By PEGGY SPITZER CHRISTOFF
As the 2003-2004 Kissinger Chair of International Relations and Foreign Policy in the Library's John W. Kluge Center, Lanxin Xiang has conducted groundbreaking research on the concept of democracy in China. During his residency at the Library, he led two panel discussions on the topic: one in December, which addressed the question of whether the Iraq War was a turning point in geopolitical relations and its impact on U.S.-China relations; and the other, in May, which brought together a member of Congress, a political commentator, a Confucian philosopher and a Chinese-born American filmmaker who offered a variety of perspectives on the very subject of his study—whether democracy is the right model for China. (See articles in the February-March and May-June 2004 issues of the Bulletin.)
In his final lecture, held on the evening of June 16, Xiang put aside the policy questions that he introduced in the earlier panels—generally topics of discussion for think tanks in Washington, D.C.—and focused instead on the philosophical dimensions of democracy. In a 45-minute lecture, he presented the research he had conducted at the Library and concluded with remarks about how the American assumption that democracy is the only "correct" model for China will serve to undermine Sino-American relations.
In introducing Xiang, Prosser Gifford, the director of the Office of Scholarly Programs, said, "I first developed my admiration for Professor Xiang when I read his book ‘The Origins of the Boxer War,' because it does what is often proposed and seldom accomplished. It looks at a puzzling international event from the perspectives of all the different actors—that of the divisions within the Manchu Court, the differing missionaries, the Boxers themselves, the differing foreign delegations and the differing foreign ministries in Europe. This is truly multi-archival, multilingual research, and only in this way can one make sense of the story. ... We are in the presence of a deeply trained historian."
Xiang used classic Chinese texts—the Library has the most extensive collection in the world—as well as the works of American and European philosophers in order to work through how China might utilize liberal democratic theory in its reform efforts. His study led him to realize that liberal democratic theory is "not just culturally parochial but also anachronistic." He found that the work of prominent proponent of liberal democracy John Rawls (1921-2002) currently is being scrutinized on these very grounds and by three very different schools of philosophy—the French structuralists (in particular, the Foucault school), German conceptual historians (for example, Koselleck), and the English empiricists (from Collingwood to Skinner).
In tracing the origins of the terms normally associated with a democratic system, Xiang said, he found that the two gothic pillars of "inalienable rights" and the "social contract" allow nations to fit into only one of two camps—they are either democratic or despotic. Building on this assumption, Americans in particular promote the belief that the only way for China to be peaceful and stable is for it to be democratic.
To illustrate the inherent contradiction of this belief, Xiang describes the now historic debate between two prominent philosophers: Karl Popper (1902-1994) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). According to Xiang, Popper considered himself a leading philosopher and insisted that key questions about life and the human condition transcend language and culture and have permanent value. On the other hand, Wittgenstein refused to take philosophical debates seriously and believed that they were nothing more than Western linguistic entanglements. Popper claimed that he won the debate with Wittgenstein and thereby proved the superiority of an "open society."
Xiang sides with Wittgenstein. By using the term "politics," he discussed the fundamental need to disentangle terms. For the ancient Greeks, the creation of the term "polis" raised but did not answer the question of how to organize power and authority. In fact, it was not until Machievelli that the Western world had a concise guide to leadership and authority, said Xiang.
According to Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, a renowned scholar of ancient Greece who is now head of the Joseph Needham Institute for Chinese Science and Technology at the University of Cambridge, the debate in ancient Greece over the question of "polis" was sterile; while, in classical China, the same type of debate led to a consensus—that politics and the moral quality of the ruler and administrators are inseparable. As Xiang observed, "Such a consensus reflected the reality of a unifying empire as much as the disagreement in ancient Greece reflected the political chaos."
Xiang explained that throughout China, the term for politics, "zheng," was consistently translated as a "righteous human act." Today's term for politics, "zheng zhi," was imported from Japan during the Meiji reform to reflect a separate spatial relationship, that is, to allow for a division of power. But conceptually China never separated "heaven from earth," and in a traditional Chinese education, according to Xiang, all four subjects of study were fundamentally connected to "zheng"—ethics, state affairs, ritual and language.
