On greatness: A philosopher’s letter to President Xi Jinping

Dear President Xi Jinping,

As Chinese New Year, with its promise of new beginnings, approaches, I write in sorrow at the tension that presently clouds the relationship between our two countries. I write as a private Australian citizen, one with no connection to government or political life, but also as a philosopher who has for many years championed Chinese tradition as a potential source of moral guidance for the modern world, particularly for the West.

In my search for clues as to how modern civilisation might reshape itself in response to the unprecedented dangers that now in the twenty-first century threaten our world, I have consistently drawn on Daoist thought — the indigenous philosophy of China. It is thus in the spirit of all those obscure, mountain-dwelling Daoist recluses to whom Chinese Emperors of old occasionally resorted, and whom I hold in such fond regard, that I venture to write to you today.

Your nation, already spectacularly resurgent, makes no secret of the fact that it is striving to become not merely a great power, which it manifestly already is, but a great superpower — perhaps the greatest, economically overtaking the United States and resuming its historical status as the Middle Kingdom, centre of world civilisation.

What makes a nation “great”?

What might this mean for a small country like Australia? It depends, I think, on the meaning of greatness. What is greatness, in a nation, an empire, a civilisation? Certainly, it is not a matter merely of brute force, the capacity of one nation to coerce other, weaker nations to do its bidding on pain of economic and perhaps other forms of annihilation. Yet this wolfish posture is one that China seems recently to have embraced in relation to Australia: do our bidding, Chinese officials seem to be saying to us, or we will crush you — we will cripple your economy.

Admittedly Australia has, over the past several decades, been foolishly short-sighted in allowing itself to become economically dependent on trade with China. But China’s new punitive demeanour towards Australia serves only to turn us away, driving us to seek other markets, other partners. The example China is presently making of Australia sends a shudder of fear but also of revulsion through many countries. If China perseveres in this coercive style it may lead ultimately to its isolation, at best to a Soviet Union style “power bloc”, a “bloc” of subordinate nations held together either by brute force or by indentured servitude rather than by loyalty or affinity. In such a bloc, each nation is merely waiting to break free as soon as the iron fist of its oppressor loses its grip. A bloc is not a civilisation. There never was a Soviet civilisation, for instance. Nor would the Third Reich ever have constituted a civilisation, even had Germany won the Second World War. Yet greatness in a nation, I would suggest, is indeed evidenced in the birth of a new civilisation, in the spontaneous uptake and spread of that civilisation across the nation’s immediate sphere of influence and beyond.

While such a new civilisation cannot be generated merely by force, nor can it result merely from economic inducements, from one nation’s offering other nations bald economic incentives to accept its rule — even when those incentives are on the scale of the Belt and Road Initiative. Economic incentives and investments are admittedly effective up to a point, but as soon as a client nation perceives its sovereignty to be at risk from economic indebtedness, as Australia is currently doing, resentment and resistance rapidly set in; loyalty is lost.

What makes for true greatness, the greatness that emanates in a distinctive civilisational flowering, is surely a different kind of power — the power of attractiveness. A great power must indeed have military and economic might, but in order to be truly great it must not coerce but attract other nations into its orbit. Such a capacity to attract is of course known in diplomatic circles as soft power. But soft power is generally understood as a matter of intent and strategy — it is comprised of interventions in foreign affairs that are deliberately designed to court the international community. Examples of such interventions perhaps include the BBC’s World Service and China’s network of Confucius Institutes.

True greatness may reside in something a little different from such merely strategic measures, however shrewd. I would suggest that it emanates from the way a nation influences others by its own example. We could call this a moral example, but it is not quite that either, though it will surely ultimately align with morality. The great nation influences others by means of its capacity to open up new registers of self-actualisation in its own society, in its own people, registers of self-actualisation that have hitherto been lacking in the world. These new possibilities of self-actualisation are such that when other nations witness them, they want them for themselves.

Even Europe in the nineteenth century, though resorting brutally to force in order to colonise large swathes of the world, brought something new to its colonies, something that could not fail to intrigue since it spoke to human potential, to new dimensions and possibilities of human experience, in the shape of science and the idea of liberalism — the great shaping ideas that emerged from the European Enlightenment. In the very midst of oppressing its colonies and ruthlessly extracting wealth from their populations and resources, Europe held out something that had never existed in the world before. Both science and the ideal of individual freedom demonstrably opened up entirely new registers of human self-actualisation.

