Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
An obscure but highly significant development took place in Beijing in recent weeks before the balloon breach over the United States upset the incipient thaw in relations.
The Chinese leadership seems to have finally grasped that crushing liberty in Hong Kong has forever foreclosed the idea that the formula of “one country, two systems” might convincingly apply to Taiwan. Apparently arriving as well at the inescapable deduction that any military assault would likely mobilize the West and end up in protracted catastrophe just like Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion, China’s leaders have gone back to the drawing board. One of President Xi Jinping’s closest allies on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, Wang Huning, has thus been assigned to come up with a “new narrative” to frame the case for unification with Taiwan going forward.
This putative shift to a “narrative war” over Taiwan is pivotal not only because of the implications for geopolitical conflict, but with respect to intergenerational tensions within China itself. In essence, Wang will be as much addressing an urbanized post-1980s generation at home with a life outlook closer to modern-day Taiwan than the now elderly constituencies who, laced with patriotic pride, acceded to conformity and control in exchange for prosperity as China rose from a largely rural nation over the last four decades to the top ranks of the global economy.
Woke With Chinese Characteristics
It was always a mystery during the zero-COVID policies that an authoritarian state which so brutally enforced the one-child policy never compelled the reluctant elderly to get fully vaccinated. That so-called “deference to the elderly” ended abruptly after the flash rebellion late last year by future-oriented youth who chafed at the endless lockdowns and harangues about “struggle” and just wanted to get on with their lives. It marked a generational turning point that Wang must now contend with as he rethinks the approach to Taiwan.
As Jacob Dreyer writes from Shanghai in Noema, “The pandemic woke China’s young people up to the reality that their society is oriented to the values and priorities of the elderly, whose truths are very different from their own.”
Dreyer quotes a fascinating book, titled “Self as Method,” based on an interview with the anthropologist Xiang Biao by the journalist Wu Qi. It was a bestseller in China in 2020.
For the 1950s generation, their lives are collectively oriented, and nation-building is an overarching theme that gave meaning to many things in life. Of course, there was a lot of suffering and unhappiness, but the language and theories available to them — such as socialist ideals, nation-building agenda and historical materialistic explanation of the world — match their experiences. They, at least those in cities, can use this language to express what make them happy, proud and angry. They can explain their experiences to themselves, more or less coherently and authentically.
For those who are born after the 1980s, many are not only individualized in their outlooks, but also ‘atomized.’ Atomization means an individual cannot establish meaningful relations to other individuals. Atomized individuals do not have a meaningful language to describe their experiences or articulate an identity. An atomized individual no longer knows what criteria they should follow when making judgements or decisions. There is no concrete relation between the self and collectives, be the collective a family, a local place, or the nation.
To the extent this is a fair reading of the ground reality, Wang has his work cut out for him. It describes a state of society not far from what horrified the Party ideologist when he traveled like a Chinese Tocqueville across America in the 1980s. In his reflections on that visit in a book called “America Against America,” Wang saw the great superpower on a trajectory of demise because the younger generation had lost its civilizational bearings and were only out for themselves, bent on going their own way with little respect for the deeper roots of their culture.
He was particularly influenced by the arguments of University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom’s book at the time, “The Closing of the American Mind.” In a pale foreshadow of the controversies over today’s woke movements, Bloom condemned a young generation that saw no relevance in the great classics from the Greek philosophers onward which laid the foundations for the values of Western civilization.
The lesson Wang drew from those observations was that if the “cultural gene” was allowed to wither as the Chinese population became more prosperous like America, its millennia-long continuous civilization would face existential risk. “If the value system collapses,” Wang asked, “how can the social system be sustained?” This concern that rapid modernization was tearing apart the social fabric is what lies behind Xi’s talk of “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation as a civilizational state.
Civilization Vs. State
What this obliquely, perhaps even counter-intuitively, suggests is that, as Wang endeavors to come up with a new narrative for unification with Taiwan, the civilizational frame without the “state” element may prove a broad enough canvas upon which to move forward.
Cultures and their downstream political systems transmute with time and experience even as they remain informed by their civilizational foundations. If those common roots are ranked above differing political systems, there may be a way for even a cultural conservative like Wang to thread the needle. A more forbearing narrative toward Taiwan on this basis would ineluctably refract back into politics on the mainland.
To take one striking example, the present Chinese leadership is surely disturbed by the personal profile and politics of Taiwan’s transgender digital minister, Audrey Tang, who has developed the most advanced form of online democracy anywhere in the world. But unlike most practitioners of democracy in the West that enshrine adversarial competition as a core attribute, she credits the success of her approach in Taiwan that reaches social consensus through deliberation to values emanating from its civilizational underpinning in the East. In ancient Chinese philosophy, “the political” was defined as “minimizing conflict through reconciling differences,” not partisan victory at all costs. She has shown in practice that deliberative democracy can govern no less effectively than a one-party system.
Cultural Genes Vs. Military Means
If Wang were to frame the link with Taiwan as shared civilizational kinship instead of unification under Beijing’s political system, it would open up a prospect for resolving the Taiwan dispute through the loose structure of a “commonwealth.” This notion, long floated by a former deputy defense minister of Taiwan, Chong-Pin Lin, envisions a self-governing republic with privileged economic ties that pays only symbolic homage to the common heritage of the homeland, not unlike Canada or Australia in the British Commonwealth formed after the end of the empire.
Such a move won’t, of course, defuse China’s generational tensions any more than the culture wars in America will soon be resolved. But as the anthropologist Xiang describes, the next generation in China would be far more amenable to this kind of pragmatic accommodation than to being drafted into yet another cycle of exhausting and diverting “patriotic struggle” against the West that would follow any attempt at forceful reunification.
As the nationalist fervor of the older generation passes with ever greater distance from the tumultuous birth of the People’s Republic in 1949, the younger cohort could find meaning and motive in building a less constricted system of non-Western modernity that retains distinctly Chinese characteristics.
If the aim is to maintain the continuity of Chinese civilization, a commonwealth organically and consensually cemented by cultural affinity instead of enforced unity would prove far more enduring.
One hopes against hope that these admittedly speculative ruminations may sooner or later gain traction. That would mean Wang must imaginatively depart from the dogmatic rigidity of another era and ground his new narrative in cultural genes instead of military means. The path he charts forward will make the difference between war and peace.