Introduction to "China Is Not Our Enemy"
Dr. Tai P. Ng
I am a Chinese Canadian, a proud citizen of the world, and a concerned member of humanity. I was born in the former British colony of Hong Kong in 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, kicking off World War II (WWII) in Europe. Two years later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the US entered WWII by declaring war on Japan, Germany, and Italy. The Battle of Midway in the Pacific in 1942 and the D-Day landing at Normandy in 1944 marked the beginning of the Allies’ victories in the war. When I started school in 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after which both Germany and Japan surrendered, and WWII finally ended. During those first few years of my life, humanity lost millions of precious lives, and many homes, families, cities, and even countries were destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. The memories I still retain from that war showcase its destructive power, from horrific Japanese atrocities to the endless stories of suffering in my family and among the Chinese people. Such reminiscences and sentiments have been difficult to share with North American friends because WWII was fought across the ocean millions of miles away from our homes. Most younger generations only read about the crimes of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in Europe, the atomic bomb, or Japanese internment camps in North America. Innocent Japanese people did suffer heavily from the horror of the atomic bomb, but unfortunately, in the minds of many Canadians and Americans, that final act to end the war mistakenly turned all Japanese into victims rather than aggressors. And sadly, the real culprits of Japanese militarism and WWII in Asia were never truly persecuted for their crimes, which were just as horrific as those of the Nazis. This irony demonstrates the determinant power of the dominant Western narrative in this world. Despite all this, I am very proud to be a Canadian and love my chosen home country because of its peace-loving efforts; Canada is also the first country in the world to adopt an official multiculturalism policy, which helped create the culturally-inclusive environment I feel privileged to live in. Like many other Asians who have made North America their home for many years, I sincerely hope this doesn’t change drastically because of increasing US and Canadian hostility toward China, Chinese people, and their businesses.
In 1956, I left my family in Hong Kong to study at Hampton High School in Melbourne, Australia, when I was only sixteen. Since then, I have lived, studied, worked, and retired as a geophysicist in Australia, Canada, and the United States for over sixty years. Having spent the most valuable period of my productive life in the Western world, and as a keen observer of global mega-events, I’ve been feeling a great urge to share what I have been living and thinking through, witnessing, and interpreting during my short tenure on planet Earth. Through the years, my personal interests have centered around traditional Chinese cultural heritage, which I’ve treasured because of its humanistic caring tenets, but in fact, both Chinese and Western cultures have nurtured me through the years, and been vital to me growing up and becoming who I am today. Writing is my way of repayment. As an avid student of the histories of these two civilizations in both the Chinese and English languages, even into my eighties, I still maintain great enthusiasm towards global events and affairs, continuously and dutifully observing, learning, interpreting, comparing, discovering, hypothesizing, and even debunking many of the trends and interpretations.
Serious global watching is a dynamic and engaging undertaking. In our present interconnected world, it should also be done holistically and contextually, with an open mind, maximum objectivity, and political impartiality in order to minimize distortion. This is not easy even for professionals or experts, since institutional biases limit their stance. It is even more difficult because every one of us has our own biases based on our cultural identity and life experiences. But as a concerned member of humanity, whenever in doubt I always try to peel away the layers of labels, not thinking as a Chinese, Canadian, Asian, or American, but instead focusing my moral judgment on what would best benefit humanity. Therein lies my dream of human solidarity, social harmony, and universal peace regardless of culture or belief. I dream of a world where we can live in harmony and unity, embracing rather than fearing our differences. I believe the first step towards that is a willingness to have an open mind and assume positive intent, followed by building empathy and living Stephen Covey’s famous fifth habit of highly effective people—seeking first to understand, then to be understood.
Why this book?