For all the ambivalence that colonised societies felt about their own colonial histories, many of the nations that emerged post the period of European colonisation embraced these new possibilities, in part or in whole, of their own accord, in a process that became known as modernisation. This is as true of China as it is of so many other non-European nations.

The United States of America affords another example of greatness in this sense, the sense that I would call true greatness. America’s status as a super-power in the decades after the Second World War unquestionably rested on military and economic might, might which the United States has unfortunately not been above deploying in unwise, underhanded, and otherwise abusive ways outside its own borders.

But military and economic power were by no means alone the key to America’s status. It was American culture, unrivalled in its attractiveness, that entitled America to claim true greatness in the post-War decades. America’s cultural influence was not merely a strategic ploy devised by US agencies to appeal to other nations. This influence was rather the effect that America’s own culture, the culture that Americans created for themselves and that defined them as Americans, had on people looking in from the outside. Here was something that those people outside, exhausted by violence and horror after the Second World War, could take to heart — a mood of exuberance, a spirit of generosity and openness to external cultural influences, a sparkling verve that reached out particularly to youth all around the world, via popular music, cinema, media, even industry and technology, drawing people in magnetically.

In the sheer vibrancy of this new culture, people en masse sensed fresh and exciting possibilities for self-actualisation. Certainly, America exported its music, movies and so on, but it did not create its music industry, its movie industry, for export. The movies and music were in every sense home-grown. Yet for many societies, the American example was irresistible. “Selling” it was barely required. It was a gift, one that other people already wanted for themselves. There was in the vibrancy and openness of this culture a visceral sense of freedom, of unrepressed self-expression, that lent veracity to America’s more ideological posture as chief defender of freedom and justice in the world. It was surely only on account of this — its authentic gift to the world — that America’s use of its ideological posture to justify the exercise of its military might in a succession of disastrous regional wars was tolerated.

Under the spell of the American example, “Western” civilisation, with its origins in Europe on foundations of science and liberalism and its nineteenth-century Anglicisation by means of the British empire, became substantially Americanised. In this form the US has wielded a new and pervasive civilisational influence globally, albeit selectively and of course not without significant push-back. It is surely this civilisational influence which has earned it its title to greatness.

Currently, however, as we are all well aware, this title to greatness is unravelling. The grief and confusion that many Americans are in consequence experiencing enables political opportunists like Donald Trump to distort the nature of that erstwhile greatness. The “greatness” that Trump invoked through his slogan, “Make America Great Again”, was mere grandiosity and brute power, a power to be regained by exchanging the spirit that made America so attractive — its openness and generosity — for a surly hostility and stance of superiority to the outside world. Manifestly no longer a defender of freedom and justice either at home or abroad, the United States became, in the Trump era, America the Heartless, persecutor of refugees; America the Unjust, home of white supremacy; America the Faithless, betrayer of allies. America, land of the free, has degenerated into America, land of the merely unruly, land of deniers of self-evident truths, whether pertaining to pandemics, climate change or the outcome of an election.

In the mass psychosis unleashed by these reversals of its legitimate claims to greatness — a psychosis surreally acted out in the recent storming of the Capitol — we see that greatness is not merely a matter of rhetoric, but emanates from a genuine spiritual core with which a nation loses touch at its peril.

The retrieval of Dao

So what are the new possibilities for self-actualisation that China might, through its own example, offer to the world in this era of upheaval on so many fronts? Now that science and liberalism are wearing thin as an exclusive axis for civilisation, even in the West itself, and many nations are beginning to turn away from modernity as a marker of identity, back toward their own historical traditions — traditions that may nonetheless be of limited relevance in face of the unprecedented challenges of the twenty-first century — what new possibilities might China exemplify? What is currently most lacking in our collective capacity as humans to adapt civilisation to the needs of our time?

The answer would be clear, I think, to any Daoist sage wandering down from his or her mountain fastness into the choking fumes, the leafless concrete, and steel canyons, of any modern city. They would see modern society as having departed — drastically, shockingly – from Dao.

Dao, as I do not need to explain to you, is the great Way, the way that the world spontaneously regenerates itself when the Ten Thousand Things actualise themselves in concert with, rather than in opposition to, one another. It is the self-replenishing wellspring of new form when new form arises from never-ending processes of mutual accommodation among the old. Mutual accommodation is the Daoist key to cosmic regeneration. But modernity is premised on the opposite of this. Modernity is premised not on synergy with nature but on techno-mastery thereof. This mind-set of techno-mastery, which has now resulted in domination and destruction of Earth-life on a planetary scale, is rooted directly in an assumption of human/nature dualism that lies at the very root of the Western tradition.

