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Thoughts on the One Belt, One Road Initiative - Part II

Popularity 3Viewed 1112 times 2017-5-17 20:31 |Personal category:Thought|System category:News| OBOR, Chinese economy, cultural exchange, One Belt One Road

The implications of increasing interdependence


    The scholars of international relations Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane brought forward the idea that the fortunes of states are inextricably tied together. They argue that the increase in economic and other forms of interdependence will lead to an increase in the probability of cooperation among states. In such an international community of fate, as much as it is desirable to decrease the possibility of armed conflicts, interdependence also means high responsibility and accountability.


    As most interdependencies nowadays are of an economic nature, they usually follow economic logic (it can be seen as symptomatic that cultural aspects in this context are mostly being reduced to the term of soft power, instead of having their rightful place at the center of all debates). Thus, the system created by those interdependencies appears to be rather fragile, as the underlying foundation is determined by economies of scale and scope as well as locational advantages due to differing standards of working conditions, environmental protection and civil rights. We can already observe the first cracks in this fragile construction of national and economic interest, and the financial crisis of 2008 served as a warning that not all kinds of interdependence are per se desirable. Meanwhile, the institutions we rely on for solving disputes and maintaining accountability are subject to the burden of increasing complexity and interrelation.


    Maybe we should reconsider the underlying logic. Shouldn't we at least strive to work towards a world, where the living and working conditions of the common people are not subordinated to economic and politic considerations? From my own time as a student in China, I recall very clearly what many of my Chinese classmates would call this opinion: naive. However, Chinese culture is known for its long-term thinking, wisdom and focus on sustainability. And most Chinese bear the conflict between pragmatism and romanticism in their hearts, with one side prevailing over the other – as it is with most people – depending on the novels they read in their youth and the demands of the times they live in.


    If there is a lesson, which can be drawn from China’s development, it would be that progress never comes without disruption. In this respect, Napoleon’s famous quote “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world”, which has been excessively used by advocates of the China-threat theory during the last decades, is more facetted than one would suspect. The horrifying air pollution in many Chinese cities, which is causing deaths every year and filling the waiting halls of Chinese hospitals, and other environmental as well as social problems, including rising cost of living, reveal the shadow side of China’s economic rise. While not all parts of society have benefitted equally from this wealth, everybody living in China, Chinese as well as foreigners, share the cost.


    Contrary to Western countries, Chinese philosophy puts much more responsibility to the individual. In many Western countries, the moral sphere of individuals is determined by the Christian concept of guilt and atonement, while on a social level they hold the role of the citizen, with its implied duties and rights. Contrary to that, the Chinese concept of xiushen, qijia, zhiguo, pingtianxia (a concept from the Book of Rites, Great Learning, which describes how the peaceful order of the country derives from the self-improvement of its people) is an unequivocal appeal to the moral individual, combining moral and social roles to a comprehensive concept of moral conduct. In China, Aristotle’s political animal becomes a moral animal. But how can a country that stresses the moral conduct, or the dao, be filled with suspicion and the unbounded fear of missing an opportunity, which any observant and sensible traveler will easily realize when coming to China? One grotesque example is a recent newspaper article on a toilet-paper machine installed in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven as an attempt to tackle toilet paper theft. The machine is equipped with a face scanner to ensure that no more than 60 cm of toilet paper can be allocated to a person within a certain period of time. It seems absurd and at the same time is substantial to raise the issue of the dao in this context. To the foreign observer as well as to the Chinese themselves, there is a widening gap between the ideal of the Chinese way of life and reality. In his Letter to a Chinese Gentleman, Tolstoy writes the following lines:


“Individuals and societies are always in a transitory state from one age to another, but there are times when these transitions are especially apparent and vividly realized, both for individuals and for societies. As is happens with a man who has suddenly come to feel that he can no longer continue a childish life, so also in the life of nations there come periods when societies can no longer continue to live as they did, and they realize the necessity of changing their habits, organization, and activity.”


    Of course, it would be ridiculous to compare China – one of the most ancient civilizations – to an adolescent. However, there is truth in Tolstoy’s statement and when a country undergoes dramatic changes, a certain degree of confusion is unavoidable. Will China, when expanding its current model of economic growth into other regions, also expand the confusion resulting from this model?


