In 2013, the Japanese philosopher Jun Yonaha published a provocative best-seller book and a slew of articles on the Sinicization of Japan. His thesis is that 900 years ago, Song Dynasty China established a Sinicized global powerhouse system incorporating free markets and a system of absolute imperial rule, all united in ideological orthodoxy by a meritocratically selected Neo-Confucianist civil service.

Yonaha also describes a Westernized pluralistic system of capitalism, representative democracy, rights and equality that grew out of early modern Europe, which later dominated the globe and modernized Japan. But he insists that with the decline of Western economic power and influence and the rise of China, its Sinitic model is returning to the center of global power again. Rather than oppose this, Japan ought to reflect on the failures of its Westernization and re-Sinicize. China and Japan should cooperate to create a new history, resolve their mutual problems, and adopt the best aspects of both Western and Chinese political ideas, Yonaha says.

It’s been suggested that Yonaha’s broad civilizational thesis is only half serious. Anyway, the notion that there are distinct, long-standing civilizational copyrights on beliefs, technologies, practices and ideas is rather strained. Song Dynasty technological and cultural innovations like gunpowder, movable-type printing and comprehensive civil service examinations have all become domesticated, indigenized and “owned” in other societies. And if anyone told Taiwan or Hong Kong citizens that their cherished civil liberties are Westernized products, surely they would reply, “but they’re ours, too.”

Moreover, the Sinicization originating from the actually rather pluralistic, lightly governed Southern Song Dynasty is very different from the Sinicization of the powerful carceral-surveillance state evolving under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s autocracy today. The Uighurs in Xinjiang Province would be the first to testify what that Sinicization means.

Progressive liberals like me who are horrified by worsening human rights violations under the Chinese Communist Party will reject Yonaha’s thesis. However, as superpower competition between the United States and China escalates in East Asia and elsewhere, is supporting U.S. President Donald Trump’s incoherent, divisive Western foreign policy the only alternative?

I’ve wondered whether the ideas of the post-1945 “Cold War liberals” may provide guidance for progressives who reject talk of a civilizational clash between a Trump-led West and a Xi-led China. Making allowance for very different global conditions today, Cold War liberal ideas may be up to that job.

Who were the Cold War liberals? The most famous of them — Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt — were emigre European intellectuals who had witnessed communist or Nazi persecutions. All wrote powerful dissections of Nazi and communist totalitarian ideology between the 1940s and 1970s, albeit from different philosophical perspectives. They would have recognized the totalitarian intent in the bureaucracy of repression reaching to the most intimate spheres of Uighur life in Xinjiang today. They would have recognized its potential to creep laterally into the lives of other Chinese citizens.

For progressives, these philosophers can be attractive because they were not uncritical shills for liberalism, capitalism or Western civilization. Arendt located one origin point for modern racism in the bureaucracies of liberal British imperialism, and elsewhere decried postwar anticommunist paranoia as a threat to American freedoms. Berlin, a theorist of liberty, understood that individual liberty meant little to those who were poor, deprived of adequate health care and vulnerable to economic exploitation, and that this could be remedied by democratically negotiating trade-offs between values of liberty and equality. Popper criticized “unrestrained capitalism” and its “unlimited economic power” warning that the economic exploitation of the weak under such capitalism was almost as dangerous to liberal freedoms as physical violence.

Still, the Cold War intellectuals are not a wholly satisfactory model for progressive critics of the CCP today. The communist regimes so familiar to Arendt, Popper and Berlin subjected their citizens to famines, impoverishment, massacre, arbitrary incarcerations, indoctrination and terrifying mass mobilizations against internal “enemies.” Stalinism and Maoism immiserated hundreds of millions of people.

In contrast, since the CCP commenced market reforms in the 1980s, it has lifted 850 million Chinese people out of poverty, created a middle class that numbers half a billion people today, and given the majority of Chinese people personal (if not political) freedoms unimaginable under Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule. From these reforms, and from nearly 40 years of uninterrupted peace, the CCP now enjoys high levels of public trust and legitimacy.

An enriched China today is also obviously far more invested in the global trade, financial and information systems than the economically self-contained communist regimes and blocs of the past. China now holds over $1 trillion of American sovereign debt, though more for its potential as an economic security hedge than for geopolitical leverage. It is Japan’s largest trading partner, and the United States’ and the European Union’s second-largest trading partner, while its trade with Australia has powered the latter’s decades-long economic boom.

These high levels of economic, financial and intellectual integration not only drive up the potential costs of an all-out trade or cold war, notwithstanding genuine American concerns about illicit technology transfer, copyright violations and China’s growing military power. Governments in smaller nations monitoring China’s growing geopolitical ambitions, and confronting evidence of CCP United Front influence operations within their civil societies, are having to debate the economic costs of standing up to China. Such debate has generated sharp divisions within political and business elites. By contrast, the 20th century Cold War compelled simpler geopolitical choices and ideologically unifying alliances among liberal democracies against communist regimes.

Yet the thought of the Cold War liberal thinkers, tempered by contemporary realities, can guide today’s progressive critics of the CCP in some ways. First, dreams by White House advisers of a West-defined regime change should be opposed, especially since they feed CCP narratives of the West plotting its collapse after the pattern of the Soviet Union’s fall. Those narratives are dominant in China today, where the constituency for self-determined liberal political reform has snuffed out. Instead, most citizens value continued economic stability under the status quo over the uncertainties of regime change.

Berlin recognized that it was conceivable for undemocratic government — under, say, an enlightened autocrat — to protect liberal freedoms, though even this hypothetical system seems unlikely for China today. International human rights organizations working with Chinese activists face daunting odds resisting further erosions of basic freedoms of expression, association and religion under Xi’s personalized autocracy. The Chinese people may one day mobilize for liberal democracy, embracing as their own the ideals of Charter ’08 and Popper’s “Open Society.” But until that day, human rights triage should take priority.

Second, talk of a civilizational struggle between the liberal West and China, defined by primordial cultural differences, is a dangerous illusion. Arendt would have pointed out that civilizational “China threat” rhetoric could enable ideologues to paper over or even justify the erosion of liberal freedoms, as a means to furthering that struggle. Open Society advocates regard the development of economic oligarchies and IT monopolies in liberal democracies as equally grave threats to those freedoms.

Finally, we can take our cue from Berlin in recognizing the claims of cultural diversity between nations and the common intellectual heritage of much scientific, economic and political thought circulating between them, including the European romantic nationalist roots of distinctions between a Confucian-meritocratic Chinese culture and a liberal-individualist Western culture.

Third, the political, business and academic elites in nations that have cultivated profitable trade relations with China must be publicly honest about the compromises to liberal-democratic values an autocratic CCP government requires for its national interests. If the liberties of exiled Chinese dissidents, ethnic Chinese migrants, academics and national sovereignty itself are infringed by United Front operations, should this be quietly acquiesced to if speaking out provokes a backlash that threatens economic prosperity? Should governments also be mute about China’s human rights violations? As Berlin would have remarked, here these elites face a problem of conflict, or even incommensurability between values.

There is one final pressing values question confronting nations such as Japan, America and Australia. Suppose the citizens of Taiwan continue to signal their preference for their democratic sovereignty and liberties over the much-vaunted economic prosperity promised by reunification with China. If China threatens a forced reunification with its “renegade province,” these liberal democracies should contemplate whether that is the red line triggering collective defense of their values.

Shaun O’Dwyer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at Kyushu University. His book “Confucianism’s Prospects” will be published in August.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.