintained (though it may be questioned how much this ideology has anything to do with classical Marxism—or is really believed by anyone). In foreign policy, China increasingly acts with the self-confidence of a rising power and seeks to extend its influence globally. It has enormously increased the claimed extent of its territorial waters, thus creating animosity and alarm among all other states bordering the South and EastChinaSeas, especially Japan, which Beijing keeps challenging with provocative moves. Despite its proclaimed allegiance to a “peaceful ascent” (a very Confucian notion—as it that of a “harmonious society”), China is rapidly building up its military capabilities. This is quite openly explained as a challenge to America’s alleged “pivot toward Asia” (the U.S. is rudely described as a declining power in the Chinese media).

The first Economist story describes growing the cult of Confucius, especially around his tomb in Qufu. This started some years ago in a sharp reversal of the official condemnation of Confucianism as a reactionary ideology (the condemnation reached its climax during the Cultural Revolution). Xi Jinping has explicitly endorsed this development in a statement put on a tablet at the Qufu sanctuary: “In the spread of Confucianism around the world, China must fully protect its right to speak up.” In 2014 Xi convoked a “collective study session” of the Politburo (the ruling body of the Communist Party) devoted to “Chinese traditional culture” (read: Confucian culture). Ever since, the poor Party officials have had to work hard to show a strong link between Confucianism and Marxism. This may seem like a challenging intellectual task, unless (as I tend to think) one actually translates Marxist concepts into the ritual formulas of Confucian li—which have no cognitive content beyond their ceremonial uses (that is, one correctly pronounces them regardless of what one actually believes about their relation to actual reality). (I will readily retract this interpretation if it is shown to be mistaken by a certified Sinologist!) Incidentally, the term “Confucian Institutes” has been used for some time by the international network of Chinese language schools (an exercise of China’s “civilizing mission”).

Long before this political embrace of the classical sage there has an international scholarly movement called the New Confucianism. Its leading scholar has been Tu Weiming, who spent much of his academic career as a professor of Chinese philosophy at Harvard. He has now become the director of the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies in Beijing, which has become a major Confucian center. In the 1990s the government of Singapore, worried that there was no shared moral orientation for the great economic success of the city state, initiated a program to develop such a curriculum for its public schools. Given the religious diversity of Singapore’s population, the curriculum was to have Confucian, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim components. Tu Weiming was one in a group of Western academics asked to help develop the Confucian curriculum; it had to be in English, since that was the only language understood by many children of the ethnic Chinese majority. As Tu Weiming has described this project, the government was surprised and disappointed by the fact that most Chinese parents opted for the Christian curriculum. Despite this outcome, the Singapore government has continued to advocate “Asian values”, at their core such Confucian principles as respect for authority, “filial piety”, hard work, honesty, and “human-heartedness.”

The second Economist story deals with a further development of something I discussed in an earlier post on this blog—the anti-Christian campaign in the city of Wenzhou (which has the highest percentage of Christians, mostly Protestants, of any locality in China). It began with an order by the local authorities to remove all crosses from the roofs of churches—there was a veritable skyline of such crosses in the city known as the “Chinese Jerusalem”. Thus far about 1,200 crosses have been taken down. When some congregations disobeyed the order, entire church buildings were destroyed. Supposedly this was done because of violations of the building code, but statements by the provincial Party chief, known for his hatred of Christians, made clear that he wanted to reduce the influence of religion. There has been speculation as to whether this was only a local phenomenon or was directed by the central government. Given the centralization of power under the Xi Administration, it is hard to believe that he did not know about this and at least discretely approved of it. My hunch is that Wenzhou was to be a pilot project for a larger campaign to reduce the growth of Christians (it is estimated that there are now more Christians than members of the Communist Party). But there is a new wrinkle to this story: Previous harassments of Christians have focused on so-called “house churches”—that is, churches not registered and allowed by the authorities. But the Wenzhou campaign has also targeted the registered group. Now the two official bodies representing the registered churches—the Protestant Christian Council and the Catholic Patriotic Association—have sent an open letter to the provincial government sharply protesting the actions against all Christian churches, not just their own. Thus the Wenzhou episode may have a result opposite to the one intended—a consolidation of all Christians in opposition to a government policy.