The nature of China’s 21st century Silk Road


    As mentioned above, the historic connotation of the OBOR initiative is particular. It is often stated that Eastern philosophy focuses on concentric structures, while Western thinking focuses on linear conceptions of history. But in both the East and West alike we can observe historic backward-orientation, with President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” probably serving as the most recent example. In Europe, such historic references are generally mentioned with care. There is hardly a European nation, which had not been involved in hostile conflict with its neighboring countries. The book, in which the bloody history of Europe is written, consists of closed chapters and hardly anyone would want to reopen them (with the exception of Great Britain, maybe).


    But the historical connotation of the OBOR leads us to travel back in our minds into the times when China was at its economic peak. Among the tangible Chinese products, for which the Europeans were striving, were exquisite silk brocade, fragrant tealeaves and finest chinaware. Their delicate nature revealed the sophistication of the Chinese civilisation and the desire of foreigners for those items can be seen to a high extent as acknowledgement of this sophistication. The rise of China since the beginning of the Reform and Opening Policy in 1978 has without doubt been a materialistic one as well. And as this rise is usually being reduced to economic figures such as GDP growth, we are inclined to draw historical connections and forget to see tangible products as results of a mode of social organisation and activity. In this respect, the products which filled the shipping containers of the first direct train from China’s Zhejiang province to Spain’s Madrid in 2015 were of a very different nature compared to the items Made in China from the heyday of the ancient Silk Road.


    Let us go one step further. In the preface to The Spirit of The Chinese People, the Chinese intellectual Gu Hongming writes:


“Now in order to estimate the value of a civilization, it seems to me, the question we must finally ask is not what great cities, what magnificent houses, what fine roads it has built and is able to build; what beautiful and comfortable furniture, what clever and useful implements, tools and instruments it has made and is able to make; no, not even what institutions, what arts and sciences it has invented: the question we must ask, in order to estimate the value of a civilization, is, what type of humanity, what kind of men and women it has been able to produce.”


    When I think of the term humanity within the Chinese context, I cannot help but think of the Chinese idiom yingge yanwu, which literally means, “orioles sing and swallows dart” and describes a scene of spring and prosperity. This is the Chinese way of life, which I learnt living among Chinese in Beijing’s Xiaojingchang hutong. I shared a public toilet with several other households and my living conditions were by far below the general standard. But when I came home from university, my neighbours greeted me with a smile on their face. The door of my apartment was often unlocked. I was surrounded by children’s laughter and a walk around the neighbourhood, passing by chess playing men and couples dancing in the park, allayed whatever worries I could have possibly had. Unfortunately, these oases of content are decreasing in space and number as city planners rebuild China according to a concept of modernity, which in my view has not been contested enough.


Conclusion


    The aim of the OBOR initiative to provide a platform for regional cooperation between China, Central Asia and Europe is without doubt positive and desirable. However, this essay attempted to search for the base of such a cooperation considering three aspects – the inseparability of the material and the spiritual spheres, the implications of increasing interdependence and the nature of China’s 21st century Silk Road. I believe the base will be a materialistic as well as a spiritual one, with the latter being of higher importance in the long run. The reflections of this essay on the ancient Silk Road show that ideas proofed to be much more powerful than tangible goods. Thus, it is abstruse that many debates about the OBOR initiative leave cultural aspects aside or reduce them to their function as soft power. Whether the OBOR will indeed create a platform for cooperation rather than igniting competition will to a large extend depend on the ability of the participating countries to respond to this truth by promoting mutual understanding and acceptance towards people’s natural curiosity for foreign cultures and ideas.


    Close to Berlin lies the city of Potsdam, home to the summer palace of Frederick the Great. Located in the palace park is the so-called Chinese House, a garden pavilion designed in the then- popular style of chinoiserie. On the outside, the pavilion is decorated with sculptures of eating, drinking and music-making Chinese figures. I recall how a Chinese classmate of mine, after visiting the Chinese House in Potsdam, expressed his astonishment. To him, the Chinese sculptures did not look genuinely Chinese. The clothes were not authentic, the features were not Asian, etc. It shows how distorted European perceptions of China were back then. European visitors laugh at this fact as well and find it entertaining. However, I wonder whether they would be able to draw a more accurate picture of the Chinese people today if asked to.



