For Rising China, Taoist And Confucianist Wisdom Should Inspire Positive Global Leadership

President Obama has signaled in recent days that he will be confronting China much more on its global policies. But China is on the rise as the premier economic global power, even as America is on the decline, and it remains to be seen what kind of confrontation could be effective. Will China’s rise actually be good news for the world? This will depend on how China rises, and it will be wise to challenge China on its humanitarian impact every bit as much as on its economic impact globally. Let’s look at one example.

Burma has one of the worst governments in the world, a place where citizens live in terror. The military junta seized power when Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won 392 of the 492 seats in Parliament. It does not fully control the Hill Country on the west and east sides of the country, inhabited by ethnic groups including the Chins, Kachins, Shan and others. These groups have had violent clashes with the junta government. The Kachins worked out a truce agreement in 1994 that has held for 16 years. Burma is a mostly Buddhist culture, but extensive Christian missionary activity there generations ago created enclaves of Christian groups in the Hill Country. The Kachin people on the Burmese/Chinese border constitute one such group. They apparently have good relations with their Buddhist neighbors, and the Kachin have successfully practiced mediation skills with the government in working out a written truce in 1994. They could use these skills with the new government after the elections on Nov. 7.

There are signs, however, of a serious junta assault on these Hill peoples, and China may be actively cooperating by cutting off escape routes. Why? It may be because China does a fabulous business in Burma, while other nations shun the Burmese military on principle. China is extracting jade, gold and timber to feed their own enormous business machine. Are there any principles behind China’s global foreign policies except profits, because if there are, they seem hard to discern.

To me as a student of philosophy and conflict resolution theory, this is especially strange. In a recent book, I argue that it is precisely the great wisdom traditions of China that the West needs to learn in order to form a more complete and effective global ethic of engagement with each other, with states and with the earth itself. There are wonderful spiritual virtues from Western religious traditions that have played an active role in the foundations of democracy, human rights and international law. And yet Taoism and Confucianism have unique ethical and spiritual assets, and each system in its own way inculcates harmony, balance, honor and moderation in our dealings with each other as a global community. These Chinese virtues can support efforts to practice peaceful conflict transformation, mediation and can build community among the people of Burma/Myanmar, if only China would truly rise to its role as global leader.

If China is to emerge as a global leader — not a global spoiler and not a global economic dictator — it will have to dig deeper into its noble cultural moorings. China will have to incorporate the genius of Confucius and Lao Tze if it wants its global emergence to generate admiration, not resentment. China is exploding right now with more economic power than any other nation on the planet. But for the sake of its own identity and for the rest of us, it would be wise for its emergence to be based on a better balance of principle with profit.

Speaking from inside an American nation in serious trouble, and as a student of nations that lose their soul to greed, aggression and bad relations, I can say without a doubt that China’s great age of prosperity and power will either be shortened by moral indifference or greatly lengthened by the visionary greatness of its extraordinary ancient philosophers.

We live in an interdependent planet where it is only our collective wisdom that will guarantee our survival and prosperity. Ethnic enclaves in a Buddhist culture constitute good opportunities for inter-cultural and interfaith cooperation. For this to happen we need China to open a conversation with the ethnic groups, with Baptist communities, with Buddhist leaders and with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. Moments and places of tension such as in this small province can either be flashpoints of inter-civilizational conflict or opportunities for new relationships. It is time for China to see its greatness not just economically but as a positive cultural force on a global scale.

© Marc Gopin