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China: Defending its Core Interest in the World – Part I

China has shown increasing intransigence towards the world in the defense of what it considers its core interest. This two-part series analyzes how China’s hard line policy may not have helped its best interest. Recent developments in the US-China relationship – both in politics, with the rocky start between presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, and in business with Google’s partial retreat from the Chinese market are examples of this tough approach. In the first article, China historian Orville Schell notes that the Obama administration has taken heat from critics on the right and left for extending a series of friendly gestures to the nation with little to show in the way of tangible policy initiatives. If anything, some US observers noted that China became more aggressive with its demands. Some patience may be in order, as the US and China adjust to roles as collaborators rather than mere competitors and China rediscovers valuable lessons from its tradition. Schell explains that the notion of reciprocity, or “shu,” is a fundamental tenet of Confucian teachings. Rather than mark weakness, Schell contends that concessions and good intentions can serve as a catalyst to encourage reciprocity and move negotiations and relationships toward a higher level in resolving global problems, thus strengthening both nations. – YaleGlobal

China: Defending its Core Interest in the World – Part I

Principle of reciprocity enshrined in China’s Confucian tradition could make it a winner
Orville Schell
YaleGlobal, 5 April 2010
Seeking reciprocity: Chinese President Hu Jintao with President Barack Obama

BEIJING: After speculation to the contrary, President Hu Jintao confirmed that he’s coming to Washington for upcoming nuclear proliferation talks. Not long after, Washington announced a delay in announcing any decision on whether China has been judged a “currency manipulator,” a dictum Congress requires that the US make on each country by April 15th.

What’s more, Hu’s recent hour-long phone conversation with President Barack Obama on April 1 leading to these announcements could signal a much-needed thaw in US-China relations. It’s about time. Here in Beijing, in the wake of the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the White House, the Taiwan arms sales and Google’s retreat to Hong Kong, one can’t help escape a growing chill towards America. And in Washington, fair or not, many have come to view US conciliatory gestures over the past year as having failed to elicit equal response from Beijing.

The Obama administration has
bent over backwards to signal its desire for friendlier relations with China.

Indeed, since coming to office, the Obama administration has bent over backwards to signal its desire for friendlier relations with China. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama both displayed an unusual solicitude towards their hosts on their respective trips to China. Among other concessions, Clinton promised that human rights issues could not stand in the way of the two countries tackling global problems like the economic crisis or climate change, and Obama even postponed his October meeting with the Dalai Lama in hopes of smoothing the way to a successful November summit. In Washington’s view, Beijing responded in a most unreciprocal fashion in Copenhagen and then harped on issues like Tibet, Taiwan and currency exchange, chilling promise for more collaboration.

Then came the Google furor, which deeply unsettled Chinese officialdom. After all, here was the most dynamic, iconic company in the world suddenly walking away from part of its business in the most rapidly growing market in the world. Chinese blogs and chat rooms have been ablaze with defensive rebuttals to the company’s departure and its implicit critique of Communist Party’s ground rules for foreign IT companies operating in the China market. Many insist that internet “filtering” – it’s rarely referred to as “censorship” here – is simply part of China’s quotidian rules and regulations for doing business.

Given China’s new militancy, even truculence, many in Washington began to wonder if the Chinese really do want friendlier relations? And if they do, don’t they understand the concept of reciprocity?

Many in Washington wonder if the Chinese really want friendlier relations. If so, don’t they understand the concept of reciprocity?

The truth is that Beijing does want better relations, but often this aspiration gets lost in clumsy political bluster. Curiously, the notion of reciprocity is not alien to China. In fact, the idea is deeply rooted in its own Confucian tradition.

The Analects, or "Lunyu", the classic of Confucian political philosophy that sinologist Simon Leys described as being “to Confucius what the Gospels are to Jesus,” provides a virtual roadmap for creating and maintaining mutually reinforcing relationships. In The Analects, written around 500 BCE, the Sage tells one of his disciples that his doctrine has only “one single thread running through it.” What is it?  “Loyalty and reciprocity, and that’s all,” he replies.

