23 November 2011

Yan Xuetong: ‘China must display humane authority in order to compete with the United States’

I’ve been linking to the Hidden Harmonies blog a lot these days. There’s a good reason for it, however. Although Hidden Harmonies gets a pretty bad rep in the China-expat blogosphere for being basically (an ‘angry youth’ 憤青 outlet / a five-dime 五毛 corner store / a bunch of supposedly-ignorant ABCs venting about American media bias and international relations / all or any of the above as the detractor’s narrative demands), and even though the commentary on many of the articles does sometimes get a bit heated, they truly are an invaluable resource when it comes to the analysis, translation and dissemination of critical research from within China, partly because of their enthusiasm for the subject at hand. It also doesn’t hurt, from my humble perspective at least, that they have a rare, sensitive and often penetrating scepticism of the ways in which the neoconservative foreign policy agenda of the Bush Administration (and to a certain extent, Obama’s as well) has shaped both our foreign relations and our journalistic best practices; this is a sensitivity which a number of other China expat blogs very much lack.

So it was with considerable interest, nay, enthusiasm that I read the redoubtable DeWang’s link-up to and commentary on a New York Times editorial which was translated from an essay by Yan Xuetong, Dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University. Dr Yan’s thesis boils down to the argument that what is needed right now in China is a healthy dose of actual Confucianism, rather than the current government’s fad use of Confucius and his students as mascots of Chinese culture and CCP rule. In short, the Chinese government needs to be more focussed on developing local, domestic institutions than on its foreign PR, shift away from developmentalism to focus on social and economic equality, and serve as a better moral role model for the rest of the developing world rather than attempting to compete in terms of hard power and economic influence.

It is a profoundly, indeed unabashedly, palaeoconservative argument (Dr Yan speaks approvingly of the traditions of virtue ethics and the independent civil service in China going back past the Tang Dynasty – one might cite approvingly his parallels with the political thought of George Grant, though his positing China as an alternative vision of ‘nation’ rather than Canada will result in a very different-looking philosophy), with just enough of a hint of Chinese New Leftism in his prescriptions of social safety nets and economic justice measures meant to collapse the growing wealth gap to get an ovation from me. Though Dr Yan is a self-professed realist (and I have no reason to doubt him), here he hints at a normative international relations approach which mirrors and encompasses the profounder insights of realism without succumbing to Reinhold Niebuhr’s heretical interpretation of original sin; marking a moral dimension to power itself rather than merely to its uses.

I very much look forward to reading more of Dr Yan’s work to see how he fleshes out more of these ideas.

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