Updated: Oct 1
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Everyone is the outcome of interactions with the surrounding environment: thoughts, words, actions, the real perception of our individuality passes through a matrix of relationships that constantly take into consideration the relationship with ‘otherness’. For this reason, being aware of the cultural and historical genealogy of our thought allows us to interact with the world through a non-dogmatic approach, and then to release ourselves from the more limiting implications of our ethnocentrism. In fact, it would be more useful to move away from the simplistic spirit of the bipolarism which characterized the debate on China in the West, between Panda Huggers and Dragon Slayers (Gifford, 2010). In this sense, in order to preserve the autonomy of thought and to avoid taking exclusive positions when it comes to relating our "Western" categories with Chinese culture and history, the category of 'zhengyou' can help us.
The term 'zhengyou' refers to people who have a deep passion for Chinese culture and its values. The edifying criticism of China cannot be separated from a deep knowledge of Chinese history, institutions and a thorough study of the texts and traditions of this country. The semantic sphere of this concept, which in the first instance seems to refer only to the cultural dimension, extends far beyond. This innovative proposal aims to move away from the absolute and totalizing loyalty involved in the concept of 'pengyou' ("friend"), which guarantees the one who appropriates a margin of freedom that can result in that friendly bond that admits benevolent and uplifting criticisms. The expression can also be extended from the social domain to international relations, where it suggests seeking new models of engagement (Rudd, 2008).
In the context of the Tibetan uprisings on the eve of the 2008 Olympic games, Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia, first promoted this term in a speech to students at Peking University, inspiring a shift in perspective on China.
Australia's 26th premier advanced his case by criticizing China for the deprivation of the rights of migrant workers from the countryside to cities and insufficient attention to environmental protection (Rudd, 2008). The adequate means to provoke a change of perspective on the part of China in these two areas are not the use of economic sanctions. The goal should be to challenge Chinese practices that the West considers inadequate and at the same time to propose an alternative model that is inclusive of both sensibilities. In this way, it would also be possible to obtain a space in which to exercise a leadership role in global governance, as in the case of environmental issues and international climate agreements. Rudd's invitation is, therefore, to intelligently welcome the ethnocentric limits of our categories of thought and to turn to the experience of the Chinese world, aware of the cultural substrate from which we come, with unprecedented curiosity and with profound awareness.
Therefore, is it sufficient to purely define oneself as ‘zhengyou’ to take a position of constructive criticism towards China? The answer is obviously no. The knowledge of the other is essential to be able to criticize and support them. This knowledge is not limited to the field of international relations or the economic sector. Indeed, it is not enough to know the history of China to be called ‘zhengyou’. Mandarin as a spoken language plays an important role by revealing many relevant characteristics about the thought and culture of the Chinese people. Kevin Rudd himself is, in fact, the only leader of a Western country to speak the Chinese language fluently.
Following the example of Australia, this could also be an opportunity to change the European approach towards an actor who has become increasingly relevant in the international arena and whose knowledge is now essential. A concrete example that concerns the present day can be traced back to the context of the implementation of Chinese 5G in other countries.Jack Power in his article, ‘Huawei chief criticises academic’s ‘false attack’ over 5G security risks’ elaborates further on this matter. As the news reports, in fact, there have been disputes between the Irish management of Huawei and the academic world in the same country. At the end of 2020, Richard Maher, professor of politics at University College Dublin, argued that there are opaque links between the Chinese multinational and the government of the People's Republic of China (Power, 2021). Moreover, it is not the first time that Huawei has received this type of accusation. However, Huawei Ireland's chief executive, Tony Yangxu, replied that the company supports the principles of academic freedom but that these claims were considered a "completely false attack." Several scholars claim that 5G networks can have backdoors that could be used to access sensitive information (Schneier, 2020). Considering that these networks will involve a huge number of devices and sectors, from smartphones to autonomous cars and from smart homes to telemedicine, 5G needs a reflection that also concerns national security. For these reasons, it is legitimate for the Irish professor to stimulate a debate on the subject, above all for the natural sensitivity and great scope of this topic.
The proposal for this different approach involves both parties. On the one hand, the European Union has a duty not to put aside its cultural values in order to achieve the economic benefits deriving from cooperation with China. The European Union cannot close its eyes to the alleged welfare concerns of the Chinese people only for fear that the agreements with the Asian power could fail. On the other hand, China is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is an international document adopted by the United Nations General Assembly that preserves the rights and freedoms of all human beings. Because of its signature of this declaration, China is obligated to maintain consistency with the commitments made, especially by virtue of the important role they play within the United Nations.
The benefits of this approach will not be limited to a change of pace in relations between China and the European Union, but above all they will help to maintain a certain pluralism at the international level and, at the same time, to reach a meeting point between different cultures. Nowadays, in a progressively more globalized and interlinked world, as the easy spread of Covid-19 has also shown, knowledge of the other and of ourselves will be increasingly important both on a personal level and at the level of international relations. The protection of pluralism and of all different cultures will be an important task that will involve each of us.
Stefano Mancuso has a master’s double degree in China and Global Studies at University of Turin and Tongji University based in Shanghai. During his bachelor’s degree in International Relations he had various work experience abroad. In particular, he worked in United Kingdom, Poland, Spain, Kenya and Greece. He is passionate about international relations with China, especially in the economic and technological field. You can find him on Linkedin.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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Gifford Rob, Panda-Huggers and Dragon-Slayers: How to View Modern China Today, National Council for the Social Studies, 2010. se_740109.pdf (socialstudies.org)se_740109.pdf (socialstudies.org).
Power Jack, Huawei chief criticises academic’s ‘false attack’ over 5G security risks. The Irish Times. February 24, 2021. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/huawei-chief-criticises-academic-s-false-attack-over-5g-security-risks-1.4493157.
Rudd Kevin, Kevin Rudd speaks to Peking University: A Conversation With China’s Youth on The Future. Kevinrudd.com. April 9, 2008. https://kevinrudd.com/2008/04/09/kevin-rudd-speaks-to-peking-university-a-conversation-with-chinas-youth-on-the-future/.
Schneier Bruce, China Isn’t the Only Problem With 5G, Foreign Policy, January 10, 2020. Besides Potential Chinese Backdoors, 5G Has Security Problems the United States Doesn’t Want to Fix for Its Own Surveillance Purposes (foreignpolicy.com)