Original and future issues of Chinese culture in the new international governance
The trade war between China and the United States since 2008 has triggered deeper understanding of the relations between China and the international society. China's full engagement and joint leadership in the global economic governance system remain a considerable challenge. Meanwhile, a complete market economy must be established to effectively meet the various requirements from the World Trade Organization and international society. More importantly, the loopholes in the legal system, the absence of a credit system, and the gap in the democratic environment all raise concerns, proposing the issue of profound cultural support as an essential topic. China's participation in international society should be a holistic process, representing the comprehensive transformation of China's social modernization. Suppose a country is to maintain lasting and healthy economic development and political stability. In that case, it must strengthen the political function of its social morality and beliefs, promoting the rational and essential elements in traditional culture to enhance national identity and cohesion and provide cultural heritage and spiritual support for its modernization. Both Chinese and foreign scholars have recognized such logic. According to German sociologist Max Weber, there is a “mysterious relationship” between
Western countries’ Protestant ethics and the spirit, characters, even modernization of capitalism, which also serves for the success of western modernization and the industrial revolution. French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville said that religious ethics being modified by modern values not only possesses the integrative function, but also provides a foundation of value for the continued modernization of American society (Yu, 2000). In addition, Brzezinski (2010) also warned America to make a solemn cultural self-examination to prevent it from the rise of moral chaos and the decline of religious liberty. In his famous work. Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century, Brzezinski argued that relativistic hedonism as the primary guide to life could not constitute any concrete social pillar of democracy; if a society does not abide by the principles of absolute certainty, but instead promotes self-satisfaction, then society will be in danger of disintegration.
Generally, spiritual civilization provides a moral source, intellectual support, and ideological guidance for material civilization. However, perhaps the more urgent issues root in the loss of moral and belief systems, regime legitimacy, national cohesion, social stability, and foreign political independence. Thinking ahead, we find that the corresponding cultural support has become a crucial condition for the modernization of a large country with cultural dependence. Hence, what kind of cultural support is needed in China’s modernization process, especially under the market economy? Apparently, the overall transplantation of Western culture or the persistence of traditional Chinese culture has proved to be inadequate in history. From this perspective, cultural modernization could be considered an urgent task for China. Fortunately, the third phase of a renaissance in the Confucian culture in China, and the overseas popularity of Confucian culture may provide us with an instructive inspiration for Chinese culture's modernization. In this regard, Du said:
Supposing we do not simply separate modernization from tradition but believe that the emergence of modernity and tradition can more or less shape its modern form. In this case, the modern transformation of the Confucian tradition and whether it can make creative responses to the sharp challenges raised by Western human rights doctrines will become a crucial point ... Therefore, we can further raise the question of whether modernization that has fully relied on Western leadership can generate different cultural forms in the future. In fact, it seems that modernity with East Asian characteristics has already emerged.
(Du, 1998, p. 63)
Since Western culture currently dominates world culture, it is necessary to learn from its outstanding elements. However, simply initiating dialogues with Western cultures remains insufficient for a comprehensive modernization of Chinese culture. Besides, China should modify its culture under the guidance of Marxism, combining the realities and trends of East Asian modernity and absorbing the essence of both traditional and overseas civilizations. Some scholars believe that East Asia's modernization process has fused to produce a new rationalist culture.
This new culture is different from Weber’s Christian rationalism which pursues rational control of the world and—different from Confucian rationalism— focuses on rational adaptation to the world. Theoretically, it embodies the spirit of science and humanity, which coordinates between individualism and holism and embraces the philosophy of natural harmony and natural selection, and it demonstrates the symbolic result of the integration between international and local cultures (Jiang, 1994).In addition, based on the consideration of national interests, some scholars suggested paying attention to four aspects in the process of cultural modernization: (1) enhancing national identity and strengthening Chinese consciousness to prevent national separatism, including highlighting the characteristics of Chinese culture and developing the universality and openness of Chinese consciousness; (2) strengthening social moral concepts and developing the humanistic spirit and benevolent principles of Confucianism to curb the growth of non-moralism and the excessive expansion of functionalism; (3) restoring the tradition of respect for knowledge in order to create conditions for the improvement of national strength in the future era of knowledge competition; and (4) further enhancing Chinese culture through the integration of ethnic cultures and absorption of foreign cultures to provide spiritual support for market economy and modernization (Yan, 1996). Evidently, China's national interests would benefit from a cultural modernization that meets the requirements of national economic development, political stability, and social progress.
