Escape from Civilization’s Predicaments

Senior Fellow and Director, China Center

This talk was originally presented as a keynote address at the 2022 Telos-Paul Piccone Institute Conference on “Civilizational States and Liberal Empire—Bound to Collide?,” held on April 1–3, 2022, in New York, NY.

Thank you for inviting me to the Telos Conference. Unlike most of you, I am not a philosopher. I was trained as a historian. Some of you though may consider that to be, by definition, a failed philosopher.

Nevertheless, I am a product of a deeply philosophical zeitgeist. I was born and raised in China. It’s a country that, for the last several decades, has been vandalized by a radical, Western, communist ideology. It’s an ideology that is said to be deeply rooted in the critical philosophies of modern times.

It’s with that background in mind that I want to explain the title of my talk today: “Escape from Civilization’s Predicaments.” The title itself has created a new predicament for me because it contains the term “civilization.” But what is a “civilization”?

Civilization is an ambiguous term. It became fashionable when evolutionist thinking achieved dominance in modern history. The connotations were of high cultural achievements, as opposed to the lower stages of savagery. In other words, it makes sense only in terms of an inexorable evolution from barbarism to civilization, as the nineteenth-century anthropologist Henry Morgan put it.

With this interpretive framework, the “civilizing” West in the age of European expansion often encountered less civilized regions. For a period, these encounters were hailed as noble, and often exhilarating, missions. It was thought of as a glorious, epic struggle of Enlightenment over darkness and backwardness.

Today, however, the notion of “civilization” has undergone a revolutionary redefinition. On the one hand, there is the belief that all cultures and civilizations are of equal value. We are, in this understanding, living in a multicultural landscape, without a value hierarchy. The world is flat, to borrow a phrase.

On the other hand, old divides still exist. Civilization matters. The world’s conflicts and problems are often explained in terms of a clash of civilizations, an irreconcilable, uncompromising cycle of opposition and hostility along cultural, religious, and ethnic lines.

But I find this approach to defining the world’s affairs, and mankind’s predicaments, in terms of civilization to be inadequate.

The word “civilization” comes from the Latin civilis, meaning belonging to a society. This pertains to cultural roots, assuming that people who share the same moral values, aesthetics, and religious and intellectual heritages form unique civilizational blocs. They belong together. We often hear scholars refer to the Islamic civilization, the Chinese civilization, the Christian civilization, the Confucian civilization, and so on.

But this approach to understanding our world, it seems to me, is epistemologically flawed.

First, within the same supposed civilizational blocs, there are often large communities that do not belong in the same category. A singular Confucian civilization cannot explain the drastic differences between mainland China and Taiwan. North and South Koreas are in the same civilizational bloc, but they are different entities with distinct cultural and political realities. The same could once be said of the former East and West Germanys.

Second, this civilizational approach can aggravate old wounds and augment tribal conflicts when diverging groups are put together. Take Ukraine, as Vladimir Putin is currently trying to do.

The ongoing war in Ukraine is partly a result of the notion of civilizational belonging. Putin believes that Ukraine, or at least the Russianspeaking region and people of Ukraine, belong to a Moscow-centered Slavic civilization.

Ukraine does share cultural heritage with its more powerful neighbor. But Putin’s use of this civilizational heritage to justify invasion is appalling to many who have nevertheless developed their own separate cultural, political, and national identity.

This problem with the civilizational construct is not confined to Europe. A few weeks ago, I was with former secretary of state Mike Pompeo in Singapore. It was at the height of Russia’s war on Ukraine.

If you have ever worked in foreign policy, at the State Department or at any international organization, you will know that Singapore has been masterful at getting along with multiple sides of geopolitical conflicts at the same time. Singapore works to never easily offend anyone. But not this time.

Singapore’s government reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine uncharacteristically and aggressively, and with unmistakable clarity. Singapore was one of the first countries to impose sanctions on Russia.

There was a reason for this. Singapore has a profound fear of Putin’s logic of civilizational belonging, especially if it were to be applied by China in the Indo-Pacific. About 80 percent of Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, more than any other country in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s strong reaction to an event in faraway Ukraine may well be because of the kind of moral repulsion that many of us felt at seeing an unprovoked war of aggression against a sovereign nation. But it was also a practical, strategic move against China, an aggressor in Singapore’s backyard. Beijing seeks to treat all Chinese-speaking people, worldwide, as “belonging” to a Sinic civilization, led by the Chinese Communist Party.

