China is an Abrahamic power without a moral compass – R. Jagannathan

Modi & Xi

R. JagannathanIf China does not deeply introspect on how it seeks to be the next superpower, it is bound to lose it all—just as Hitler and Stalin did. To be sure, all superpowers—whether temporal or spiritual—have an expiry date, but China is ensuring that its use-by date will be counted in years rather than decades. – R. Jagannathan

Two people, perhaps more than anybody else, have managed to rattle China. One, of course, is Donald Trump, whose trade wars and targeting of China over responsibility for the Covid-19 pandemic have forced it on the defensive. The other is Narendra Modi, who has pursued a dual strategy of maintaining a level of dialogue with the top Chinese leadership while standing firm against its bid to bully India and the world.

India’s opposition to the belt-and-road initiative (BRI) and its support for an independent probe into the pandemic’s origins at the World Health Organization (WHO) are part of this dual strategy.

So, too, is our willingness to opt for an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation to thwart Chinese attempts to encroach on Indian territory in several areas along the border, especially in Ladakh. The Doklam standoff in 2017, where the Dragon was forced to blink and de-escalate, also worried the Chinese.

Today, few people in the world are willing to believe in China’s benign intentions. Even European powers like Germany and France have been angered by China’s belligerence and refusal to acknowledge any kind of responsibility for the virus that demolished the world economy in just a matter of months. Some are even seeking reparations for the damage done.

In many other parts of the world, countries which were initially attracted by cheap Chinese loans and promises of massive investments in infrastructure are now cancelling deals. Even small and puny countries, which normally cannot withstand Chinese bullying and economic power, are standing up to it (read herehereherehere).

If China does not deeply introspect on how it seeks to be the next superpower, it is bound to lose it al—just as Hitler and Stalin did. To be sure, all superpowers—whether temporal or spiritual—have an expiry date, but China is ensuring that its use-by date will be counted in years rather than decades.

Christianity, a superpower in the religious realm, is losing steam in its current areas of dominance, and hence the need to expand in Africa, India and China. Islam is still gaining ground as the fastest-growing religion in the world, but this is due to demography rather than enthusiastic conversions.

But here’s the point: Christianity’s superpower status has expanded and consolidated for centuries, testifying to its longevity. Islam’s moderate superpower status has held for centuries too, but is now about to peak in its second coming as a violent brand of extremism threatens its spread.

Many ordinary Muslims have quietly begun to realise the damage done by mindless terrorism. There are now increasing numbers of ex-Muslims who avoid public disclosure of their loss of faith for fear of violence, but they probably represent the doubts of the silent majority over where Islamism is taking the faithful.

The question is: what differentiates the spiritual and temporal superpowers we have seen so far (British colonialism, American supremacy, Christianity and Islam) and the one China represents?

The answer: China is an Abrahamic superpower without a moral compass. It pursues power and overlordship as an end in itself.

The defining characteristic of Abrahamism is the pursuit of power over others in order to extend a [doctrine] or ideology; this contrasts with Indic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism), where power was sought over one’s own self, ego, and desires. But China has no official religion, and the spiritual void is sought to be filled with power as the only worthwhile pursuit.

If one were to study Chinese history, one will note that China created the first “competent” modern state—to use Francis Fukuyama’s words—as far back as the third century BCE under the Qin dynasty. The emperor held totalitarian power in his hands.

Since then China has been constantly at war with its own diversities in order to achieve greater unification, uniformity and power. Today, Han power is what China is all about. The Tibetans have been ground under the heel of the Han, and so are the Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Surprise: the modern Chinese state remains a totalitarian power even in the age of the Internet where information presumably is available through the hand-held smartphone. The Chinese Internet, and the watchful state, have managed to build a moat around their Internet—which stands separate from the rest of the world. Anyone entering the Chinese Internet needs state permission and acquiescence.

The Chinese ideas of nation, political sovereignty and hegemonism are embodied in the idea of Tianxia, which combines the geographical and metaphysical world into one realm. In this realm, the Chinese emperor is the boss, ruling “All under Heaven” as the “Son of Heaven.” In the Chinese worldview, China is the centre of the world, and all other states must acknowledge its superiority and power.

In China’s scheme of things, there can be no state-level equals. You are a friend if you accept Chinese vassalhood, tributary status, or overlordship, but your freedoms flow from acknowledging this hierarchy. It’s not very different from the Islamic notions of the caliphate and dhimmitude.

The caliph may not literally rule over every Muslim nation, but notionally everyone pays obeisance to him. The dhimmi, or conquered peoples, have some rights under Islamic law, but the intention is to absorb them slowly into Islam through a process of osmosis, demographic and intimidatory change.

China, like Islam, believes that there can be no common law agreed among people democratically. It is China’s law or no law.

One does not have to be a fan of American hegemonism, or believe in the exalted status that Christianity and Islam confer on themselves, but at the end of the day they do subscribe to some moral principles. Their benevolence may include only believers, with scorn and discrimination being heaped on non-believers and kafirs, but they do have some ethical basis.

The Americans claimed to be promoters of democracy and freedom, the British colonialists thought they were “civilising” the savage world, Christians believed—and many still do—that Jesus died for their sins and it is their job to promote brand Jesus in order to do good in this world.

The Islamic idea of brotherhood may be limited to the faithful, but there is no scope for too much discrimination after conversion. We know this is narrowmindedness passing off as universalism, but some ethical core to these ideologies of power cannot be denied.

One cannot be sure if this applies to the Chinese, who are not religious in any formal sense of the term. The moral void thus leaves unbridled power over others as the only logical pursuit for the nation. The world is learning this as China goes ballistic for being held to account on Covid-19.

At some point, the moral void has to be filled, and religions like Christianity are rushing to fill it. Christianity is the fastest growing religion in China, and even the Communists have been forced to take note of its growth by doing a deal with the pope.

The Chinese hope that by getting the pope to give it a say in the appointment of bishops it will help retain the party’s power, but the pope is no fool. He too is playing the long game in the hope that a Christianity powered from below will ultimately overwhelm the Communist Party of Chin, as it did in Europe in the first millennium CE.

China may have its own religious options, from Taoism to Confucianism and even Buddhism, but so far it has been wary of officially promoting any faith beyond total loyalty to the Communist Party and the Han state.

In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, the advice given to the Chinese is this: “Your aim must be to take All-under-Heaven intact. Thus, your troops are not worn out and your gains will be complete. This is the art of offensive strategy.”

This is at the core of Chinese strategy: do everything short of real war in order to gain dominance, “All under Heaven”. This is what the world must deny it. Power without principle must fail. China is no heaven, and all cannot submit to its will.

China is pursuing power without principle. It must be shown its place. – Swarajya, 27 May 2020

Jagannathan is the editorial director of Swarajya Magazine.

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