There comes a time
When we heed a certain call
When the world must come together as one

We Are The World, USA for Africa

A talent for following the ways of yesterday is not sufficient to improve the world of today.

King Wu-ling, 307 BC

Does politics need a redefinition? Well, we cannot ask it. It has no ears. It does what it does – and has been doing since it differentiated out and became an autonomous social area (‚system’) among others: economy, the law, science, religion, art etc. They all add up to the once new world order sociologists call ‘functionally differentiated society’. There is a scientific consensus that this ‘is’ actually the world order – the only truth available within this order, a kind of provisional agreement between ‘society scientists’ i.e. sociologists. There is also a consensus that this world order is about to end, that we are approaching a new one – the “next society”, as Peter F. Drucker has once called it. The term ‘postmodern’ seems to point at this transit we are in right now: no longer modern – but not yet something else. As the future is uncertain, we have no idea where we are heading to. Although sociologists of course have made a few proposals, proving once more that there is no future, only futures. Yes, says Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang, the future is uncertain – but we nevertheless have to design it. We have to think about a universal and positive world order. Which is why politics needs a redefinition. It is this redefinition that he introduces in his opus magnum “Alles unter einem Himmel” (Everything Under the Sky), which is now for the first time available in German translation. It allows for another reevaluation of what has been a hot topic of discussion since Zhao first introduced his idea in 2005.

One could disagree. We don’t have to do what Zhao thinks needs to be done. Maybe we should forget about creating world orders altogether, watch them emerge, and attempt to describe reality as accurately as possible – instead of saying what it should look like. Because that is easy. “We all must lend a helping hand” etc. Reality is always on the losing side when we compare it to how things could be. “I have seen so much misled sacrifice, so many dead ends induced by ideology, and such horrors provoked by artificial paradises of dogmatic politics that I want to convey a salutary reaction against trying to frame political practice in accordance with social theory, or, for that matter, with ideology”, says even a Marxist like Manuel Castells. “The most fundamental political liberation is for people to free themselves from uncritical adherence to theoretical or ideological schemes, to construct their practice on the basis of their experience, while using whatever information or analysis is available to them, from a variety of sources. In the twentieth century, philosophers tried to change the world. In the twentyfirst century, it is time for them to interpret it differently.” 

For Zhao, an interpretation of the world is not enough. He nevertheless starts with one: The world we live in is a failed world (as we will see, this paraphrase of a well-known expression of American foreign politics is neither a coincidence nor sheer sarcasm). The reason for this failure is the imperialistic world-view of the nation-states that only see it as an object of exploitation, and a ‘Western’ concept of thinking that thrives on antagonisms like friend/foe and puts what Zhao calls ‘individual rationality’ first. Which is why a new world order is needed. The foundation of this new, positive order is a redefined form of politics that centers around the concept of ‘tianxia’.

Zhao does not provide a consistent definition of tianxia; it may thus not be a concept in the sense of ‘Begriff’. Defining it would be counterproductive, as the redefinition of politics is obviously only possible on the grounds of not defining tianxia. Instead, he uses it as an infinite resource of meaning, as it is – in his words – “inexhaustible”. He nevertheless distinguishes between a spiritual and a political dimension of the concept. The spiritual dimension though is not meant to be part of his new global design. Only in terms of a rational circumscription or reduction. (One could already observe the spirituality in the very idea of tianxia’s inexhaustibility. To paraphrase the “Tao Te Ching”: Tianxia is like a well: used but never used up. It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities. To embrace its abundance, we should not confine ourselves to what we think it is, but be open like the eternal void, so that it can fill us with infinite possibilities etc.)

We face the same terminological problem when it comes to how Zhao uses the word ‘world’. Philosophical concepts of the world are as old as time. Aristotle defined the ‘world state’, Francis Bacon distinguished between the globus intellectualis and the globus terrestris, Hegel defined an overall ‘world spirit’ (Weltgeist), an idea Fukuyama later applied to modern society to characterize it as the ‘fulfillment’ (end) of history. The interpretation that makes most sense to me is to identify what Zhao calls ‘world’ as world society. In contrast to the world that knows no outside, be it a tianxianistic or a regular one, society does. Its borders consist of meaning. On the outside? Nature. Otherwise the trees and clouds and dogs of this world would be equally responsible for the failure Zhao describes in his book – the failure of a society that has not been able to live up to its new global reality. Luckily, he has the medicine for cure: tianxia.