Before Secretary Pompeo and I visited Singapore, we spent four days in Taiwan. Between 95 and 97 percent of Taiwanese people are ethnic Chinese. As you can imagine, Russia’s Ukraine gambit caused a seismic shock in the island democracy. Taiwan’s reaction against Russia was also extraordinarily tough, swift, and strong. It was grounded in many of the same realities faced by Singapore. If Russia could invade Ukraine to supposedly protect ethnic Russians in another country, then China could do the same for ethnic Chinese or Chinese-speaking peoples and regions, both near and far.

Why am I saying all this? I want to suggest a different way of understanding our world’s predicaments. Instead of using civilization as the dominant category and criteria, we need to use something else. I propose ideology.

Let me clarify what I mean by “ideology.” The word “ideology,” in its modern form at least, came out of the French Revolution. Originally it denoted a system of ideas that form the dominant principles under which a government or a society function. In Chinese, the word “ideology,” or yishixingtai 意识形态, literally means “mode of consciousness.” It is often coupled with the word “superstructure,” or shangcengjianzhu 上层建筑.

Initially, the mid-nineteenth-century Marxists and communists used the word to mean the political and philosophical underpinnings of the means of production and the material foundation of society. Today, this broad Marxist definition of “ideology” still applies, mostly in a philosophical sense. But in the contemporary communist world, especially in China, “ideology” as a political system of ideas simply means the domain of political awareness that conforms to the thoughts of figures like Marx, Lenin, Mao, and other “correct” communist leaders.

Of course, ideology means different things in different parts of the world. Not every part of the world outside of the West is communist. In these places, ideology is the conceptual and intellectual source of human behaviors and actions and policies. It deals with the fundamental, nonmaterial factors that animate and motivate a nation, a religious group, a government, an ethnic group, or a community.

But whatever its understanding, ideology matters. And the fact that we in the West increasingly have not used ideology to understand the modern world, especially to understand the communist world, has always been surprising to me.

I’ll return to my background to explain. Like most of my generation in China, my childhood and early adolescence were permeated with daily readings of the fundamentals of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. These men fancied themselves to be profound political philosophers of their times, deeply involved in their proletarian, heroic, epic struggles against their reactionary bourgeois philosopher counterparts, such as Kant and Hegel.

While many young people here in the United States spend their childhoods consumed by the ethos of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the heroes Horatio Alger and Nancy Drew, youths in China were spending our time in other ways. We read The German Ideology, The Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, The Conditions of the Working Class in England, The State and Revolution, The Communist Manifesto, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The Quotations of Chairman Mao, and my all-time favorite, On Khrushchev’s Phony Communism and Its Historical Lessons for the World.

I came to the United States thirty-five years ago. Like most Chinese immigrants of my generation, I went through a prolonged—and often painful—intellectual deprogramming of my early indoctrination, which had been imposed on me by a communist government. This was, for me, a new birth of freedom.

But truth be told, even before then I had developed serious doubt about the philosophical foundations of Marxist ideology—its inconsistency, its internal contradictions, its abject failure in predicting the evolution of capitalism, its dogmatism, its historical determinism, its empirical and epistemological inadequacies, and so on. Many in China do. I am cured of my former infection with communist ideology and have strong immunity to it. But I have dedicated my life to dealing with the ideological world I left behind. It is a tortured world, fundamentally motivated and inspired by ideological powers and dogmatic devotions, communistic and otherwise.

My dedication created a new kind of intellectual predicament—I do not have many fellow travelers.

America suffers from a severe case of the “poverty of ideology.” Most Americans simply don’t look at the world in terms of ideology. We base our worldly judgments on actions and deeds, but seldom on the ideological sources of these actions and deeds. This is an Amnesty International approach, focused, in the case of China, on bad deeds and human rights abuses but not on the ideological reasons for these egregious acts.

This poverty of ideology is difficult to explain. One possibility is that many Americans believe in universal human goodness. This country was founded on the noble creed that all men are created equal. Since basic human conditions are the same, so if everyone is given a fair chance, all people would naturally seek the same ends and behave the same way. Americans think that communist theories sound odd and unnatural. They tend to believe everyone else must disagree with them as well. This is especially true since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, the Cold War itself created a psychological resistance to ideology, particularly within the American intelligentsia. Many were fearful of the possibility of a nuclear war made more likely by ideology. Harvard professor Richard Pipes’s memoir contains an excellent chapter about this peculiar American intellectual fear.

