Journalist:There are a great many factors that have contributed to the international financial crisis, and they can be approached from many different angles. The focus of much of your research is a comparison between Chinese and western philosophical and political thought and culture, and so I would like you to speak on what you believe are the cultural reasons for the financial crisis.
Tian Chenshan:A great deal has been said about the technical reasons for the financial crisis, but very little has been made of the cultural causes? What precisely were the cultural factors that were responsible for the global financial meltdown, and why are people not interested in discovering them since they are relatively apparent? In a speech at Cambridge University, Premier Wen Jiabao pointed out that the matter was largely a moral issue. Let’s take this point a little bit further.
I would like to point out the possibility that the investigators into the financial crisis deliberately avoided making the cultural connection and confined their explanation for possible causes to technical problems or to the operational level of economics, which is an act of willful deception. Why would they do this? Because once the financial crisis has been identified as a cultural failure, it would be perceived as a cultural crisis, and this would amount to a crisis of confidence in western cultural institutions and traditions. A financial crisis is fueled by a lack of confidence in the financial establishment, and speaking from the technical perspective, this would mean that overcoming the financial crisis would be possible only through a world-wide restoration of trust in the U.S. dollar. Since the financial collapse, the experts on economics have been appealing to people to regain their trust in the U.S. dollar as a way to address the crisis and restore world financial stability. No one would presume to make the link between culture and crisis because to do so would be to endanger the wellbeing and the security of the spirit, and then where would the world’s confidence be?
From this perspective, when it comes to discussing the origins of the financial crisis, the western establishment would rather be silent on the subject of culture because cultural factors have become morally-related factors, and this means that the causes of the financial collapse should be made clear to the world simply as a matter of conscience. Speaking in the voice of western integrity, the public has a right to know the truth. Or expressed. differently, western intellectuals need to be forthright with the members of the public, and should not attempt to deceive them. Having made this claim, I would like to take this opportunity to explore the cultural factors that lie behind the global financial crisis by making a comparison between Chinese culture and western culture. Basically, the technical reasons for the worldwide financial meltdown that have been repeated ad nauseam can be boiled down into two major points: the first one is that the Wall Street bank’s financial derivatives had become poisonous products, and the second is that the government’s regulatory supervision and control measures were not sufficiently tough and restrictive. Such technical explanations sound viable since the poisonous products are still products whether the supervision of the financial industry is strict or not. But from the cultural perspective, the global financial crisis was in fact a consequence of the basic thinking process and cultural logic of the Enlightenment, and as an event it was both predictable and anticipated. Many respected economists who view issues from the cultural perspective as a way of making predictions on financial trends, have made accurate predictions of economic crises in the past.
The logic underpinning the Enlightenment is based upon two tenets. The first one is the indisputable right to pursue personal happiness and amass private fortune, and this was viewed as the first principle that provides the foundation for individual freedom. And there are no limits to the interpretations given to freedom because they are guaranteed by individual “human rights.” The second tenet is the government’s provision for and protection of the laissez-faire system. These were both core tenets of the Enlightenment project for which John Locke and Adam Smith were the key spokesmen and the most typical representatives. The individual’s rights and proper pursuits were defined bya lengthy set of absolute concepts thatare very familiar to us today, such as human rights, liberty, democracy, competition, market, consumption, maximizing profit, science, rationalism, and thepursuit of personal happiness and private wealth. According to Enlightenment thinking, these human rights were endowed by God, and as such they are inalienable. In this way, the financial threat to the global economy is directly linked to the Enlightenment because the cultural factors that caused the financial collapse can be traced to the core values of the Enlightenment project’s liberalism.
The Deep-Lying CrisisThreatening the Enlightenment: The Project Undermined and Distorted
Journalist:You have mentioned that the cultural factors that lie behind the global financial crisis can be traced back to the core values of the Enlightenment project’s liberalism. Would you please explain the deep-lying crisis that threatens Enlightenment civilization?
Tian Chenshan:It can be said that the global financial crisis is a manifestation of the underlying crisis that is afflicting the Enlightenment culture of the western countries, represented by Britain and the United States of America. There are three basic reasons for this predicament. First, for most people the mere mention of the Enlightenment conjures up nothing more than the specter of Britain’s classical liberalism, and this was a deliberate attempt to undermine the original concept of the Enlightenment as a complicated historical and ideological movement that included but was not limited to British liberalism. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume were among the outstanding thinkers of the European Enlightenment that was by no means confined to liberal ideology, and to perceive the Enlightenment as simply a synonym for liberalism is reductionistic.