It has been over thirteen years since the publication of my last book, Chinese Culture, Western Culture, which has given me time to reflect, reminisce, and learn more about our world. Before 2007, I was highly apprehensive at the lack of good information in the West, and the unhealthy amount of misinformation causing misunderstandings concerning China almost daily in North American media. At the time, my book was an early attempt to provide some basic historical information and context, since there were very few good English resources available. I did not write about events after the Opium War, though, because at the time of publishing, China was early in a key juncture in its history, and I was not sure how the mega-trend of contemporary China was going to develop. Since then, both China and the world have undergone rapid transformations that affected each other, but especially since the financial crisis of 2008. As China’s direction has become more clearly defined in the last two decades, and it has successfully demonstrated its ability to follow and deliver on its development plans, its actions and future are also becoming easier to interpret, giving me renewed enthusiasm and impetus to share some of my perspectives on what is happening. All the assumptions and directional insights I offered in my last book still hold, but the pace of change has definitely quickened. Regardless of what the future holds, China is really starting to carry its weight, the impact of which is being felt in many ways around our increasingly interconnected world.
With its current population of over 1.4 billion people living across a continental-scale territory, contemporary China consists of one majority Han race and fifty-five official minority races. China has widely diverse cultural and economic conditions, and many varieties of local dialects, customs, foods, and historical stories have been preserved and co-exist within China to this very day. This diversity has been sustainable throughout its long history because of the many tolerant and inclusive tenets and virtues embedded in Chinese culture. Many are natural human values, commonly found in other human cultures and societies, but in China’s case, they have been reinforced through Confucian narratives, generation after generation, continuously evolving to this day. This makes China so much more complex and organic than outsiders can possibly imagine. Many experts in Western social sciences often misinterpret China simply because their expertise does not include first-hand domestic Chinese experience. Even for foreigners living inside China, it is not easy to discern the complex network of organic social and political development if their observations are too narrowly focused.
With a mindset that China is our enemy, Western biases tend to focus on specific individuals and institutions, ignoring the main trends of development, which are clearer in direction and intent, but could easily be dismissed over ideological or political differences as authoritarian communist propaganda. To be newsworthy, Western media often focuses on events of rare occurrence or extraordinary issues, especially regarding human rights or other governmental violations. With its size, diversity, complexity, and cultural intricacy however, one can inevitably find the best and worst of anything, and everything in-between, happening somewhere in China if you look hard enough. Unfortunately, by emphasizing the most sensational stories, Western news tends to represent the edges of society and the extremely small percentiles of a normal distribution which may not be statistically significant. This may be one of the key reasons that I and many others find Western news and reporting to have such strong negative biases against China and its people. China seems to always be either on the verge of a catastrophic collapse, or being painted as an enemy seriously threatening the established order of the free world.
My interest, on the other hand, is to discern the macroscopic trends from the long history of China in order to study where the country and its civilization is heading, especially in contrast to its Western counterparts. To properly extrapolate the two trajectories requires understanding of so many different fields in science, humanities, and social sciences, including but not limited to geography, sociology, political science, economics, comparative philosophy, brain studies, organizational behavior, mass socio-psychology, and many more, while mapping them to history and global context. The scale and scope of this endeavor is infinite, which can be daunting to many. It is much more ideally suited to generalists like me rather than the specialists that typically write about specific topics regarding China and global affairs. Even then, the depth and breadth required is so overwhelmingly large that I can only hope to scratch some of the surfaces and inspire other generalists with similar macroscopic interest and focus, but ideally with stronger and different backgrounds or experiences, both culturally and professionally, to carry this forward. Understanding the macroscopic situation and seeing the bigger picture from different perspectives is important for our collective future and global development, but has mostly been ignored by global citizens and even academic communities, as they tend to focus and train in highly specialized fields. A more holistic and contextual understanding of humanity and its multifaceted cultures is becoming critical to our survival as a species because of our strong influence on each other, and on our planet, due to increasing global connectivity.
To keep my writing grounded in facts and statistics to maximize objectivity, I’ve tried to ignore simplistic political or ideological labels that may be mainstream, avoid getting lost in the rabbit hole of explaining specific situations that critics are vocally monitoring regarding Chinese governmental actions and policies, and misinformation often generated for political purposes, and instead focus solely on statistically significant mega events, as well as conditions of the general populace in China, which represents that vast majority living in the 95th percentile of a normal distribution. It is almost impossible not to make over-generalized statements or sound like a naive idealist. Hence, I fervently hope our dear readers can rise up with us to see the forest instead of getting lost in the trees, and be patient and understanding of the limitations this endeavor naturally brings.
