Vision and heart do matter: The spirit of freedom and cooperation

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Whether coincident or not, the G7 and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit (SCO) took place almost on the same day in Quebec, Canada and Qingdao, China, respectively. However, the closed and uncooperative atmosphere of the G7 meeting contrasted significantly to the open and mutually cooperative discussions that took place in Qingdao. Without going into too much detail, what we are concerned with here is why the dialogue of civilisations approach is exemplified in such initiatives as the SCO. In contrast, it was totally absent at the G7 meeting. In other words, what is the foundation for conducting sincere dialogue, in this case between world leaders?

I would like to use China as an example for understanding how constructive dialogue manifests in productive change to the status quo. (This is not to say that other examples have not occurred throughout history.) Many may assert that the increasing power and influence of the Chinese government is due to economic development, which is only partly true. What has recently made the Chinese government so strong is its capacity to bring different leaders together for dialogue based on trust. And what makes this possible is a vision rooted in cultural and civilisational wisdom that has developed over time, and vision that differs from paradigms that we have accepted as the norm. The Chinese framework is largely based on the vision of ‘all under the heaven with diversity in unity and the golden rule, “don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you’. A similar idea comes from Immanuel Kant: ‘So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that or any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only’.

This shows that the very essence of human existence is about freedom and decency – that a better world can exist if every rational being uses his or her free will to live life with graciousness. After all, this is one of the ultimate goals of all human beings. Over time humans have pursued this goal, which can be seen in several transformational epochs. This begins with the theological, exemplified by a human to God relationship. From this, great thinkers took a metaphysical approach to understanding humanity, then later the humanitarian-moral paradigm. And finally, we moved into the economic domain, which sparked philosophers such as Martin Buber to examine the relational aspects of I-Thou, I-You, to I-It. Sadly, though true freedom and decency did not ensure, leaving the development of humanity as an unfinished project.

Thus, many civilisations have started to advocate for alternative resources, largely spiritual. China is among these civilisations, promoting the vision of ‘all under the heaven with diversity in unity’. Clearly, spiritual or belief systems form a society’s vision, and the vision in turn opens up new horizons. In other words, the advantage of President Xi lies in his close attachment to the traditions of Chinese cultures and the full implementation of such wisdom in his leadership. He has made it clear on many occasions, such as the BOAO Forum, the One Belt One Road Summit, and most recently during his speech at the opening of the 2018 SCO:

“Shandong is the home province of Confucius and birthplace of Confucianism. An integral part of Chinese civilization, Confucianism believes that ‘a just cause should be pursued for the common good’ and champions harmony, unity and a shared community for all nations. Its emphasis on unity and harmony has much in common with the Shanghai Spirit, namely, mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diverse civilizations, and pursuit of common development. The Shanghai Spirit’s focus on seeking common ground while setting aside differences and pursuing mutually beneficial cooperation has won widespread international endorsement and support”.

Xi continued by citing Mencius, another ancient Chinese philosopher: “When Confucius looks down from the peak of the Dongshan Mountain, the local Kingdom of Lu comes into view; when he looks down from the peak of the Mount Tai, the whole land comes into view”. Xi called for keeping pace with current global trends to push for more human progress. He emphasised that during a time when the world is undergoing major developments, transformation, and adjustments, it is necessary to aim high and look far.

Such a vision has indeed manifested over the past 17 years. Guided by the SCO Charter and the Treaty on Long-Term Good Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation Between the Member States, we have observed the SCO forging constructive partnerships. In doing so, it has achieved a major breakthrough in the theoretical and practical approach to international relations, created a new model for regional cooperation, and made contributions to peace and development in the region. Guided by the Shanghai Spirit, ‘safety’ has been the cornerstone of the SCO since its inception, and now the fruitful outcomes have extended to include economic and cultural cooperation, making significant advancements in institution-building. Today, with eight member states, four observer states, and six dialogue partners, the SCO has become an important force for upholding regional security, promoting common development and improving global governance.

Such a spirit of collaboration is also reflected the SCO’s ‘friendship where hearts can meet’. China has established a special ‘Friendship Medal’, established at the end of 2015, and first awarded on 1 January 2016 to President Putin. Xi Jinping pointed out in his speech that the medal is the highest honorary medal given by the Chinese government and was awarded to foreign friends who have made outstanding contributions in supporting China’s modernisation, promoting exchanges and cooperation between China and foreign countries, and safeguarding world peace. Sino-Russian relations have withstood the test of changing international conditions, deepened political and strategic mutual trust and pragmatic cooperation in all areas. Sino-Russian relations can be regarded as a model for the harmonious coexistence of today’s world powers and neighbouring countries, and has made important contributions to developing a new model of international relations and building a community of human destiny.

