How China Can Defeat America — Confucianism! NYT op-ed

A New York Times op-ed piece by Yan Xuetong, professor of Political Science at Tsinghua University, that cites “humane authority” in the “battle for people’s hearts and minds” as the key to victory. Here is the beginning of the piece:

WITH China’s growing influence over the global economy, and its increasing ability to project military power, competition between the United States and China is inevitable. Leaders of both countries assert optimistically that the competition can be managed without clashes that threaten the global order.

Most academic analysts are not so sanguine. If history is any guide, China’s rise does indeed pose a challenge to America. Rising powers seek to gain more authority in the global system, and declining powers rarely go down without a fight. And given the differences between the Chinese and American political systems, pessimists might believe that there is an even higher likelihood of war.

I am a political realist. Western analysts have labeled my political views “hawkish,” and the truth is that I have never overvalued the importance of morality in international relations. But realism does not mean that politicians should be concerned only with military and economic might. In fact, morality can play a key role in shaping international competition between political powers — and separating the winners from the losers.

I came to this conclusion from studying ancient Chinese political theorists like Guanzi, Confucius, Xunzi and Mencius. They were writing in the pre-Qin period, before China was unified as an empire more than 2,000 years ago — a world in which small countries were competing ruthlessly for territorial advantage.

To read the full op-ed piece, follow the permalink above. Comments welcome!

16 replies on “How China Can Defeat America — Confucianism! NYT op-ed”

  1. I am going to break out of my blog stupor (haven’t posted on my own site in over two weeks!) to comment on this but, since you beat me to it here, let me just respond quickly…

    Here are some comments I posted to a listerv:

    1) Let’s take Yan at his word when he says: “How, then, can China win people’s hearts across the world? According to ancient Chinese philosophers, it must start at home.” If the regime accepted this view (and I believe that it does not) then there would be no significant external expansion of PRC power any time soon, because, at present, the regime has singularly failed to address pressing internal problems of political injustice, economic inequality and environmental degradation. China is not now, and is far from, being sufficiently Humane, by Confucian standards, and thus does not generate soft power from Confucianism. Yan tells us: “ It [the regime] needs to replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness.” As far as I can tell, that is not happening any time soon…

    2) Not sure how Yan is reading pre-Qin history here but “humane authority” was not ultimately victorious. Qin won. The Legalists won. And they fundamentally rejected Confucian Humanity as a strategy of statecraft. Confucius and Mencius never attained significant political authority, and Xunzi’s leading students – Li Si and Hanfeizi – ran off with the Legalists. And when the Han revived Confucianism as a state ideology it was wed to the Legalist penal code and a decidedly military-based foreign policy that produced a most un-Confucian territorial expansion. We really must reject the historical fiction that Chinese empires were somehow founded and reproduced by “moral power.” They were not. They were, like effective states everywhere, based on bureaucratically structured coercive power, and they were quite willing to use that power to kill those who would challenge the power of the state from within or without. Invocations of Confucian Humanity were post-hoc rationalizations for calculated uses of power. Just ask the Zunghar Mongols….

    • Sam, yes, I was surprised — nay, amused — by Yan’s initial profession of being a “political realist,” given how he ends the piece with the hearts and minds, humaneness slogan. We used to call what he advocates, “idealism,” as opposed to realism. It is very curious.

  2. This is perfect. I’m starting a Han Feizi unit tomorrow and will lead with this.

    By the way, who would like to step up and work for the Chinese government? Don’t forget what happened to Han Feizi, and he just went to give an invited lecture!

    Thanks for sharing.

    • I am reading Han with my students now. This line (Watson, 114) stands out: “Neither power nor order, however, can be sought abroad – they are wholly a matter of internal government.”

  3. I suppose one’s sympathy for the piece depends on whether one thinks of it as addressed mainly to Americans, trying earnestly to persuade them of the superior potential of China, or instead thinks of it as meant mainly for the eyes of Chinese officialdom, with some pandering to their prejudices. Straighten up, it says.

  4. Did NOT appreciate the title of this piece and would have been very surprised to learn that the title was the author’s choice… it could only a NYT editor who chose it—and I find it insulting. Ignoring it, I read the article and basically liked what I read–he covers a lot of history—vast stretch of it– but I guess it is not a bad idea for a country to go back to its roots 復古 and it is true when china was most influential was when it was a cultural giant as well as a military one. In Syrian Episodes, an Ivy League anthrolpologist living in Aleppo discusses how much influence was lost when the US government pulled its soft power (the US used to have the equivalent of the Confucian institutes and this anthropologist makes a good point that they served the interests of the country well—image making matters as we know from commercials etc-in the case of parts of the Middle east, the scholar felt the dismantling of those programs was devastating). Humane authority could be just as yan describes in terms of the tang dynasty for example, it was the soft power as art, culture and cosmopolitanism which had that tremendously positive influence on Japan, for example. Whether China goes back to its roots or not, I do hope they choose a more sustainable model than the US example of an insular regime and an unsustainably un-egalitarian society. Yan is right that being a moral leader begins standing for something at home—or put it this way, I agree with Yan that there are more ways of doing business and doing politics than a short term performance model that is fundamentally based on pure economic determinism. Whether it’s France 90s or Montreal in the 70s or Japan recently… we see it.