Moreover, political excesses like McCarthyism created a backlash among many Americans, particularly those without a deep understanding of communist ideology. People who know the truth about communist ideology are afraid to point out the symbiosis between the radical ideology and communist governments’ conduct, for fear of being accused of McCarthyism, even today.

This Western poverty of ideology has proven self-defeating when we must deal with an ideologically charged world. It has led to abject failures in our foreign policy.

America’s China policy is a case in point. Our national leaders and leading intellectuals are often not able to understand the fundamental symbiosis between communist ideologies and the Chinese government’s policies and practices. George Kennan got this right about the Soviet Union in 1946 and 1947. But few have gotten it right about China, even with the benefit of many decades of study.

The Trump administration correctly determined that the People’s Republic of China, under the direction and control of the Chinese Communist Party, has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Muslim Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjian. We rallied much of the world’s support for our condemnations and sanctions in response to China’s crimes against humanity.

Despite these milestones, we failed to get any Muslim-majority nations to take an open stand with us to push back against Beijing’s repression of their Muslim brothers and sisters. The reason we failed, I believe, was a lack of focus on ideology.

The American government’s approach to Xinjiang was overwhelmingly focused on Beijing’s deeds and accurately highlighting the Chinese Communist Party’s atrocities. But it was not focused on the communist ideology behind the genocide.

Beijing’s goal is to eradicate Uighurs’ Islamic beliefs and ethnic identity. The Leninist state in Beijing has locked Uighurs up by the millions in a massive concentration camp system. This is not just to physically torment them. More importantly, it is to brainwash them into MarxismLeninism and other communist theories, and to do that the CCP has to take away their Muslim identity first.

When the United States condemned Beijing’s repression, few Muslim-majority countries joined us. Many of these governments carry out repression in their own countries. But had we also focused our efforts on the Chinese Communist Party’s assault from an ideological perspective and condemned Beijing for its ideological war on Islam, it would then have been much harder for the ruling elites of many Muslim-majority countries to ignore America’s call.

It is imperative for the United States to understand the singular importance of communist ideology in Beijing’s conduct.

Most countries have a few simple founding principles. For the United States, they include popular sovereignty, limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. Today’s China still adheres to the official PRC foundational principle laid out by Mao Zedong in 1954: “The force at the core that leads our cause is the Chinese Communist Party; the theoretical foundation that guides our thinking is Marxism-Leninism.”

Far from declining, Marxist theories have gained even more prominence in China in the twenty-first century. Enabled by revolutionary information technologies, the Chinese Communist Party is saturating China’s public and private spaces with intense and relentless nationwide indoctrination campaigns extolling Marxism, Leninism, and the thoughts of major Chinese communist leaders.

Here, I must acknowledge a sad reality. While the United States generally ignores ideology in foreign policy and world affairs, Marxism and its many intellectual variations are surprisingly quite popular among American intelligentsia and on American campuses.

I’ve witnessed this. The first American academic seminar I ever participated in was at an elite East Coast liberal arts college outside Philadelphia. The seminar was about the “Dominant Ideology,” and we read everything written by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. As you all know, Gramsci is in the news lately because of his theoretical framework for Critical Race Theory.

In my graduate school years in Northern California, I couldn’t escape campus Marxism and neo-Marxism either. My required readings included Eric Hobsbawm, Emma Goldman, Noam Chomsky, and of course Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

One of the reasons that Marxism is popular among American intellectuals is that Marxism is philosophically all-encompassing. It purports to have a universal application for any human conditions, especially all forms of suffering, or in Marxist parlance, the separation of people’s alienated life from deeper human nature.

According to Marxism, what creates this alienation of true humanity is social classes, nations, communities, and individuals. This theory of alienation engenders a staunch Marxist quest to find the ultimate emancipation from human predicaments and a soothing pathway for mankind to arrive at a primal oneness in peace and happiness. In other words, what Marx purports to promise is a powerful state of unity for the entire human species in equality and harmony.

Western intellectuals are susceptible to this attractive but deceptive ideology. But the Chinese intelligentsia for the past one hundred years or so have also embarked on a similar, relentless, Marxist philosophical search for an all-encompassing world order of supreme harmony, free of all a priori human alienation.

What has ailed China, according to this thinking, are not just China’s abject defeats in the Opium Wars, the Sino–Japanese Wars, or all the humiliating unequal treaties, but something much deeper. It is a systemic Chinese failure.