Another disciple asks, “Is there any single word that should guide one’s entire life?” and Confucius replies, “Should it not be reciprocity? What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

In classical Chinese, the character used for the idea of “reciprocity” is shu, which carries a broader resonance of “tolerance,” “generosity” and even willingness to “excuse,” “forgive” and “show mercy.” It also implies that one’s actions towards others – or by implication between countries – invariably conditions their responses, and vice-versa, in an endless dialectic chain of cause and effect.

In the Confucian universe of shu, concessions made as a demonstration of good intention should not simply be accepted by the recipient as something “won.”

In the Confucian universe of "shu", a concession made as a demonstration of good intention should not simply be accepted by the recipient as something “won,” but should serve as a catalytic gesture which then presents an opportunity, even an obligation, for the counterpart to reciprocate with a comparable gesture.

So, what has prevented Beijing from re-embracing this Confucian notion? Aside from the fact that Confucianism was savagely attacked and denied by Chinese revolutionaries during the past century, a fear that manifesting an abundance of shu might make China appear too conciliatory, thus weak, has also served as an impediment. President Obama learned something himself about appearing too weak when he was criticized at home for his seemingly supine deportment in Beijing. The Chinese explanation for their own posture is that issues like Tibet, social stability, Taiwan arms sales, are all “hexinliyi,” or, “core interests,” which brook no compromise.

As State Councilor Dai Bingguo, who oversees China’s foreign policy, explains, “China’s number one core interest is to maintain its fundamental system and state security; next is state sovereignty and territorial integrity; and third is the continued stable development of the economy and society.” But, with so many interests coming under the rigid rubric “core,” only a narrow margin of territory remains for Chinese diplomats to maneuver and actually negotiate.

The Obama-Hu conversation has created a new, unexpected thaw in an increasingly frozen relationship, but the moment could pass.

Over the past century and a half, the Chinese have come to view international relations as a ruthless competition in which the interests of weak nations like China were almost always trumped by the more powerful. But given its recent rise and new economic power, the idea of China as a victim or a world unto itself as in the Mao era, in a universe where one nation’s gain is always another’s loss, is increasingly outmoded and counterproductive. After all, China has become an ever more prominent member of the global community. As a member of the WTO, it has benefited enormously from the transnational web of connectivity arising around the advance of globalization. Thus, it is somewhat disingenuous for its leaders to imagine that they can irrevocably corral off whole hemispheres of activity as lying completely outside the sphere of common interest. Simply put, with the benefits of global citizenship come new obligations of global responsibility

One way that the US can help China’s leaders feel more comfortable with these new responsibilities and adopt a more reciprocal posture in negotiating them is to ensure that friendly gestures are embraced in a way that allows China to see how such interactions can convey a new self-confidence and magnanimity rather than weakness.

There’s little time to waste. The Obama-Hu conversation has created a new, unexpected moment of thaw in an increasingly frozen relationship, but the moment could pass. After all, it’s still possible that the US-China relations could become derailed in American acrimony over the loss of jobs to China, the US imbalance of payments, the vagaries of currency exchange, or over leadership disagreements or civil unrest in China.

Many issues still divide the two countries. But, Chinese leaders should not fail to appreciate that Obama and Clinton have extended a new hand of friendship. If China’s leaders truly want better relations, now is the time to recognize that these intentions are genuine and find their own ways to respond in kind.

If China’s future increasingly depends on Beijing being more flexible and reciprocal, then there’s no better place to look than its own traditions.

Orville Schell is director of the Center for US-China Relations at the Asia Society and founder of “The Initiative for US-China Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change."
Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