In terms of government policies, Christians have long been a special case. They are suspect because of their foreign provenance (especially the Catholics with their allegiance to Rome), and because some of them (especially Presbyterians) have actively supported democratization in South Korea and Taiwan. On the other hand they (especially Protestants) are deemed to be good for modern economic development. When a few years ago I had a conversation with the director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs in Beijing, I was intrigued when he approvingly quoted Max Weber on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Also, Christianity has no links with possibly secessionist (“splittist”) ethnic groups, unlike Buddhism in Tibet and Islam in Xinjiang. The Chinese historical memory has a keen sense of the dangers of religious fanaticism, such as was expressed by the Taiping Rebellion in the late 19th century, which was led by a charismatic leader who called himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, and which cost twenty million lives before it was suppressed by the so-called “Ever-Victorious Army”, commanded by Charles Gordon, a British officer ever since known as “Chinese Gordon” (he was later killed during the siege of Khartoum by the Mahdi, yet another religious prophet; Gordon himself was a Bible-reading Protestant not intimidated by all these religious maniacs). Again (with all due deference to others with better Sinological qualifications) I’ll express the hunch that the attitude toward religion of the present People’s Republic has deeply Confucian roots—the educated mandarin (in this case spouting the rhetoric of “scientific atheism”) regards all religion as superstitious nonsense, potentially dangerous, and best dealt with by a method of disease control. Above all it must not be allowed to establish alternate centers of power. Falun Gong, an essentially harmless practice of traditional Chinese tai chi combined with Buddhist-derived breathing exercises, drove the government into a paranoid reaction when a conference promoting this therapy managed to convene some ten thousand attendees in Beijing—without any government agency even knowing about it! Falun Gong has since then be designated an “evil cult” and a threat to public health, and has been brutally suppressed. It is not difficult to imagine the discussions of the pros and cons of Christianity going on today in the inner circles of Communist power, almost certainly involving the elite gathered around Xi Jinping.

As readers of this blog know, I have a fervent belief in the value of comparisons. In this case I’m struck by the similarity between three countries in which I have been very interested—Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia, and Erdogan’s Turkey. Here we have three increasingly authoritarian regimes, with reasonably successful market economies, now using religion to legitimate their rule. Xi has found in Confucianism (as he understands it—Tu Weiming may disagree) a usable ideology for a synthesis of traditional culture and modernity. Putin has a deepening relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, of great mutual benefit (the Moscow Patriarch blesses everything done by Putin, who represses religious rivals of the Patriarch). Putin also envelops the Kremlin in tsarist symbolism, and presents Orthodoxy as a bulwark against the moral degeneracy of the West. And the Erdogan Administration in Turkey can plausibly be perceived as a neo-Ottoman project. The late Israeli sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt has coined the useful concept of “multiple modernities.” Western modernity is not the only possible model (Eisenstadt closely analyzed the Meiji regime in 19th-century Japan, which engineered a very rapid modernization process, while retaining many traditional cultural and religious features—some surviving to this day). Following Eisenstadt’s approach, one may look at the three aforementioned cases as efforts to construct, respectively, a Chinese, a Russian, and a Turkish model of modernity—each intended to contribute to the task of empire-building. (To say this is purely descriptive; it implies neither approval nor disapproval of these projects.)


China, East Asia and history 

Xi’s history lessons

IN EARLY September President Xi Jinping will take the salute at a huge military parade in Beijing. It will be his most visible assertion of authority since he came to power in 2012: his first public appearance at such a display of missiles, tanks and goose-stepping troops. Officially the event will be all about the past, commemorating the end of the second world war in 1945 and remembering the 15m Chinese people who died in one of its bloodiest chapters: the Japanese invasion and occupation of China of 1937-45.

It will be a reminder of the bravery of China’s soldiers and their crucial role in confronting Asia’s monstrously aggressive imperial power. And rightly so: Chinese sacrifices during that hellish period deserve much wider recognition. Between 1937, when total war erupted in China, and late 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the fray, China fought the Japanese alone. By the end of the war it had lost more people—soldiers and civilians—than any other country bar the Soviet Union.

