Chinese Globalization, Confucian Capitalism, and Transnationalism?

Some Conceptual Parameters

The burgeoning crisis of populist nationalism and trade protectionism within Western societies now point to the threshold of liberalism in a global context. The underlying teleological principle of modern liberal democracy coupled with economic liberalism that is supposed to gain universal application seems to be challenged from both within and without—“the end of history” that never ends. Reacting to the Western hegemony including its weaponized universalism, as a long after effect of previous anti-imperialist struggles, China has been attempting to carve out its political discursive niche in the world, favoring its own rules and exceptionalism.

At the 2017 World Economic Forum, China came under the spotlight as a defender of globalization. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), announced in 2013 as a platform for regional multilateral cooperation, interlinks China with regions on the ancient Silk Road(s), the trade routes through greater Central Asia and the maritime trade routes connecting East Asia to Africa and Europe. To date, the BRI has expanded to around 70 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Oceania, incorporating one third of global GDP and one quarter of global foreign investment flows. Alongside economic policies—the conditions of investments—the intentions of which could lend themselves to interpretation as brotherhood at times or imperialism at others, there are also questions around how to construct a cultural discourse around such an initiative. To which extent can China draw discursive resources from its cultural heritage and from its transnationalist and transregionalist past?

BRI map
The Belt and Road Initiative projects, source: Merics

To be sure, the better days of transnationalism seems to lie in a bygone past: as late as the 1950s with Bandung conference and third worldism, if not going back to Pan-Asianism, Pan-Arabism movements in early 20th century. In short, transnationalism seemed relevant when there was one common enemy—imperialism—amongst the oppressed. The recent socialist and anti-imperial past is less favorably evoked, however, than the ancient Silk Road. In keynotes addressing globalization and regional cooperation, Chinese political leaders present a montage of great explorers and emissaries, traveling on the ancient silk road(s) through different cultures in Asia, Europe, and Africa. The conceptual slippage here is that most of the moments were not trans-national, some not even trans-state. It seems to take a pre-modern and a postmodern globalization at the same time to understand how China fashions its vision for the global future.

To unpack this, we need to go into China’s approach to key concepts like conflict resolution, co-existence, and political decision making, all of which have been historically elaborate and ultimately irreducible to the experience of Western discourse. What follows is a sketch of political-philosophical concepts that may or may not function as concrete political proposals or a road map of transferable experiences, but at least could offer some historical foundation of what might steer future debates.


Confucian Capitalism?

The divisive, binary ideology of class-struggles prevailed in Communist China until the late 1970s, and at its peak was exercised to the extremity of “all against all” during the Cultural Revolution internally, and in its alliance schemes, with other third-world countries against the West. In light of this, third world countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were rendered as friends and brothers, enabling a network of cultural transfers including revolutionary literature, film and music, many of which still fondly remembered today in China by people of my generation and older. In parallel, Maoist tactics of guerrilla warfare and mobilization of the rural areas provided practical resources for liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, and the Maoist anti-capitalist, anti-imperial, and anti-authoritarian ideas also found resonances in protests that sprawled across the Western world in 1968. This was replaced since the ’80s and ’90s by the ideology of integration and proved to be the driving force behind the social and economic reforms. The decisive change was the successful if not somewhat dubious marriage between traditionalism/Confucianism and capitalism. According to scholar Gan Yang, the modernization of China is a struggle to fuse or communicate Confucianism, socialism, and liberalism. Crucially, the transition from socialism to capitalism went rather smoothly, as opposed to Russia and post-socialist Eastern European countries, because decentralization of power was already in place in Mao’s time, so that at the local level, people could take their own initiatives.1 In this sense, the economic success of China owes to remnants of Confucianism with a certain feudalist connotation. Here feudalism should be understood not as a backward form of governance but one that rather affirms the distribution of power and local rule, at the same time bound by the Confucian concept of da yitong—a common pursuit/respect for unity, effectively creates what can be called Confucian Capitalism.

pingpong 1
Asian-African-Latin American Table Tennis Friendship Tournament (1973) poster

The synthesis of Confucianism and advanced capitalism is admittedly perplexing. It also depends on which reading of Confucianism one takes, as Confucianism is often taken to be the moral backbone and ideology that helped the emperors who ruled China (and influenced East Asia) for almost two thousand years, based on a purportedly rigid differential, hierarchical society. Some have attributed the economic boom of East Asian states before China to the Confucian work ethic, whereby the individual worker is subordinated to the social hierarchy and collectivity. Yet Confucianism can also be interpreted as a dynamic, non-hierarchical social field based on non-transactional reciprocities and social mobility. I will explain its historical background and critical impasse as to supply a basis to assess in which way Confucianism could contribute in the contemporary society without being merely rhetorical.