Long term central planning from five to twenty-five years is a hallmark of the Chinese government, both central and provincial, and something you rarely see in the West because of its short election cycle. While the longer-term plans are definitely more of a directional guideline, their Five-Year Plans are all available to the public in great detail, and they have built enough momentum, experience, and consistency now to hit or even exceed most of those milestones, even in a fast changing world. Following the pragmatism and flexibility of the Chinese tradition, the Chinese government is designed to be very adaptive to rapid changes in local, national, and global conditions, thereby making serious China watching both interesting and demanding. Unfortunately, with the rapid pace of organic change, misinterpretation and misunderstanding are also becoming more frequent, even with up-to-date information, because so many people lack the historical context—this includes Western-educated Chinese people, and even some of the specialists in the relevant fields of interest. My hope is to provide readers with an appropriate amount of historical context and systematic thinking so they can better understand and interpret Chinese decision-making processes and situations.
Different paths of civilizational development
I find both Chinese and Western cultures to be fascinating because of how different they are, and yet, if you look closely, they are also very complementary to each other. This is not to say they are the only cultures in the world, obviously, but because both have led the world at various times in history and many others have sprouted from the origins of these two, they are arguably the most consequential and influential to humanity. Over the years, I have been intrigued by what, how, and why there are such disparities, and consequently studied a wide range of aspects throughout the history of both cultures, looking at thinking as well as diverse philosophical, cultural, social, economic, and political human experience. These disparities influence people’s attitudes and behaviors in life, and social and political aptitudes, resulting in very different communities and ultimately civilizations. Each culture was primarily local in its early days of development and unique in a broad sense. Each had its own advantages and disadvantages in order to adapt to its different environments, but neither was consistently better than the other. One’s advantage can easily become a disadvantage and vice versa when the situation or context changes. Just as for individual humans, self-awareness is key to knowing when to apply your strengths and when to make up for your shortcomings.
China has come a long way economically since 2007, but is getting even more difficult for outsiders to understand because it is developing along a very different trajectory, and is dealing with more diverse and complex problems in its modernization than any other country has experienced, because of its scale, socio-political values, and long-spanning history. It is also trying to return closer to its own roots and re-embrace some of the ancient ways, which makes it even more incomprehensible to Westerners. Increasingly, however, many Chinese people and even some non-Chinese are realizing the profoundness of traditional Chinese culture and civilization in term of its contribution to humanity and how it should be more appreciated and treasured. The large scale in terms of land mass and population, its long history—persisting continuously for thousands of years—the tenets of harmony in diversity and broadminded inclusiveness, the resourcefulness of its people, its secular, humanistic, and pragmatic culture—these and many more make the Chinese experience uniquely complex, unrivaled by any other civilization in history, and completely incomprehensible without proper context. Coupled with so much misinformation and misunderstanding propagated by English media, any efforts that can result in a better understanding of China in the Western world will enable the two civilizations to co-exist more harmoniously, thereby contributing to world peace.
Written Chinese history dates back continuously for three thousand years. For environmental and geographical reasons, the primarily agrarian Chinese civilization developed in isolation and very early on grew to be large-scale in terms of people and territory, diverse in population, and possessing a maturity in governance unmatched by others. The vastness and scale of China cannot be overemphasized in contrast with other cradles of civilization at the time such as Greece and Mesopotamia. All of the Greek city-states would have fit into the smallest of the Chinese kingdoms in the fifth century BC. The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers were two of the world’s ten largest. Many of the larger plains, plateaus, and provinces in China exceeded the size of an average-sized country in Europe. With such a drastic contrast in scale, the challenges encountered were also very different, resulting in very different sociopolitical thinking, ideals, and interpretations of leadership and “state governance.” Such disparity persisted throughout history and is easily observable even today, though pundits with different cultural backgrounds may offer varying interpretations of why.