Yet next month’s parade is not just about remembrance; it is about the future, too. This is the first time that China is commemorating the war with a military show, rather than with solemn ceremony. The symbolism will not be lost on its neighbours. And it will unsettle them, for in East Asia today the rising, disruptive, undemocratic power is no longer a string of islands presided over by a god-emperor. It is the world’s most populous nation, led by a man whose vision for the future (a richer country with a stronger military arm) sounds a bit like one of Japan’s early imperial slogans. It would be wrong to press the parallel too far: China is not about to invade its neighbours. But there are reasons to worry about the way the Chinese Communist Party sees history—and massages it to justify its current ambitions.

History with Chinese characteristics

Under Mr Xi, the logic of history goes something like this. China played such an important role in vanquishing Japanese imperialism that not only does it deserve belated recognition for past valour and suffering, but also a greater say in how Asia is run today. Also, Japan is still dangerous. Chinese schools, museums and TV programmes constantly warn that the spirit of aggression still lurks across the water. A Chinese diplomat has implied that Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a new Voldemort, the epitome of evil in the “Harry Potter” series. At any moment Japan could menace Asia once more, party newspapers intone. China, again, is standing up to the threat.

As our essay on the ghosts of the war that ended 70 years ago this week explains, this narrative requires exquisite contortions. For one thing, it was not the Chinese communists who bore the brunt of the fighting against Japan, but their sworn enemies, the nationalists (or Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-shek. For another, today’s Japan is nothing like the country that slaughtered the inhabitants of Nanjing, forced Korean and Chinese women into military brothels or tested biological weapons on civilians.

Granted, Japan never repented of its war record as full-throatedly as Germany did. Even today a small but vocal group of Japanese ultra-nationalists deny their country’s war crimes, and Mr Abe, shamefully, sometimes panders to them. Yet the idea that Japan remains an aggressive power is absurd. Its soldiers have not fired a shot in anger since 1945. Its democracy is deeply entrenched; its respect for human rights profound. Most Japanese acknowledge their country’s war guilt. Successive governments have apologised, and Mr Abe is expected to do the same (see article). Today Japan is ageing, shrinking, largely pacifist and, because of the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unlikely ever to possess nuclear weapons. Some threat.

The dangers of demonisation

China’s demonisation of Japan is not only unfair; it is also risky. Governments that stoke up nationalist animosity cannot always control it. So far, China’s big show of challenging Japan’s control of the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islands has involved only sabre-rattling, not bloodshed. But there is always a danger that a miscalculation could lead to something worse.

East Asia’s old war wounds have not yet healed. The Korean peninsula remains sundered, China and Taiwan are separate, and even Japan can be said to be split, for since 1945 America has used the southern island of Okinawa as its main military stronghold in the western Pacific. The Taiwan Strait and the border between North and South Korea continue to be potential flashpoints; whether they one day turn violent depends largely on China’s behaviour, for better or worse. It is naive to assume America will always be able to keep a lid on things.

On the contrary, many Asians worry that China’s ambitions set it on a collision course with the superpower and the smaller nations that shelter under its security umbrella. When China picks fights with Japan in the East China Sea, or builds airstrips on historically disputed reefs in the South China Sea, it feeds those fears. It also risks sucking America into its territorial disputes, and raises the chances of eventual conflict.

Post-war East Asia is not like western Europe. No NATO or European Union binds former foes together. France’s determination to promote lasting peace by uniting under a common set of rules with Germany, its old invader, has no Asian equivalent. East Asia is therefore less stable than western Europe: a fissile mix of countries both rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian, with far less agreement on common values or even where their borders lie. Small wonder Asians are skittish when the regional giant, ruled by a single party that draws little distinction between itself and the Chinese nation, plays up themes of historical victimhood and the need to correct for it.

How much better it would be if China sought regional leadership not on the basis of the past, but on how constructive its behaviour is today. If Mr Xi were to commit China to multilateral efforts to foster regional stability, he would show that he has truly learned the lessons of history. That would be far, far better than repeating it.


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