Common necessity to put the people first

After the leaders of China and the United States met in Bali ahead of the G20 summit in November, hope was once kindled that a thaw in Sino-US relations might be on the cards. Yet, events in the past few months suggest that that doesn’t seem to be the case. For a healthier relationship, and thus a more tolerant, less ideologically confrontational world, to be built, mutual respect must be in place.

If seeds of mutual respect are to grow, one of the most important prerequisites is for each side to understand a little more about the history, culture and traditions of the other. Only then can we begin to have a degree of acceptance of different attitudes, norms and government systems, which can seem so alien to people on the other side of the divide.

A good starting point for anyone in the West would be to understand a simple concept in ancient Chinese philosophy. This is the so-called “mandate of heaven”, which has traditionally legitimized China’s dynastic rulers over the centuries. It is a similar religious concept to the “divine right of kings” in Europe, but with a significant difference: It obliged the rulers to put the welfare of their people as their overriding priority. If the rulers became corrupt or mistreated the people, then the mandate disappeared, and the dynasty invariably collapsed.

This is a lesson not lost on the Communist Party of China. It helps explain why it is so focused on economic prosperity, on eliminating poverty and on fighting corruption. To deviate from these priorities and the CPC’s often-expressed mission of improving the well-being of the Chinese people would be to risk social instability.

This is where competing world ideologies can find common ground. The “mandate of heaven”, despite its religious overtones, is conferred not by a divine being but by the people. Chinese leaders have always appreciated this, realizing that their obligations to the people are the cornerstone of their power, authority and legitimacy. This is not so different from the philosophy that underpins systems of government in the West. When government works well, be it a Western-style democracy or a socialist system with Chinese characteristics, the interests of the people are paramount. Both systems can be successful, though of course both can also succumb to poor leadership, corruption and vested interests. In such cases, whatever the system of government, ultimate power always lies with the people. Neither system is perfect, and neither side should be complacent nor view itself as superior to the other.

What we need in this increasingly polarized world is a little less hubris and a little more tolerance. That requires an appreciation of the history and traditions that have molded different countries, and the recognition that different systems can work well. Let us hope that such common ground will help facilitate healthier relations.

The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.