Why is this distinction important? Because in tracing the origins of other terms associated with democracy (including "liberty," "individual rights" and "equality"), Xiang noted that Chinese radicals in the 20th century sought to adopt these terms wholesale simply because they were Western. In fact, it apparently did not occur to them that some key elements of Western democratic theory were compatible with Confucian political philosophy, such as the importance of virtue, the emphasis on self-cultivation and education and the delimitation of proper boundaries between the individual and community rights, Xiang said.
Why this turning away from one's own culture? Xiang believes that Chinese confidence was shattered by Thomas Huxley's work on Social Darwinism. Huxley's work "On Evolution and Ethics," which was the first Western book to be translated into Chinese and gain a wide audience, provided a justification for intellectuals to see the Opium War, which China lost to the British in 1840, as a fait accompli of international politics, where the strongest (i.e., the British) survived. Xiang believes that China would have been better served by examining its own internal political difficulties, which contributed to their defeat.
"The fact that the first Western theory accepted by the Chinese was Social Darwinism has had dire consequences," said Xiang. "It triggered the iconoclast May Fourth Movement of 1919, whose leaders argued for the ‘modernization' of China and the rejection of ‘imperialistic' Western-style liberal democracy, when the Versailles powers failed to return to China the German colony in Shandong Province."
The conventional wisdom emerging from the May Fourth Movement, according to Xiang, was that Chinese political philosophy had not only lagged behind the more advanced Western political theories (resulting in China's failure to prevail with its demands of the Western powers at Versailles), but that China was also antipathetic to democracy.
"As a result of this myth," continued Xiang, "20th century China was faced with a terrible dilemma. On one hand, conservatives in China saw little incentive for adopting democratic ideas because China, according to the logic of Social Darwinism, had been on the wrong track of the evolution of human society and was not yet in a position to absorb the Romantic view of democracy." On the other hand, Xiang said, once Social Darwinism was accepted, most Chinese began to see tradition as the enemy to progress.
In its quest for reform in the present day, Xiang hopes that China will not abandon its own tradition as it has in the past. He notes that current archaeological findings provide a greater understanding of China's past, and he predicts "the bamboo will win out over the papyrus." He also hopes that China will fight against the stereotype of "oriental despotism" propagated in the West.
Xiang believes it is more constructive for China to develop cooperative relationships with Europe, "because Europeans do not believe that the poor are lazy, and they have different views than America on social policies and the welfare state. Moreover, the United States is a racially fragmented society where the majority resents social policies aimed at reducing inequality in favor of ethnic minorities."
In his lecture, Xiang was barely able to touch on his relatively controversial idea that, while the first religious war in the West centered on the Reformation, the second religious war, "the Cold War," produced the arrogance of liberal democracy. His research indicates that the West assumes that democracy emerged as superior not only to despotism but also to any other alternative.
Xiang, who is a professor of the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, and holder of the Zijiang Chair in Shanghai where he recently was elected chairman of the council for the School of Advanced International and Area Studies, East China Normal University, plans to publish his research within the next year.
Xiang found that Ludwig Wittgenstein, too, had challenged the Cold War orthodoxy and focused on the temporal rather than the spatial relationship between theory and practice in his famous sentence "Words are also deeds." According to Xiang, there is no such thing as the "science" of politics, because most political scientists were "politicking" when they were developing their theories. He firmly believes that all political theories are relative and cites two prominent statesmen, Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, as individuals who fundamentally understood the danger of using blanket terms to explain—and legitimize—their own behavior.
One question that Xiang cannot answer is whether China will continue to scrutinize Western democratization. While this is difficult for Americans to hear, Xiang finds hope in the current Chinese leadership's attempts to fiercely defend "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and guard against wholesale Westernization. In its quest to reject the notion of "good versus evil," the Chinese leadership nonetheless still would prefer to find common ground between the United States and China, according to Xiang.
Even the concept of nation-state, "guojia," said Xiang, connects two fundamental values in Chinese culture: the state ("guo") and the family ("jia"). Xiang says that the foundation of the state is the family. Further, the art of politics is reflected by the ruler's ability to maintain harmony within the family-state.
As a longtime observer of American culture, who received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University's Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington in 1990, Xiang notes that both Europe and China have recognized the importance of soul-searching, but the United States has not. As the current situation in Iraq demonstrates, said Xiang, the United States still believes that it can transplant democracy.
Peggy Spitzer Christoff is a program consultant in the John W. Kluge Center.