Posted on June 13th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009 [The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead]

China, the emerging superpower, has achieved its success through the pragmatic application of its three-pronged cultural inheritance based on a hybrid of Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist principles. Pragmatism, defined so elegantly by the illustrious Deng Xiaoping””‚”It does not matter whether a cat is black or white; if it catches mice, it’s a good cat”””‚illustrates the crux of Chinese multi-dimensional thinking, which stands in contrast to the one-dimensional thinking of the West that arrogantly identifies Western ideology with universal values.


Most Chinese, especially since the inception of the communist regime, identify themselves as atheists. But many Chinese are Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian at the same time. None of these three “religions” believe in a monotheistic God. Nor do their philosophies endorse the worship of deities. Therefore, the Chinese claim to be atheists is accurate. Hybridity has enabled the Chinese to draw into their culture the pragmatics of all three as a matter of course.


China seems to be thoroughly conscious of the Buddhist explication of the three characteristics of existence (tilakkhana)””‚anicca, dukkha and anatta. Over the last 2000 years, the Chinese have examined these three within the yinyang duality associated with everything in the universe. Laozi, the pre-disciplinary sage who used the balancing tendency of the opposites and complements to assert that diversity arises from unity, founded Daoism by extracting the yinyang principle from the Yijing, the Book of Changes, a semiotic masterpiece interpreting the ontocosmological 64 hexagrams.


Anicca [Pali] means impermanence or ongoing change. China understands the truth of this characteristic of existence. It knows the world-system is changing after 500 years of European exploitation, colonialism and imperialism. It knows that the Western will to superimpose its political, social and economic ideology on the rest of the world is not pragmatic because it defies the balancing principle of the yinyang mechanism.


Dukkha [Pali] means suffering or unsatisfactoriness. China understands that the age of corporate capitalism based on relentless profit accumulation””‚resulting from tanhƒÆ’-¾ (craving), upƒÆ’-¾dƒÆ’-¾na (grasping) and other conditional factors””‚has irrevocably crashed. Runaway capitalism, which brought suffering to the large majority of the world’s population, rewarded the West with the fruits of surplus labor. China grasps that a solution to the massive economic disarray lies in the Buddhist Middle Path by balancing yang (capitalism) and yin (socialism), as well as Daoist liberalism and Confucian conservatism.


  Anatta [Pali] means no-self, which can be extended to mean interdependence. Buddhists believe that a living being is a compound of five ever-changing aggregates (skandhas)””‚rupa (form/matter), vedanƒÆ’-¾ (feeling/sensation), sanna (perception/cognition), sankhara (mental forms/volition), and viƒÆ’†’±ƒÆ’†’±aƒÆ’†’±a (consciousness) with no underlying, permanent soul as such. On death, a being passes on its stream of consciousness to another being, which is not identical to the one who died although the new being inherits a part of the karmic force of the being that it replaced. This leads to the conclusion that existence is possible only as a facet of interdependence. China is unlikely to give way to the Western bias for individual sovereignty, inalienable human rights with no concomitant responsibilities, and unrestricted freedoms of speech and of the press.


China has just begun the process of reconnecting with its past. Kishore Mahbubani, author of The New Asian Hemisphere (2008), says dissolving the myth of Western superiority represents a notable dimension of China’s de-Westernization process. Chinese intellectuals like Wu Zengding have denounced the Western colonization of the Chinese mind. The West has branded China “unfree” whereas the Chinese believe they have achieved unprecedented freedoms, e.g., freedom from want; freedom of security; freedom to choose employment; freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; and freedom to think””‚as distinct from freedom of expression, which is not absolute either in theory or practice in most Western societies


 China has demonstrated that a country does not have to be at the high-end of the Human Development Index (HDI) and be a full-fledged democracy to wrest world economic power through sound international trade and financial management. W. W. Rostow and other Western scholars had argued that societies have to follow the stages of development sequentially to achieve the level of economic power that China has accrued today. China’s trade surplus with the United States alone runs at about US$60 billion per year, according to the World Bank.


China ranked 94th in HDI among 179 countries. China has to race faster to catch up with the West on the four components of the HDI: life expectancy (72.7 years), adult literacy (93%), combined primary-secondary-tertiary education (68.7%), and per capita GDP (US$4,682). However, China is well ahead of its comparable Asian competitor, India, in terms of all four. The relevant figures for India are 64.1 years, 65.2%, 61%, and US$2,489 respectively. (See Table 1)

TABLE 1: Comparison of 2006 Human Development Index for Selected Countries


HDI value 2006



Life expectancy at birth (years)



Adult (15+) literacy rate (%)



Combined p-s-t gross enrolment ratio (%)



GDP per capita (PPP US$)















































Sri Lanka






























Source:  UNDP Human Development Reports  Update 2008



 Despite its shortfalls in HDI, China has become the second largest economy in the world after the United States in terms of the purchasing power parity Gross Domestic Product (GDP). By all accounts, China is regaining its status as a (if not, the) trade center of the world, which it lost to the West following the Industrial Revolution.


The International Monetary Fund has predicted that China would defy the downward trend of world’s GDP, which is expected to shrink by as much as 1.3 percent this year, and increase its own annual economic growth rate of 6.5 percent to 8.5 percent. During the first quarter of 2009, the world’s leading stock markets combined fell by 4.5 percent. In contrast, the Shanghai stock exchange index leapt by a huge 38 percent. In March, car sales in China hit a record 1.1 million, surpassing the United States for the third month in a row.


The Economist says that China enjoys two economic advantages First, China could become the workshop of the world by undercutting the production costs of all the other members of the World Trade Organization. It has low labor costs, millions of people as cheap labor, and minimal environmental, occupational health and safety regulations. Second, many foreign corporations hope to make a great deal of money from trade with China.


As   a typical mouthpiece of Western interests, The Economist fails to acknowledge the role of China’s pragmatism””‚shaped by a correct reading of anicca, dukkha and anatta reflected in the contemporary world-system””‚in its emergence as a global economic power. China, which is culturally committed to see everything as interdependent, no longer blindly emulates the West. This is very hard for the West to swallow. China’s pragmatism has enabled it to select from the best wisdom of the East and the West thereby maintaining the balance between the yang (the creative) and the yin (the receptive).


Sri Lanka, which ranks 104th in HDI (10 places behind China), has much to learn from China, which has stepped out to help the island to defeat terrorism and the inimical Western dictates. Interdependence is a vital Buddhist perspective for both countries to assess their places in the world economy. This perspective was behind China’s enormous contributions to helping ASEAN to overcome the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998. Altruism and pragmatism both played a part.


[The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead]

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