China: Has the red carpet replaced the kowtow?

February 26, 2019 08:30
Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China offers the world not a unique civilization but a unique philosophy to solve its problems. Photo: Bloomberg

During the heyday of the Chinese empire, representatives of vassal states had to go through elaborate rituals, including the infamous kowtow procedure known as “three kneelings and nine prostrations” before being allowed into the imperial presence. The idea that there were other nations that were China’s equal was inconceivable because, outside of China, civilization itself was believed not to exist. What China offered was its civilization.

Nowadays, China accepts, at least notionally, that countries, big or small, should be equal. However, China doesn’t behave as if it is just one of almost 200 countries in the world today.

After it joined the United Nations in 1971, China questioned the universality of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This wasn’t without reason. Being one of the world’s poorest countries at the time, China – like other Asian countries – felt that the right to development had been overlooked.

In 1993, Asian countries meeting in Bangkok issued a declaration in which they supported the right to development as a universal right. A few months later, the World Conference on Human Rights adopted the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action in which all member states reaffirmed the right to development as “a universal and inalienable right and an integral part of fundamental human rights”. So, due in part to China’s actions, the concept of universal human rights was amended.

After China adopted the reform and opening up policy four decades ago, many people assumed that it would become westernized because modern countries almost by definition were western countries. But China insisted, and has now proved, that modernization is different from westernization.

Even where they use the same words, the Chinese don’t necessarily mean the same things. For example, on international law, which is meant to be binding on all nations, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared as early as 20l4 that China is not only a “staunch defender” but is in fact a “builder of the international rule of law”.

And yet, two years later when a United Nations tribunal issued a ruling against China on its South China Sea claims in a case brought by the Philippines, China refused to abide by that decision and insisted that the Philippines engage in bilateral negotiations with China.

Where Foreign Minister Wang took the moral high road in 2014 and railed against a situation where “the strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must”, in 2016 he insisted that the weak Philippine government must negotiate bilaterally with the much stronger Chinese government.

A contemporary example is China’s insistence that Canada has violated the law through its arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou because Meng has not broken any Canadian law. This charge seems to negate the entire international system of bilateral extradition agreements, of which China is part.

China today is admired by many for its successful transformation into the ranks of advanced countries in the short period of 40 years. It dazzles visitors with the world’s most developed network of high-speed trains, which it exports to developed and developing countries alike.

China also loudly proclaims its support for globalization in the face of a Trump administration that is disengaging itself from many of America’s global commitments. But, Prof. Grzegorz Ekiert of Harvard University pointed out last week in a talk at the University of Hong Kong, China is not speaking of western globalization but of Chinese globalization. Also, the internet, which it was originally thought would bind people with limitless free information, now divides the world, with China insisting on its own internet, separate from that of the rest of the world.

The old feudalist Chinese empire may be gone but in its place has emerged a newly energized 5,000-year-old civilization which is guided by “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, a new philosophy developed by China.

Xi Jinping, the leader of China, while addressing a Communist Party congress in October 2017, told the world what this means. Socialism with Chinese characteristics, Xi said, “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind”.

The days of kneelings and prostrations are gone. Today, China offers the world not a unique civilization but a unique philosophy to solve its problems. Foreign leaders seeking Chinese wisdom walk down a long red carpet at the end of which stands the Chinese president, ready to extend his hand in welcome.

China may no longer have an emperor, but its president still receives guests in imperial splendor.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.