A long time ago, it was customary for representatives of states to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor, who “ruled all under heaven.” The tributary system, as it was known, “acknowledged” China’s place at the center of everything. From a Chinese perspective, everything outside China was lower in the hierarchy.
For a number of reasons, including politics and geography, China lost steam around the time that Europe, led by Britain, embarked on the Industrial Revolution. Warlordism and colonialism ensured that for the next 200 years or so, China would stay behind while the West, and then Japan, modernized.
This period turned into an existential wound for the Chinese, and in it lie the seeds of its behavior as it rises anew. Nationalism is not enough to explain the sense of exceptionalism that characterizes the Chinese leadership’s view of itself. Something more, something fundamental, perhaps stemming from its thousands of years as a civilization, is behind this.
Whenever Beijing claims that the actions of others are “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” it taps into that feeling of Chinese greatness.
The modern age, however, cannot easily accommodate the tributary system of old that Beijing seems keen on resuscitating. For one, the world has transformed and, in theory, if not application, the global system is no longer regulated by a hierarchy based on biology or theology — in other words, no “race” is paramount and no head of state is godlike.
This raises questions about the willingness of many heads of state to countenance Chinese exceptionalism, which is giving rise to a neo-tributary system on a global scale. Rather than treat China as an equal, states bend over backwards to avoid “angering” it, and in so doing encourage more childishness.
For obvious reasons, China should be embraced as a major developing nation and given a place at the table that is commensurate with its importance. It is in no one’s interest, however, to inflate Beijing’s sense of importance. What China needs as it continues its rise is a degree of humility, but this will only develop if other nations maintain their dignity.
When US President Barack Obama gives Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama the cold shoulder (the first time since 1991 that a US president will not meet the spiritual leader while he is in Washington) lest meeting him anger Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) ahead of the Obama-Hu meeting next month, it sends the wrong signal. If there is one place where the president of the most powerful country in the world should do as he chooses, it is on US soil.
The same could be said of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who snubbed the Dalai Lama during his trip to Taiwan last month, or of Taiwan’s — and now perhaps New Zealand’s — refusal to allow Uighur rights activist Rebiya Kadeer to visit.
China’s rise is extraordinary, if not unprecedented. But there is nothing supernatural about it, nor is it a symbol of superiority — Han Chinese chauvinism notwithstanding. China’s rise also comes at great cost: grave human rights violations, environmental degradation and support for repressive regimes.
The more accommodating the world is to Beijing’s sense of superiority, and the more it tries not to anger China, the greater China’s tendency will be to regard itself as above criticism.
There is no reason why Obama should not meet the Dalai Lama. Unless he, too, is willing to kowtow before the Chinese emperor.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has created a dilemma that could soon cause him to be hoisted with his own petard, bringing his leadership of China to an end. His threatening rhetoric over the unification of Taiwan with China, in which he has said, “we are willing to draw blood if necessary,” has placed Xi in a corner. Xi is portrayed as a strong world leader, yet he has created a scenario for himself that most likely would have an unfavorable outcome. With the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) scheduled to convene this month, Xi cannot
The 77th session of the UN General Assembly opened on Sept. 13. More than 10 overseas Taiwanese organizations had submitted a petition to the UN secretary-general, protesting that 23.5 million Taiwanese are excluded from representation. As president of the Taiwan United Nations Alliance, I also submitted a letter to the UN, saying that Taiwanese should have the right to be represented under the name of Taiwan. The government has been asking its allies to support Taiwan’s entry into the UN, but under its official name, the Republic of China (ROC). Doing so would have involved the right to represent China, with
I was privileged to meet with many of Taiwan’s leaders and leading thinkers during a study tour visit in August. One theme I heard several times during that trip was that bad relations between the United States and China benefit Taiwan. At first thought, I empathize with the argument. After all, there is a troubling record of America’s leaders negotiating with Beijing over the heads of Taiwan’s leaders. For example, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt returned Taiwan to China after World War II. President Richard Nixon surprised Taiwan leaders with his 1972 trip to China. President Jimmy Carter unilaterally chose to normalize
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