Dr. Wang Hui’s book China: From Empire to Nation-State, for which I have a brief review written here, is nothing else if not provocative, and I do mean that in the best possible sense. Wang’s argument that the Chinese nation-state has certain non-teleological Confucian political-philosophical elements deeply embedded in its ‘constitution’, broadly stated, that are pre-modern and anti-modern even though they support a modern structure, is not only itself well-argued. Along the way, though, he also demonstrates (and effectively explodes) the orientalist, creation-mythological nature of the modernism that underpins the rise of the nation-state generally, and how the empire/nation-state dichotomy has (mis)informed both liberal and Marxist thought about China. He demands of Western scholarship and society a rethinking of its relationship to the nation-state.
In certain quarters, it now seems passé to talk about nation-states, whereas in others it is starting to seem necessary and downright urgent. Global finance has made it so that practically all sectors of the manufacturing economy enjoy full mobility of capital across any and all national borders, even though labour does not – thus allowing global financiers and large corporations to exploit low labour costs and standards of living to produce as cheaply as possible. In some quarters, it seems a return to the nation-state now seems to be the rule of resistance. China and Russia, along with a handful of other nations worldwide – notably Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, Belarus, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay, Greece – have returned over the past decade to a kind of red-tinged, semi-populist nationalism as a means of protecting what gains they have managed to secure from globalism, and as a means of preventing any further losses. Other nation-states, particularly in central and southern Asia – Iran, Bhutan, Cambodia – have governments which equate the nation-state with alter-liberal or even anti-liberal religious positions.
It isn’t my place or my intent here to criticise either of these particular strategies. All resistance to hegemonic ideologies, and particularly to liberal capitalist modernity, will of course be piecemeal and will have to be tailored to the conditions and needs of local communities. But Wang Hui demonstrates more than argues that the building of the nation-state has necessarily involved the dissolution of local, mediated and traditional forms of authority and knowledge. In China’s case, even though the re-tailoring of the imperial Qing state into a modern nation-state was founded on Confucian moral-political-institutional categories and concepts foreign to the teleological modern mindset, the same re-tailoring meant ending the administrative power of the patriarchal clan and curtailing, often quite significantly, the traditional self-government and communal rights of various tribal and theocratic peoples (Manchu, Mongol, Tibetan, Hui, Qiang, Zhuang, Miao) within China’s borders.
In Western Europe most obviously, we have been witnessing the outcomes of an experiment in technocratic empire-building, based on a set of secular, democratic and neoliberal capitalist rules. The resistance on the periphery to this experiment – in Hungary, in Greece, in Slovakia – has been almost entirely couched in nationalist and populist terms. But it seems to be a measure of how much has been lost already with regard to local authority and knowledge, and how little the technocratic capitalist European empire feels the need to regard or value such, that the nation-state is now considered the go-to site of localist resistance to the capitalist, mass-cultural logic that gave rise to it in the first place.
Wang Hui’s thorough dismantling of the various warping Western, development-theoretical glosses on Chinese nationhood does serve a very useful purpose: it forces us to rethink and re-evaluate some of our basic political categories. China’s adoption of nation-state rules on terms foreign to the European context, can be taken to show either that the normative basis for the nation-state is more flexible than it is generally conceived to be, or alternatively that the nation-state is not an inevitability with regard to government.
The Roman Catholic academic Johan de Tavernier of the Université Catholique de Louvain, who studies both Orthodox and Catholic social doctrine, has pointed out that – for all the similarities between the two corpuses of social thinking, and for all the affirmation of certain Catholic social concepts by and within the Orthodox tradition – one of the more ‘surprising’ differences between Orthodox and Catholic social thought is that Orthodoxy does not link the nation to the state. This may seem counter-intuitive. The popular caricature (not unknown in Catholic or Protestant circles) of Orthodoxy as a ‘tribalistic’ creed, with each nation having its own autocephalous and territorial church, is sadly common and sadly bolstered by the fact that many Orthodox themselves believe their faith demands a commitment to a certain nation-state expression. This is a major problem within Orthodox churches today.
But Orthodoxy not only condemns extreme nationalism as heretical following the Ecumenical Council of 1872, it also tends to address the nation as distinct and separate from the state, and understands ‘nation’ in both a political and an apolitical sense. This does indeed stem from the Byzantine (and later Russian) imperial heritage of holding together a polity which includes many different peoples, a heritage which is not always to be considered healthy. But it is also an important ecclesiological and Christological distinction. It is the distinction between the political leadership of Moses and the religious-cultural leadership of Aaron, and also the dual embodiment of Our Lord both as a Jew by culture and as a citizen of Rome – and dutifully loyal to both. (And yet, we cannot allow ourselves to forget that the Jews and the Romans – His nation and His state – both conspired together to put Him to death!)
But this separation, far from weakening the Orthodox witness in an age of nation-states, actually gives Orthodox social thought the needed degree of manoeuvrability to be able to engage with Wang Hui’s challenge. The Basis of the Social Concept commands believers, in no uncertain terms, to have a positive, active love of nation – a self-giving attachment to one’s particular paternity and homeland – and also to be thoroughly obedient to the state as befits the rightful agent of earthly justice and charity. Yet Orthodox social thought has always very carefully avoided the one-sided logical identification of the nation with the state, and thus afforded itself the doctrinal resources to avoid an antinomy between the universal demands of the Church and the universal demands of the nation-state. The political ethics of Western Christendom have been badly warped by precisely this antinomy of Church and state dating back to the investiture controversies, with both Church and state caught up in making increasingly ‘deep’ and competitive demands on the loyalty of their subjects. The vertical formal universalism of Roman Catholic ecclesiology (and thus also of political and social thinking); the coagulation of Western nation-state politics; and the mutual distrust and competition for political, cultural and economic power between the two; all are in many respects the offspring of this antinomy.
The outward opposition between the cooptation by the state of various independent and informal folkways into a uniform mass culture to bolster its legitimacy on the one hand, and the vertical cosmopolitan integration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the other, masks a common outlook with regard to the ends and limitations of secular government. Through nationalism, a secular government essentially rationalises itself upon one or more contiguous and organic communities of people; as Western Christendom has reacted (often understandably!) against these stifling forms of nationalism with claims of universal jurisdiction and an antagonistic or competitive stance vis-à-vis the secular state, it has been long fighting a losing battle.
The sui generis example of China’s Confucian-tinged multinational nationhood, or anti-modern modernity as portrayed by Dr. Wang, could be read as an example of how Western political science and social theory could benefit by borrowing certain ‘Eastern’ (i.e. Chinese, Russian, Byzantine) distinctions between demos and polis. It is a natural tendency for Pilate and the Jerusalem crowds, thinking themselves self-sufficient in salvation and fearing the coming victory over death, to find themselves united in purpose against Christ. As followers of the last it isn’t our place to damn them or to confuse them, but instead to stand between them, sanctifying each and witnessing truthfully to both.