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A fundamental question both the West and China must answer

The following question is the most fundamental cultural question facing the West and China at present and in the next century:

To what extent are individual human rights and national identity and strength compatible or contradictory?

The answer to this question will determine the fate of the West and that of China.

The West

Consider the United States of America. Until the 1950s, strong and positive coexisting energy (perhaps even synergy) existed in America between individual human rights and national identity and strength. By and large, the pursuit of human rights in America as a libertarian movement had both its moral justification and its spiritual foundation and contributed positively to the unity and strength of the nation.

The 1950s to 1990s was a transition period.

Since then, the society has become more and more fractured. The ever-increasing demand for individual rights has become contradictory to national identity and strength. This contradiction is not about what is morally right or superior but about practical compatibility.

The moral justification is a separate matter. It is something that Americans do not admit and are unwilling to admit because there is no clear and easy answer.

Pride blinds. America, like all the Western nations, has forgotten its roots. It has become so proud that it finds it embarrassing even to acknowledge the following fact:

The reason why human rights and national identity were harmonious in the West, especially America, for quite some time, was because of Christianity – both the Christian unity and the Christian forbearance, as both are necessary – not because of the political invention of democracy, which is only a fruit of the tree, not the tree, nor even a branch, itself.

It is a unique character of Christianity, for no other culture has been able to combine the national identity and individual human rights to a comparable degree.

Entering the 2020s, the rejection of true Christianity by the West is nearly complete. The pursuit of human rights has largely lost its spiritual basis. Without the spiritual truth as its foundation, the pursuit of human freedom has become a self-defeating burden rather than an enabling power to society.

With all these deteriorated spiritual and cultural conditions, the West is now pitched against the China model.


China always puts national identity ahead of individual human rights.

The Westerners don’t seem to understand this simple point. It’s not that they don’t know this fact—they do—but they don’t understand the source and basis of the facts.

Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, although superbly knowledgeable about China, is one of the Westerners who are confused about the recent shift of China’s international policy toward emphasizing state sovereignty at the expense of human rights.

On June 2, 2022, Mr. Rudd’s interview, ‘Understanding How China Sees the World,’ examined the ideological underpinnings of President Xi Jinping’s worldview and how countries can create effective China policies. The conversation is posted on YouTube. The interview shows Kevin Rudd at his best. As usual, he was far more insightful than most other commentators on China.

But he still missed the more fundamental culture and value question beyond politics or geopolitics.

He seemed surprised by Xi Jinping’s worldview. But why surprised? What China does now is consistent with both Chinese culture and its communist doctrine with Chinese characteristics.

In China, when the national identity is placed above individual human rights, it is not necessarily an authoritarian government unilaterally forcing a suppressing idea on its people. It is largely cultural. The entire history of China is built upon the idea that individual rights must be sacrificed for the collective good. Although Taoism emphasizes individual independence, it is never the mainstream philosophy that is promoted by the Chinese rulers (for a reason) or the mainstream political views of the Chinese people.

The communist revolution destroyed much of the Chinese traditional culture, but further strengthened, not weakened, the priority of national interest over individual human rights. Although the earliest Chinese communists before 1935 did have some naïve ideas of personal freedom influenced by Western values, it all changed after Mao Zedong, a man who had no understanding or acceptance of Western values, took power in 1935 as a result of the famous Zunyi Conference.

After Mao died in 1976, China went through a period of searching. But that all ended in 1989 on Tiananmen Square. The rejection of Western values was quickly solidified after 1989.

Since then, China’s path has been clearly set on nationalism-capitalism, or state-run capitalism (if you think this is an oxymoron, or still think that China is socialism, you do not have an adequate understanding of what is going on in China).

In the subsequent two decades, China didn’t immediately become assertive in the international arena, only because it didn’t feel confident enough to do that then.

Increasingly, China’s putting national identity ahead of individual human rights is becoming not merely a domestic matter but a global one because nationalism, at a larger scale, always develops at the expense of others. Such is unnecessarily a subjective intent by China but is an objective result nonetheless because a value system always has consequences – either positive or negative, all according to the nature of the value, whether intended or not.

The China question

The big question for China and about China is the same: can China develop a strong nation without individual human rights?

It is not only a philosophical question but also an economic and political one. The philosopher may not even want to acknowledge the legitimacy of this question. The philosopher retorts: Without human rights, what’s the point of having a strong nation, even if it is possible?

But this is far more than a philosopher’s question. Whether you like it or not, that’s what China does and will continue to do. If the West always starts with individual human rights as a standalone principle, it will not persuade China.

But can China develop a strong nation without individual human rights?

Resist jumping to axiomatic conclusions. Be careful not to assume too much, especially if you base your assumption on a superficial sentiment.

In China’s view, national strength and individual well-being are two different things and may not have to coexist.

But how can a bad authoritarian country be strong?

It depends on how you define ‘strong’. Historically, it has been common for a bad nation to rise to become a strong nation, at least for a period of time, to dominate and devastate other more civilized and moral nations. China itself was a victim of that process more than once. Remember the conquering of China by Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire?

The Rest question

Still, values matter. People who love freedom should always prefer democracy and the rule of law to authoritarianism. They should also prefer the market economy to other models like the nationalist and oligarchy economies, not because the former is believed to be more efficient but, more importantly, because it supports better values.   

But every value belief will be tested and must measure up in actual strength. Merely arguing for individual human rights is not strength. Strength requires at least diligence and respect for the laws of nature and may extend to other characteristics such as integrity, sacrificial love, and purposefulness.

It may be too early to tell how China is doing, but it is quite clear that the West is not doing well. The question of salvation will again fall upon Western civilization. It will require a wakening that subsists on humility and repentance because the root of weakness is sin.

Sin tends to feature self-centeredness, self-indulgence, disregard of natural laws and reality, and disrespect of divine mandates, all leading to weakness. If the Western world becomes increasingly undiscerning with respect to the nature of sin, not only accepting it but even glorifying its manifestations, there could be no hope of a strong nation in the West. America will be no exception.

This is not to assert that Chinese culture is more moral or less sinful. But if God could use an ungodly king Nebuchadnezzar to devastate Israel, a nation closer to him, He can do it again in an allegorically similar context today.