At the same time, it should be noted that while China is mingling with the world’s culnire, its cultural sovereignty will inevitably conflict with the cultural hegemony of western powers. Globalization has resulted in the decline of sovereignty, especially in developing countries. Identity globalization (or cultural globalization) easily embeds the concepts of Western-oriented cultural identity in developing countries, endangering the latter's cultural sovereignty. To some extent, cultural sovereignty serves as the foundation of maintaining the legitimacy of a nation-state, and this function is even more significant for a large society centered on culture. According to overseas scholars, the Boxer Rebellion movement in the late Qing Dynasty in China was not so much a political struggle as a cultural resistance to protect its own culture from Western interference (Esherick, 1992). Of course, this desperate struggle against the West has both reasonable and conservative sides; it is these problems that caused great obstacles to China’s modernization. Moreover, we should also point out that the struggle of cultural sovereignty exists in varying degrees in almost all developing countries invaded by Western cultural imperialism, but sometimes the cultural content of these struggles is overshadowed by more prominent features in the political and economic field. In the 1970s, especially since the 1990s, economic globalization and the integration of the world economy promoted the formulation of a market economy as the mainstream trend of national economic development for all countries in the world. Meanwhile, western countries also implemented cultural hegemony strategies, intending to integrate national cultures around the world with Western cultural values, and established a single pattern of Western-style "political democratization, economic integration, and cultural westernization”. This was the last straw for developing countries, forcing them to defend their cultural sovereignty through various measures. However, due to the economic and political disadvantages of developing countries, as well as the huge impact from world technologies and civilizations, maintaining cultural sovereignty should rely not only on economic strength but also on the achievement of cultural modernization. Only in this way can national culture grow and critically learn from the rising global culture and better safeguard cultural sovereignty through innovation.3
Realizing China’s fundamental national interests requires facing the opportunities and challenges brought about by globalization. While culture can provide the necessary resources for China's rise, it can also fall into the trap of globalization.
The first cultural trap refers to a common problem of many developing countries, namely national nihilism. This view is based on the idea that, while opening to the outside world, people of the transitional society may suffer from cultural inferiority, leading to a complete denial of cultural traditions and providing gaps for the intervention of Western economic, consumer, and even political culture. This could, therefore, cause further rootlessness and disorder in Chinese society, which does not conform to the fundamental national interests of China.
The second cultural trap refers to the rise of aggressive cultural nationalism. Cultural nationalism has its advantages and disadvantages. It can play the role of an engine for national unity, state integration, and economic progress. Wang (1994) once said that "for political unification and cultural cohesion, normal nationalism is still an indispensable pillar of nation-building in contemporary China” (p. 198). However, one of the prerequisites of cultural nationalism is a sense of superiority of the country’s culture, and the improper handling in practice often adopts an attitude of exclusion to foreign cultures forming an arrogant cultural nationalism, which had a negative impact on modem Chinese history. For instance, the famous Chinese patriot Liang Qichao was an active cultural nationalism promoter in modern times. Levenson (1967) once pointed out one of his profound contradictions by saying that he knew that China's strength depends on introspection and criticism of its own culture, but nationalism requires his complete loyalty to national culture. Chinese historian and professor Xu Jilin also revealed, based on different values of modernization through the three stages of Liang Shinning's ideological development, that cultural nationalism would involuntarily move towards anti-modernization under certain circumstances (Qing, 1993). As far as the contemporary international environment is concerned, the promotion of cultural nationalism could become an excuse for contemptible forces to preach the “China Threat Theory” (Johnston, 1995), and the “Clash of Civilizations” may be a timely warning. China has lost too much for its arrogant cultural mentality of traditional Huaxia centralism, and if such thought were to be resurrected under the contemporary conditions of globalization, it would seriously harm China’s national interests.
The key to overcoming the above cultural traps may lie in cultural modernization. Through this process, China can bring forward the essence of its traditional culture, including the philosophy of “self-improvement”, the principle of etiquette, the patriotic spirit, the harmony of world societies, and the concept of peaceful development. This will help China to counter national cultural nihilism and thus promote national cohesion, political legitimacy, as well as economic and humanistic strength. Only by adopting cultural modernization can we eradicate historic feudal closure and backwardness, which still occasionally appear in various new forms such as: the hierarchical etiquette system of "consciousness of superiority and inferiority”; the privileged thinking of "punishments are not for nobles”; the national concept of “home-world”; the old-fashioned idea of "the sky is the same, the way is the same”; the xenophobia toward foreigners; and the blind self-image of being the "World Center”. Hence, China should completely get rid of the defects of outdated cultural clichés. This prevents them from being combined with conservative ideas from overseas that breed corruption, reform obstacles, and exclusivism, which can lead to a form of inappropriate nationalism. At present, the intellectual community should aim at the comprehensive rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the construction of a new socialist cultural innovative thinking system, and it should face the demanding cultural needs of the domestic market economy, pluralistic society, and democratic development. Meanwhile, China should also directly face the cultural challenges of foreign civilizations, global culture, and international systems, in order to achieve the gradual modernization of Chinese society, establish a reasonable modern Chinese political culture, and maximize the positive function of cultural factors for national interests.