19 April 2010
Reciprocation? Yes, but one should not expect one will damage one's own interest just return a favor. That is a lesson the US needs to learn and China has already given too much and got little returns. Tell me what demands of China has the US actually given into the last 10 yrs?
Respect national Sovereignty? No, the USA continue to meet with Dalai Llama and sell weapons to Taipei. Its speaking with forked tongue, saying it recognizes Tibet and Taiwan as part of China, but actions speak larger than words, my friend.
Access to higher-end tech? No it refuses to sell it due to 'dual-usage' applications of such technology and then complains about the lack of exports to China. The US complains about trade deficit and imbalances but clothes, cheap electronics and things that US wants to push on to China, China makes and has plenty of it. Its simple China wants is high-end technology and goods it cannot make itself, instead the US refuses to sell them claiming, hence trade deficit.
Lets see what China has done for USA in last 10 years...
Bought U.S. Debt and Bonds during the darkest hours of the financial crisis, helped establish 6 party talks with N. Korea, floated the yuan (until the 2008 meltdown) and etc.
-Justin , Texas
11 April 2010
Mr Tan, perhaps you, being from the Malayan Chinese colony of Singapore, identify yourself as "Han" and speak "mandarin", a northern Chinese language with foreign Manchu imperial influences, and read "mandarin" pictograms simplified by the communist dictator Mao. The "Han" identity itself is a nationalist construct made up of numerous formerly distinct nations and populations with their ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities, since largely homogenized. But that's fine. You can't turn back the clock and regain the various rich mosaic of east Asian lowlands.
But kindly respect the right of unique peoples, those that remain alive and would also be thriving if it wasn't for the latest episode of brutal sinicization and colonization by the Chinese empire, to exist independently alongside the sinicized Hans, like was the case during China's and Tibet's dynastic past before Tibet's eastern neighbours were Hanified.
In the case of occupied Tibetans, only unreformed imperialists, like the current regime of the People's Republic of China, are using anachronistic excuses like past (or current) Dalai Lamas' personal cases and dealings with neighbouring feudal kings as an excuse for their claims of ownership and colonialism of Tibet. Tibetans in exile have democratic government and all Tibetans wish to establish a modern democracy in free Tibet, one where UN human rights declarations are respected and not banned (and cause for indiscriminate imprisonment) like under Chinese rule.
Even Singapore, a mere city state carved out of Malaysia, can be considered an independent state despite nothing about it except location is unique. If Malaysia reclaimed the territory Singapore's chineseness would continue to exist back in its native territories. But while the Malays lost some territory to the Chinese settlers in Singapore yet the Malays kept most of their native lands so that their language and culture can safely live on.
Not so in Tibet. Since 1950 the whole territory of the Tibetan people has been invaded, destroyed, exploited and increasingly mass-populated by the expansionist Chinese dictatorship founded by Mao.
As a Singaporean you may sympathize with (Tibetan) people's need for self-determination and right to exist as unique, separate people, or if you choose to identify with the Hans you may side with the exploiting Chinese settlers and their expansionism instead. You are free to choose. The Tibetan people have no rights and face the grim future of extinct Manchus or near-extinct South-Mongolians after they experienced similar Chinese invasions and assimilation.
I am glad you have come across Tsering Shakya, a distinguished Tibetan scholar and historian who also gives the Manchu, Chinese and Mongol views fair assessment, unlike the narrow Sino-imperial side and especially the fantastical structures of the communist-era. Unfortunately you are selectively misquoting the 13th Dalai Lama here. He was a reformist who declared Tibet's independence (1) but was unable to enact many reforms due to inertia and opposition from the monastic elite and sections of the nobility. Some mistakenly thought that asserting the declared independence was an unnecessary foreign fad of the era since Tibetans themselves and all their neighbours knew that Tibet was Tibet.
Historical facts about Tibetan independence
Chinese translation:
-Gyalo , Exile
10 April 2010
Chinese core interests will be zealously defended whoever is in power. The Party is not the factor. It is the Chinese people. Tibet and Taiwan will be defended at all costs.
For the Tibetan rebels out there, you are to be reminded that the 13th Dalai Lama (d. 1933) "had no political will to assert independence." *Read article by Tsering Shakya, Tibet and the League of Nations* His Regent-successor continued his policy. By the time Taktra took over (1942), it was too late for him to try to achieve independence. The Communist victory in the Chinese civil war was swift.