Second, the analysis of the Enlightenment by the philosopher and sociologist of the Frankfurt School of Thought, Theodor Adorno, suggested that it has undergone a dialectical evolution, when in actuality it has moved in the opposite direction. The Enlightenment project did not enable people to break free from the influence of the church and of the power of a transcend God and achieve a degree of freedom of thought. Rather, the role of God simply changed from a Supreme Power who oversees mankind’s behavior and metes out punishment to those who transgress Divine law to the true source of human “rights” and “freedoms” and the champion of conduct that had previously been regarded as morally inappropriate. As a result, the concept of God simply changed from being a fixed dogma of the church to an instrument in service to the individual pursuit of personal happiness and the unrestrained accumulation of private wealth, but God’s absolute authority remained intact as the source of absolute principles and universal values.
Third, when the Enlightenment project was reduced simply to a trend of thought or to the ideas behind the so-called modernist movement, it gave rise to the view of nature and mankind as fundamentally dual and in conflict with each other. It reduced the acquisition of scientific knowledge into scientism, or into a systematic way for man to conquer, govern and exploit the physical world, an attitude that has produced major environmental crises and natural disasters that continue to threaten human existence and the planet. It is high time that we wrestle the reins of science away from the few private interests that abuse it for personal gain and profit and restore science’s role as mankind’s loyal and generous servant willing to work for the common well-being of all humanity.
Journalist：How is the United States of America coping with its inheritance and transmission of Enlightenment culture? And what is your view of American culture and its widespread influence around the world?
Tian Chenshan:American culture inherited European Enlightenment culture and carried it to the extreme. At the inception of America, the founding fathers wrote the ideal of classical liberalism into the American Constitution and made it into the dominating ideology and the safeguard of American aspirations andvalues. As classical liberalism became the single and only symbol of the Enlightenment, it became the term for a set of universal values that were promoted by the Anglo-American world and were spread throughout the world. As a reductionist label for the Enlightenment, liberalism in itself did not possess the rationality of lived human experience, but it meant that by invoking political power in the name of God, the affluent and the right-holders could establish an America-dominated world order and a global economy for which they themselves would act as the spokespeople. To that end, they needed to implement the Enlightenment ideology and to assert the legitimacy of their dominance over the global order, which was what Mr.Reginald Littlecalled “intellectual apartheid”. Operating as a soft power, American culture existed in the shadow of European centralism for 200-odd years before it evolved into the Anglo-American global order in 1945. But today’s financial crisis is a manifestation of the law of universal changes described by the Chineseying-yangphilosophy or by the dialectical cycle between success and failure. Every impulse that swings too far in one direction will eventually swing to the opposite extreme, and in a cultural context this is a sign ofamorality.
Neo-Liberal Culture: A Synonym for the Enlightenment’s 1980s Classical Liberalism
Journalist:What do you make of neo-liberalism, and is it somehow related to classical liberalism? Are the Wall Street bank’s derivative credit products and the government’s slack regulation of the financial markets that precipitated the financial collapse related to neo-liberalism?
Tian Chenshan:Neo-liberal culture is a term that describes the Enlightenment’s classical liberal culture in evidence in the 1980s, and a close examination of this neo-liberalism will enable people to understand the cultural problems that led up to the financial crisis. Neo-liberalism is a modified version of Keynesianism, a theory that purports to be the solution to the capitalist crisis. The central principle behind neo-liberalism is the restoration of classical aliberalism, namely the right to the independent pursuit of personal happiness, to the unrestrained accumulation of private fortune, and to the non-intervention of government in the free market as the most effective way to expand private-ownership and to allow the market mechanisms to advance society. In addition, the public access to lines of credit and borrowing power to expand consumption is also consistent with the logic of neo-liberalism. It was this neo-liberal culture that encouraged the Wall Street bank’s derivative credit products and the government’s lack of control of the financial speculators that triggered the financial crisis.
Chinese Civilization: Following the Golden Mean and Keeping Abreast of Changes
Journalist:What constitutes mainstream culture today, and what are its concrete attributes? Also, how is Chinese civilization related to this mainstream culture, and how can we avail ourselves of the values of Chinese civilization?
Tian Chenshan:The Anglo-American notion
of the individual’s sacred and inalienable freedom and right to pursue personal
happiness, the unrestrained accumulation of private wealth by whatever means
possible, laissez faire,and the corresponding absolute principles
of freedom, democracy, human rights, liberty, individualism, and so on, have
come to constitute the legitimate ideology of the Anglo-American political
order and have become the mainstream culture of the West. In contrast, this understanding
of individual rights and freedoms is intolerable within Chinese
What is right and proper in Chinese culture is the pursuit of “properness” in all circumstances; the seeking of “benevolence,” of “the wholeness of man and Heaven,” of the way of Man and the way of Heaven, and of enlightenment in the proper way. Why is this the case? Because Chinese philosophy stems from an understanding of “the inseparability of the one and the many” such that the heavens and the earth make up a whole in which everything is interconnected and without interruption. Chinese thinking is consistent in seeking the golden mean or the proper relationship in all things and circumstances. When a relationship is properly handled, the right way is followed, and the resulting conduct is moral.
