Sebastian Mallaby: For Rising China, An Identity Crisis





[Sebastian Mallaby writes a column for the Washington Post.]

In the early 1990s, when I lived in Japan, its people embarked on a search for their identity. The country had become an economic superpower, but its politics had not caught up; it did not know what to do with its weight in the world....

Of course, Japan's extended slump has muted its ambitions. But the debates of the 1990s came back to me this month, when I spent nine days among Beijing intellectuals. Like the Japan of two decades ago, China's economic miracle outstrips the maturity of its statecraft. As Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University in Beijing puts it, the country today brings to mind the early NBA appearances of Chinese sensation Yao Ming, when his confidence under the hoops had yet to catch up with his 7-foot, 6-inch frame. And like the Japan of two decades ago, China is searching for its identity.

In the 1980s, Chinese intellectuals saw the West as a model. "In the United States, even the moon shines brighter," went a saying of the time. The Tiananmen Square protesters erected a 30-foot-tall Goddess of Democracy, inspired by the Statue of Liberty. But, fairly or not, the Iraq war, the financial crisis and the stumbling efforts to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina have all contributed to the sullying of America's image in China. "We learned from the Soviet Union, and it collapsed. We learned from Japan, and it collapsed. We learned from the United States, and it collapsed," was a joke making the rounds in Beijing recently....

...In China, I found people talking about the work of Yan Xuetong, another professor at Tsinghua. Yan's writing connects China's modern aspirations to its ancient philosophy. In a book whose English version will feature an approving blurb from Henry Kissinger, Yan sketches out what might be called a Confucian foreign policy....

But Yan's conclusions can also unnerve. He explains, for example, that the Chinese tradition rejects the idea that human life has an intrinsic value. "Not everyone's life is equal," he maintains. "[A]n uncivilized person -- a barbarian -- his life is less meaningful." It follows, Yan says, that a powerful China would see no strong argument for combating a global health crisis such as AIDS. Barbarians are not worth saving....

...China's rise is inevitable, and the Chinese must decide who they are and what they want. Embracing Western norms may well turn out to suit them.

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