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  • A Cloud across the Pacific: Essays on the Clash between Chinese and Western Political Theories Today
  • Sor-hoon Tan
A Cloud across the Pacific: Essays on the Clash between Chinese and Western Political Theories Today. By Thomas A. Metzger. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.Pp. xxviii + 816. Hardcover $65.00.

A Cloud Across the Pacific: Essays on the Clash between Chinese and Western Political Theories Today, an expanded version of Thomas Metzger's 1994 Ch'ien Mu Lectures, combines intellectual history with philosophy to examine the clash between two contemporary concepts of political rationality. The comparison of Chinese and Western political theories, which consist of "normative ideas about how to improve a society and revise its culture" (p. 1), is contextualized by the problem of U.S. China relations. Metzger contends that "the emergence of a peaceful, stable, constructive relation between China and the West, particularly the U.S., is in doubt today not so much because of any specific clash of national interests but because of a conflict between tradition rooted assumptions about how to deal with political disagreements in a rational, morally acceptable way" (p. xxiii). Metzger's point in emphasizing differences is not about the inevitability or intensification of international [End Page 420] conflicts, but that Americans would deal better with these differences, and therefore with China, if they understood them better (p. 772). This book is an admirable effort to make theoretical discussion relevant to real problems. Having spent considerable time in dialogue with the Chinese themselves, Metzger successfully articulates what he has learned in these dialogues in a way that hopefully will make sense to a Western intellectual public, even though its impact on U.S. foreign policy is much more in doubt.

According to Metzger, the meaning of a political theory is embedded in a specific political discourse, "a discussion carried on by a we-group agreeing that certain ideas are indisputable, sharing a sense of what the indisputably unresolved issues are, and arguing about how to address this agenda" (p. 77). To uncover how "indisputable" premises of the prevalent political discourses in China (Discourse 1) and the West (Discourse 2) work in their political theories and reveal their "epistemological failure," Metzger considers the theories of two sets of thinkers "exhibiting orientations widely shared" in their respective civilizations. The Chinese thinkers include the famous new Confucian T'ang Chün-i; prominent entrepreneur and scholar Henry Woo (Hong Kong's "Oswald Spengler"); scholars Kao Li-k'o and Li Qiang in the People's Republic of China; professor of psychology at National Taiwan University Yang Kuo-shu, who was trained in America and became Associate Director of the Academia Sinica (1996–2000); and Ambrose Y. C. King (Chin Yao-chi), vice-chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (2002–2004) and "possibly the scholar in the Chinese intellectual world with the deepest understanding of Western sociology" (p. 1).

These studies capture the diversity and complexity of Chinese responses to Western modernity, from the idealization of Western liberalism to a deep-rooted aspiration to "transcend the West," and the continuities and discontinuities of their thought with tradition. Metzger analyzes Discourse 2 via critiques of the political theories of John Dunn, whose work on Western political theory leans toward Marx's criticism of Western democracy and capitalism; Friedrich A. Hayek's defense of capitalism, now widely read and respected in China; and two of the most important twentieth-century philosophers of liberal democracy, John Rawls and Richard Rorty. Each study is fascinating reading as intellectual history with philosophical sensitivity to issues that Metzger has identified as critical to improving the two contemporary political discourses, in order to disperse that "cloud across the Pacific."

The two discourses mutually perceive each other as irrational and immoral because of their divergent premises. Discourse 1 views as abnormal the marginalization of China in the current world order while Discourse 2 considers the West the world's model civilization, and a U.S.-centric world order as right. In the former, the selfishness and insincerity of its citizens lies at the root of China's problems, which could be rectified by propagating the right kind of culture, while...