Sources:


Stefan Zweig, “The Monotonization of the World” (1925), in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, edited by Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg. © 1994 Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press, pp. 397-400.


Leo Tolstoy, “Letter to a Chinese Gentleman” (1906)


Gu Hongming, “The Spirit of the Chinese People” (1915) 


(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Reply Report Liononthehunt 2017-5-19 19:07
I think it is a very thought-provoking discourse on OBOR.
However, I would prefer to see OBOR from a perspective that might be vastly different from yours:
Go back to the original silk road, fundamentally what drove the merchants to trudge across the Eurasia continent for trade since more than 2,000 years ago was the desire to pursue profit, that would in turn be expected to lead to a better life, primarily in material terms. It is hard to imagine that the ancient merchants did so with culture exchanges in mind. What happened regarding interactions between cultures, religions, and even customary activities, were merely by-products of the cross-border trade between the west and east.
Human beings' insatiable craving for higher living standards is the ultimate motivator for the advancement of human society, and if trade is chosen over plunder and pillage as a means to that end, people will always be able to figure out how to adapt to things and ideas that are far removed from that of their own, as exemplified by the colossal trade volume between China and the US, which are so at odds in ideological terms.  And such a close economic relationship would play a decisive role in preventing major military conflicts between the two nations.
OBOR in my opinion serves the purpose of promoting trade that is consistent with human beings' unremitting endeavor towards material well-being, and personally I don't think we have to sweat it over the possible clashes of ideas, cultures, and so on, adaption or accommodation will run its course along the way, like how McDonald's in China tweaks its menus and recipes to cater to its Chinese customers' palate.

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  • My 2014 2017-5-23 16:19

    You heard a tiger in Hong Kong?

  • Thoughts on the One Belt, One Road Initiative - Part I 2017-5-22 02:00

    God I love your blogs. They are always so great.

    Two of my favourite Anming blogs are the two blogs you wrote on being bored in China - 'Bored out in China' and 'Still bored in BJ'. I especially liked this -

    "- Anming - I might be suffering from some kind of postpartum depression after handing in my first thesis draft, but I feel so bored these days. After observing myself for two days, I can confirm, boredom is rather inefficient. The principle of accounting and profit seems so convincing, that it has been used on people’s lives for quite a while. Our lifetime is our capital, we should invest it well in order to get profit. Niklas Luhman once wrote, “if one admits that he has too much time, he is disqualifying and dismissing himself from the society of those, who achieve, request and maintain something.” I might counter with the words of Groucho Marx, that I would not wish to join any club that would accept people like me as a member… Today, I met a classmate, who got an awesome job. The thing is, he is working 18 hours a day. Marxism is experiencing quite a popularity crisis these years, but just as you should always have a good Kafka quotation at hand when encountering bureaucracy, you should be able to recite Marx’ restrictions on the working day, when you find yourself in such inhuman working conditions."

    You are so funny. I hope your classmates job does not involve a lot of manual labour.

    "machinery has greatly increased the number of well-to-do idlers." -  Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 15 (1867)

    The 'educated' well-to-do are curiously nationalist in relation to culture arent they? The 'educated' well-to-do like to suggest that us servile souls of the working class share the same culture as them when nothing could be further from the truth. This 'educated' and well-to-do Stefan Zwieg is clearly aware that the European working classes and the European well-to-do have separate cultures yet he, like seemingly all well-to-do Europeans, speaks as if well-to-do European culture represents all European culture. It may be true that 'European boredom' may be slightly more Aristocratic than 'American boredom' but are the working classes of Europe any less interested in the seeking "numbness" of sports than the working classes of USA? Is the European working class any less interested in soccer than the American working classes are interested in gridiron? We may be able to blame America for American Idol but Europe is responsible for Eurovision. So.

