April 02, 2005

On Sinocentrism

Dale Franks at QandO has a well-informed piece on the threat to taiwan posed by China and the threats the Chinese are making. I think I can offer some perspective to his final question: "The Chinese are doing a lot of saber-rattling, and it behooves us to ask, is it because they are confident? Or just overconfident?"

The answer, like most things about Asian society, is historical, traditional and nuanced. Unlike the Western history we know - that of decentralized powers disputing hegemony of trade, colonies and theology, Asia was for the longest time dominated by China.

The West can be characterized, pre-WWII, as a collection of different spheres of influence. They expand and contract as empires rise and crumble. At one point Portugal and Spain are ascendant, then suddenly everybody's watching France and England. Of course now the US is heavily dominant not just in the West but everywhere, but the Western mindset is historically used to the idea of something like shifting balances.

In Asia, international relations was characterized by behavior toward China. Sitting in the geographic, linguistic and cultural center to much of the Asian world, Chinese norms set the tone for the rest of the world. The world was defined in Asia by a state's distance from and connection to the Chinese Empire. One anecdote is that, despite the many wars fought between the Chinese and Vietnamese in history, supposedly the Vietnamese leader always went to the Chinese Emperor afterwards and paid homage - even when Vietnam won and retained its independence. I'm not certain of the veracity of this anecdote, but it certainly displays the attitude of intra-Asian relations for centuries.

It all changed after Western colonialism started, of course. But the old habits die hard - especially considering the motivating organizational principle is still based on Confucius (a man that died 2,500 years ago). Part of the Sinocentrism (Chinese-centrism) in Asian intra-relations was more or less imperial arrogance on the part of the Chinese Emperor. After all, he was essentially deified, and so was his country; it was only natural that the center of their world would come with a presumption of supremacy.

Of course, it's more than just Sinocentrism. Asian society for a long time has had a great deal of rules about how and when to interact with others, about the hierarchy of power, the hierarchy of society, and the hierarchy of employment. Chinese leaders follow the imperial example and place themselves at the top of the hierarchy. When the US and Chinese planes bonked into each other (by the way, it was China's fault) the Chinese demanded an apology. This is similar to, say, an ancient tyrant-King who might bump into a servant but demand an apology anyway. The apology is not about expressing condolences or regret; it's about establishing the hierarchy.

My recommendation is screw hierarchy. The Chinese oughtn't be coddled in their delusion that they can dictate events to Asia or to the world. This isn't an ancient dynasty. This is the 21st century and that imperial arrogance garbage is really tired.

Whenever China starts getting uppity, mean or threatening, it's rooted in Asian history - both Sinocentrism and Asian historical relations generally. We ought to recognize the history - and then defy it.


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