Obama, our Confucian president, goes to China
President Obama's trip to China could open a new era in United State's relations with China, writes guest columnist Wendy Liu.
By Wendy Liu
Special to The Times
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IN his 10 months in the White House, President Obama has been given many labels, from socialist to communist, from Muslim to Marxist. I would say he is Confucian, especially in world affairs.
President Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize not for what he had achieved in world peace, but for what he had been trying to achieve, with "extraordinary efforts," as the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated, in reducing the world's nuclear arms, easing American tension with Muslim nations, etc. Former President Jimmy Carter, another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said Obama was awarded for his vision and commitment to peace and harmony in international relations.
Harmony. That's so Chinese, or rather, Confucian.
"He wei gui," or "Harmony is prize," are perhaps the three best-known words of Confucius, the ancient philosopher, among the Chinese speakers. They also best summarize the age-old Chinese belief that harmony was key to everything: harmony between nature and man, among people, between mind and body, etc. For social harmony, Confucius taught among other things that everyone, ruler or ruled, father or son, should know his duty and play his role well.
After being "banished" for decades in favor of revolution, Confucius' doctrine of harmony is enjoying a grand renaissance in China. Remember the giant character "harmony" the performers of the printing blocks formed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Harmony is also the policy goal Chinese President Hu Jintao has adopted for China since 2006: building a harmonious society at home and promoting a harmonious world abroad.
President Obama may not have said that harmony was a principal concept of his diplomacy, but one sees harmony written all over it.
To repair America's frayed relationship with Europe, President Obama admitted to the Europeans that America had at times shown arrogance. But now, he went on, America was looking to be partners, not patrons.
To show Latin America that the U.S. was re-engaging them as equals, President Obama showed willingness at the Trinidad summit to listen to them all, allies or rivals. Countries could disagree, he stated, respectfully.
To seek a new beginning with the Muslim world, President Obama declared in Cairo that instead of being exclusive, Islam shared with America common principles of justice and progress, and should tolerate differences and root out extremists together.
To have the U.S. lead by example in getting rid of nuclear weapons, President Obama signed an agreement in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that the U.S. and Russia, which combined have 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, would further cut their arsenals.
And of course, no world harmony would be possible without harmony between the United States and China, whose relations, President Obama said, would shape the 21st century.
One month after his inauguration, President Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Beijing. The message was that issues with China such as human rights would not interfere on economic, climate and security cooperation. The president then further balanced his China policy with moves such as imposing a tariff on Chinese tires while postponing meeting the Dalai Lama.
With the first U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue held in Washington, D.C., last July, Obama expanded on President Bush's concept of China as a "strategic competitor" in a "constructive and cooperative" relationship with the U.S. He then put his own signature on America's China policy by announcing a new era with China: one of "sustained cooperation, not confrontation."
Now with Obama on his debut trip to China, birthplace of Confucius, and meeting with the Confucian-minded, capitalism-practicing communist leader Hu Jintao, a new era is about to take shape.
Challenging as U.S.-China relations are, Obama seems determined. At the July gathering mentioned above, he quoted Mencius, the second greatest Confucian philosopher:
"A trail through the mountains, if used, becomes a path in a short time, but, if unused, becomes blocked by grass in an equally short time."
Wendy Liu of Mercer Island is the author of "Everything I Understand about America I Learned in Chinese Proverbs" (January 2009, Homa & Sekey Books).