    And this kind of delusion - "The colonization of Europe would not be so terrible politically; to servile souls all slavery is mild and the free always know how to preserve their freedom."  - seems to be inherent with the well-to-do no matter what nation they claim to belong to. What happened to this well-to-do Stefan Zwieg when the Nazi took power in Europe?

    -----------
    In 1934, following Hitler's rise to power in Germany, Zweig left Austria for England, living first in London, then from 1939 in Bath. Because of the swift advance of Hitler's troops westwards, Zweig and his second wife crossed the Atlantic to the United States, settling in 1940 in New York City; they lived for two months as guests of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, then they rented a house in Ossining, New York.
    -----------------------------------
    - wikipedia

    Hmm. Zweig escaped to New York? Ha. If only the servile souls were so very clever they could have all escaped to America too. The ones that could afford to of course. But hey, even many of them couldnt get into America - we know that the well-to-do refugees on the SS Saint Louis werent allowed in. And how about all of those European Jews that ended up living in ghettos - and then worse - after the Nazi took power? Servile souls that did not know how to preserve their freedom like our friend Zweig? But yeah, clever well-to-do Zweig preserves his freedom by escaping to America. You couldnt make that up.

    If the Americans remind me of anyone it is the Romans. The American well-to-do are wanna-be Patricians and the American working classes are very much like Roman plebes. And we know how much the Roman masses loved the games dont we? The Vandals were able to take Carthage from the Romans virtually unopposed in 439 because the Romans - including the Catholic Bishop - were too busy watching the consular games. A good day to invade USA would probably be on Superbowl Sunday but at the same time the Europeans would be every bit as distracted if Europe were invaded during the UEFA Euro competition or a Champions League final.

    Mussolini and then Hitler exploited the European masses' love of sports/games but I really do not believe that the Americans were to blame. If we blame anyone for the European masses' love of the games it must be the Romans - or the Greeks. Europeans. Not Americans. Maybe the Americans should be blaming Europeans for this 'American boredom' - not the other way around.

    Karl Marx said that Religion was the opiate of the people. The sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. American sports writer John Tunis said - "Sports is the great opium of the people. It has become an addiction. It has made them forget more important things." I would argue that it is not boredom at all that is responsible for the western masses' rabid consumption of sports and other forms of prolefeed - it is unhappiness that is to blame. What the oppressed and servile western masses are looking for is an escape from the heartless and soulless world of 'capitalist' society, and specially its capitalist politics. The masses seek an escape, but what they are really searching for is Communion. It is in sports and other prolefeed that the masses find their Communion. You can find the Real Presence at a game of football, if you are not a capitalist.

    A capitalist believes that humans are out for everything they can get away with - and they do seem to be - but with the masses what they seek is an escape from aloneness - what they seek is Communion. Erich Fromm - "Human nature is neither a biologically fixed and innate sum total of drives nor is it a lifeless shadow of cultural patterns to which it adapts itself smoothly; it is the product of human evolution, but it also has certain inherent mechanisms and laws. There are certain factors in man's nature which are fixed and unchangeable: the necessity to satisfy the physiologically conditioned drives and the necessity to avoid isolation and moral aloneness." Capitalists desperately want to believe Sigmund Freud and his nonsense about the so-called 'id' because Freuds nonsense excuses them and justifies the way they treat the servile masses that they know are their slaves. The 'educated' 30% outer party members know that us servile masses are their slaves and they want to believe even more than the 1%. Like their hero Winston the clever educated western 30% would steal their sick and dying sisters chocolate rations. Only if they were hungry and could get away with it though.

    It is Communion that the masses seek and this is good for those of us that believe in internationalization. Just like a citizen needs to be a good child to their parents to be able to be a good citizen of the state - I believe that a citizen must be a good national citizen to be able to be a good international/global citizen. The scared capitalist mind must have truly been traumatized by the Nazi for them to still have such a nationalism phobia. Nationalism can help us bring about Fraternity and the Brotherhood of Man - it should not be seen as an obstacle.

