Confucian New Tian Xia Model

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Tongdon Bai:

"Internationally, I have proposed what I call a Confucian New Tian Xia Model of state identity and international relations; let me offer a brief introduction to it. If we apply the aforementioned notion suggested by Mencius of expanding care to the issue of state identity and international relations, a weak form of patriotism can be justified. That is, if there is a tension between the interests of one’s own state and the interests of other states, the former have priority, because there is a hierarchy of Confucian care. But the priority given to the interests of one’s state does not lead to the supremacy of these interests. That is, a Confucian point of view does not justify a person doing whatever it takes to satisfy the interests of their state. Doing so would mean having a total disregard for the wellbeing of other people and the extinction of compassion, making the state and its people totally inhumane and inhuman. Instead, the welfare of other people should also be taken into account, because Confucian care is supposed to be universal, and this care includes the welfare of every human being in the world. Early Confucians were very keenly aware of the fact that the world is full of conflicts of interests, and a focus of their discussions is learning how to weigh (the Chinese word is quan权) conflicting interests and master the universal principle of humaneness in the complexity of the reality.

Moreover, according to another early Confucian classic, the principle that should be applied among states is noted as follows: ‘preferential treatments should be given to one’s own state over other civilized (xia夏) states, and preferential treatments should be given to all civilized states over barbaric (yi夷) states’ (the Gong Yang Commentaries春秋公羊传·成公十五年). The first half of this principle is the Confucian moderate patriotism I have just discussed, and the second half offers another layer of the hierarchy, that between civilized and barbaric states. Although the principle is not directly from the Mencius, it is consistent with ideas in it. The question, then, is what ‘civilized’ means. As I have argued in my 2019 book, according to an updated Confucian understanding, for a state to be considered to be civilized, the following conditions need to be met. First, a civilized state is a humane (the Confucian concept of ren仁) state in the sense that it takes care of the broad interests of the people (its own people first and other people second). Second, a civilized state should never use force to solve a conflict with another civilized state, because this violates the principle of humaneness, which would make the state not civilized any more. There is a ‘civilized peace’ rather than democratic peace, although the claim about peace among civilized states holds true by definition. Military and other interventions can be legitimate for the sake of curbing the ‘barbaric’ behaviours of other states when the latter fail to take care of their own peoples and other peoples. Third, it is necessary to preserve the classics and other heritage that constitute the civilized way of life. They include not only the Confucian classics, but other jewels of human civilizations such as the Platonic dialogues and the Buddhas of Bamiyan. We also need to preserve the environment so that there can be a flourishing human life of dignity and material and spiritual enjoyment. Fourth, not on the basis of an originally Confucian position but on the basis of a position that Confucians can endorse, a civilized state should protect some basic rights and liberties.

With the concept of ‘civilized’ clarified, we can see that the second half of the principle from the Gong Yang Commentaries requires that civilized states form an alliance to protect the civilized way of life. Ideally, this protection is achieved through the moral exemplar of the civilized states (‘city upon a hill’), but in reality, interventions are sometimes inevitable. An underlying principle of Confucian international relations is that sovereignty is conditional on the humane duty a state performs towards the people, and this humane duty overrides sovereignty. This is the guiding principle of international interventions that are to be carried out by the alliance(s) of civilized states.

As we have already seen in section 2, the Westphalian system of equal sovereign states and the globalization led by such states pose a serious challenge to addressing climate change internationally, because in this system, the sovereignty of a state is taken to be supreme. This also means that the legitimacy of other states’ interventions in this state’s business is lacking even if this state disregards its environmental duties to its own people and the rest of the world. In the Confucian New Tian Xia Model, such interventions become legitimate. Moreover, international organizations such as the UN do not really constitute a world government, as they do not have ‘the sword’ to actually impose the will on their member states. If we accept this reality and consider any cosmopolitan proposal that is built on the transcending and abolishing of state powers and sovereignty to be unrealistic, the Confucian model may be a realistic alternative. It acknowledges the fact that only states have power, and instead of asking them to voluntarily surrender their power to a world government, it asks great and civilized powers to form a ‘coalition of the willing’ to become the de facto world police. Although we do not have any such coalitions in the real world to point to (yet), coalitions such as the EU and ASEAN offer some hope for the realization of Confucian alliances of civilized states."

Source: Source: Killing Three Birds with One Stone: A Confucian Institutional Response to Climate Change and Other Challenges. By Tongdong Bai, Professor of Philosophy, Fudan University.