Such friendship is extended to other countries as well. For example, when meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Chinese leaders said that the relationship between China and Kazakhstan has become a model for friendly relations between neighbouring countries. When meeting with the President of Kyrgyzstan, Chinese leaders said that the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Kyrgyzstan is yet another milestone in the history of bilateral relations. This is true of China’s relationship with Pakistan, India, Iran, etc.

These kinds of cooperative relationships are extremely precious at the present time. We all observe that the world is in a tremendous transformational period. The recovery of the world economy has been a difficult and arduous one. Frequent international and regional issues have caused many countries to face common threats and challenges. No country can deal with such situations alone or remain isolationist. All countries can achieve lasting stability and development only by strengthening cooperation, deepening partnerships for peace and cooperation in the areas of culture, education, science, technology, environmental protection, health, etc. on the basis of mutual respect for cultural diversity and social values.

The initiative and promotion of fostering a community of common destiny through initiatives like the SCO, BRICS, One Belt One Road, Euroasian development, etc. are all direct implementations of a vison focused on the unity of heaven, earth, and humanity. With such a vision in mind, cooperation can win over competition and global values transcend national benefits. This in turn can lay the foundation for authentic dialogue that highlights humanity’s ‘common destiny’. This is what makes the dialogue of civilisations paradigm possible as well as practical.

This paradigm focuses on the notion that humanity has a common and shared destiny that transcends ideology and political agendas. It draws not only from the work of Western, enlightenment thinkers, but also from the philosophical traditions of East Asia, Islamic philosophy, and Jewish philosophy, among others. Aside from being void of ideological influence, the strengths of the dialogue of civilisations school of thought is that it draws from more comprehensive resources that go beyond other schools, e.g. the Frankfurt School of thought or British Cultural Studies. These only draw resources from Western traditions, limiting the scope of understanding the world and forging the cocreation of humanity. In contrast, the dialogue of civilisations framework is based on the richest resources from all civilisations, which allows for a truly holistic approach at the epistemological and methodological levels. No matter the ideological background, this approach can benefit all of humanity, rather than only the elite and powerful.

The dialogue of civilisations approach aims to fully recognise the power of subjectivity and our relationship to the world in depth and in breadth, to make our existence meaningful in all dimensions. In addition, it would suggest a human coexistence with self, with nature, and with other human beings. Globalisation can build a dominating hegemony on the one hand, or it can foster a community of common destiny on the other, one which calls for new values to unite societies and cultures. From the Enlightenment the common values are freedom, rationality, law, and individual dignity. In addition to these values, we need to develop a group of alternatives, such as compassion and an appreciation for a holistic interconnectedness of all cultures and societies.

Globalisation is unavoidable and continues to deeply involve all countries, regions, societies, and cultures so much so that nothing is left out of this complex process. This is why an ‘all-under-heaven’ approach might become a key part of looking towards the future. Moving forwards, we need to break through the current closed world structure that promotes the rational agent or buffered self while sacrificing the feelings and bodily existence of others – those others being the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. In order to foster an opened world structure, we can aspire to fully respect ordinary human flourishing, and move away from a homogenised single paradigm towards the celebration of the integrity of various ways of life. The rebirth of the integrity of the world in terms of all-under-heaven needs a new world-view and a new framework of cultural, political, economic, and religious analysis. This is needed to reinterpret global problems as shared problems. Beyond all historical efforts, to explore the new ontological meaning of intercivilisational dialogues might be a promising way to transform humanity so we can achieve the ultimate realm of ‘all-under-heaven’.

On 12 June the Trump-Kim Summit will take place. As long as two world leaders have the vision for bemoaning the state of the universe and pitying the fate of humankind, we hope all obstacles for constructive dialogue will disappear.

Indeed, for protecting human freedom and decency, leaders need to continue expanding this vision to address emerging threats. For example, after nuclear tensions end, there are still other threats to human freedom Artificial Intelligence for example. In Henry Kissinger’s recent article in the Atlantic, ‘How the Enlightenment ends’, he states, “philosophically, intellectually – in every way – human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence”. In anyway, we cannot further lose human freedom and decency by lending ourselves to ‘artificial human beings’.

All in all, we might need to remember what Aristotle said thousands of years ago:  “Politics ultimately is necessary because of the necessities of life from which men strive to free themselves”. This is a timely call for all world leaders, who should embody both the Western spirit of freedom and the Eastern views of ‘community of common destiny’, to make us be proud of our era and also be prepared for the later generations to come.