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Foreign Policy

The Danger of Grand Narratives

Aug 18, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard declared in 1979 that the post-modern era was to be defined by an “incredulity toward metanarratives” - that is, narratives about narratives. One way of thinking about meta-narratives, is that they are essentially overarching grand narratives that seek to assign historical meaning to, proffer broad-stroke observations about, or identify philosophical significance in a succession of sequence events throughout time. 

For instance, consider the narrative that we are progressing towards a more equal, fair, and desirable world as time advances; more specifically, consider the deterministic Hegelian view that the ultimate purpose of history is the true realisation of human freedom through the establishment of an ideal state. 

In Lyotard’s eyes, narratives such as these, whilst historically potent, were both foundationally inaccurate and increasingly losing relevance in their capacity to shape public opinions and debates in the late 20th century. The post-modern era is thus also post-grand-narrative; in the place of ‘big’ and unrefined, absolute and uncompromising stories are smaller, more fine-grained narratives rooted in fragmentation and randomness. 

Yet curiously, a realm where such grand narratives have yet to perish constitutes the space of international politics. To subscribe to grand narratives in academic analysis may reflect one’s being misinformed; to do so in diplomacy and geopolitics, however, could be additionally deeply perilous. 

Whilst Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ thesis has received much criticism - in part judicious, in part undeserved - throughout the years, I would suggest that there are three current narratives concerning the Sino-American relationship, that are plausibly far more erroneous and dangerous in their actual effects. 

The first grand narrative posits that the Sino-American relationship is one underpinned by a struggle between ‘Good and Evil.’ Ultranationalists in China portray the U.S. as one giant, evil empire weighed down by imperialist sentiments and neo-colonialist attitudes, whilst American hawks fire overt shots at what they take to be China’s expansionist tendencies and undesirable system of governance, framing China as an imperialist, nefarious power bent on thwarting and remaking the international order. The emerging strategic contest is thus heavily moralised: in the former’s eyes, the U.S. must be challenged and toppled, whilst in the latter’s eyes, there could be no room for accommodation and co-existence - whatsoever - between the proverbial West and the present Chinese regime. 

Those who push back against such extremes are lambasted as apologists who make caveats and excuses for the other side, or naïve and unrealistic about the prospects of engagement, or fundamentally misguided. There appears to be little room for the clear-eyed commentary of thinkers such as Ryan Hass and Evan Feigenbaum in the U.S., on the practical constraints and rationally defined limits to Chinese ambitions; or Ambassador Cui Tiankai in China, who warns of the dangers of construing the U.S. as a necessary enemy to be morally defeated at all costs. Whilst Chinese leaders have shown more openness to engaging and working with American businessmen and investors who have taken an interest in China’s ascent, the same increasingly cannot be said, sadly, of how the American political establishment is engaging with Chinese businesses - which is often through lenses of exaggerated concerns over national security and conspiratorial labelling of Chinese firms as alleged agents servicing their state. 

Indeed, such extreme discourses in turn legitimise downright impracticable and deeply detrimental flirtations with talk of regime change. Whilst Republicans and Democrats alike in the 1980s through to early 2010s had adopted the post-Nixon consensus in soundly rejecting the thought of a radical overhaul to the regime in power in their counterpart, discourses advocating rapid and drastic changes to the system of governance - paired with calls for ramping up overt interference in mainland China - have reared their head in recent years. 

The second grand narrative, is that only either the Chinese or American approach to governance can be conceived of as legitimate and functional. Take for example discourses openly championed by select segments of the Chinese web space, as noted by a recent paper by Songying Fang, Xiaojun Li, and Adam Liu, which may not - per the authors - be necessarily representative of the entire population at large. Independent “zimeiti” content producers and their followers broadcast openly their criticisms of the American state: that money politics has taken over, that the old system of democracy has been fundamentally corrupted by lobbying groups, and that American democracy is doomed to give way to populist plutocrats. 

Whilst individually each critique could well be valid, the slew of criticisms is often hyped up to support the conclusion that the U.S. is destined for irreversible decline and self-destruction. Such a view in turn paves the way for a blatant disregard of the many aspects of American resilience (from soft power to economic versatility, innovation to regional geopolitical dominance), thereby a partially misinformed judgment of the balance of powers between the U.S. and China, indirectly supporting questionable assessments concerning China’s odds should a direct military or economic all-out conflict occur. 

Symmetrically, American commentators who are convinced that the American approach to electoral democracy is the only ‘sound’ paradigm of governance, are bound to be less introspective over defects in transplanting to and replicating elsewhere their political model. Indeed, there are many in the U.S. who appear convinced that the Chinese system is inherently illegitimate, to the point where any diplomatic engagement - such as Janet Yellen, Antony Blinken’s, Bill Gates’, and Henry Kissinger’s recent visits to Beijing - is portrayed as capitulation to a morally reprehensible government. 

In practice, track-I and -II engagement built on a modicum of shared respect for one another’s system - and a recognition that there are more ways of governing than the ‘China’ or the ‘American’ Models - is increasingly vital. Wholesale repudiations of one another’s mode of governance are not only unhelpful in enabling an accurate understanding of how governance actually works in the two leading economies in the whole; they are also bound to sour bilateral relations and push representatives both sides away from cultivating much-needed goodwill to air and talk through grievances in full. 

The third grand narrative is that China and the U.S. should be understood as largely monolithic, concerted, and homogenous blocs. I have lost track of the times I have heard flippantly asserted the proposition that, “In China, the party is the people, and the people are controlled by the party.” Not only does this adage ignore the complex accountability mechanisms and bargaining for power between the people and different levels of the party hierarchy, as aptly captured by Li Cheng in his tripartite assessment of shifting power in the country, it also ignores the differences and variations between i) the country and people, ii) the Communist Party of China, and iii) the senior political leadership of the party. Conflating i), ii), iii) ignores the agency and space for individual action on the part of non-party citizens, but also the constant back-and-forth feedback mechanisms and negotiations connecting the rank-and-file to the municipal and provincial leadership, and then to the national party leadership itself. From tiaokuai politics to non-electoral mechanisms for co-opting and gauging public opinions, there is much going on in China that demonstrates fully the heterogeneity and diversity of interests within the country. 

There is also a tendency on the part of anti-American cynics to make crass generalisations about the country - to discredit the American population as a whole based on the behaviours of a small, fringe minority (e.g. the rioters on Capitol Hill on January 6th, who indeed should be held responsible for their flagrant violations of the law), or the actions of individual political leaders, such as Donald J Trump. There is much more to America than its government, and its government features voices that clearly deviate and cannot be subsumed under the ‘mainstream’ consensus across both parties. It behoves lucidly minded stakeholders in China to engage the U.S. across a multitude of levels, regions, and stakeholders - not just the politicians or foreign policy think-tank academics, but also the ordinary people, the lawyers, the journalists and beyond who make up the American life in the 21st century. 

Grand narratives do not serve anyone, but those who would benefit from blind adherence to and implementation of the prescriptions they bear. Rescuing Sino-American relations from the brink requires us to tame our innate desire for straightforward stories. Sometimes, life is indeed more complicated than that. 

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