From a Confucian point of view, historically, technological development presents no problem as long as it pertains to a certain cosmological order. Less “natural theological”2 than a mindful heaven, what is at play in the pre-modern Confucian technological world could be viewed as an organization and distribution of material forces at play honoring both the will of heaven and earth and always finding a balance or alignment between man and heaven. In this light, invention of machines and automation technologies do not necessarily debase the Confucian society, it is not until the introduction of industrial capitalism that irrevocably rewrites the order of alignment. Capitalism fundamentally decodes the desire tamed by despotic regimes. The decoded flows form conjunctions: flows of decoded soil sold as private property, flows of decoded money that circulates as capital, flows of workers who are now deterritorialized to be mere labour in the service of work itself or the capitalistic machine.3 In this light, capital is everything there is, production is for the sake of production, no longer coupled to material needs, and money begetting money, surmounting actual use or exchange value.

Hence the biggest question of why China did not develop capitalism by itself does not depend on, as Max Weber has proposed and as new Confucian thinker Tu Weiming has passionately defended, whether or not Confucian society is open to transforming the world. The question is rather if its own transformative process (being immanent and transcendent at the same time) will ever allow the capitalistic machine to emerge, fueled by the conjunction of decoded flows and a desire for desire, within the scheme of man-heaven alignment. The involuntary modernization of China starting late 19th century marks the transition from pre-capitalist despotic machine to the capitalistic machine, and casts an irrevocably different condition for order of the previous kind to be maintained.

This is perhaps all too evident a diagnosis of the incompatibility between traditional Confucianism and advanced capitalism in its most liberal form being practiced through and through in China. (It is nevertheless important to know the basic ideas regarding economy and governance in old China.) What form of Confucianism can contribute to capitalism?

Gan Yang, for example, has attributed the rapid reestablishing of market economy in China to investments from overseas Chinese in the ’80s and ’90s, highlighting the filial relations and cultural ties unseen in countries like post-socialist Russia.4 Indeed, in this sense, Confucianism can be interpreted as a dynamic social field based on non-transactional reciprocities.

Ecological sustainability is another issue that can be addressed in variable ways by Confucianism. Depending on one’s standpoint, one could hold a vehement nihilist, anti-progress view that Confucianism would have never by itself deployed capitalistic mechanism doomed for environmental depletion. One could restrain oneself to a more modest, less consumption based lifestyle and motivate others to do so—based on a degrowth principle which resonates with Confucian modesty. Or one could also take the inspiration from the creative advance of things (natura naturans) as a natural law from Confucianism and work on green technologies (capitalist mechanism needed), at the same time, one could embrace necessary mutations of the human species and other lifeforms as consequence—for better or worse. The spectrum is wide when engaging with the world on a concrete ground backed by Confucian thinking, and there are different ways in which “capitalism with Confucian characteristics” can be teased out.

Transnationalism revisited

The other concrete question takes us back to transregionalism. The concept of tianxia has been often mentioned in political analysis of China’s foreign diplomacy of late. Tianxia means everything-under-heaven, and historically denotes a world system with China in the center of the network amongst concentric circles of tributary states, some under more direct influence and some less. The deeper Confucian underpinning of this system is a world of immanent transcendence (beyond the binary favoring of either), where the universal king acts according to the cosmological and moral order of heaven, thereby embodying the mandate of heaven. According to the dynamic reading of Confucianism, he could be challenged if he does not fulfill his role, so can the mandate of heaven favor another person/epoch (which was the case made by the Japanese when they semi-colonized parts of China in the ‘30s and ‘40s). Tributary relation was more symbolic than economical for China as the weaker countries received gifts in return of more value than the tributes they paid. In times of conflicts, China was expected to send an army to protect the regimes. Under the tianxia system, it is legitimate and practical to exercise multiple governing forms in one country/state. In the Qing dynasty, the last dynasty before modern China, we have witnessed modern, centralized administration and governance in central China existing alongside “feudal” reign in the peripheries, so in the case of Xinjiang, Chinese Central Asia, the Turkic traditional chieftain—or the Beks—continued to rule on the local level. Yet we should always use caution when comparing this horizontally to Western mandate states/protectorates, and vertically to China’s economic policy today.

Walter Defends Sarajevo film-turned-cartoon book, showing the belovedness of the film

The positive lesson we could draw from this historical practice is one concerning co-existence among culturally diverse groups by deconstructing the rigid frame of national identities. Not to flat pack cultural differences, but we could work toward a complexity and nomadicity of identities, which may temporarily favor communal, regional, national, cultural, religious, gender, or political belongings. In other words, identity as a situational and non-essential category. An excellent example, if we need to look into “minority” studies, is how Taqiyya—a royal dispensation to lie—is practiced among the Druze community, so that they can live peacefully with any other Muslim community without asserting a national identity. Indeed the question for the Druze is “how do I live without an identity?”5 (To extrapolate it back to the domestic and inter-state scale, scholar Baik Young-seo sees such a “compound state” as a possible way of relieving the question of two Koreas—recognizing a nominal unity while retaining the state forms for the time-being, slowly working toward a resolution.6

Far from a utopia of extreme centralization, however, it is crucial to understand the dynamism in the tianxia tributary networks. Hamashita Takeshi and Wang Hui both point out the network in and off-shooting from the tianxia world system instead of the center–periphery dichotomy, which could be seen, for example, in the transformation of the official tribute system into a private trade system at the beginning of the nineteenth century.7 In a way, what made the silk roads a long lasting cultural token (even though the term itself was popularized by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century) was the unofficial, decentralized networks that co-existed or appropriated the official tribute networks.