    Regarding sam’s comment above, Yan is speaking in normative terms so Sam’s first point above does not really make sense since he is not describing what is happening now. Regarding his point 2) I am no expert but it seems simplicistic to think of it in terms of winning or losing… did the “legalists win”? Because it seems more like a pedulum swining back and forth (southern song was not legalist per se…?) hmmm..agree with Bill.

  5. Am I wrong or isn’t there a deep contradiction in Yan Xuetong’s article: on the one hand, he claims to be a “realist”, while on the other hand he claims to appreciate the role of morality in international relations?! And what understanding of morality does he have when he claims that morality helps us “separating the winners from the losers”?? I find this very strange.

  6. I think Peony is right that the title may well have been chosen by the editors. And it makes little sense to for the author to choose such a title if the aim is to persuade Americans.

    Still, the many practical recommendations in the piece are all recommendations for action by the Chinese leadership, not by Americans. So I think it’s unlikely Yan’s concern is about American readers, even if he wrote the piece specifically for the NYTimes.

    Kai, I think it’s not a deep contradiction if Yan uses “realist” simply to praise his own view for accuracy. I think it’s common enough to use the term that way when speaking to non-academics. (I don’t know the range of meaning of his Chinese term.) It’s not unrealistic, he says, to think morality has consequences for power. And unless that view is false, it doesn’t show a misunderstanding of morality. Granted, someone who is moral simply for the sake of power doesn’t have the best reasons, and won’t wholly succeed (I suppose). On the other hand, common sense suggests that pure reason isn’t the only legitimate tool for improving others’ behavior and attitudes. Sometimes people show (by their actions, age, etc.) that their ears are open only to a limited range of considerations.

    What I found especially jarring is the emphasis (which fits the title) on the idea of winning v. losing, the stress on the “zero-sum” character of the competition between the US and China. For one thing, it seems pretty obvious that legitimate political, moral and economic purposes are not in general zero-sum. For another thing, the idea is nowadays very familiar that any competition for supremacy between China and the US is likely to be resolved (if at all) by the participation of both in a neutral international order (especially trade rules). The “zero-sum” proposition in the essay is explicitly tautological (empty): the contest for supremacy is by definition zero-sum. But the idea about international rules is so familiar in this context that I think we have to read the essay as positively pooh-poohing it. And yet I think we might just classify that point as a bit of pandering to Chinese leadership.

    Still, if Yan is making his public position base to make it interesting to the leaders, that’s a pretty sad thing.

  7. Thanks, Bill, for your comment! I see your point, but I still think there is a contradiction in claiming that I am a “realist” in the sense that I believe in gaining power as the ultimate goal in international politics, while I also believe in the reality of certain moral principles. Of course we could also just conclude that Yan’s position is very vague…

  8. Kai, I am most probably missing the technical point (I have a background in philosophy but not political philosophy) but are you not positing a false dichotemy between the purely realist and the purely idealistic? Your argument is premised on this and yet it is not clear why a realistic approach cold not or should not incorporate idealistic concepts. That is, can’t it be “realistic” to realize that incorporating and reflecting moral concepts (especially one’s rooted in your own cultral background) is in fact a realistic approach if one seeks to stay in power or to rule effectively? And, is “gaining power is the ultimate goal in international politics”? I guess…..(?) but depending on how you define “power,” I can imagine many scenerios where incorporating a moral platform would work in one’s favor in terms of realistic power generating (I am thinking of the Dalai Lama for example who stands for moral concepts in a realistic manner). Bill, after the Amy Chua debacle I did not trust the media and so I poked around and it does seem that the Times came up with that title. It smacks of American yellow journalism–very insulting I think if true. If you re-read totally discounting the title it helps. The other thing is, as a philosopher Yan must be reflecting something within the culture where he is situated (regardless of his audience in this piece–which I think is first to his own country but then in his words, when China cleans up its act, maybe it can stand as exemplary model for America as well)… after the sad stories down in Guanzhou, I think any philosopher would be feeling a need there to turn inward, so to speak… So yes, it is realistic to be moral! By the way Bill, I just finished Ghosh’s River of Smoke and it was incredibly evocative of time and place (Opium War)–highly recommend it to you. I loved it!!! xoxo

  9. Yan is a political scientist who studies international relations. When he uses the term “realist” he means IR realism in the sense it is used by E.H. Carr, Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz (whom I believe he studied with at Berkeley), and Henry Kissinger. Indeed, there is a photo of him and Kissinger together on his Tsinghua website. I suspect he is proud of the association. IR realism disdains the idea that morality should play a role in foreign policy. That is the “realism” Yan is invoking. Thus, his more recent work, which considers how ancient Chinese philosophy might inform contemporary Chinese foreign policy, is a new departure for him. But I suspect that he has not gone over completely to the “idealists” (this is standard IR vocabulary for those who reject realism and assert a role for morality in defining the purposes of power). Notice how he talks about “soft power,” which understands “culture” and “attractiveness” as sources of influence, a kind of realist appropriation of idealism. Moreover, he is a well known advocate for the position that the PRC should prepare for war against Taiwan. Not sure if he has backed off that position recently. Zero-sum thinking is fundamental to IR realism.
    And I am certain that the NYT editors chose the title are art for this piece. That’s how they roll…

    • Thanks Sam! That was very helpful–I hade never heard that term before IR Realism–will google and try to learn now. Arigato! The dichotemy itself is totally unrealistic as the appropritaion of “idealist” or moral concepts it seems is essetial to the realistic generating of soft power…?

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