He finds it in a long-gone, glorious ‘Eastern’ past. But it now has to carry the burden of being applied to the modern world, i.e. world society, to turn a failure into a success. How? By fusing this renewed ‘Eastern’ idea with the old ‘Western’ idea of universalism, of universally applicable standards. It is another important hint at the reality of world society; at the reality of a global world order in which it does not make much sense to use a geographical distinction like ‘West’ and ‘East’ any longer. 

This distinction can, however, help us understand value systems better, which will in turn help us understand Zhao better. Value systems have their origins in religious traditions, as Karl-Heinz Pohl has shown; the West in Christianity, the East in the functional equivalent of Christian faith, the ‘secular religion’ of Confucianism. While the West, i.e. the European nations and the United States have successfully universalized their value system, the East, i.e. China was not so successful here – but it also wasn’t interested in such a world conversion so far. Post-Confucianism nevertheless still forms the basis of Chinese society – and, as Zhao’s book demonstrates, of ‘Chinese political thought’. And although it was officially replaced in China by Marxist ideology, it has remained an integral part of Chinese cultural identity (what Thomas Metzger calls China’s ‘cultural psyche’). Of course there is a big intersection between communism or Marxism and Confucianism already, as Karl-Heinz Pohl has pointed out; both are morally rigorous, both demand that one’s own actions should be altruistic. Communism in the Chinese translation roughly means ‘the doctrine of common property’; Confucius sentence that everything under the sky is common property, tianxia wei gong, the world belongs to us all, points at the parallels – similarities that greatly facilitated the adoption of communism in China. But Confucianism has a mildness that communism lacks. It seems that the China of today – in a phase of moral decay accelerated by rapid economic growth and a search for wealth that has made the people individualistic and moved them away from higher ideals – is more in need of the values embodied in Confucianism than of the spirit to be found in communism. Daniel Bell talks about “a dramatic reevaluation of tradition” (not only in China, but also in other countries with a Confucian heritage). The restoration of Confucianism’s visibility is an important part of it. Which is why Xi Jinping himself has published a book that instructs the republic’s people How to Read Confucius. The fact that Confucianism approves of hierarchical relations between rulers and subordinates is an additional advantage. And although for a Confucian thinker the people always come first and the sovereign second, the Chinese intellectual as confucian officer i.e. official was always to be found on the side of the government; after all, he was supposed to be a good administrator oriented towards the ideals of humanity or – with Zhao – towards the ideals of worldliness. Yes, if necessary also an admonisher in case of incorrect use of power – but always a loyal one. We can assume this loyalty from Zhao, the revivalist of Confucian political thought, too.

How to read his text? With this important aspect in mind. It helps to understand why human rights are less important to its author than other universals: unselfishness, accountability, altruism. But we need to be careful here. Do Europeans and Americans live up to the Christian ideals of charity, justice, and fraternity? Zhao is quite right – we don’t. Does China live up to the ideal of unselfishness? Of course not. We talk about ideals, and the difference between ideal and reality is another key distinction of Zhao’s book, as is the question how a global implementation or realiziation of the tianxia ideal may be accomplished. From his perspective, his version of ‚the best of all worlds‘, the worldly world, is a realistic one and can be achieved.

Just as important though is the East/West distinction. And while Zhao talks about the end of all antinomies under one – the global – sky, and accuses the ‘West of thinking in friend/foe antagonisms, he himself seems to need the West and its wrongdoings as a contrast against which he can develop the tianxia alternative – another very modern, Western idea. The themes and names of his book too demonstrate this new global reality. He does not refer to Heidegger and his conceptualization of technology though – but it sometimes feels as if he had just replaced Heidegger’s idea of modern technology with Western thinking. He does honor Immanuel Kant though. Only that his concept of a gradual legalization – according to Zhao – is not applicable to the whole world. Another failure. In contrast to the one he has on offer. 

It echoes an idea that Roderick Macfarquhar came up with as early as 1980: that the post-confucian community spirit may offer a more appropriate answer than Western individualism for the challenges this global era holds for us. Zhao updates him by rejecting the idea that there was anything good about this individualism. This house of cards called progress had to collapse, as it was built on the wrong values (read: there are eternally right ones).

