To a great extent, modern societies must operate on the assumption that people are rational and self-interested individuals. However, human beings are not only rational and self-interested. The passions that build up within us accumulate day by day like water in a dam and these passions are inevitable, necessary and dangerous elements within the political sphere. A key to the success of a democratic society is to leverage the political system to guide and shape the passions that occupy people’s hearts. The Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) dispute has ignited some people’s passions and we need to be clear about the nature of these passions.
In a well-organized democracy, everyone has the right to take part in political affairs so they can help determine the policies that affect their interests. We do this because we are driven by our self-interest and we worry that we may be treated unfairly in some way when other people make decisions. As time goes on, a tacit understanding forms not to harm others. In a well-functioning democracy, once this tacit understanding engendered by mutual benefits becomes habitual, with the guarantees afforded by such a system, this understanding will start to shape the temperaments and passions of every citizen. A shared sympathy will emerge between people and this sympathy will serve as the basis for national solidarity.
As long as this solidarity takes root, whenever any citizen gets hurt — regardless of whether the damage has come from domestic or external oppression — each citizen will feel as though they have been personally hurt. Citizens will then be driven to stand up for each other because they will be unable to bear seeing any member of their group being hurt. In a well-functioning democracy, a sense of solidarity and fairness go hand-in-hand.
There is an essential difference between two types of national solidarity: One is the democratic solidarity previously elaborated and the other is what we may call solidarity gained from territorial possession. There may be a deep investment in a marginalized place where nobody resides, in which people’s sense of dignity is at stake. This form of solidarity in no way allows any separation, or the involvement of other countries in that territory. Such territorially possessive solidarity is not concerned about whether people suffer injustice or pain; it is not based on sympathy. Rather, it is based on a concern over whether what they believe belongs to the nation has been taken away from them, which can damage their self-esteem.
Such possessive solidarity builds self-esteem on the possession of a certain thing. If democratic solidarity originates through instituting equal rights among citizens, territorially possessive solidarity comes from its advocates’ identification with an abstract territory. Democratic solidarity places people over territory and holds that land must follow the people; by contrast, territorial possessive solidarity places more emphasis on territory than people and maintains that people cannot split up the land.
Because the Diaoyutais do not have any inhabitants who can be hurt, the people who share democratic solidarity have no object to sympathize with and have no real passion for the issue. Therefore, the reactions surrounding the Diaoyutais dispute have been the result of territorially possessive solidarity instead of democratic solidarity. Of course, the Diaoyutais issue indeed involves conflicts concerning geopolitics and natural resources and if we look at things from these instrumental interests, we will be able to see that people living in democratic societies are prepared to handle things in a rational manner instead of being consumed by their passions.