Chinese Humanism: A Solution to Regional Cooperation in the BRI?
By Bo Yuan Chang

Chinese Humanism: A Solution to Regional Cooperation in the BRI?

Aug. 03, 2018  |     |  0 comments


The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China proposed by President Xi Jinping seeks to build a global axis of collaboration to stimulate cross-continental cooperation amongst countries in the landmass of Eurasia and Africa. It aims to provide opportunities for inclusive and sustainable growth in the world economy as well as help develop the infrastructure and economies of countries along the BRI.

The paradox of the BRI is that whilst it offers opportunities for political and socio-economic cooperation between the participant economies, the very attempt to connect these countries will inevitably be met with the challenges of cultural diversity. For instance, whilst the promoters of the BRI emphasize sustainable development as one of its main objectives, some have raised questions on environmental and social sustainability issues centering around the BRI.


One under-discussed aspect of the BRI is perhaps the question of how ancient Chinese wisdom can help facilitate regional cooperation for countries along the BRI. It might be interesting to find out how ancient Chinese philosophical beliefs such as Zhong-Yong (moderation) and Confucianism can better facilitate the BRI’s implementation in its culturally-diverse setting.


Chinese Humanism: Zhong-Yong (Moderate) and Confucian Humanism


The key difference between the Zhong-Yong (moderate) dialectics and Western dialectical thinking is that, contrary to Hegelian dialectics, which valorizes a “clash” between two opposite poles (thesis and antithesis), the fusion between two opposing poles is desired within Zhong-Yong dialectical thought. It is envisioned that the two opposing poles will interact and co-evolve to attain complementarity, inclusiveness and harmony. I have argued that the Zhong-Yong dialectics might better explain the simultaneously-competitive-and-cooperative relationship between the US and China post-Cold War, as well as the growing influence of such a dialectic in shaping the post-Cold War world order, with the shift of power from the West to the East.


Many posit that the principal purpose of Confucianism is to help develop the moral character of all human beings, which will in turn enhance the well-being of their collective community. It is commonly stressed that all humans have the potential to attain the four virtues of the sage (junzi), namely: benevolence (ren), righteousness (yi), civility (li) and practical wisdom (zhi). Havens believes that Confucian humanism is characterized by a “cosmology of relationships” between humans and powerful universal forces, and that Confucius’ philosophy may shed insights into the ways in which men can adapt harmoniously with nature and the universe to attain lasting peace.


Similarly, Tu grounds his understanding of Confucian humanism on human nature (renxing), or the human mind-and-heart, when articulating Confucian humanism as a form of inclusive humanism — a humanism which invites all humanity to partake. It is believed that by taking the mind-and-heart as the ontological foundation for human beings, Confucian humanism could be broadened to accommodate the diversity of humanity. Therefore, it is arguable that the essence of Confucian humanism is to help develop and transcend the human mind-and-heart to attain harmony with nature and the universe.



The study of Chinese humanism may broaden and even inform Western-centric IR theories and practices.



The “anthropocosmic” vision of Confucian humanism believes that men can coexist and co-develop harmoniously with tian (heaven/nature) and di (earth), thus co-shaping the heaven-human-earth (tian-ren-di) trinity contained within a cosmology of peaceful relationships. Similarly, Qin’s “concentric circles” metaphor for Zhong-Yong aims to portray the synthesizing process between two opposite elements. It was argued that two opposites may go through a series of “clashes” before merging into a new synergy, through the process of co-evolution. Bringing together the two philosophical thoughts of Zhong-Yong (moderate) and Confucian humanism, it could be argued that the essence of Chinese humanism lies in the ways in which it informs humanity on how to manage their cultural differences, as well as how to attain harmony with nature and the universe.


An Age-old Solution to a New Problem?


It appears that one of the embedded risks of globalization is that nation-states are inclined to pursue their self-interests to the extent of neglecting the overall soundness of the international community. Many will forget, however, that nation-states will depend partly, if not significantly, on the well-being of their collective community — the international society — for their own survival. Therefore, despite repeated calls from the UN and other related agencies for inclusive and sustainable development, the challenges of the international society such as trade conflicts and the ineffectiveness of nuclear non-proliferation are worsening. There appears to be an absence of a school of thought — or, more accurately, a set of universally-endorsed principles — which can capture the multifaceted nature of international society, and thus be able to transform seeming perennial conflicts into win-win cooperation.


Therefore, it seems that scholars and practitioners may start seeking solutions to the challenges of globality from the wisdom of ancient cultural traditions, such as that of Chinese humanism, or that of other forms of humanism, to learn how the wit and wisdom of humanistic cultures may help in transforming the clashes among the civilizations along the “Belt and Road” into their mutually-desirable win-win cooperation, thence, creating the “dialogue among civilizations” first envisioned by former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in 2001.


Such an effort might also serve to improve some existing Western practices in international relations (IR). Take the example of the West’s humanitarian intervention principles and practices. It appears that the paradox of humanitarian intervention is that many Western-led interventions resulted in outcomes that play contrary to universal humanitarian principles. This might be due to the absence of a set of truly universally-acceptable humanistic principles which could incentivize countries to think beyond their national interests, to act out of the benefit of all humanity, and to jointly preserve the diversity of civilizations.


It is equally important not to pre-suppose Chinese humanism as the only universal notion, in the sense that all must wholeheartedly subscribe to its suggested practices and principles. This is because Chinese humanism is not without its own limitations. It might include shortcomings such as the tendency of leaders to use notions of Confucian virtues such as “filial piety” (xiao) and “gratitude” (gan en) to command compliance and loyalty from their followers, or even reprimand them, without due care for their true feelings and aspirations. At the country level, such notions of virtue might be misused by leaders to maintain their grip on power and justify their suppression of the people’s will. In fact, it should not be forgotten that former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping cautioned the Chinese government that it may be exposed and overthrown by its own people, on the day it “seeks to claim hegemony in the world.”


Therefore, it is crucial that those interested in China’s humanistic culture should seek to discover not only the innate potentiality of Chinese humanism, but also try to grasp its inherent limitations, so that the idea may be innovatively transformed into a renewed disposition that will meet the challenges of cultural diversity in the twenty-first century.


The study of Chinese humanism may broaden and even inform Western-centric IR theories and practices, in view of its many present shortcomings. It might even result in constructive policy recommendations on how states could cooperate inclusively, sustainably and moderately, to ensure that the BRI is built in such a way that can accommodate the peoples, countries and cultures connected through it.


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