AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 421

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Session 421: “Chinese Characteristics” versus “Universal Values”: A Great Debate

Organizer: Yinghong Cheng, Delaware State University, USA

Chair: Edward Friedman, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

Discussant: Edward Friedman, University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA

In the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the year 2008 witnessed a great debate in China called “Chinese characteristics versus universal values”. It started with a liberal weekly’s editorial, exalting the phenomenal change in the attitude towards human lives in China as the whole nation devoted to the relief efforts after the powerful earthquake in Sichuan. “The earthquake in Wenchuan has created a new China”, it hailed, and “our government is committed to the universal values!” The editorial caused ideological aftershocks in the old and new left and self-claimed patriots who questioned the political agenda behind this exaltation. As the discussion rapidly involved people of many professions, the party claimed that while whether the so-called “universal values” were really “universal” or merely “Western” still remained a question, what was certain was that the “Chinese characteristics” had been and would remain the nation’s safeguard on its road to a world power. The debate continued to evolve and prepared the ground for the famous “Charter 2008”, now seen by many as the charter for China’s “color revolution”. The debate also has involved the CCP politics and Wen Jiabao, the premier, has faced criticism of advocating "universal values" in 2010. Why did a philosophically-sounding discussion matter so much ideologically and eventually politically? Was it new or recurring in Chinese history? How did ordinary Chinese—at least part of them--respond to it? If the official claim—“Chinese characteristics above universal values”—becomes a viable ideological guideline for a “rising China”, what then will that mean to the world? The panel discusses these questions from multi-disciplinary approaches, including philosophy, history, media studies, and international relations studies. The organizer will briefly introduce the debate in China, followed by 4 presentations, and the discussant will comment from a global perspective.

Introduction “Chinese Characteristics” versus “Universal Values”: A Great Debate
Yinghong Cheng, Delaware State University, USA

The presentation mainly introduces the origin and background of the debate, the main arguments and points of view involved in it, its relationship with the CCP party politics, how it is connected with China's perception of its role in the world, and what type of ideological implication it has to China's democratic transformation.

From Universalism to “Particular National Situation”: What's behind CCP’s Shifting Position?
Chongyi Feng, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

This presentation analyses the CCP's moral and ideological dilemma with a focus on its shifting position on the so-called “particularity of China”. Originally the Chinese communists were unversalists who rejected their various rivals’ arguments about Chinese "particular national situation" in order to justify their belief in and application of Marxism in China. In those revolutionary years there was genuine rigor in their intellectual exploration, in spite of Marxist-Leninist dogmatism. The recent embracement of the concept of "Chinese characteristics" and attacks on the “universal values” by the CCP, however, indicate that the CCP has abandoned its universalist position altogether to justify its monopoly of political power in a cynical manner. Whether this effort will succeed in establishing an enduring political ideology for a “rising China” under the CCP or otherwise quickly vanish into oblivion, just as countless ideological catchphrases before it, will determine the type of China as a new world power.

How China Stands Up: the Critique of Chinese Historicism
David A Kelly, University of Technology, Sydney, China

The paper will focus on the defection from the enlightenment camp of the writer Moluo, whose best-selling 2010 book China Stands Up denounces universal values, and Xu Jilin’s treatment of his “turnaround” as representative of an upsurge of historicism. For “Chinese values” or a “China model” to be advanced as alternative sources of global norms faces great problems, but is, for a variety of reasons, as attractive to some Western writers as it is to Chinese. Among other advantages, historicism in its Chinese form provides independent validation of the CCP’s favoured themes of collective truth and collective freedom. Xu’s application of “historicism” as a descriptor invokes an intellectual current of the nineteenth century, closely linked to Germany’s “peaceful rise.” It was held that no objective law, transcendent will or universal human nature existed behind history. All values belong to a specific historical world, a given culture, civilization or national spirit. Value is justified, and can be measured only from the perspective of nation-states, which are “individuals writ large.” In Chinese historicist discourse, according to Xu, “…the artillery fire of their critique of the West is aimed, not at the Machiavellianism of becoming rich and powerful – which they in fact regard with awe – but at the Enlightenment values of freedom and democracy." As China continues to rise, will more people like Moluo abandon the enlightenment values of freedom and rationality? What if anything can be done in response?

The Chinese Perception of “Universal Values”: An Overseas Media Perspective
Yan Chen, Independent Scholar, France

This presentation takes a media studies perspective to examine the debate on Chinese characteristics versus universal values. As a reporter/editor of French Radio International’s Chinese Service, I have observed our Chinese listeners’ responses to a number of controversial events involving China’s nationalism in reaction to what they perceived as “international interference into Chinese domestic affairs”, such as Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and human-rights issues. They often argue that national sovereignty and territorial integrity are the absolute universal values above everything. If France supports Tibetan separation movement or Taiwanese independence, then why not China supports Corsica’s separation from France? That is “eye for eye”. But the irony is that concepts such as “national sovereignty and territorial integrity” are European originated, but now, especially with the EU, they are far less sentimentally arousing as they were in public discussions, whereas human rights has been held as universally applicable. I think such cases show a breakdown in a discussion that supposedly bridges China and the world: many Chinese use Western-originated ideas to defend China’s nationalist claims against the West, but in the West, such claims have often given ways to more individually-oriented humanitarian concerns.