This is not the place to point out some of the improvements that the Western view of the world, inspired by the ideal of progress, has brought about. Ok, briefly: Democratisation movements, which led to the replacement of several authoritarian regimes by liberal ones; the global cooperation between states, for which the European Union is a good example; the equality of sexual minorities. But the beautiful story of an ideal of liberal democracy realizing itself on a global level (told by Fukuyama) may not only have been conceptually questionable – it also ignored the fact that “violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and economic oppression have never affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity” (Derrida’s critique of Fukuyama). If history would have ended in the 1990s, it would therefore not have been a reason to sing the praises of liberal democracy. But as we all know, not history, but the optimism and the illusions of the 1990s – only distorted by Huntington’s dark prophecy, a direct answer to the one by Fukuyama – have ended instead. Which is why Zhao’s book comes at the right time; it fits the current Western mood of disillusionment, a feeling of failure. As Nietzsche once said: Philosophers not only have to create concepts – they also have to persuade people to accept them. And because it comes at the right time, many people from the ‘West’ are willing to listen. But what exactly is he trying to persuade them of, apart from that they’ve got it all wrong?

To accept tianxia as the new political concept. If he was an American politician, he would be talking about the ‘tianxia doctrine’. Part of this is an understanding of politics as the dominant area of society – more important than all the others. This is the tianxia magic: It transforms the world ‘as a whole’ into a political one. Under the tianxia sky, society becomes a subject of politics, a political entity. Which of course goes well along with China’s reality, where politics dominates – not controls though – all other areas of society. And this political integration is able to heal the world.

What are motives? Explanations that are socially acceptable. It would not be socially acceptable to tell the world that Zhao tries to create a ‘Planet China’ philosophy which serves the purpose of transcending Chinese world politics, neither in the West nor in the East; that tianxia is supposed to serve as a transcendental (Zhao: Apriori) backdrop for China’s role as the new leader of the world. Not so much in the sense of ‘China first’, as tianxia is about unselfishness. But the idea is that by making China great again, we will also make the world great – not again, but finally. Many reviewers and critics point at such ‘hidden’ motives, a rationalization of human rights violations and authoritarian rule, and identify the tianxia philosophy as a sophisticated form of propaganda. By doing that, they demonstrate that it will not be easy to implement such a new world order in a society that is characterized by a multiplicity of perspectives in which every ‘yes’ provokes a ‘no’. For Zhao, the fact he is presenting his theory at a time when China is rising in world significance, is nothing but an unfortunate coincidence.

As we have no way of finding out what Zhao’s true motives are, I think it more fruitful to focus on what he actually says instead. He never argues that China should play any special role in bringing tianxia about. He says nation-states are characterized by their imperialistic world-view; and as China is a nation-state, it is per definition part of the destructive circle he describes. Just like all the others, China too needs to overcome this view and take the concept of tianxia seriously before we can all ‘come together as one’. It would therefore be quite interesting to read Zhao’s book as a clever critique of China’s hegemonic ambition; unfortunately, all Western reviews have missed out on this opportunity. Only one of them seems to have read the book to the end, where – as Bernhard Zand of Der Spiegel points out – Zhao warns of a new kind of dictatorship against which nobody can defend oneself, a dystopia in which “the technical systems collect and monitor the information of every human being”. Is he talking about the United States here? Or about China? My guess is: Yes.

According to Helmuth Plessner, rejecting modern society for the sake of the ideal of (world) community will necessarily result in the rise of an authoritarian politics based on violence and fanaticism. He was right in anticipating the rise of German fascism. Hopefully, Zhao’s critics are wrong about the dangers of a tyranny of the majority that the tianxia ideal implicates.

How to do justice to such an inexhaustible and fuzzy concept like tianxia? Zhao says: By using a method called ‘combined synthesis’. But in contrast to the idea of interdisciplinarity that accepts the borders between the disciplines and does not strive for a theoretical integration, Zhao has exactly such an integration in mind. A perfect one that answers the perfect disintegration of modern society. And although he agrees that any object under observation has different aspects to it – political, economical, aesthetic, ethical, ‘social’ – he argues for a ‘reconstruction’ of the object from a perspective that integrates all perspectives. To invert Adorno’s famous dictum: For Zhao, the whole is the true. 

His ‘combined synthesis’ does therefore not only reconstruct any object, but also the idea of a competent, legitimate observing authority that is able to overcome the polycontexturality and contingency of modern society (as well as the deficits of the disciplines; answers to political questions, he claims, are to be found in the area of economy and vice versa). Instead of grasping the reality of society operationally, he aims to return to the concept of a representatio identitatis. And tianxia appears as the common ‘denominator’ from which the world society can derive its unity – turning all social systems into one “Tianxia System”. It thus not only installs a social hierarchy in which politics is the CEO or king or president who resides over all the other areas, putting an end to their co-existence – one wonders where the relational relativity is to be found here (or what tanxianistic logic may look like, my idea is: a lot like Spencer-Brown’s). It not only provides society with a new grand narrative and allows for creating a new universal telos that grants its ‘inclusion’ via politics. It also serves as a value framework or ‘ethical software’ that is able to program this new politics. One that can also justify ‘tragic choices’. For instance when it comes to the rights of humans who may refuse the ‘invitation’ to be part of this new order. Just like many people refuse to be part of Europe, i.e. the EU these days. Whoever wants to understand the ambition of Zhao’s proposal has only to imagine the European project on a global scale. 