    Why is it that there is rising inward orientation? It is because so-called globalization has hurt the western masses and the only ones seeing gains are the educated 30% that voted against Brexit and for Hillary Clinton. It is a fact that out of control immigration policies of capitalists reduce working opportunities for the western masses and put downward pressure on working class wages yet all we here from the educated is that us 'white' working class masses are racists. And bored apparently. We arent bored we are unhappy. No, we are furious. And the neoliberal capitalist educated 30% are against us. And we know it. The masses are all for healing the world but we know that capitalists have no intention of doing that. We can see that the capitalist plan is to turn the entire world into a third world hell hole where us working class masses must compete with workers from the third world. When was the last time a capitalist wanted to pay more for a third world worker? Have you ever heard a capitalist talk about bringing about a global minimum wage? Of course not because capitalists dont believe in a minimum wage or worker rights and protections. The capitalist wants all workers to be as desperate and insecure as possible so that we will drive them around in an uber car for as little as possible.

    Marxism may be experiencing a popularity crisis but the fact is that in all western nations - even USA - the core socialist ideals have been realized under so-called 'democratic capitalism'. Until the fall of the USSR the western workers had forced the core socialist ideals onto the capitalists through workers parties and a type of permanent revolution that 'democratic capitalism' ensures ( even now that capitalists have taken control of all of the workers parties and made them 'liberal' ) . But with the fall of the USSR came the end of what Thatcher described as 'socialist ratchet' and so began the capitalist ratcheting and the mass privatization of national utilities and the winding back of the welfare state. The influx of immigrants to western 'democratic capitalist' nations, and the offshoring of working class jobs was key to the capitalist ratcheting and the working class masses know it, so is it really any wonder that the working class masses are against so-called 'globalization' and a 'world without borders'? Racist?

    “What's happened to me,' he thought. It was no dream.” -  Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

    In my opinion the One World - One Dream and the Chinese Dream are the same dream. China stresses 'win-win' trade relationships with 'no strings attached'. This is China saying to the world that they know and understand why the world hates capitalist America/West - and with China things will be different. China knows how it feels to be treated as a 'third world' nation and because of Chinas communist history China is more aligned with the western working class than the neoliberal bourgeois capitalist 'elite'. Unlike USA that wants to make the entire world into capitalist America, China expects its core values to be respected and respects the core values of other nations.

    I fully agree with you that spiritual spheres are of vital importance. Capitalism has no soul so socialist China has a much better chance of bringing about the Brotherhood of Man. Even Hitler knew that the material and spiritual spheres were inseparable and that the soulless capitalists did not understand - "It is, of course, possible to make out a case for the success achieved in peopling continents which before had been empty. The United States and Australia afford good examples. Success, certainly - but only on the material side." - "The white races did, of course, give some things to the natives, and they were the worst gifts that they could possibly have made, those plagues of our own modern world-materialism, fanaticism, alcoholism and syphilis. For the rest, since these peoples possessed qualities of their own which were superior to anything we could offer them, they have remained essentially unchanged. Where imposition by force was attempted, the results were even more disastrous, and common sense, realizing the futility of such measures, should preclude any recourse to their introduction. One solitary success must be conceded to the colonizers: everywhere they have succeeded in arousing hatred, a hatred that urges these peoples, awakened from their slumbers by us, to rise and drive us out. Indeed, it looks almost as though they had awakened solely and simply for that purpose!" - Hitler/The Testament of Adolph Hitler

    And Einstein knew it - “One strength of the communist system of the East is that it has some of the character of a religion and inspires the emotions of a religion.” ―Albert Einstein . Soulless Capitalism does not.

    The beautiful thing is that us western masses hate the western 'elite' every bit as much as the rest of the world does - if not more. The next time we rise and drive them out I am hoping that it will be the beginning of The Brotherhood of Man and they will have nowhere to go. No more escaping to the east - or to New York.

    where there is light, there is shadow

    Where there is light there is shadow.

    Anyway, I have to go to work now. Seriously. I would add that Cultural Humility is going to be very important going forward. It is an ongoing process with no end. And I think it will help us end history. I dont think we should be closing any books.

    PostScript - I am guessing from Part 2 that you are no fan of Antonio Gramsci. I wouldnt agree with everything that he said but you have to admit that working class and capitalist culture are two different things. The western working class are more aligned with socialist China. And what we seek most of all is Communion. Its good right?

    Im late!

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