SPEAKING FREELY No joy in US or Chinese exceptionalism
By Mark C Eades
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Every nation has its own national myths. Some of these may contain a kernel of truth, while others are completely fictional. Some unite while others divide. The myth of national exceptionalism - American, Chinese, or any other - is a divisive work of political fiction that today's world can do without.
Thanks to notions of national exceptionalism, America now seems poised to blunder into a new war in Syria, while China
stifles dissent at home and bullies its neighbors around the South China Sea. National exceptionalism is an idea whose time has come to die.
All nations, America and China included, are exceptional or unique in some way or another. No nation, however, is singularly exceptional, as both America and China claim to be. No nation is a singular exception to the forces of history and rules of conduct by which other nations are governed.
No nation is singularly virtuous or singularly qualified to lead the world. America and China are both great nations that have accomplished great things, but they are only two in a long line of great nations, each of which in turn believed itself to be singularly virtuous, each of which believed that it stood alone at the summit of history.
Contrary to what many Americans seem to believe, their Founding Fathers didn't invent democracy out of thin air, and the Revolution of 1776 didn't happen in some Eden-like state of pristine American isolation.
Western democracy has a history that extends to ancient Greece, and the American Revolution happened in a Western context that included the English Civil War, the European Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. America's founding ideas were Western ideas, and now are no longer even exclusively Western.
Nor is American democracy today any more democratic than British or French or German democracy. People in every Western nation as well as many others around the world today have the same right to vote that Americans have.
Americans are no freer to speak their minds than are the Spanish or the Swedes, no freer to worship or not worship as they please than are the Estonians or the Micronesians, no freer to protest in the streets than are the Chileans or the Japanese. In terms of rights and freedoms, America is not that different from a lot of other countries around the world.
Like America, China sees itself as a singularly exceptional nation - singular in its long and glorious history, singular in its peaceful rise to global prominence, and singular in its immunity to "Western" standards of democracy and human rights. Chinese history, however, is anything but singularly Chinese.
Ancient and classical China grew up under conditions of trade and cultural exchange with other Silk Road civilizations, and modern China grew up under conditions of trade and cultural exchange with the West. China's most prosperous cities, Shanghai and Hong Kong, wouldn't exist in their present forms were it not for Western colonialism. Capitalism came to China from the West, and communism came from the Soviet Union. "socialism with chinese characteristics" is neither truly socialist nor exclusively Chinese.
Nor are the "Western" concepts of democracy and human rights that Beijing abhors exclusively Western. Most of China's Asian neighbors are now either full or transitional democracies. Confucianism hasn't prevented Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan becoming full democracies.
Mongolia today is a functioning democracy; and even Myanmar, long a military dictatorship, is now undergoing the difficult transition to democracy. Still, Beijing rejects "Western" democracy and human rights on the grounds of China's uniqueness.
While Aung San Suu Kyi walks free and serves as a member of the Burmese parliament, Liu Xiaobo sits in prison on the grounds of China's uniqueness. Meanwhile, China demands to be accorded the same standing in the international community as any democracy.
Furthermore, neither America nor China can claim to be exceptionally virtuous or peaceful. The Native American genocide, slavery and segregation, the Japanese American internment during World War II, the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, confinement without trial and force-feeding at Guantanamo: All these should suffice to convince Americans that their country is as capable of doing ill as anyone's.
China's invasion of Tibet and brutal repression of Tibetans, its border wars with its neighbors, and its current saber-rattling in the South China Sea reveal a China as aggressive and warlike as any imperial power.
The myth of national exceptionalism divides and isolates a nation and its people from the rest of their fellow humans around the world. It convinces a nation that it has some special right to ignore world opinion and do whatever it pleases if it thinks that it's in its national interests to do so. American exceptionalism has led the US to blunder
into Iraq (and now perhaps Syria) in the face of world opinion against it and to ignore the same Geneva Conventions that protect its own troops in wartime.
Chinese exceptionalism has led China to ignore international human-rights standards and to claim 80% of the South China Sea as Chinese territory. American and Chinese exceptionalism have led both nations to behave like two big babies fighting over toys in a sandbox.
Whether Washington or Beijing likes it or not, all current trends point to a global future. The issues facing humanity today are global issues, and require global solutions, global standards of behavior, global partnerships on the basis of global equality. There's no place in this picture for American or Chinese exceptionalism, and there's nothing unpatriotic in discarding them.
Love of country doesn't and shouldn't require that we ignore reality. America and China need a new kind of patriotism: a cosmopolitan patriotism, proud of their accomplishments but aware of their shortcomings, appreciative of their cosmopolitan roots, and accepting of our shared global future.
So it's time for the divisive myth of national exceptionalism to be read its last rites, taken off life support, smothered with a pillow if need be, and buried in the same graveyard for dead ideas as the divine right of English kings and the Chinese emperor's mandate of heaven. With this myth finally dead and buried, America and China can both fully join the 21st-century community of nations.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Mark C Eades is an American writer and educator based in Shanghai. He has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai.
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