With China reemerging as a dominating economic and military power in the world, some Chinese scholars have wistfully harkened back to another era, circa the 5th century B.C., when under a virtuous and benign Confucian emperor, all was well under heaven. The implicit suggestion in this historical retrospective — under a virtuous China one could return to the golden age.
In this narrative, the benign emperor maintained a pax sinica and ruled tianxia, all under heaven. This was symbolized by the tribute system, under which rulers of lands surrounding the Celestial Kingdom visited the imperial court, performed ketou, or obeisance, and presented gifts of local produce. In return, their legitimacy as rulers was affirmed. They were presented with the dynasty’s calendar and received costly items emblematic of the superior Sinitic civilization. The result was datong, or great harmony.
However, this idyllic setting was purportedly destroyed by the arrival of rapacious capitalist powers who were eager to expand their commercial empires and imposed the trading system and the Westphalian notion of sovereignty, with its notion of the equality of nation states answering to no higher authority. Since this leaves states free to act according to their perception of their own best interests, the result has been a Hobbesian war of all against all and a failed world. The solution to this baleful situation, suggest scholars like Zhao Tingyang, is to reinstate tianxia, presumably with Chinese leadership performing the role of adjudicator for all under heaven.
The problem is that the golden age never existed and is likely to prove ineffective for the modern era. The late Harvard sinologist Yang Lien-sheng stated flatly that “the sinocentric world order was a myth backed up at different times by realities of varying degree, sometimes approaching nil.” As other Chinese scholars have pointed out, force was needed, both to keep the empire together and protect it from external enemies. In Wang Gungwu’s formulation, the reality of empire was that of a hard core of wei, or force, surrounded by a soft pulp of de, virtue. Astute statecraft lay in finding the right balance.
Although court records praise the Confucian wisdom of emperors, they in fact behaved like Legalists, who suggested that the well-ordered society depended on clear rules and punishment for violators rather than benevolence. Others have noted that the superiority of the Chinese model in preventing war is ludicrous to anyone familiar with the details of Chinese history replete with conflict.
Nor is Confucianism a suitable paradigm for a cosmopolitan world. The Great Wall, one of the glories of ancient Sinitic civilization, is also a symbol of the empire’s isolationism: It was built to keep the barbarians out. Moreover, nowhere in the Confucian canon does one find that ties to others should be as strong as ties to kinfolk. In Confucius’ conception of the well-ordered kingdom, relationships should be extended from family members outward, with progressively diminishing intensity. The concept of filial piety has little meaning if one is expected to treat everyone as a sibling. As well, his views on the subordination of women and diminution of the entrepreneur would find little resonance today.
In yet another dissonance between theory and reality, those who accepted the status of vassal to the Chinese empire did not necessarily accept the notion of their inequality and conducted negotiations much as equals. In the mid-15th century, the ruler of Ayudhya refused the Ming dynasty envoy’s demand that he ketou to show respect to the emperor. For this ruler and others, recognition served a utilitarian purpose — in this case, obtaining the dynasty’s backing to counterbalance other aspiring hegemons.
Differences in power between the Chinese ruler and the rest could even result in role reversal: In 1138, the founder of the Southern Song dynasty, accepted vassal status to the barbarian Jin dynasty. In the 18th century, in response to pressure from Japan, the Ryukyus sent tribute to both the Tokugawa shogun and to Beijing. Even the Koreans, the most faithful of those professing allegiance to tianxia, repeatedly balked at Ming Emperor Hongwu’s requests to send horses, apparently because they wanted to reserve their stock for use in possible conflicts with the Ming in Manchuria. During the Qing dynasty, though continuing to send tribute, Korean rulers looked down on the Qing and pointedly retained the rival Ming dynasty calendar.
Well before the arrival of the Westerners, there had been a gradual shift away from tribute to trade. During the Ming dynasty, commercial transactions existed between the Ryukyus and parts of Southeast Asia. Private trade existed between China and Japan, even during the so-called sakoku period of the 17th century when Japan was theoretically closed to foreign commerce. Chinese court records from the late 1400s indicate concern about trade growth. Despite serious consequences, including decapitation, by the 15th century, a trading system had evolved that encompassed Southeast and North Asia. Since the earliest Western power, the Portuguese, did not arrive until 1524, this undermines the contention that trade was imposed from the Occident.
Moreover, the imposition of treaty trade did not necessarily result in a worsening of the fortunes of states that were notionally or actually part of the tianxia system. Research by Hamashita Takeshi shows that, far from being passive victims of avaricious foreign powers, the Western arrivals brought new opportunities. Never actually powerless within the system, these states further increased their autonomy. In one case, in 1884, an envoy from Guangdong told the consul of Siam that stopping its tribute embassies to China was not justified under international law, thereby invoking both tribute and trade systems. The consul replied by suggesting negotiations. Both parties saw their states as in a tributary relationship while simultaneously discussing a treaty between equals. The Koreans likewise combined elements of treaty and trade systems to benefit their best interests.
If tianxia has its problems, what of Westphalian sovereignty? While it is evident that all states are not equal in size and power, and that the presence of a supreme arbiter might be helpful in dispute settlement, few seem willing to cede that role to Beijing. The myth of equality is more attractive to most decision-makers than the myth of subordination to a benevolent ruler. There is also a question of how benevolent a ruler China would be: It is difficult to see Xi Jinping, his predecessors or likely successors in this role. The possibility that the Beijing leadership will become rule-maker to the world to ensure a global pax sinica raises the same concerns expressed by the 1st century AD Roman satirist Juvenal: “Quis custodiet ipso custodes” – Who will watch the watchmen?
Supporters of the revival of tianxia as model for today’s world are essentially misrepresenting the past to reconfigure the future, distorting it to advance a political agenda that is at best disingenuous and at worst dangerous. For all its deficiencies, sovereignty would be the preferred option by most. To rephrase Winston Churchill’s words on democracy, sovereignty may be the worst of all forms of world government, save for all the others.
June Teufel Dreyer is professor of political science at the University of Miami. She is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and previously served as commissioner of the US-China Economic and Security Commission established by the US Congress.
This article is excerpted from a longer paper which will appear in The Journal of Contemporary China.