The basic idea of this perspective is as simple as problematic: Treat the world like the world should be/wants to be treated. How can we make sure to treat the world – society – how it wants to be treated? Just like we cannot ask politics if it would like to be redefined, we cannot ask society how it wants to be treated. Has society asked Zhao: Treat me as a political entity please? The question is not, as Zhao suggests: to be or not to be a world – the world is already the world. Which is why it doesn’t need any ‘worldlization’. How much more world can it become? The question is who decides how the world should be treated. Zhao says: in the tianxia way. Part of it is what he calls an ontological principle: Co-existence comes before existence. At least from a logical point of view, this is nonsense: The existence of two things is the precondition of any co-existence. He could call it a social principle, one that is well known under titles like collaboration or cooperation. As important as it is, fortunately I don’t have to cooperate if I don’t want to – it is a (com-)possibility. I will still continue to co-exist with those that I don’t want to cooperate with.

As important for this philosophy as the tianxia concept is a word that is not a word: re. Reconstructing. Reinterpreting. Redefining. A very modern (‘Western’) notion – nostalgia. With Marshall McLuhan’s beautiful oneliner: Zhao drives into the future by looking into the rear view mirror. Heidegger discovered a better concept of technology in ancient Greece (the unifying force here: art). Zhao finds the realized tianxia ideal in the Zhou dynasty – the Reich of yesterday becomes the projection surface of a nostalgic future longing, a rather small system that allowed for an obviously very efficient top down coordination appears as ‘tomorrowland’ of world society. This vision shares many aspects with those of certain right-wing circles in Europe, most importantly a glorification of the then still valid family model. As I said: Zhao is a part of this world he aims to describe.

How have the Europeans managed to universalize their Christian based value system? Certainly not in a very Christian way – through colonialism and imperialism. In other words, the world knows about human rights because millions of humans were not treated right. Part of this universalization was a quest for discovery, not only in science, and a missionary spirit. A spirit Confucianism lacked. A spirit China lacked, in contrast to the United States. Is Zhao trying to charge the Confucianist battery with such a spirit? To create a ‘combined synthesis’, in his words, of Confucian values and the missionary zeal and absolutist claims of the ‘West’? No, says Zhao. Tianxia can only arise organically. That is why the universal tianxia system is not an imperialistic one. That is what makes it different – better. (I could not help but think of of Mahathir’s beautiful statement from more than two decades ago: “European values are European values – Eastern values are universal values.”)

While I agree with Zhao that it would indeed be best if a new world order would emerge organically or in my terminology, via self-organization, as such a large and complex entity as the world i.e. world society cannot be controlled like the Zhou dynasty, that is, hierarchically, I don’t share his optimism that the tianxia ideal will become a reality. The Corona virus has made this very clear: Top down regulations have done the trick; exhortations to behave in a morally exemplary manner, rather not. And no Kyoto protocol, only global governance will be able to be effective in terms of emission reduction etc. Yes, if everyone behaved in the tianxia way, we would not need a world government to save this planet. We could entirely rely on the powers of self-organization that our brains demonstrate so efficiently: no government, but nevertheless stable and highly performing. Neurons don’t lie. Neurons are not greedy or nepotistic. Neurons are very cooperative. They do not need to overcome their egoism and realize a ‘neuronization’ to become authentic. They already transcend all of these to form the one ‘body’ our brain is. But people are not neurons. This is why I disagree with the very first sentence of Zhao’s book. Tianxia is not a theory – it is a story. A beautiful one, no doubt.

If tanxia has to rise organically, then why write a book about the need to redefine politics, which is about making collective binding decisions, not about friendly or severe admonitions? Why recommend replacing the Western universals with better, more ‘worldly’ ones? If tianxia is the political equivalent to organic food, wouldn’t ‘planting’ be a more adequate strategy than ‘implementing’? What seems to be nostalgia could then be interpreted differently, in a Taoist way: as the realization of a reversal (fan). Such reversals usually take place when things have reached their extreme. We can think of the sun’s position or of the seasons. Maybe functional differentiation has reached its zenith and it is time for a turnaround? Then the world will sort itself out. All we have to do is wait.