Throughout its long history, Chinese people have been challenged and suffered, generation after generation, through countless natural and human calamities, persevering like none other and developing a resiliency to difficult conditions. Through these, they learned that leadership capability, moral governance, and social harmony are key to their happiness. I believe a key reason behind the tenacity and durability of this culture is its rootedness and embeddedness—its philosophy of viewing humanity as an integral part of Nature, knowingly controlling our own desires and greed, and working within constraints instead of battling against them. Practicing self-restraint during good times, saving and conserving for the bad times. To the Chinese, all social relationships are modelled after the family, the most basic reverent relationship produced by Nature, which is considered moral and just. Ethics and morality, not religion, are at the core of Chinese civilization.
Both the Chinese people and their government continuously learn from the many lessons of history (both their own and others) and have developed an aptitude for human organization and collaboration, knowing that humans are weak if isolated and can only survive when grouped together in families and communities. Confucian heritage taught Chinese people to be humble, tolerant, benevolent, and altruistic to fellow humans, especially to weaker ones. Because of their past suffering, Chinese people hate conflict and war of any kind, and always aspire for peace. Attainment of balance in life and social harmony are their core cultural objectives. They constantly strive to establish a uniquely competitive form of governance which selects capable and ethical leaders through examination, experience, and meritocratic promotion, and build a hierarchical bureaucratic system of government which, when it works, is effective, stable, and trustworthy for the majority of its people. Emphasizing introspection and education, the Chinese system today trains professional party cadres and politicians to behave morally and serve the people. This has also led to many corrupted officials being purged and convicted. The efficacy of the current Chinese system was demonstrated during the pandemic of 2020, even though some Westerners kept blaming China for it and focusing on human rights rather than the number of lives saved. To many Chinese, however, social harmony and security with good governance is the best kind of human right, a form of positive freedom.
Before the communists came to power in 1949, Chinese people were vividly described as being like a pot of loose sand. Many of the people living in China now understand the organizational and protective function of their government, recognizing that their wellbeing in life and that of their family members relies heavily on its integrity and capability. They know a good government when they see one, as they still remember how much they suffered under the bad ones in the past. When they find a government they can trust, however, nobody works as hard to willingly to follow its leadership. Contrary to common Western expectations about an “authoritarian communist regime,” 800 million Chinese were lifted out of extreme poverty over the past four decades. In November of 2020, China announced that it had attained its goal to eradicate extreme poverty, despite the pandemic that year—a tremendous achievement unmatched anywhere in the world or in history. But even more importantly, if one travels to China and interacts with the locals, it is obvious that the Chinese people are generally more free, richer, and happier than any other time in their history, and even compared to many others in the world today. China is following its own path of modernization and rejuvenation and even the most powerful country in the world cannot stop its progress. But beyond acknowledging this fact, we should make the time to truly understand why.
To most Westerners, China is a black box with total lack of transparency. I believe that is because a strong historical and cultural context is crucial to any understanding and interpretation of China and its people due to its uniquely large scale, culture, complexity, and extensive historical experience. In the United States, in particular, after four years of feeding public misinformation concerning China under the Trump administration, people can no longer tell facts from lies, both domestically and internationally. American top officials persistently demonize China to divert attention from other problems within its own borders, creating hostility towards China and Chinese people for many Americans. The wars waged against China by the US government on multiple fronts such as trade, Intellectual Property (IP), and others, will take many years of focused time and effort before it can be undone. Yet our world increasingly needs to have the two top countries working together to solve many of our global problems rather than competing for dominance. My hope is that more people will be willing to be objective and open minded to a different perspective and culture, and that this book will help bridge that contextual gap through an increase in mutual understanding, appreciation, empathy, and trust.
In the September/October 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, strategist Aaron Friedberg argued that the United States and its allies and partners should use aggressive policies to contain China. He was not alone in taking that stance—there are easily thousands of similar articles and speeches from various renowned professors and politicians. The author of this particular article is a Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. Immediately after its publication, a group of eight top American foreign affairs experts, including Michael D. Swaine, Ezra F. Vogel, et al. responded by pointing out that Friedberg’s hawkish position on China was based on a flawed presumption that the bulk of Beijing’s policy disagreements with the West arose from its authoritarian political system. They point to the fact that many of China’s international concerns have grown out of long-standing nationalist beliefs and cultural attitudes that long predate communist rule. These include the resentment caused by over a century of predatory Western behavior in East Asia, a profound, and at times bristling, pride in China’s rise, and deep-seated fears that a more freewheeling domestic political process could jeopardize the stability that has facilitated greater prosperity. Such nationalist attitudes and concerns would prevail even in a democratic China—there is no reason to believe that China’s system of government is what makes Beijing eager to protect what it regards as its territory and reestablish itself as a major power in Asia and the world.
