China is at a perilous crossroads between war and peace in a world led by the United States. But perhaps there are still elements the two countries could look at to try to defuse the situation. One is a crucial understanding of competition and war.
There are tensions around China. As Henry Kissinger commented in a recent interview, China is not set on Hitlerian world domination. It is not revamping old European colonialism in Africa. But something is happening there; it is not nothing.
As Kissinger remarked, one should try to look at and clarify it pitilessly to address and possibly solve the issue.
From an American point of view, China’s “hegemony” is to put China at the center of the world; the rest of the world will be at China’s service in hierarchical positioning, where China is at the top, America and Europe are ideally on a second rung, and then there is everybody else.
This perception is reinforced by China’s mercantilist policies, wanting open markets abroad while keeping a closed domestic market. Then who wants to be in this pyramid of power where your needs come second to the needs of the top? Some may. The wobbly elites of “lesser states” were lured in by promises of money and stabilization coming from the aspirational top of the pyramid. But most countries and people would rather have a different order.
But from China’s point of view, its position is similar to US “hegemony.” The world is at America’s service, only less transparently.
However, even if one admits this American position, the US doesn’t have an openly hierarchical system and mercantilist trade approach. The US may tilt the playing field in its favor but uses a rhetoric of equal positive competition. Moreover, the American system is in place; therefore, replacing it won’t be simple because everybody is used to it.
There are problems with the present US “hegemony.” There is mistrust among the allies about the US’s long-term intentions and lack of long-term global architecture.
The attempt to reestablish a world order around the World Trade Organization (WTO) failed; the US scuttled a free trade agreement with Asia; it is unclear what “decoupling” will mean for countries heavily invested in China; and there is always the hazard of sudden changes in US policies dominated by domestic concerns.
Conversely, like it or not, China has an architecture, a plan and a tradition of keeping its long-term commitments.
There are more disconcerting elements in the US. America views its problems in terms of race or gender. But you cannot change race, and gender issues decouple sex from reproduction and the actual body from intentions. Until a few years ago, there was only one way to have children, copulation. One could love people of the same sex but could not change one’s body. Now it is possible.
One could see a not-so-distant future when people change sex with a mix of pills and surgery, just like dyeing their hair. It is appalling to most people and creates a cultural schism between them and US domestic cultural dialogue. Desires and whims of a moment will shape one’s body, something unimaginable in human history when the body confined one’s desires. Now desires are boundless.
Actually, in America, the divide is about class, i e, income and opportunities. It should be addressed by admitting the elephant in the room: poor people (whatever their skin color) in America need options and the first opportunity is access to better education; people need to read and write well, learn sound mathematics and speak a second language.
Quotas for races are upending competition and performance. Improving opportunities for people with poorer incomes enhances everything. Tampering with bodies and natural reproduction is following in Frankenstein’s footsteps. Modern science is about pushing the boundaries of nature. Still, one can’t be careless with the monsters it creates, especially since the rest of the world is reluctant to follow this vision of the human body and its desires.
This new cultural sentiment is coupled with a different sense of international order. The West proposes one of constant competition, where each side may have a niche, and the provisional winner can bend the existing rules in its favor a little, but even he can’t totally subvert them. Competition, if not well channeled and controlled, trips into war almost as a continuation of competition.
Wars in different contexts
In fact, according to one of the founders of Western thought, Heraclitus (end of 6th century BC), war (Polemos) is “both the king and father of all,” with the capacity to bring all into existence and to destroy.
Polemos resembles another Indo European god Shiva, the protector of destruction and creation, death and birth, one of the sacred trimurti of the Indian continent, a place also without much unity for most of its history. And Polemos returns with Shumpeter’s market’s creative destruction, a cornerstone of the modern approach to capitalism.
The concept seems inspired by Marx’s understanding of revolution. War is considered somehow a permanent state of affairs in the West. Yet it doesn’t entail the total destruction or annihilation of the enemy. It can be a positive competition that keeps you on your toes and helps you be better than others and yourself.
The ancient destruction of Carthage was the exception. It was razed to the ground, and salt was poured over it to make its return impossible. Still, the memory of the city and its formidable general Hannibal haunted the Roman Empire and the Western world forever.
Therefore, after that, we see that Roman expansion took a different turn. Representatives of the Gauls, who Caesar beat, were invited to join the Roman Senate; the Hellenistic empires of the east were won over, but the Romans converted themselves to Greek culture, so much so that the Roman empire became bilingual. Even the Byzantines, fighting for centuries with the daunting Persian Sassanid empire, never crushed it.
