Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Laozi and Henry Kissinger

By Bernie Quigley

For The Hill on 7/6/11

Henry Kissinger’s new book, “On China,” explains what might be seen as a modern telling of China’s fourteenth-century epic novel, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” the three kingdoms being Mao’s China, the Soviet Union and the United States. Nixon’s Nobel-Peace Prize winning National Security Advisor focuses on President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972. What I found to be of particular interest is how the diplomatic relationship developed between China and the United States. Ambassador George Kennan had proposed that the Soviet Union would not survive if it could not expand and would fall apart internally. A U.S./China diplomatic friendship would fence the Soviets in and sure enough, less than 20 years later the Soviet Union fell apart.

But something – someone – is missing from Kissinger’s book. Laozi, Taoist sage and author of the “Daodejing.”

Rightfully so, as Tao played no role in Mao’s revolution nor does it in today’s China. I began to worry about China’s future, because China without Tao is like Israel without torah or India without the Bhagavad Gita. Kennan’s observation could just as easily be made about American capitalism and the “Beijing model”; without expansion, they would fall apart. And China has survived these six thousand years on the Tao – the Path – the path of receding power or the way of return.

Liu Junning, an independent scholar in Beijing, suggests today in a Wall Street Journal essay titled “The Ancient Roots of Chinese Liberalism” that Beijing’s power path without Laozi is brittle. Last week Chinese Communist Party’s 90th anniversary, Hu Jintao said “Success in China hinges on the party.” Liu Junning writes:

That view is to be expected from the party secretary. Perhaps more surprising is the extent to which outside observers have come to believe it, too. These foreigners—academics and journalists prominent among them—look to the "Beijing model" or the "Beijing consensus" as a desirable alternative to Western-style economic liberalism.

The Washington consensus counted on free trade and open capital flows, plus deregulation, the rule of law, and the pre-eminence of the private sector to spur development. China at first glance appears to have achieved 9% annual growth rates or better for years by challenging that rule book. Visiting dignitaries and columnists see gleaming skyscrapers, straight roads, booming industries and upwardly mobile citizens.

This view fundamentally misunderstands the country's growth progress. China has indeed made great strides since 1978's "Reform and Opening" in alleviating poverty, opening up to the world, and making slow steps down the road of legal reform. Yet on closer inspection, the most significant transformations from the perspective of boosting prosperity have involved loosening of control over the people, not some alchemy of power and Marxism.

The Beijing model has the "virtue" of allowing the government to act quickly and decisively, writes Liu Junning. But when Beijing makes mistakes, the result historically has been a Cultural Revolution or a Great Leap Forward.

What we now call Western-style liberalism has featured in China's own culture for millennia, he writes. We first see it with philosopher Laozi, the founder of Taoism, in the sixth century B.C. Laozi articulated a political philosophy that has come to be known as wuwei, or inaction. "Rule a big country as you would fry a small fish," he said. That is, don't stir too much. "The more prohibitions there are, the poorer the people become," he wrote in his magnum opus, the "Daodejing."

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