I tend to concur that Friedberg’s interpretation of China is purely dualistic, based on a false Cold War mentality of capitalism versus communism, which is typical of Eurocentric thinking. I was also encouraged to see so many of his peers recognize the long historical and cultural context so they could interpret China more holistically, organically, and contextually, something I hope all our readers will be able to do after reading this book. China will continue to pursue, and likely succeed, at its long-term strategy, despite antagonistic American attitudes. But cooperation and win-win are a better strategy for both countries and the world. Depending on which expert’s strategic advice the US government decides to follow, the outcome can be as drastically different as war or peace for the world. There is a lot riding on getting it right.
I have personally experienced both cultures for decades and witnessed how particular situations, thinking, and actions can be influenced by these cultural and historical differences, as well as how the fortune of each civilization has changed during my lifetime. It has been even more fascinating as I’ve aged to realize that once you can truly understand both the historical trajectory and background context of a given culture, events start to become predictable on a macroscopic scale. At the end of the day, countries behave relatively consistently based on their worldview, history, and values. Though leaders may differ in their own thinking and values, very rarely do they significantly deviate from their country’s historical trajectory. This is why it’s so important to build contextual understanding of each other, to continuously keep in mind the historical background and context that guides every decision. Through mutual trust and empathy, the result of a deeper understanding, we can get to better know each other, and maybe even ourselves. It took China over 200 years to realize that the Western scientific method, thinking, and spirit are excellent ways to understand and work with Nature, something the ancient Chinese did not know. But once they understood the capabilities of science, it became a powerful tool for innovation and improvement to our quality of life, as we are witnessing today. Similarly, it will take time for Westerners to realize that the traditional Chinese ways of balance, inclusiveness, humility, tolerance, win-win, conservation, and sustainability are important to social harmony and human solidarity in our interrelated world. Our world will be a better place if everyone can work more collaboratively.
Understanding China is complex but not impossible. I believe that properly interpreting any situation requires an open mind and knowledge of three vectors applied to the main players in that situation—thinking preferences, historical trajectory, and situational context. When one of the players is China or traditional Chinese, my hope is that this book can provide you with the background needed to better interpret the situation and get a better outcome for all involved. But please keep in mind that people are unique and ever changing as they grow, so no book or knowledge gained should ever be treated as a substitute for taking the time to get to know the other person and trying to walk a mile in their shoes.
How to use this book
This book is divided into three main parts. Part One focuses on Chinese thinking preferences, and hence worldviews, looking briefly at how they diverged to be so different from Western thinking preferences, but also how they are complementary. How we think influences our attitudes and approaches to life, which in turn influences our worldviews and how we interact with others, and then how we build communities and ultimately civilizations. Chinese civilization has endured for over 5000 years, and I believe many of the traditional tenets that trace back to Confucius and influence many Asian cultures even today are an enduring reminder to humanity on how to behave and how to treat others. Holistic and correlative thinking, belief in an inherently good human nature, and the ability for self-cultivation to restore the good in people, learning and practicing good virtues and striving for self-transcendence, the importance of social responsibility, recognizing harmony in diversity, and following “the Way”—these are all concepts that are experiencing a rebirth because they are natural concepts that resonate with most of humanity and provide an important balance to much of Western society and thinking.
Part Two begins by providing a brief mega-historical account of the development of Chinese civilization essential for understanding China and the Chinese people. Chinese intellectuals always pride themselves on taking responsibility for the well-being of the whole world (Tianxia) and its people, which is a significant part of Chinese heritage. One cannot understand China without understanding its intellectual heritage, socio-political aspirations, and commitments, which are by-products of its large-scale development. The evolution of the Chinese Communist Party, the traditional secular and humanitarian political tenets and ideals, the building of a bureaucratic and meritocratic hierarchy, the precept of benevolent governance, the precept of a shared future destiny, and even the development of a modern Silk Road—all are intricately related to traditional thinking, worldviews, and philosophy. This is completely different from the West, where everything is viewed through a lens of theistic rationalism over the last two millennia.