But Zhao’s does not offer a Tao of Politics, to refer to Capra’s famous book. His philosophy is not about a ‘wu way’. He does not accept the world as it is (zi ran), but promotes a ‘logic of action’ and its universal validity or applicability ‘under all circumstances’. It doesn’t matter whether in Beijing or Bielefeld or Kuala Lumpur or Muskogee. Already a politician of the past (Emperor Trajan) advised against such a logic: “for it is not possible to set out a set rule that would apply regardless of circumstance”. While Trajan addressed the question how the Romans should deal with the Christians – his answer: on a case-by-case basis – Zhao’s logic of action addresses all citizens under the sky. He may call it organic (or ‘bio’ as we say in Germany) – it is still a universal logic of action. Which would disqualify it as philosophy. But it certainly qualifies Zhao as a political advisor. Maybe this is why he talks of a failed world: as if it was a state that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities (in the American version: of a sovereign government) no longer function properly. Which is why it is necessary to provide it with both effectiveness and legitimacy. Only that this time, it is not an individual government supposed to grant stability – but the ‘world sovereign’.

Maybe he should take a look at Plato’s experiences in this regard. For one thing is certain: While the enthronement of tianxia may indeed be able to improve human institutions here and there – something Confucianism already does – and even cure some of the evils of Western life, it will not be able to cure the evils of human life. To quote the world citizen Stefan Zweig: “The followers of a future understanding of humanity must never be unaware that their work is constantly threatened by the eternal irrationality of passion, that again and again in the course of time a torrent of fanaticism, clenched from the primeval depths of the world of human instinct, will tear down all the dams. Almost every new generation experiences such a setback, and it is then their moral duty to endure it without inner confusion.” (Triumph and Tragic of Erasmus of Rotterdam, clumsy translation: me)

To understand that social reality is more contradictory and more fragile than the progress narrative of the West and the world narrative of Zhao would have us believe, one needs to turn to another Eastern philosophical tradition – the one associated with Laozi. Who by the way also lived during the golden days of the Zhou dynasty. Only that this philosophy may not be very helpful with regard to creating a new world order. Which is why he only has three very short appearances in Zhao’s book.

And to understand that a complex, nonlinear system like the world i.e. world society differs fundamentally from a little dynasty, he may need to put away his beloved Habermas and take a look at Niklas Luhmann’s work. Yes, a tianxia interference will cause a reaction. But most probably not the one Zhao has in mind, QED. From Luhmann’s perspective, the smallest political unit is not the individual, but political communication (as Zhao does not seem to like that ‘Western’ idea of the individual as the basic political unit or ‘atom’, it could help him achieve more theoretical consistency; he already gets close to Luhmann’s design when he talks about the inside and outside of politics being defined by politics itself).

To end on a positive note: Zhao brings a Chinese perspective to bear that was missing from the international discourse so far. It is about time that the Western domination of science, the hegemonic character of scientific discourse – an equivalent of the political hegemony of the West – is being challenged and enriched by a unique Chinese perspective. His analysis of American politics for instance is a joy to read – not only because it is as harsh and ruthless as it is correct – but also because he sometimes finds images that stick (for instance when he describes the US as a nation that participates in a global game and at the same time determines its rules). I also think it is important that researchers and scientists take up the challenge to live up to our new global reality. In the case of genetic engineering, it was Peter Sloterdijk who volunteered to philosophically frame the new reality of gene manipulation. He had to cope with similar hostilities as Zhao, and he too was blamed for his origin (nationality). We should therefore first of all be grateful to Zhao, even more so as most Western attempts to find answers to this new situation center around the same old boring distinctions. The ‘world’ itself will decide whether his theory will grow organically, inorganically (chemically, i.e. by ‘China farming’) – or end up on the ‘rubbish heap of theories’ that Zhao transported so many of his predecessors to. As damaged and deranged this world may be, at least some of us are free ‘from uncritical adherence to theoretical or ideological schemes’, and can construct their practice on the basis of their experience, while using whatever information or analysis is available to them, from a variety of sources. It is good to have a radical ‘worldist’ like Zhao Tingyang among them – along with Zhao’s colleague Tu Weiming (who also teaches in Beijing), Yu Ying-shih and many others who have been reflecting on the possibilities to expand the Western or euro-centric perspective and help us move towards a world science that is not interested any longer in where a thought comes from – East, West, North or South – but whether it can be used.

Zhao Tingyang (2020). Alles unter einem Himmel, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.