China's 'Harmonious World' in the Era of the Rising East

By Richard E. Poole
2014, Vol. 6 No. 10 | pg. 3/4 |

What's more, not only do the disparities between the Chinese leadership's practices and understanding of 'harmony' differ domestically and internationally, but the variety of meanings and interpretations of 'harmony' in classical Chinese texts also provides an opportunity to explore its strategic ambiguity (Delury 2008).

For instance, well-known Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang has provided a powerful perspective that extends the idea of 'harmony' as a Chinese-led world order. Building upon the national appeal to traditional Chinese foundations and the revival of Confucian concepts, Zhao rethinks an equally sino-historical notion of 'Tianxia' or 'All-under-Heaven' for a new age of globality in his works (Tingyang 2006; Tingyang 2011).

Unlike Hu's official vision, Zhao argues for the creation of a world institution or world government based upon Chinese ideas and principles to replace the ills of the 'western' global governance model.

Unlike Hu's official vision, Zhao argues for the creation of a world institution or world government based upon Chinese ideas and principles to replace the ills of the 'western' global governance model (Tingyang 2011, p. 30-32). Yet, in support of Hu's 'harmony,' Zhao insists that this is not a hegemonic process, but one in which the world is viewed as one family; where this 'oneness' shows itself in all the world's diversities (Tingyang 2011, p. 30).

Conversely however, Barbantseva and Callahan have noted that Zhao's ideas may in fact suggest a new form of empire or hegemony with China placed at its centre (Barbantseva 2009; Callahan 2008; Callahan 2011c).

Indeed, the fact that Zhao believes that "all political levels… should be essentially homogenous or homological so as to create a harmonious system" may support these scholars' conclusions (Tingyang 2006; p. 33). In sum, Zhao's 'Tianxia' may not allow for the difference he insists, but in fact negate it by (re)homogenizing the world under a Chinese (rather than 'Western') view of 'civilisation.'

Clearly, the above views from intellectuals such as Zhao and Lui demonstrate the lack of consensus, but also the vitality, of the debate over the 'harmonious world' principle. However, it would be ignorant not to recognize what Kristensen and Neilsen refer to as micro-sociological reasons for why these scholars have such an interest in the 'harmonious world.' As one of their interviewees notes, "IR researchers are often tempted to work… more with policy because 'policy makes you become popular, well-known. In some ways it is easy. Professors have to make a living, right?'" (Kristensen and Neilsen 2010, p. 111).

Undoubtedly, thinkers such as Lui Mingfu and Zhao Tingyang have profited greatly from the success of their books and papers (in terms of both fame and fortune). It begs the question then as to how much these scholars may have participated in this way if Hu had not referred to the 'harmonious world' back in 2005 at all.

Given this, it is critical to ask how the current leadership transition in China will subsequently impact the building, debate and conceptualisation of the 'harmonious world' after Hu?

The Leadership Transition: The 'Harmonious World' after Hu

Of course, it remains unclear whether the official rhetoric and policy framework of 'harmonious world' and 'harmonious society' will continue under the new leadership of Xi Jinping. A relative amount of speculation and uncertainty is guaranteed in making any prospective claims so early, but this does not mean that such analysis is not valuable when substantively supported.

However, early indications from Xi suggest that use of the concept of 'harmony' will at least persist in some fashion (Lui 2012; BBC News 2012b). This ensures policy continuity in addition to showing deference to the outgoing leadership (Yu 2012).

However, there is a clear custom in the echelons of Chinese leadership to leave a legacy or tifa during tenure (Nordin 2011, p. 01). Whether we consider the relatively unsuccessful Maoist 'Cultural Revolution'; the more successful ideas of Jiang's 'Three Represents'; or indeed Hu's more recent 'Harmonious World'; the likelihood is that Xi will wish to develop his own innovative policy concepts to engrain his mark on Chinese political history (Pan 2008, pp. 46-58).

Of course, it is hard to discern when and if this may happen, but some analysts have argued that Xi will seek to establish and boost support for his leadership during his first few years as positions are filled, avoiding any severe foreign policy diversions along the way (Fravel 2012; Zweig cited in FlorCruz 2012). This may allow him to be more reformist and original once some of the more conservative members of the Central Committee mandatorily stand down on the basis of old age in 2017.

Besides, it seems for now that domestic issues such as the internal party image have taken political prominence, and look to be Xi's early objectives and emphasis as General Secretary and future President (Reuters 2012). This has only been made more salient and crucial following the well-publicised Bo Xilai scandal.

However, Xi's increasing use of the slogan 'Chinese Dream,' alongside the popular enthusiasm this has stirred for a strong and powerful nation, should be closely followed, especially because of the echoes it may share with Lui Mingfu's dreams of China as well (Cohen 2012).

Further still, the report delivered at the opening of the recent party congress (of which Xi oversaw the drafting) calls for the strengthening of China as a 'maritime power,' raising anxieties for those concerned with Chinese expansionism in the disputed waters of South-East Asia3 (Fravel 2012).

Therefore, the uncertainty surrounding the outlook of Chinese foreign policy in the wake of the 18th Central Committee makes a multidimensional approach even more salient and necessary in regards to unravelling what the future may hold. As Nordin notes, "in recent years these commentators are increasingly called to inform the president, prime minister and other senior party members. Some see China's intellectuals as a substitute for a political opposition" (Nordin 2012, p. 01).

Given that these intellectuals are more visible and engaging within the public domain, they may provide a window of opportunity to see into the more opaque world of Chinese politics and policy. Moreover, the new members of the Politburo share an academic heritage with many of the individuals currently discussing and theorising China's future and the world's future with China.

Somewhat surprisingly, the majority of the members from the 18th Standing Committee of the Politburo are educated in social science (compared to the 'all-engineering' line-up in the 17th Central Committee), and may therefore be more inclined to listen, seek advice and consequently network with intellectuals from similar academic backgrounds as themselves (Li 2007; Li 2012). In the coming years, it will be very interesting to see how these relationships develop and steer the debate of future foreign policy in China.

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