In this understanding, the ultimate remedy and escape from this failure, which China desperately needs, is a cosmic system to solve all its problems. It’s therefore a Ti-Xi 体系 problem. When this Chinese sense of self-enriching alienation reached its zenith around the time of the Versailles Conference in 1919, the Chinese intelligentsia was thrilled beyond description to find the all-encompassing Marxist philosophy. It seemed a soothing system of thoughts that promised emancipation from all sorts of individual and national predicaments.

My Hoover Institution colleague, the brilliant Thomas Sowell, summed this up well in his seminal 1985 work Marxism: Philosophy and Economics:

"The Marxian vision took the overwhelming complexity of the real world and made the parts fall into place, in a way that was intellectually exhilarating and conferred such a sense of moral superiority that opponents could be simply labelled and dismissed as moral lepers or blind reactionaries. Marxism was—and remains—a mighty instrument for the acquisition and maintenance of political power."1

This obsession with finding a universal, harmonious order has manifested in our own generation, even after the collapse of the Soviet communist empire. Marxism as a state ideology may be finished in much of the world, but it has inspired a unique pursuit for universal oneness and cosmic harmony that persists to this day.

We can witness this intellectual penchant from our own rush to declare an end of history, the ultimate liberation of the entire world from our alienating Cold War of division, confrontation, and proxy battles. Francis Fukuyama famously, and infamously, wrote in the National Interest on the occasion of Berlin Wall’s downfall:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.2

Even more sensational is the claim by the greatest observational philosopher of our times; I speak of course of the eminent Thought Leader Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. In 2005, Mr. Friedman boldly declared that the world is now flat. He meant that a harmonious globalization had f inally arrived; all insurmountable barriers separating all parts of the worlds were supposedly demolished by the benign forces of globalizing mutual dependency and interconnecting telecommunication technologies. Shanghai and New York City were operating on the same industrial, philosophical principles and political ethos because Mr. Friedman had found excellent bagels and boundless supplies of Starbucks coffee in both cities, which he could discuss, ad nauseum, with the world’s equally friendly and sagacious cab drivers.

This wishing for a universal and harmonious order, despite reality, is dangerous. It essentially denies individuality and pluralism. Contrary to the Marxist vision of a harmonious universe, or what the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has been advocating for—a Chinese Communist–led “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind,” or 人类命运共同体—most people do not want to live in a world with such oneness and conformity. Different communities, be they Islamic, Confucian, or Christian, all want to keep their unique identities, sometimes through violent means. Attempts to eliminate such differences have caused catastrophes.

Furthermore, it is futile to strive for such cosmic oneness because the inevitable backlashes will be, and have been, powerful. Facing the alarming elimination of national identities and fundamental principles through the forces of globalization and technological revolutions, many of the world’s countries and people have reacted with strong resistance.

The momentous victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election in the United States and the furious rise of Xi Jinping’s Marxist-Leninist fundamentalism in China can both be interpreted as evidence of this wave of powerful pushbacks against such search for a globalized world order.

To be more specific, the Trump revolution stresses the principle of America First, with a strong focus on the American Founding in 1776. General Secretary Xi Jinping could likewise no longer risk the communist regime losing power to globalizing forces like markets and the free exchange of ideas. He implemented the most rigid and fanatical MarxismLeninism indoctrination, calling for every one of the nearly 100 million Communist Party members to return to Marxist fundamentalism through a relentless national campaign called “Never Forget Our Original Commitment to Communism,” or 勿忘初心.

To the chagrin of Fukuyama and Friedman, history has not ended. Enlightenment principles are being challenged by authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing. The world is not flat. Economic, political, military, and informational barriers are driving free and captive nations further and further apart. In China, new technologies have provided means to access unprecedented amount of information. But all information inside Communist China is censored, filtered, and distorted by a high-tech, Orwellian surveillance system.

This is not the clash of civilizations. It is the clash of ideologies, the timeless fight between freedom and democracy against the ideologies of tyranny and dictatorship.

General Secretary Xi Jinping admonished his comrades in 2017 at the 19th CCP Party Congress with words to this effect. He urged them to grasp the urgency of this epic struggle between the ideologically intoxicated Chinese Communist Party and the rest of the free world:

The wheels of history roll on; the tides of the times are vast and mighty. History looks kindly on those with resolve, with drive and ambition, and with plenty of guts; it won’t wait for the hesitant, the apathetic, or those shy of a challenge.3

Here, Xi gave a call to action on behalf of the Chinese communists in search of a Chinese Communist–led “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind.” This is a challenge deeply rooted in the communist ideology of an epic struggle against the ideology of freedom and democracy. Are we ready for this challenge? Thank you!

Read in Telos.