Hong Kong & China: A Confucian View of the Crisis
As Singapore celebrates its 54th birthday in the shadow of a trade war between China and the United States, Asian Geographic looks to the writings of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister and still the country’s only iconoclastic global statesman, for some insight into the motivations and actions of the world’s second biggest economy.
By Shreya Acharya
“The Chinese are not stupid,” Singapore’s founding father and first prime minister noted in his book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the US, and the World.
While China was not expected to reach an American level of military capability from the get go, it did learn from the mistakes of Germany and Japan. Avoiding the pitfalls of naked aggression, China has gone on to challenge the existing world order by fostering global dependence on Chinese exports and mastering self-sufficiency in energy, raw materials, and food. Lee Kwan Yew, however, also revealed an important observation in his book: China was in dire need of open sea-lanes.
Lee’s observation has proven to be prescient with China’s announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. This project, which comprise of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, brings investment initiatives and infrastructure development to developing countries found along the Old Silk Road. First established some two thousand years ago during the Han Dynasty, the list of countries along the Silk Road stretches from East Asia to Europe. The Belt Road Initiative not only allows China to open up sea-lanes, it also provides valuable transnational overland access to strategic land routes connecting east Asia to central Asia and Europe. While the programme has received its fair share of concern and criticism, China has assuaged the public with proclamations of its aspirations to integrate and connect the world through global trade and economic growth, all via the proposed trail. But as with every brilliant plan, there are underlying concerns. Is China trying to expand its political influence? Will the initiative serve as a trojan horse to tip the seesaw of the East-West dichotomy in her favour?
This dichotomy of East and West has been noted by several sociology studies as a cultural rather than a geographical disconnection. Asians often speak of a different moral compass and mindset, either socially or politically. China, in particular, has often promulgated the embodiment of core Confucian values – such as respecting authority and putting the collective before the individual – in its society. While the rapid rise of Asian economies has often been attributed to the benefits of this approach, it also reveals a nagging concern about the Eastern perspective: Do these values serve as a excuse for powerful Asian countries to put the entire region under their hegemonic influence? Is this Asian perspective so easily filtered down to a three-page guidebook that the entire continent can subscribe to?
Since late June 2019, news headlines have been dominated by China’s controversial extradition bill that was introduced in Hong Kong’s parliament. According to the treaty signed by Britain and China in the early 1980s for the return of Hong Kong to China, Hong Kong and China would adhere to a “One country, two systems” principle which would allow both regions to be recognised as one, yet allow Hong Kong to have its own government, legal affairs, economy, and foreign trade relations. The extradition bill has been criticised for its potential to be used as a backdoor for China to undermine Hong Kong’s legal system, and protestors have taken to the streets to express their dismay.
The perspective on this matter changes, however, when we shift gears and throttle this narrative through the chambers of an Asian point of view. Local media outlets in Singapore have not portrayed China as a threatening conqueror, but as an Asian government simply putting a stake in the ground, demarcating its need for honour and respect to its authority.
Confucius said, on governance, that the king’s personal virtue influences the kingdom, and that the less the king does, the more gets done. By being the “calm centre” around which the kingdom turns, the king allows everything to function smoothly and avoids having to tamper with the individual parts of the whole. When applied to Hong Kong’s current crisis with Beijing, the choice becomes stark: Should Beijing take a back seat and follow Confucius’ dictum by being the calm centre, or is it time for Beijing to take matters into its own hands by bending these homegrown rules to its favour? No matter the choice, let’s hope that wisdom and benevolence prevails.