China: Death of Bin Laden and the Clash of Civilizations

This post is part of our special coverage The Death of Osama Bin Laden.

In the early 1990s, political scientist Samuel Huntington put forward the clash of civilizations theory that the fundamental source of conflict in the post-Cold War world will be cultural. He identified several major cultures – Western, Eastern Orthodox, Latin America, Islamic, Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, and African – as contestants in the struggles across the globe. But he specifically highlighted a Confucian-Islamic connection which challenged Western interests, values and power.

From a strategic point of view, the recent death of Osama Bin Laden has caused anxiety in China. The title of an editorial at the official Global Times best summarizes it: After Bin Laden, will China become US foe? While the article contends that economic integration will steer a stable US-China relations, it nevertheless admits that China as a rising power ‘is certain to cause friction with the US’. The death of Bin Laden offers the US an opportunity to ‘declare an end to the War on Terror’ and a ‘strategic adjustment’.

How to view the demise of Bin Laden in the framework of the clash of civilizations? Is it a watershed moment from which the West will shift its focus from Islamism to Confucianism? Two Chinese authors, writing in the Princeton-based web journal China in Perspective, have offered contrasting viewpoints.

Guo Baosheng, a Chinese democratic activist, wrote that in the strategic triangle characterized by the West vs. Confucian-Islamic conflict, the death of Bin Laden means that the West can shift its focus to China:


By understanding the strategic triangle in this new era, you can see what 9/11 and the death of Bin Laden means for China. Although Huntington thought that 9/11 was a conflict between civilization and savage, not one between civilizations, many still based their arguments on the clash of civilizations theory. It was a clash between extremist Islamism and the West. This clash led to a strategic shift of focus of the West from Chinese Communist authoritarianism (wrapped up in Confucianism) to Islamism. The West had to ally with China to deal with Islamism. This gave China an opportunity to develop its power.


When Mao Zedong was in power, the Soviet Union, US and China also formed a strategic triangle. The alliance between China and the US increased the international standing of China. China was saved threats from the north and entered the United Nations with the help of the US. By the same token, the alliance between the US and China after 9/11 was beneficial to China.


According to the triangular clash of civilizations, when the West won a decisive victory over Islamism, there is no longer a need to ally with Confucianism. It is a new beginning of the West vs. Confucianism conflict. The death of Bin Laden represented the collapse of extremist Islamism. This collapse means that the West no longer needs to compromise with China in exchange for co-operation on anti-terrorism. The West can now be harsh on China.

However, another Chinese writer Liu Zili, responding to the above article, pointed out that it is not a question of clashes between civilizations. Universal values are inherent in each and every civilization. But bad elements are also present in each of them. If we can separate out the bad elements, a grand integration of civilizations is conceivable:


No matter it is Huntington or someone else, they only see the surface but not the heart of the problem: it is not the clash between civilizations, but the failure of civilizations to embark on the liberal path, like the pseudo-Confucianism of China, pseudo-Islamism of Iran, as well as pseudo-Christianity and other religions. Not only that, Western civilizations have also made the same mistake: religious totalitarianism in the Middle Ages; internal democracy and external imperialism in the age of colonialism; [realist-based] intimacy with Communist China and Soviet Union… There are many manifestations of these sins: rejection by Bin Laden the tolerance displayed in the history of Islamism and Mohammed; and the destruction of Orthodox Church and benevolent Confucianism under Leninism, Maoism and Communism. And we cannot spare Western capitalism, which made peace with the early Bolshevism, and Maoism-Dengism, in a kind of strategic-economic collusion. This is Western civilization, in opposition and abandonment of its liberalism and democracy.


Therefore, only when Western civilization destroys its negative connotations, like how it destroys Bin Laden, can it separate its good elements from the bad. Achieving this, it can connect with the Islamic and Oriental civilizations. Further, it will bring about universal democracy and the renaissance of various civilizations of the world (it is by no means universal domination by Christianity, or post-modernist deconstruction, or like the film Zeitgeist, which asserts the Christ myth theory and other conspiracies to relieve Bin Laden of its crime). This is a grand design about the integration of civilizations. Therefore, while we celebrate the death of Bin Laden, we should guard against the fallacy which leads to anti-democratic and illiberal tendencies in Western, Islamic and Confucian civilizations alike, and creates space for terrorism. Otherwise, for one Bin Laden fallen, a hundred will stand up. Their banners and camouflage will bear the name of the ‘clash of civilizations’.


Hence, it is not correct to say that the death of Bin Laden will enable the US to deal with China, and to fundamentally change the ‘Chinamerica’ economic and diplomatic relations. America and Europe need to think hard about their capitalist collusion with Communist China. As long as this strategic-economic alliance is not abandoned or restructured (a re-design of the scheme for a democratic China), America and Europe cannot step out of the dilemma rooted in the supremacy of capitalism. If that is the case, the problem of how to define China with still feature as a paradox in future Sino-America relations, and creates the conditions for the ultimate rise of China.

This post is part of our special coverage The Death of Osama Bin Laden.

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