When asked about relations with China, policy planning head of the U.S. State Department Kiron Skinner declared that the United States is in a “fight” with a “different civilization.” She then added, “It’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
That line was no slip of the tongue, and it has the fingerprints of Steve Bannon’s racial essentialism all over it. Skinner was not simply hearkening back to the Cold War and to the geopolitical struggles of the 1950s, as terrifying as that prospect might be given the vastly improved technologies for destroying life. Her reference to a fight with a “not Caucasian” civilization hearkened back to the “Yellow Peril” fear mongering that swept through the United States in the nineteenth century. That drive to posit Asians as a cultural threat led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that made immigration from China illegal (and greatly limited immigration from East Asia).
Skinner went on to suggest that because China is a fundamentally alien civilization, arguments for human rights that worked when the United States confronted the Soviet Union are now “not really possible with China.” Skinner’s comments echoed Senator Albert Beveridge’s infamous speech to the Senate in 1901:
We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee under God, of the civilization of the world…China is our natural customer. The Philippines give us a base at the door of the East…it has been charged that our conduct of the (Spanish American War) has been cruel. Senators, it has been the reverse. Senators, remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals.
The warning that Skinner and Bannon are offering to Americans has nothing to do with the principles of free trade, or even of democracy and the rule of law, but rather is of a threat from an incurably alien value system.
The speech delivered by China’s President Xi Jinping at the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations in Beijing on May 14 was intended as a clear response to Skinner’s remarks (and similar comments by Steve Bannon).
Xi avoided condemning the United States directly, suggesting rather that China, and all citizens of the Earth, should maintain a mind that is “able to take in the waters of a hundred rivers like the ocean.” Xi used the phrase “exchange and mutual learning between civilizations” to describe the process by which humanity advances, suggesting a universality in human experience that goes beyond a Western, post-enlightenment system of values and methods. He markedly refused to assign any developmental hierarchy to civilizations.
How deep a shift Xi’s words imply was not clear, but the repeated use of the term “equal dialogue” suggested that, whether it is neckties and hamburgers, economic growth calculations and Freudian psychology, the absolute authority of a single civilization needs to be replaced by an ongoing dialogue. The speech was grandiose filler, but offered a serious critique of the Eurocentric cultural order.
Xi traced Asian civilization back to the peoples who arose along the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, the Indus Rivers in India, and the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China. He named achievements in architecture, in painting and in philosophy, referring to masterpieces of literature like the Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, the ancient Indian poem collection The Rigveda, and the Arabic collection of short stories One Thousand and One Nights.
Xi proposed three conditions necessary for Asia to play a central role in the dialogue of civilizations and four principles that support his imagined “Community of Common Destiny” for the Earth.
The three conditions for dialogue in Asia are that Asians anticipate a peaceful and stable Asia, they prepare for an Asia of mutual prosperity, and they prepare for a financially open Asia.
The four principles for future cooperation are 1) maintain mutual respect and treat each other as equals; 2) recognize that there is perfection in all civilizations and that they can coexist; 3) uphold an open and accepting environment for reciprocal learning; 4) continue to progress through innovation in accord with the changing times,.
Whereas the Trump administration takes its inspiration from Samuel Huntington’s reactionary “clash of civilizations” and nineteenth-century xenophobic writings, the tradition of a dialogue of civilizations that Xi describes can be traced back to Leo Tolstoy. We can find precedents in the UNESCO intercultural dialogue of 1974 and Kofi Annan’s declaration of 2001 as the UN Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations. The Alliance of Civilizations launched by Turkey and Spain in 2005 promotes a similar vision.
Xi spoke of Chinese culture in terms of a series of exchanges with other civilizations throughout history: with Buddhism from India and Nepal, with Islam, and with European culture in the modern period. He mentioned Marxism as a part of the impact of European civilization, but otherwise the speech avoided the term socialism (although there were a few hints of Mao Zedong’s essay “On Contradictions” in his arguments).
I have attended many events in China that presented Chinese culture as the pinnacle of human achievement and emphasized a hierarchy of status among countries. I have worried about the disappearance of newspapers and books from Chinese society and the growth in its big cities of a voracious consumer society, about the treatment of Chinese workers in factories and the increasing power of the central government, all of which are global trends as well.
Nevertheless, the intellectual complexity of the speeches at the Dialogue of Civilizations, the open call for an internationalist perspective (as opposed to a globalist one), and the presumption that all civilizations are fundamentally equal provided a compelling alternative to the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric that is quickly degenerating into thoughtless xenophobia in the United States. The speeches I heard in Beijing reminded me of the intellectual complexity once found in the speeches of American politicians like Franklin Roosevelt and Adlai Stephenson. When it comes to a philosophy that can save the world, the old adage of ex oriente lux (the light comes from the East) seems to once again apply.