Part Three speculates on how the paradigmatic differences between China and the West could affect our future, and some concepts and lessons we should leverage more. With a goal of crafting a better future for humanity, we need to collectively think bigger in order to solve the problems facing our world in the future. Globalization is forcing us all to become intricately connected, whether we want to or not. Historically we have relied on our governments and a handful of global institutions to solve the world’s problems, but increasingly the problems are becoming too large for any one country or any one institution to properly solve—problems like climate change have shown how vulnerable humanity really is if we don’t live in harmony with Nature and within the limits of what the Earth provides for us. We are also learning how urgent and necessary it is for us to work together if we are to craft a peaceful future for humanity. This is where the Chinese tenets and experience around human collaboration and solidarity, as well as the Confucian narrative on how to be human, become relevant and important.
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 was a strong reminder of the powerful laws of Nature within which humanity should operate. We are more connected and more reliant on Nature than ever before. The Chinese Confucian Way, which was derived through centuries of living in accordance with Nature, has a strong emphasis on human relations, which requires tolerance, mutual respect, social harmony, win-win thinking, and balance in order to achieve universal peace. This way of thinking is experiencing a rejuvenation, as many believe it may well be the right prescription of universal values and principles to guide humanity to a peaceful shared destiny in the future. Unfortunately, even China today needs to return to its own cultural roots and heritage after centuries of civilization decay and corruption, plus foreign incursion. People need to be re-educated, and at the same time, they need to renew and modernize their nation. Progress has been made, even though it takes time and there is still a long way to go, especially when so much effort is wasted counteracting misinformation and hostile politics. Throughout 2020, politics aside, the Chinese were able to demonstrate to the world their unique cultural efficacy in handling the pandemic, and that through traditional Chinese Confucian tenets and effective benevolent governance, they can protect their people and even defeat a pandemic.
There are a lot of irrational fears about China—its people, its foreign policy, its politics. People fear what they cannot understand, and when that fear becomes prevalent in people with power, it can lead us to war. While America has led our world since the end of World War II, and will continue to for some time to come, it is more divided now than ever before. It has become skeptical and pessimistic, and has started closing its doors to the outside world. I am comforted that the new Biden presidency is bringing the US back into key global commitments like the Paris Accord and the WHO. With global risks like climate change facing us, we need the commitment and the leadership of the US to make meaningful change. Our democratic system of government is based on partisan competition which follows the paradigm of a zero-sum game where gaining a seat in Congress for a Democrat means a corresponding loss for a Republican. Such a paradigm can be toxic when applied to global affairs, especially for a superpower. We all want world peace and to do the right thing, but the US has turned that into a crusade for democracy instead of world harmony. That must change because we don’t need another Cold War. Until they can allow room for other systems in the world and to stop assuming all non-democratic nations are naturally flawed, there can be no true peace. When we can all accept that there are other ways of thinking about things, other worldviews, other ways to run a country, then we can start to truly embrace our differences rather than fighting or fearing them. And taking it a step further, we can start to leverage the strengths of each to build a stronger, more harmonious, and more peaceful humanity on Earth.
We must see the urgency now and take every shortcut available to us, including learning from our collective histories and purposefully building our empathy and tolerance towards each other rather than standing our ground confrontationally. We must work together to craft a new world order that combines the best of humanity’s experiences and values. We must seek harmony in diversity, leveraging each other’s strengths and learning from each other continuously to get stronger faster. The time is now, and each of us can make a change, however small. I long for the day when humanity of all races, religions, and creeds can collaboratively work together, building harmony and peace for our future generations. I am so proud you have chosen this book as a step on your journey towards a better us, and a better world. Let’s stop with the “us versus them,” and instead, let’s all encourage the empathy and tolerance in ourselves and each other that will save the future of humanity and bring us through this challenge together.
Copyright Tai P. Ng 2021