culture holds to the concept of “the inseparability of the
one and the many” and does not pursue
absolute truth in anything because there can be no such thing as an absolute
truth in a universe that is characterized by the inseparability of the one and
the many. The way that can be made explicit is unusual. The principle that is followed
in Chinese culture is the pursuit of the essence among the constant changes in
the universe. But what on earth is meant by this notion of essence? Essence concerns
relatedness and continuity. In other words, in Chinese thinking a change is not
a new and discreet phenomenon that suddenly occurs, but an innovation that is
connected with the past. Change is an aspect of continuity that is inseparable
from change. It can be said that there is no change without continuity, and
vice versa. The Chinese people try to study the moment and grasp the continuity
in the changing circumstances, the so-called universal change, as recorded in
theBook of Changes.
In following this notion of continuity in change, Chinese culture attaches great importance to the practice of being flexible in making changes, to changing in response to change, to being aware of the changing times, to seeking truth from facts, and to unifying knowledge and practice. Chinese people act according to the changing conditions, they do not act according to absolute principles and oppose themselves to all kinds of dogma. It is great wisdom, but by no means pragmatism that leads to a result that is opposite to the original intention. Rather, it is a union of both ends and means, and this is the cultural reason why China has made such splendid achievements in reform and opening-up. From this perspective, China has embarked on the road to economic and social development with Chinese characteristics.
The Second Renaissance or Enlightenment: Oriental Interconnectedness to Rectify Western Dualism
Journalist:What are the essential characteristics of European humanism and of the Chinese humanistic spirit respectively? And how can we foster a cultural environment that is conducive to resolving the financial crisis?
Tian Chenshan:European humanism takes the individual’s personal desire as paramount, whereas the humanistic spirit of Chinese culture is concerned with proper interpersonal relationships, including the proper relationship between man and society and between man and nature. The Chinese humanistic spirit is embodied in the notion of “benevolence,” an outlook on life that not only concerns man, but nature also. My proposal of a Second Renaissance or Enlightenment project for the world is made on the basis of the different humanistic notions held concurrently by China and the West. Western humanism is based on a cosmic dualism in which God and man are in continuous conflict, while the Chinese humanistic spirit is grounded in universal, interconnectedness, and this sense ofcontinuity and correlativitycan go a long way to rectifying the drawbacks of western dualism.
Another reason to hope for the advent of a second Renaissance or Enlightenment is that despite the great differences between the first Renaissance and the first Enlightenment, they both failed to fulfill the preset goal of doing away with God and obtaining for man his cognitive and spiritual freedom. The concept of a transcendent God was not overthrown, but rather was aligned with a new set of absolute concepts such that all modern principles are touted as being decreed by God, and therefore are sacred, absolute and supreme. The notion of God and the concepts of science and truth were distorted and turned into the means to serve the pursuit of the personal happiness and private fortuneof a few at the expense of the welfare of the many. The idea of human freedom was centered on the individual and on the acquisition of material property, a tragedy for the western God as well as for mankind. In this sense, the two great movements, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, went awry and failed to meet their promise because the concept of God was not discarded, but was simply recycled and reconceived to serve a new ideology.
Nowadays, human beings need a new cultural revival and a new Enlightenment that will embrace the following characteristics:
First, this second Enlightenment must not be exclusive to a certain population or to a specific region of the world. The first one was Europe-centered, but the new one must be global in its reach.
Second, in the new Enlightenment, both the East and the West must carefully examine their respective traditional cultures for waysto overcome the difficulties of history and geography andto improve the lives of their fellow human beings. The West needs to reconsider the “like” thinking distinguished by connectedness, as proposed by David Hall and Roger Ames, and make an effort to overcome the too extreme concept thinking that is characterized by lineal and one-directional thought.
Third, the new cultural revival accompanying this second Enlightenment must signal the end of the domination of western thinking over the world. On the spiritual level, the East and the West must develop an unprecedented cooperative and collaborative relationship based upon an understanding and a respect for differing worldviews and for unfamiliar values and ways of thinking. This second Enlightenment must reject the hegemony of the West’s single value system with respect to other world.cultures.
Fourth, the new cultural revival that will follow the advent of the second Enlightenment will constitute a western post-modern consciousness that will awaken the world to the richness of diverse traditions, and it will criticize the West’s modernity as it re-evaluates eastern civilizations and their ideologies. For a great many people, globalization has been the source of a myriad of inescapable problems that simply cannot be solved through modern thinking. Today’s crises can be laid at the feet of modernity and the blind belief in scientism, and therefore we must strive for an ideological break-though, a second Enlightenment that is pluralistic and that embraces the rich diversity of cultures.