The Byzantines famously intervened in Persian court disputes with the Persian pretender, Chosroes II, in the early 7th century AD. When Chosroes II was overthrown by his son, Kavadh II, he sought refuge with the Byzantines and received support from Emperor Maurice. The balance of power with the neighbor secured the Byzantine eastern border until the Arabs toppled the Sassanid.
Moreover, in ancient Rome, each conquered people was ruled according to its law and kept its religion. Rome was a cultural sponge that boasted of preserving other cultures. It admired Egypt and imported cults from Persia, like Mitra, or Judaea, like Christianity.
In China, it was a very different situation. Well before the unified empire, sometime during the Spring and Autumn period, in the first half of the first millennium BC, powerful new states emerged by annihilating other states (mie guo 灭国).
The process of annihilation was systematic. All males of fighting age were killed, women and children were given to men of the winning state and temples and records were destroyed. The annihilation process grew in size and organization, so the Qin state, which unified the all under heaven in the 3rd century BC, annihilated all previous local cultures and people.
The Han-era Shiji recorded that the first emperor (Qin) accomplished the unification of standards, words and a writing system. It was a clear testimony that there was more than one standard, language or writing system before that. We now find archeological evidence in the newly unearthed documents written with some characters that have long been erased from the language.
This unification process apparently aimed to erase the idea of a constant state of war in the central plains, surrounded by sparsely populated deserts or mountainous forests.
Therefore, it was believed for centuries if power and wealth were maintained in the inner plain, the threats from neighboring peoples could be bought for little money.
Then war disrupted something very concrete, the well-being, stability, and peace, or an 安, home, as it represents a woman under a roof. The disruption of peace is the destruction of one’s home; it is the threat of being annihilated. A home/peace cannot be constantly threatened by permanent competition.
As for war, we don’t have an all-encompassing mythological term as in Greek. We have bing, 兵 coming from a pictograph of two hands holding a short ax; it indicates a weapon. It actually is military affairs, affairs of bearing arms. Then there are words meaning war zhan 战, indicating a formation of spears and some form of double-headed lances; we have wu 武 showing people standing firm holding halberds.
They are connected with the action of fighting a battle, not to the large concept of warring. Peace, conversely, is a much broader and more meaningful concept. Conversely, in Greece, the idea of Eirene was some king of distant, almost unattainable, against the dire reality of permanent wars.
Then in China, wars were practical, temporary and historically of two kinds. One is staving off border enemies or internal bandits. These are roughly police actions. The second kind is existential, for the survival of the dynasty. If the dynasty succumbs, it is erased from history like a mie guo. From this, we have the idea of harmony, he 和, which is etymologically mouths eating grain, i.e., having enough to eat is being content.
Then we have that peace is stability; it entails total control, nipping every possible threat to stability in the bud. If the danger to stability can’t be bought off, it must be eradicated. From this, peace and stability is the supreme value to be pursued by buying off or eliminating the threat.
Peace far supersedes justice; victory proves righteousness, and peace is practiced even despite justice. Survival becomes paramount for people, fearing the victor will exterminate the vanquished. The succession of dynasties proves that the ones who yield to the winning side will survive and keep their peace, stability, and home/an.
It implies that when victory/peace can’t be attained, the Chinese are prone to surrender to survive.
In the European tradition, with the constant state of war reinforced by dogged religious beliefs that drove the Mediterranean apart for over a millennium, it is harder to set apart justice and peace. People are not prone to surrender; many would rather be dead than wrong.
Is competition good or bad?
The differences between China and the rest of the Westernized world that convened in mid-May in Hiroshima around the G7 are not religious, but almost, they are profound. In a nutshell, it is about competition. Is it positive or not? And if competition is accepted, how can it be relatively fair without tripping into a war?
America knows this book well; China doesn’t. It is unfair, says China. Unlike any other country, we gave China 50 years to learn competition, but it didn’t; it cheated on the exams and didn’t learn, says the US.
But why should we learn your rules in the first place? Why shouldn’t you learn ours? Retorts China. You led us to believe you would learn, and now you say you didn’t mean to learn in the first place? Lying is cheating in a competition that should result in stopping authentic communication and attempts to understand, concludes the US on its own.
The competition has tripped into war, and it doesn’t matter what China’s “real” intentions were, and whoever tries to understand China becomes a collaborationist and traitor. The room for dialogue becomes extremely thin, but the Kissingerian defense of China’s intentions possibly fuels the fire; it doesn’t help a peaceful solution.
China should recognize that and seek a different path if it wants peace.
This essay first appeared on Settimana News and is republished with permission. The original article can be read here.