Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Decode the concept of 'tianxia' to understand China's actions

As I write this piece, Indian soldiers are locked in a face-off with intruders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Ladakh. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, China’s ambassador to India said: “We should never let differences overshadow our relations." He also used that worn-out Beijing cliché, “harmonious coexistence".

However, a day before, Chinese President Xi Jinping had told the PLA top brass: “It is necessary to step up preparations for armed combat." Xi appeared to be referring to heightened tensions with the US, especially over Hong Kong and China’s territorial claim over Taiwan, but the statement is indicative of the current thinking of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

To know that thought process, one must understand what China means by “harmonious coexistence" and study the Chinese concept tianxia. Unlike India, modern China’s statecraft has been based on learnings from its millennia-long history and age-old wisdom. Communism has not changed any core Chinese values.

First used by the Zhu dynasty (1045-256 BCE), tianxia roughly translates to “all under heaven" coexisting harmoniously. The world was divinely bestowed on the emperor, extending concentrically outward from its centre at the imperial court to tributary and vassal states. The emperor was the “son of heaven", having received “heaven’s decree". Although in practice there would be parts of the world which were not under the control of the emperor, in Chinese political theory, the rulers of those areas derived their power from the emperor.

It was only in 1858, in the Treaty of Tianjin, which a defeated China signed after the Second Opium War, that it acknowledged another country, Britain, as a “sovereign nation" equal to itself. Tianxia ended. The centre of the world had been moved, and heaven’s decree had been torn up. The years from 1839, the start of the First Opium War, to 1949, when Mao Zedong seized power, are referred to in Chinese history as “the century of humiliation".

And then began China’s “100-year marathon" to become the global hegemon (bit.ly/3gwP75m) that would reshape the world according to Chinese values. Named “strong nation dream" by Xi, its target date is 2049, the centenary of CPC rule.

In 2005, academic Zhao Tingyang published The Tianxia System: An Introduction to the Philosophy of a World Institution. The theory he built (and expanded on in subsequent books) has made Zhao China’s most influential living philosopher. In today’s world, Zhao saw only chaos caused by Western political theories and humanity fragmented by nation-states. He called for a new world order, in which “the physical, psychological and political realms all coincide". Tianxia is now absolutely necessary, he writes, “to bring the whole world together under one tent…to eliminate any negative external influence, and thereby conflict".

Crucial to Zhao’s proposed tianxia world order are “relational rationality" and universal consent. Relational rationality emphasizes the minimization of mutual hostility over the maximization of self interest, and must have priority over individual rationality in political and economic practices to create a sound world order. Dismissing the masses as “selfish, irresponsible, and foolish", hence not to be trusted to act in world interest, Zhao asserts: “Seeking to maximize self-interest… is only a recipe for endless conflict to the detriment of all." Universal consent, the other key ingredient, one supposes, will just need to be managed. And who makes the rules of this new world order? A rather vague “world institution".

Even a cursory examination of Zhao’s perfect world order reveals that it is deeply hierarchical, with no individual freedom, and the “collective good" defined by the world institution overriding a citizen’s personal aspirations and dreams. It is obsessively inclusive (universal consent), so it’s tough luck for anyone who may not want to be “included". Sounds familiar? Yes, it is Xi’s China, with its constant surveillance, censorship that allows no dissent and no access to non-CPC-approved reality, a social credit system that tracks the slightest deviations from norms and keeps rating you on a “good citizen" scale with tangible consequences.

Now think of the Belt and Road Initiative that could turn dozens of nations into vassal states through debt traps, and China’s “string of pearls" strategy to control the oceans from Shanghai to Port Sudan. This is the road to tianxia. And the term da tong, which Chinese leaders use often to describe their goal, can be translated both as “an era of harmony" and “an era of unipolar dominance". Right now, facing widespread criticism, including within China, and with the world busy with covid, Xi may be thinking he should make some offensive moves on the global chessboard.

But the game may have changed a bit. Last week, China “recommended" to members of Brazil’s parliament that they do not congratulate the freshly re-elected president of Taiwan. Brazilians responded by making #VivaTaiwan the No. 1 trending Twitter hashtag in Brazil and one of the top in the world. Beijing was incensed. A little samba setback for tianxia.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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