In The Diplomat, Zue Li and Cheng Zhangxi discuss the ancient Chinese concept of Li, which they say would characterize a world order dominated by China. Zue Li is the Director of Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics (IWEP) and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and Cheng Zhangxi is a researcher at IWEP and CASS,
Messrs. Zue and Cheng say that Li is actually among the Five Constant Virtues, which are, “五常 wu chang: 仁 ren, benevolence; 义 yi, righteousness; 礼 li, propriety; 智 zhi, wisdom; and 信 xin, fidelity.” And according to the two writers, Li has three main essential qualities: “it regards Li as the key means to conducting relationships; it is based on a concentric zone structure; and it is open.”
The most common translation for Li in English is “propriety,” although it is also frequently translated as “rites” or “ritual.” But Li actually has a wide range of meaning in its original tongue, including “proper words or behavior, codes of conduct, ceremonies, gifts, surnames” and even more.
Propriety is the fundamental principle of Confucianism, the philosophy that has shaped China’s politics and culture since 200 BC. Among Confucianism’s Five Constant Virtues, Li is the thread that runs through all the others, since propriety is necessary in order to become aware of righteousness and benevolence, and fidelity and wisdom are a necessity for developing propriety.
China’s traditions teach that both the country and its families are built on similar structure, that is in turn upheld by Li. This explains the famous proverb “man without propriety shall not stand, matters without propriety shall not succeed, and countries without propriety shall not last.”
Therefore, in matters personal or geopolitical, propriety undergirds everything. And the opposite of Li—discourtesy, disrespect, unmannerliness, insolence—is a sure recipe for trouble.
China’s Hua-Yi order ruled East Asia for more than a thousand years. Hua, meaning “China”, and Yi, meaning “others.” In this order, the Chinese promoted a code of behavior known as bo lai hou wang, 薄来厚往, which translates to “give more but take less.” Bo lai hou wang fit perfectly with Li, or propriety, and caused the whole region of East Asian to remain stable.
The Chinese may not fully adapt bo lai hou wang while working on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but neither will Beijing adapt a strict business-first policy either. China considers the development of friendly nations to have great importance, therefore the value of righteousness comes to the fore, along with benevolence, goodwill, mutuality and inclusion, even if infrastructure investments and reciprocal cooperation between governments make less business sense.
Zue Li and Cheng Zhangxi postulate that if in the future we are to see a Chinese world order, this order would ruled by propriety, and would not emphasize China’s advantage over other nations, since that would be contrary to the behavior of ruling nations and is not characteristic of the character of the Chinese.
It is interesting to note that the Hua-Yi Order, true to Li’s meaning, was constructed using a concentric zone structure starting from the palace of the Emperor and going outward. This signified the relationships inside the order, which were not only hierarchical but actually dependent on how close they were to the center.
Picture a circle with the palace of the Emperor in the middle. And then think of bigger and bigger concentric circles going outward, every 250 kilometers. According to the Chinese, the Hua-Yi Order was made up of Five Circles. The first three were considered the civilized area, or Hua, and then the two outward circles were the uncivilized areas, or Yi.
Personal relationships are also viewed through the perspective of Five Circles. Since inequality between people is acceptable in Chinese culture, the most important thing is to “connect individuals with propriety” so that society will be orderly.
This is in contrast with Christianity, where equality before God is a given. This has had a direct influence with modern ideas including equality before the law, gender equality, equality between nations that can be observed in countries where a majority of the people are Christians, and have influenced much of our modern world views, making it impossible for the hierarchy in Chinese propriety to hold sway. Nevertheless, closeness to the center via affinity or proximity as a determining factor in relationships cannot be denied. For example, the US is close to its neighbor, Canada, while the UK retains close ties to Australia and New Zealand because of shared history.
With Li, one can expect that China will also conduct its relationships with other countries based on closeness, even if some countries with good relationships with China may not have the same Confucian heritage.
When the Hua-Yi Order was in place, all countries were considered part of the system. Lands that were ‘other’ or ‘uncivilized’ voluntarily paid tribute or performed other acts that recognized China’s superiority. China’s beliefs in inclusivity and harmony in diversity made this possible. The Chinese believed that “if people far away are not obedient, then improve civility and morality to smooth their way,” denoting an early adherence to diplomacy hinged on both propriety and good will, in contrast with the history of Western civilization, which has been hugely dependent on recognizing enemies and alliances, and has long used pressure, if not coercion, in order to keep alliances intact.
For the last four decades, China has supported diplomacy that is both amicable and autonomous, which evolved into ‘partner diplomacy’ in the 1990s. The Belt and Road Initiative is just the latest example of China’s intent to keep partnerships strong and is a reflection of traditional Chinese culture. More of the same is to be expected in a Chinese order that is ruled by Li, propriety.
However, since this order is intrinsically peaceful, there are many challenges ahead to replacing the current world order that we have. But, the writers also believe that “openness also makes the Chinese order governed by propriety compatible with the current international system.”
They also posit that neither too few or too many nations will want to join the Chinese order, and that this number will be dynamic, though most will come from among China’s neighbors.
To sum up their arguments, the writers say that China’s world order will not be governed by power grabs, unlike how the West has ruled the world for the past millennia. And it will not be a rule-based order either. Zue Li and Cheng Zhangxi believe that China’s world order “is a bilaterally-oriented new international order founded on Chinese tradition and reformed through modernity. And, importantly, it is compatible with the current international system.”