China’s moral obligationPresident Park Geun-hye’s visit to China reminded us that we need to study the history of Chinese-language civilizations. The domain of the Chinese language is extensive and homogeneous in culture and ethnicity, encompassing China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea, which used the Chinese writing system.
Confucianism was accepted as a social philosophy, and Confucian scholars and politicians supported the monarchy. Mahayana Buddhism spread widely, and from a religious standpoint, it was the most generous civilization.
Chinese civilization peaked during the Tang Dynasty, which emphasized arts and culture and established international order through trade and diplomacy.
The Guest and Tributary Examination - the civil service examination for foreigners - symbolizes those efforts. Neighboring countries embraced the Tang Dynasty, when Europe was still stuck in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Unfortunately, Chinese civilization failed to attain a scientific revolution and was overtaken by Europe, which had both scientific and industrial revolutions. Naturally, embracing an advanced civilization to improve society became the goal. Japan was surprisingly successful at this and transformed into a modern country in one generation. And as other countries modeled themselves after Japan, Japan became the gateway to European civilization.
In the early 20th century, Japan fought against Russia, a powerful neighbor that threatened Northeast Asia, and was victorious. In the modern era, it was the first time a non-Caucasian country had defeated a Caucasian country. Naturally the countries colonized by European nations were inspired by Japan’s victory, and intellectuals in India, Egypt and Vietnam sought to learn from Japan.
Military historian John Fuller compared the fall of Port Arthur in 1905 to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. And he considered the Russo-Japanese War as a clash of civilizations.
But Japan betrayed that expectation. Instead of safeguarding Chinese-language civilizations from Europe, Japan emulated Europe’s colonial aggression and pillaged its neighbors. What Chinese civilization needs to learn from history is the opportunity Japan missed. Regardless of whether Japan acknowledges or apologizes for its past transgressions, they are nevertheless recorded in history.
Upon its defeat, Japan retreated from Indochina, and France sought to rule over Vietnam again. But Communist North Vietnam fought against France and regained independence. It was the first instance in which a colony fought off a ruling power and gained independence on its own. Unfortunately, North Vietnam occupied South Vietnam by force and imposed a Communist system on its people.
Based on the fortune of choosing a liberal democracy and a market economy under the United States’ military administration, Korea grew up healthy. Outward policy and economic development are great accomplishments on their own. Korea proposed a desirable development model compared to these backward societies, and this triumph has become the foundation of Korean pride.
By contrast, it is tormenting to think about the North Koreans suppressed by such a Communist regime. We need to examine which morbid element of Korean tradition made North Korea such a hell.
Interestingly, China, the core of Chinese-language civilizations, has made no contributions to modern history. Since it clashed with Europe during the Opium War in the 1840s, China has failed to adapt to a changing world environment and was eventually invaded by Japan. While half of the Japanese Army was tied up in China, China played a major role in the Pacific War. But it was the United States that ultimately defeated Japan.
When the Communist Party dominated China, its role became negative. The introduction of a command economy extremely suppressed the people, and tens of millions died of starvation. In the Korean War, China sided with North Korea and was labeled an “aggressor” by the United Nations. China oppresses minority tribes in the frontier and has had territorial disputes with nearly all countries sharing its borders.
This history drew a dark shadow over China’s Victory Day celebration. The Chinese Communist Army took credit from the Kuomintang. The United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia, which fought alongside China, did not congratulate China’s celebration. And President Park Geun-hye’s appearance only accentuated the absence of the leaders of other free countries.
Since becoming a superpower, China has not announced the world order it pursues. In fact, it hasn’t realized that its responsibility has increased since it became more powerful. A century ago, Japan missed the opportunity to protect Chinese-language civilizations. Today, China is missing out on the opportunity to contribute to the entirety of human civilization. This chance can be seized only when it shows high moral character.
Now, China’s neighbors must request that it act morally - ethics are part of human nature. While power and strategy are always discussed, if China fails to grow morally, its accomplishments could crumble like a sand castle. The foundation of any society is morality, and international society is no exception.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 10, Page 35
*The author is a novelist and social commentator.
by Bok Koh-ill