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Foreign Policy

Only Civilized Dialogue Can Avert a Clash of Civilizations

May 28, 2019

The clash of civilizations theory proposed by Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington at the end of the Cold War has once again become a topic of attention and discussion in academic and media circles due to recent shocking remarks made by a senior official inside the U.S. Department of State.

On April 29, Kiron Skinner, a State Department director of policy planning and a Harvard graduate, said at an event organized by the think tank New America that the current China-U.S. dispute differs from the Soviet-U.S. conflict during the Cold War, as “this is a struggle against a completely different civilization and different ideology, which the U.S. has never experienced before,” as China would be the first “non-Caucasian” superpower rival America has faced. As soon as this statement was made, public opinion immediately linked the China-U.S. trade dispute to the different civilizations that China and the U.S. ostensibly belong to, with many concluding that China and the U.S. seem to be at odds and, therefore, will inevitably go to war against each other.

In contrast to Ms. Skinner’s statement, which bore a strong resemblance to Huntington’s theory, China hosted the Conference on Asian Civilizations Dialogue in Beijing starting on May 15. The theme of the conference was exchanges and mutual understanding between, and the common destiny of, Asian civilizations. Representatives from 47 countries in Asia and nearly 50 countries outside the region attended the event. In addition, more than 30,000 Chinese and international guests took part in the Asian Cultural Carnival, a multicultural gathering consisting of cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries.

Asia is made up of 47 countries and is home to more than 1,000 ethnic groups who speak more than 2,000 languages and practice nearly 100 religions — Asians account for two-thirds of the world's population. The continent is the ancient birthplace of various religions, such as Buddhism and Islam, as well as social systems, and it is a gathering place for the world's diverse civilizations. If we resort to the argument of a clash of civilizations, or the superiority of one culture over another, to analyze ordinary trade competition or territorial disputes between Asian countries, it is inevitable that competition will evolve into conflict and disputes will escalate into wars. It is precisely because of the diversity of Asian civilizations that it is necessary to overcome gulf between civilizations through civilized exchange, and to transcend the concept of a superior culture through cultural coexistence.

Of course, the Conference on Asian Civilizations Dialogue was not held in order to rebut Ms. Skinner’s comments, but was an initiative long in the making — it was originally proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in March 2015 at the Boao Forum for Asia. After more than four years of careful preparation, the conference finally materialized, coinciding as it did with the reemergence of old theories of cultural superiority and assertions that clashes between civilizations are inevitable.

The late Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong summed up how to view differences between cultures and civilizations when he said, “Appreciate the beauty of other cultures as you do your own, and the world will be a harmonious whole.” Only by understanding and respecting the beauty and diversity of different cultures can we achieve common cultural prosperity. President Xi put forward four ideas for promoting dialogue between civilizations at the conference’s opening ceremony: mutual respect and equal treatment among civilizations; harmonious co-existence of civilizations; openness, inclusiveness, and mutual learning among civilizations; and the need for civilizations to keep pace with the times. His comments received a positive response from representatives of participating countries.

When we place civilizations within the perspective of human history, one quickly sees that the theories of cultural superiority and clash of civilizations will only lead to national conflict and war as well as a reversal of human development. Only dialogue and exchanges between civilizations can promote the continuous progress of human civilization and defuse the so-called clash of civilizations.

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