In early May, US State Department Director of Policy Planning Kiron Skinner was rebuked in China’s English-language media for characterizing US–China relations as a “clash of civilizations.” Skinner’s rhetoric reflects a Cold War mentality that overlooks centuries of mutual contact and sharing.
A more accurate view is that of late anthropologist Jack Goody (1919–2015), who viewed Europe and China as parts of one cultural spectrum he called Eurasia. Moreover, Chinese Confucianism has always harboured the ideal of Great Unity (大同) among peoples. Self-congratulatory sentiments about “Western democracy” only play into the hands of authoritarian leaders who restrict the basic freedoms of their citizens.
The quest for democracy is a central motif in modern China. In 1911, when the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Manchurian Qing State, the new flag for the Republic of China (ROC) was designed in red, white, and blue to represent the universal ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The nascent ROC failed to secure democracy and freedom for the Chinese people, however, due to domestic warlordism, conflicts with neighbouring states, and Western reluctance to accept China as an equal.
After the 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty transferred German concessions in Shandong to Japan rather than return them to China, student protests in Beijing sparked what is now known as the “May 4 Movement.” At the time, Chinese intellectuals were debating the usefulness to China of such philosophies as Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution and Nietzsche.
Chen Duxiu (1879–1942), professor of humanities at Peking University, famously called for China to embrace “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.” Chen and others moved on to embrace Marxist-Leninism — a post-Enlightenment philosophy — and founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Pragmatist philosopher Hu Shih (1891–1962) famously said, “The only way to have democracy is to have democracy.” He moved to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalists after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in Beijing in 1949.
Lest one think that democratic ideas flow in only one direction, Chinese diplomat P.C. Chang (1892–1957) reminded the world of China’s contributions to global humanism. In 1948, when the ROC was a founding member of the United Nations, he was vice-chair of the commission drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Arguing that 18th century European philosophers were familiar with Confucian ethics and adopted Mencius’s ideas about the goodness of human nature, Chang ensured that Chinese ideas about personhood, relational autonomy, responsibility, and civility were incorporated into the new legal document (Twiss, 2007). Humanity’s most important human rights charter is thus based as much on Chinese thought as it is on “Western democracy.”
The ROC played a key role in the creation of the United Nations system, even as the CCP took China on an isolationist path that saw destruction of traditional institutions, mass famine, and the social upheavals of the Cultural Revolution.
In 1989, as Chinese intellectuals and students commemorated the May 4 Movement, the death of Hu Yaobang — a popular leader who had been badly treated by the CCP — ignited protests that quickly became a large-scale democracy movement across the country. Students at Tiananmen Square dressed a list of seven demands for the government to democratize, erected a giant statue to the Goddess of Democracy, and eventually launched a hunger strike.
The government responded with military repression in the early hours of June 4, leading to the deaths of at least 10,000 civilians, according to internal Chinese sources. In the aftermath, thousands of people were arrested, detained without trial, executed, or exiled.
In the following decades, China embarked on the most rapid economic growth in human history, lifting more than 850 million people out of poverty according to the World Bank. Since poverty is a form of unfreedom, it is not surprising that most Chinese people credit their government for increasing personal freedom. The government has struck a deal to create economic growth while the population refrains from autonomous political action. As in Taiwan until the end of Martial Law in 1987, such a deal may not be sustainable. Optimism about prosperity eventually leading to political liberalization, however, now seems misplaced.
In 2019, the Chinese government is detaining millions of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, imposing restrictions on free speech in Hong Kong, militarizing the South China Sea, and becoming increasingly strident in its threats to annex Taiwan. At the same time, students and intellectuals are beginning to speak out again.
Over the past eight months, students at Peking University have been placed under house arrest or disappeared after denouncing social inequality and corruption. Qiu Zhanxuan, leader of the Marxist Society, wrote, “The deeper the persecution, the greater the blows, the more hatred one remembers in his heart.” He disappeared on April 29.
One hundred years after the May 4 movement and 30 years after Tiananmen, the yearning for democracy persists in China. Chinese democracy advocates hope that Taiwan will preserve the ROC as living proof that a Chinese society is compatible with democracy. In Taiwan, a significant minority of people want to repudiate Chinese identity and move toward formal independence. Eighty-nine-year-old Chinese historian Yu Ying-shih praises Taiwan for carrying out the ideals of May 4, and cautions Taiwanese to protect their democracy. At the same time, China-backed media are gaining ground in their campaign to convince ordinary Taiwanese that the only road to prosperity is through Communist China.
Talk of civilizational clashes tend to limit the imagination. Rather, all humans (and non-humans) share one planet. We must collectively address climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution to avoid perishing together. Instead, Chinese Communist irredentism (nationalism that seeks to claim “lost” territory) threatens conflict over Taiwan and other contested regions, increasing the probability of war. Democratic countries can co-operate to deter such military aggression and support Chinese democracy. Ending the diplomatic isolation of Taiwan may be part of the strategy to achieve those goals.
In the end, choices made by Chinese people will determine the future of the planet. Only if China embraces democracy and science can peace triumph over war, enabling co-operation, or Great Unity, around our shared ecological crisis.
Scott Simon, Ph.D., is Professor in the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies, Co-holder of the Chair in Taiwan Studies, and Researcher at CIPS, University of Ottawa. Proficient in both Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, he has conducted research on various social and political issues in China, Taiwan, and Japan. He is the author of three books about Taiwan.