Back to the Chinese globalization question: is the BRI a new tianxia system? The financial backbone of the BRI is a mixture of policy banks, state-owned enterprises, big commercial banks, as well as commercial enterprises. Mediating between the state and the market, Policy banks, like the China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China, offer a form of finance to be distinguished both from confessional loans or development aids and commercial loans, aiming at long-term returns and often with more favorable conditions to the debtor. At the same time, China keeps to a non-interference stance when it comes to internal politics of the partner states, as opposed to development aids that come with political conditions. On top of the concrete economic and political goals, it does help to draw the intellectual resources from the tianxia system in charting today’s developments. Then, there’s the question how to keep it a dynamic network, and to which extent it can(not) be effectuated from the center.

Expectedly, there are voices of concerns. Even within the Chinese Communist Party itself, there are left-leaning anti-imperialist Maoists who critique the neo-liberal economic expansion of China. Most parts of East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia have been the subject of one form of imperialism and colonization or another during the 19th and first half of the 20th century, and have gone through formal decolonization process in the postwar period. Yet, imperialism is not necessarily colonial, but colonialism is necessarily imperial. There remains a need to de-imperialize imperial powers which continue to exercise economic and political expansionist policies. There were the European colonizers first, and the Japanese modernizer-colonizers later, who envisioned the infamous “East Asia Co-prosperity Circle.” China has a fine line to walk.

wolf warrior 2
Wolf Warrior 2, the highest-grossing film ever in Chinese cinema

In this respect, scholars like Chen Kuan-Hsing have also called for China to go beyond a binary world order.8 A faceoff between China and the U.S. on the international political arena will mark the unworked-through imperialism entering through the backdoor and repeating the cold war logic. Hence a way out of sinocentrism on the part of China is by looking at the crucial moment in China’s decolonization, namely the third worldism period formed during Bandung in 1955. We are back at where we started. This real and imagined bound of transregionalism, if they existed back in the 1950s, they must exist today, not just in political but more in cultural forms. One example in the popular culture makes it clear: the Yugoslav partisan Walter in the film Walter Defends Sarajevo became an instant household hero in China when the film was screened in the ’70s. Nevertheless, in the recent Chinese blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2, one does not expect Leng Feng—a heroic retired soldier who single-handedly protects his countrymen in a rebel that has overrun a nation in Africa—to leave an equally lasting impression in audiences outside of China. While the sentiments for the former were shared across cultural borders since the struggles were heartfelt and real, the problem of the latter is not the overtly patriotic theme, but that it is founded on a series of moral necessities foregrounded by a China that rises to defend the world order in the image of the U.S./Hollywood. The transregionalism of today should not make the claim to be the only go-to solution, and should honor the compound identities we all embody in a dynamic world that perhaps resists to be systemized in a binary way.


About the author:

Mi You 由宓 is a curator, researcher, and academic staff at Academy of Media Arts Cologne. Her long-term research and curatorial project takes the Silk Road as a figuration for deep-time, deep-space, de-centralized and nomadic imageries. Under this rubric she has curated a series of performative programs at Asian Culture Center Theater in Gwangju, South Korea and the inaugural Ulaanbaatar International Media Art Festival, Mongolia (2016). Her academic interests are in performance philosophy, science and technology studies, as well as philosophy of immanence in Eastern and Western traditions. She is fellow of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Germany) and serves as advisor to The Institute for Provocation (Beijing).


  1. Yang Gan, 通三统 Communication of the Three Traditions. (Beijing: Joint Publishing, 2007.)
  2. Yung Sik Kim, Questioning Science in East Asian Contexts: Essays on Science, Confucianism, and the Comparative History of Science, (Leiden: Brill, 2014).
  3. See the materialistic, Marxistic analysis in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983).
  4. Gan, Ibid.
  5. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, (inaudible) A Politics of Listening in 4 Acts, ed. Fabian Schöneich (Berlin and New York: Sternberg Press, 2016), 44.
  6. Young-Seo Baik,  “Conceptualizing ‘Asia’ in modern Chinese Mind: A Korean Perspective,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 3:2,  (2002): 277–286.
  7. Wang, Hui, “The Politics of Imagining Asia: A Genealogical Analysis” (trans. Matthew A. Hale), Inter- Asia Cultural Studies 8:1 (2007)? 1–33.
  8. Kuan-Hsing Chen, 去帝国: 亚洲作为方法, De-Imperialization—Asia as Method (Taipei: Éditions du Flâneur, 2006.)

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