A SERIES OF THREE BLOGS ON CHINA’S LEADING INTELLECTUALS AND THEIR SELF-REFERENTIAL WORLD
ONE: THE ENDURING APPEAL OF ESSENTIAL CHINESENESS
Many Tibetans, whether in or beyond Tibet, take whatever opportunity that arises to engage with educated Chinese, in the hope of sparking dialogue, even a meeting of minds.
The results are usually disappointing. Inside Tibet, Tibetans and Chinese seldom meet as equals, and it is extremely rare that Chinese living in Tibet have learned Tibetan. It is also rare that Tibetans feel welcome in China, in the great cities where the educated Chinese gather. Most Chinese would say they have never met a Tibetan, except perhaps as a street peddler of jewellery or traditional medicine ingredients.
Outside Tibet, in the global diasporas of modernity there are many opportunities for Chinese and Tibetans to meet, now that both peoples are scattered across the planet. Opportunity may exist, yet they usually fizzle, in mutual incomprehension, as if there is no common ground. Whether face to face, or online, the attempt usually goes nowhere and it quickly becomes clear that there is nothing more to say.
This puzzles many Tibetans, who invest much effort in reaching out, trying to imagine openings that will be fruitful. They take the initiative, rather than leaving the heavy lifting of dialogue to their leaders, in the intuitive belief that the long standing incomprehension and stalemate will never lift by itself. Each side has its own universe of discourse, repeated frequently, seldom varying, which the rest of the world has tired of, and neither listens to the other. They end up preaching only to themselves.
Some efforts at creating dialogue are pursued with vigour, flair and the resources of well-designed websites and publications, yet still fail. Tibetans appear unexpectedly, fleetingly, adventitiously in Chinese lives online, even in a restaurant run by a Tibetan family whose objective, more than money, is to talk with customers to generate understanding of Tibet. Tibetans expect to meet anyone, comfortably and without rancour, to begin the gradual process of drawing them into a world of Tibetan values. The Sherpa did this with the mountaineers who employed them, often creating lifelong friendships.
Perhaps these Tibetans expect too much. Perhaps they are naïve in expecting openness. Or perhaps they focus too much on what Tibetans think Chinese ought to know, namely the pain of the Tibetans under repressive, claustrophobic control. This is definitely not what Chinese audiences are ready to face. It’s just too confronting, and there is too much baggage in the way.
It’s that baggage that puzzles frustrated Tibetans, who have tried every way they can think of to get the conversation going. Even when meeting dissidents critical of China’s government, the same blank incomprehension arises when Tibetans start speaking from the heart. This seems to be not only an obstacle arising in the minds of those who identify with the official line; it affects young and old, pro and anti the ruling regime. Something lies in the way; too many ghosts litter the path.
To an outsider, Tibetans and Chinese seem alike in many ways, one of which is a reverence for tradition, history, precedent, hierarchy and authority. Both speak of events many centuries ago as if they happened yesterday and thus explain the present moment. Both routinely use the past to serve the present.
These pasts lead in different directions, setting up different roadblocks. Getting to a common ground, a starting point that might enable connection will not be easy.
A knot of preconceptions, especially among educated Chinese, is the assumption that a Sinocentric worldview is axiomatic, that China is such a great, ancient, sophisticated and continuous civilisation lacking in nothing, has all that is needful. China has all the categories and concepts of rule, of universal benevolence, of being the centre of everything, so it is always necessary to refract experience through the lens of Chinese characteristics. So pervasive is this belief, many who deal with China, including many western diplomats and businessmen, fall under its spell when it is deftly deployed.
These are stories educated Chinese tell each other about what is so exceptional about Chineseness. Inevitably, they solidify Chineseness, giving it a continuity over thousands of years, as a force of history, even a force of nature, a framework within which everything fits.
So widespread is this move, it can be affixed to almost any topic, with the result that China can be exempted from what the rest of the world takes to be universal, such as the idea that to be born human is to be born with rights. The insistence on applying “Chinese characteristics” to anything allows for positioning China advantageously, under all circumstances. Thus China can be, according to circumstances, both a developing country entitled to concessions, subsidies and privileges; and at the same time a highly developed peak of civilisation entitled to deferential treatment.
National special pleading and exceptionalism are not of course unique to China, but in China this is an art form, confined not only to an official class accustomed to thinking like a state but more widespread, almost a popular sport. Like any new fashion, it has its celebrities. An intellectual who can make the case that China stands uniquely above universal norms becomes a hero. Zhao Tingyang’s new idea repackaging a largely-forgotten ancient concept: “made him a star in China’s intellectual circles, helping to extend his influence beyond the confines of philosophy into the realm of international relations. Four years later, he published a second volume further developing his tianxia (literally, ‘all-under-heaven’) theory [which] has had a huge impact on China’s community of international relations scholars, stirring up excitement as well as curiosity. This is due, in part, to the fact that Chinese scholars in this field have not been able to produce a theory as sophisticated as his, even though this has been on their agenda for some time.”
To outsiders, Zhou Tingyang’s thesis on China’s natural world leadership may seem opaque, even obscurantist, best passed over as an embarrassment rather than a breakthrough in international relations. But he remains much admired in China.
The stars who champion China’s uniqueness are inventors of tradition, so popular their novelties can travel from exciting novelty to core interest of the nation-state within a few years, embedded in China’s incessant claim to be sui generis, unique, beyond compare and without equal. This is a surprisingly popular sport, not confined to the few whose profession is to think like a state, and make the national interest their embodied stance.
This goes back to the uneasy compromise China made in the late 19th century when confronted with the military power of the west. The literati elite coalesced round the broad principle that China must take from the west all those technologies that are useful, while holding fast to Chineseness as the core principle. This famous formula has held ever since, no matter how hard it is in practice to distinguish what is usefully modern, and what is eternally Chinese as the guiding principle guiding all applications of modernity.
The appeal of foundational Chineseness for those prospering in today’s China is obvious. The party-state has energetically promoted this Sinocentric mythos, which can be introduced as a trump card into almost any negotiation. Beyond the party-state are the many whose fortunes are being made, in a time of rapid wealth accumulation, who have every reason to make use of this all-purpose shield deflecting all expectations that China abide by the rule of law, or universal norms of environmental responsibility. It is not hard to see why this appeals to the military, to angry young nationalist bloggers with no hope of ever finding a wife, and those who hope to make a fortune by conforming.