But then, even if Chiang Kai-shek remained in power, he also would not permit Tibet independence.
US political interference in Tibet and Taiwan will have a long term political cost for US itself. Between China and Taiwan, US must make a choice. China's voice will get louder and louder in the years to come - to make sure the message is carried across,
-MatthewTan , Singapore
9 April 2010
Mr. Schell falls under the spell of sentimentality as he describes a China as a some kind of 'Land of Tradition.' I seriously doubt many Chinese have even read Confucius, though some may have seen the movie.
It's much more accurate I think to say that the Little Red Book is still more in the minds of the people than the Analects, and that the world is only just now heading entering the nightmare that we all avoided during the Cultural Revolution - that of a deeply corrupt, xenophobic, dictatorial communist regime who now have a great deal of money and are arming themselves to the teeth.
-Ma Ke , USA
9 April 2010
I respect Mr Schell's idealistic approach to dealing with China, but unfortunately this China is not the historically sinicized and confucianized (mainland) China but a genodically expansionist empire based on partially communist and fascist policies, Party-orchestrated Han-chauvinist superiority complex and only nominally Confucian principles to prop up the dictatorship structures.
Some scholars with strong leftist sympathies tend to overlook either accidentally or intentionally that fact.
So how does one deal with a totally remorseless and expansionist dictatorship? Would Mr Schell's advice to share the spoils of conquest with national-socialist Germany or Soviet Union - according to Confucian give-and-take - be today considered decent and morally justified approach?
After the period of possibility after the fall of Soviet Union and some of its satellite dictatorships was lost to the current era of global multinationals' profiteering as the guiding 'political' principle in international relations, rather than freedom and justice as passingly mentioned in the United Nations' charters on the supposed rights of peoples and nations, it again seems that the rights of oppressed and occupied peoples like those under Chinese Communist Party's military rule are being traded over and over again in order to lubricate imperial cooperation.
If the world's democracies fail to rein in the Kissingerian horde of power-wielding multinationals (including private funds) before it's too late, I am afraid that much of the world will end up experiencing future under 'Pax CCP', although hopefully not as devastating as the suffocation of Tibetans, Mongols and Uigurs under CCP's direct military rule and national Final Solution.
What comes to Confucianism as CCP's current "moral" guidance, what happened to the key Confucian teaching of "what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others" which was also supposed to apply to relations between nations??
Key part of CCP's domestic propaganda is based on playing up xenophobic Han nationalism in the name of foreign powers' past partial imperialism towards Manchu- and Nationalist-ruled China, but somehow CCP's own total and genocidal imperialism is sacrosanct, as stated in the importance the communist party places upon the holiness of their current expanded imperial borders.
-Gyalo , Exile
8 April 2010
I find the current PRC Govt behaves very much like the pre-WWII Japanese military govt. Both were autocratic governments that tolerated no organized dissent. Both supported capitalism with strong govt control over major industries & finances. Both thought the West was out to contain them or deny them their rightful place in the world. Both are xenophobic in many ways. Both believe in a strong military. Both dislike criticism from outside. Both have colonies (China has Tibet & E. Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Japan had Korea & Taiwan).
Imperial Japan launched a war in Asia to achieve its perceived destiny. I hope that China doesn't go down that path but the rest of Asia & the world should proceed cautiously & remain ever vigilant.
-Wangchuk , NYC
7 April 2010
It is not so much the US-China relationship that is frozen, but the Chinese leadership. In the past they have discovered, with some creativity, ways to cling to power while accepting change. They have switched to become the vanguard of the capitalist class, instead of the working class. The left of the party have been reduced to trying to mitigate the effects of rampant capitalism on the peasants and urban poor, somewhat like the left parties in Europe.
Unfortunately history shows that an autocratic regime can subvert the market to its own ends (Nazi Germany being the obvious example). Although capitalism perhaps thrives best in an open society, it doesn't really need it. To a large extent the Chinese Communist Party controls the capitalists.
The leadership of the CCP are concentrating on keeping 'core interests' frozen. They understand that any change that they don't have full control of is a threat to their power. The US administration can not hope to melt their position. Heat from the people of China will do that. We will see if the CCP can show enough flexibility in the face of popular discontent to ride this out.
-Andy Macdonald , Maine, USA