Because this dualistic mind-set — which splits mind from matter, culture from nature, observer from observed, subject from object, atom from atom, fact from value — is endemic to the Western imagination, from whence it has been exported to the world at large by means of modernisation, the remedy for it does not lie in Western thought. But Dao, which is the very taproot of Chinese civilisation, as alive and formative in the workings of the Chinese mind today as it ever was, knows no such divide. It is because Dao, albeit invisibly, continues to shape the Chinese imagination that China exhibits its characteristic syncretic tendencies, its pragmatic disposition to accommodate new ideas as they present rather than contend with them, or suffer contention among them. It was surely this same Daoist mindset that enabled China to recruit Western science and technology, and implement modernisation, when the challenge arose, adapting itself to these new modes of self-actualisation.

But a danger has lurked in this latest phase of Chinese syncretism. In opening itself to science, and the project of techno-mastery that accompanies it, China risks killing the living shoot of Dao that has nourished its own openness, its wuwei readiness to adapt and absorb, where this wuwei readiness has surely been the secret of China’s longevity. Science, taken not merely as one knowledge-tool among others but as the very measure of reality, insists on its own truth and thereby over-rides the gentle syncretism of Dao.

This killing of Dao as wellspring of Chinese civilisation must not be allowed to happen. Dao can be retrieved, rescued from its present state of relative cultural oversight in China. Reinstated to its rightful place as root and guide, it can fully revision existing modes of production so that they, and the entire social and economic infrastructure they undergird, including agriculture, become compatible with the needs of the biosphere.

Many intimations of such a new paradigm of production are already to hand. In agriculture, philosophies such as those of permaculture, ecological agriculture, restorative agriculture, natural sequence farming, extensive as opposed to intensive farming, not to mention the older farming traditions of China itself, all represent ecologically-oriented challenges to modern modes of agribusiness. In manufacturing, design philosophies such as biomimicry and regenerative design are pointing the way towards methods that work with the grain of natural systems rather than against them.

But the detailed, creative application of explicitly Daoist principles across these fields promises a design revolution such as has not been witnessed since the first Industrial Revolution in the West. By thinking in this mode, which is the special province of Chinese culture, humanity could again find, as in olden days, synergy and synchrony with the natural environment. Ultimately, if applied to politics and international relations as well, synergy and synchrony amongst peoples and societies might also eventuate.

Such an ecological revision of the foundations of society might not at this moment appear to be a top priority for millions of Chinese still seeking prosperity through older modes of industrialisation that originated in the West. But it will speak directly to the longings and anxieties of young people around the world: such a capacity for ecological imagination is what their own societies most deeply lack. If China can develop ecological modes of self-actualisation among its own populace by adapting Daoist thought to the context of climate change, mass extinctions, and global pollution, then young people the world over will eagerly follow the Chinese example, and a new eco-Daoist civilisation will spontaneously spread. China’s greatness will be warmly acknowledged and embraced.

Among its own people, the pride in national identity that is presently taking alienating, wolfish, and surely ultimately self-defeating forms will be reinvested in the new, eco-Daoist modes of self-actualisation that will by then have become widely acclaimed and taken up around the world. With such reinvestment, Chinese people might indeed become ready give ecological goals precedence over other priorities.

The fate of the biosphere is bound up with the way China chooses to design its industrial rise in the twenty-first century. Happily, China has, uniquely, at the very roots of its own tradition, the philosophical resources to meet this unprecedented challenge. It can devise authentic forms of civilisation that the world desperately needs and that younger generations worldwide desperately want. If China can meet this need, such younger generations will not hesitate to become Sinicised, to make these forms of civilisation their own, just as earlier generations of young people did not hesitate to become Americanised. China will be acknowledged again as the Middle Kingdom, not out of fear or servility but out of gratitude. And the only wolves in sight will be those that will have returned to their mountainous home ranges to live in peace amongst the Daoist sages.

May China indeed achieve its true and proper greatness. Such greatness will not, of course, place it above criticism. Greatness brings great challenges, great responsibilities, and hence great risks of error: the great nation therefore depends upon its critics to alert it to its mistakes. But it may expect such criticism to be delivered with supreme courtesy and tact, with a respect commensurate with the degree to which its influence has enlarged the world. True greatness effortlessly earns such respect.

With deepest sincerity and faith in Chinese wisdom,

Freya Mathews/ Ma Feiya


This article was originally published on ABC Religion & Ethics on 5 February 2021.

Image by zhugher from Pixabay