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  • How Serious Is the Divergence between Western Liberalism and the Political Logic of Chinese Civilization?
  • Thomas A. Metzger (bio)
Stephen C. Angle. Human Rights and Chinese Thought: A Cross-Cultural Inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 304 pp. Paperback $25.95, ISBN 0–521–00752–6. Hardcover $75.00, ISBN 0–521–80971–1.

The Divergence between Leading Chinese and Western Political Orientations

The currently rising tide of Muslim hostility to the doings of the United States and its allies has various causes and was not necessarily inevitable, but it cannot but make one take seriously Samuel P. Huntington’s seminal book about the persisting divergences between the world’s major cultural complexes. Conversely, it cannot but make one react with some sadness and skepticism to the title of Alex Inkeles’ 1998 book, One World Emerging: Convergence and Divergence in Industrial Societies.1

To be sure, the patterns of global convergence that Inkeles so solidly analyzed are important, and Huntington’s work is flawed, especially because it neglects the major contrast between Muslim and the Chinese attitudes toward Western modernity. Grave doubts about the West have arisen in China too, but there is no Chinese parallel to the basic Muslim concept of the West as a realm of infidels. The mainstream Chinese tendencies have instead wavered between a call for total Westernization and a search for the ideal synthesis of Chinese and Western values (huitong dongxi).2 China is a dynamic civilization, the modern transformation of which has to a large extent been motivated by a desire to emulate the West’s “Promethean” modernity, as Benjamin I. Schwartz might have put it. Is there any student of Muslim civilization who would venture a similar generalization about the latter?

Indeed, I would emphasize that the Chinese world, unlike the Muslim, shares a crucial characteristic with Western modernity: a tradition-rooted tendency toward the radical criticism and revision of inherited cultural patterns, including the rise in modern times of iconoclastic movements challenging the authority of the sacred canon and reorganizing some of the most fundamental human relations, such as those based on gender. As an “axial” civilization including not only the unique heritage of a strongly unaristocratic, universalistic method for the recruitment of elites but also a built-in, radical sense of dissatisfaction with current institutions, customs, [End Page 1] and intellectual trends,3 China has much more in common with Western modernity than any culture bound to the immutable authority of a traditional sacred canon.

To be sure, not only religious fundamentalism but also an excessively iconoclastic perspective on the inherited culture can lead to trouble. Given the Burkean need for social coherence, some kind of balance between traditionalism and iconoclasm seems necessary. Yet I would argue that it is only those cultures with some basic commitment to the open-ended criticism and revision of inherited patterns that deserve to be put into the category so central to J. S. Mill’s “On Liberty”: “civilization.” From this standpoint, China’s culture and Western liberal modernity are both civilized and so have much in common. After all, despite its horrible aspects, Mao’s revolution grew out of the deep-rooted, widespread Chinese determination to “restructure” (gai zao) Chinese culture, to create a “New China.”4 As opposed to the fashionable theory that all of humanity has a rational tendency to seek the freedom epitomized by the American way of life, I would agree with Mill that some societies are “civilized” and others are not, and that the former are the ones ready to pursue the institutionalization of political freedom.

Nevertheless, whatever the affinities between Chinese and Western civilization, the spectrum of contemporary Chinese political philosophies continues to diverge from that of liberal political theories in the West. Most obviously, the Chinese ideological marketplace today mixes a Chinese form of liberalism with other, distinctly different political traditions, especially Chinese Marxism and modern Confucian humanism,5 while all the leading political ideologies in the West are strands of the liberal tradition, such as communitarianism, the New Left, neoconservatism, and libertarianism. One therefore cannot but seek a more precise understanding of the divergence between Chinese and Western conceptualizations of political life and of the ways...