One of the more notable aspects of the recent events in Ukraine is the near total lack of Chinese involvement. This is a classic West vs ‘them’ issue and if anyone is in a position to play power-broker it would seem to be the Chinese.
And yet they apparently sit on the sidelines. By all appearances, at least, just watching.
Or not. While some Western policy pundits may attribute the lack of Chinese involvement to a calculated strategy of waiting until the dust settles, I actually sense that the Chinese simply aren’t interested. The media coverage here in China has been complete but minimal; less, it would seem, than the unrest in Thailand (China’s neighbor) or Alibaba’s U.S. IPO (China’s pride).
To me this is entirely fitting with the Chinese worldview. First of all, life is rough so a little friction is to be expected in these types of neighborly affairs. (See my post Foreign Policy – Friction is to be Expected; Current Events; March 28, 2014) This just isn’t the kind of skirmish that’s going to be all that newsworthy to the Chinese, who are, coincidentally or not, having their own neighborly dispute with Vietnam over territorial boundaries in the South China Sea.
Secondly, the Ukraine is a long way away both figuratively and literally. It’s outside their field of vision. They know it’s there, of course. The Chinese government follows world events just as closely as any other government.
But as noted before I really believe the Chinese have no aspirations for world influence. They merely want to be left alone.
Yes, they want the protection of a wide and deep moat around them. They want both peace and respect in the neighborhood and they’re not at all happy with the idea of the American military pivot, despite the U.S. assertion that it merely seeks to ‘uphold international law.’
And who can blame them in the end? This is a country that has not been historically well-served by foreign governments promoting trade or enabling opium addiction or otherwise pursuing their self-interest in the name of international law and order.
As much as anything else, however, I believe that the Chinese lack of desire to insert themselves into the Ukrainian drama is further proof of what I believe to be one of the great strengths and redeeming qualities of Chinese culture and one of its more intriguing ironies – a culture that is non-assimilative in every way but which accepts ethnic and cultural diversity in a way few other cultures do. (There are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups in China whose cultural rights are explicitly protected by the Chinese constitution.)
None of the ethnic groups involved – the Ukranians, the Crimeans, or the Russians – are Chinese. And they never will be. To the Chinese they are all foreigners. But because they are not Chinese and aren’t in any way doing anything that potentially threatens China or Chinese people I don’t believe the Chinese feel any sense of right to tell the parties involved what to do.
To the United States the concept of universal law, or international law, is both definable and absolute. To China it’s not. Like every aspect of the Chinese worldview, universal law – an impersonal institution if ever there was one – is largely relative, a balance of opposing forces seeking simple harmony. So while I have yet to hear any Chinese colleague take a position as to who is right and who is wrong in all of this secession and annexation business, they seem to universally agree that it’s not for them – or the U.S. – to say.
And here, I think, we see one of the fundamental differences between the American geo-political worldview and the Chinese geo-political worldview. American culture is built on inclusion and absolutes, as is expected in a culture whose philosophical foundation is deductively logical. Chinese culture, on the other hand, is not assimilative, but relative, as is logical for a culture built on a philosophical foundation of inductive reason.
And that difference plays out in very different ways when it comes to ethnic and racial diversity – as in ‘we and they’.
The U.S. is the very picture of diversity and absolutes. Everyone other than the relatively small minority of Native Americans is from someplace else. And its entire political system is built around the simple and absolute idea that all men are created equal.
Yet it struggles, as the firestorm surrounding one NBA owner currently reminds us, to actually embrace diversity. We’ve talked about it; we’ve legislated it; and many a leader has thrown his or her moral support behind it. Yet we still, by anyone’s measure, fall short.
And I’ve come to believe that part of the reason is that we cling to a version of diversity that emphasizes, first and foremost, assimilation. We embrace diversity, in other words, if it shares an acceptance of certain linear absolutes. It doesn’t have to look like us; it doesn’t even have to act like us; but we do want it to accept the deductive and absolute Western worldview – or at least critical elements of that worldview – as its own.
The Chinese, on the other hand, have no such expectations. To them I am a foreigner. I will always be a foreigner. I can live here for the rest of my life and learn to speak the language without an accent. I will still be a foreigner.
But somehow, I’ve come to realize, that’s okay to the Chinese I live among. They don’t expect me to look like them, act like them, or even accept their worldview. They expect me to be who I am – a foreigner.
The Western observer, of course, might conclude that because Chines culture is not assimilative, it is not inclusive, a conclusion that to the deductive mind might lead to the presumption of arrogance, even racism. They would be wrong. If you are willing to drop the presumption of linear cause and effect, non-assimilative and inclusive are not mutually exclusive.
If I don’t judge you I can still include you without the expectation that you will assimilate my belief system or worldview. I have only to accept that not every effect has a linear cause. If I can simply accept that you are you and I am me, we can get along just fine, even collaborate, without presumption of eventual homogeneity.
In essence, there are two conditions in which diversity works to unleash potential. The first is the condition of assimilation where differences are effectively prioritized and the willingness to homogenize those deemed fundamental and critical unleashes the power of collaborative effort. This is ‘The Great Melting Pot,’ a world in which ethnic minorities came together, pooled their talents, homogenized their worldview, and created the American Century.
And there is the diversity of acceptance; the acceptance that our differences can’t be assimilated or are not critical to our getting along or collaborating for mutual benefit; allowing us an equal chance to collaborate in the productive pursuit of mutual interest. This, I believe, is the diversity that will define, should it come to be, the Chinese Century.
I make no attempt to declare one framework superior to the other. As Confucius would surely note, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
I have to wonder, however, if the Chinese worldview isn’t ideally suited to the truly global village. While the Western powers have been busy wagging their collective fingers at President Putin for unilaterally moving the property line with his neighbor, the Chinese media was filled with images of Premier Li Keqiang traversing the continent of Africa, offering not the Chinese way of life or culture, nor to provide the military might to uphold international law in the region, but money and know-how in the simple but honest quest for harmonious economic development in the name of mutual self-interest.
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