A Ku Indeed!

China, Darfur and the Olympics

Posted in China, Chinese Philosophy, Politics by Chris on February 19, 2008

olympics.gifA Wall Street Journal editorial today got me thinking. As you may or may not know, Stephen Spielberg resigned recently from his post as the ‘artistic director’ for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He linked his resignation clearly to what he sees as China’s complicity in the Darfur problem. Apparently, Spielberg tried to talk with PRC officials about the issues privately, but saw no action whatsoever.

As a result, as he put it, he had to resign out of conscience (China’s response to Spielberg’s announcement is typical of the PRC though surprisingly quick for them). Interestingly enough, when President Bush was asked about Spielberg’s decision, and whether he himself should go to the event (which he plans on doing), he said that he saw the Olympics as a “sporting event” and so saw no reason to connect the Olympics (hosted by the PRC) to the Darfur situation.

My interest in this problem is sparked not just by the China-Darfur connection, but by a more general question: “how do you deal with China effectively when you want them to do something?” Given that we just read a chapter of Francois Jullien’s Detour and Access for my Confucius class, my mind is still thinking of some of Jullien’s points, and there is a connection to this question. Specifically, Jullien argues that communication methods in the East and in the West are different.

  • West: favors “direct” communication. So you come right out, essentially, and tell your opponent what your beef is, and you try to dismantle the opponent’s arguments against you in a direct, forceful, and public way, believing that the opposition will be forced to cave in (to capitulate, essentially) and accept your point of view.
  • East: favors “oblique” communication. This is a kind of “indirect” communication. It’s aim is not direct confrontation, but rather, in a way, communication that is meant to get your opponent’s forces to “crumble from within” by forcing the opponent to come to the conclusion you want “on their own” through suggestion, innuendo, metaphor, and other forms of “obliqueness.” Confucius fans will recall the stress in the Analects put on knowing historical works containing stories and poems; the reason partially being that communication, especially at the high state level (which his students were hoping to take part in), would likely be conducted through stories, with each side making points “obliquely.”

Now back to China. Clearly, Spielberg’s resignation is clearly a case of “direct” communication. He publicly resigned, and in doing so brought world attention to bear on the issue, probably with the intention of embarrassing Chinese officials into thinking more about their position. According to Jullien, such a method is entirely inadequate for the Chinese; as a matter of fact, all it succeeds in doing is driving the Chinese further into intransigence, mostly due to the need to save face. As far as Jullien suggests, interestingly I think, this is one of the virtues of the indirect method; though this methodology, you allow the person to make a change (here the PRC, say), without there ever being the “public” perception that they had been “called out.”

I have a number of questions here, none of which I have the answer to.

1. On a side note, I’ll admit that I am curious about President Bush’s response. Is his comment an attempt at indirect communication? Is he drawing attention to the issue without having to directly confront the PRC? Or (unfortunately more likely, no doubt) is he simply believing exactly what he’s saying — that there’s no linkage between China hosting the event and their possible relationship with Darfur? If it’s indirect communication, it’s smart. If it isn’t, well, then…draw your own conclusions on that one.

2. The more important question I have is: “How should governments and private individuals deal with China on this and other issues?” How do you effectively make your point obliquely? Should direct or indirect communication be used? If Jullien’s thesis is right, here’s the dilemma I see:

(A) Use Direct Methods: if these are as ineffective as Jullien suggests in these contexts, then they have no real effect (or at least they are not efficient) on altering the face of the problem that you are trying to solve. So what you get here, I think, is the ability to claim that ethically you will “not put up” with their behavior (you make your point and your stand) but — you lose the effective means to actually get “what you’re not putting up with” changed.

(B) Use Indirect Methods: if these are as effective as Jullien suggests, then they will have an effect, but the effect will take longer to take root, and it will no doubt take more energy on the part of the communicator to get the point across well. At the same time, however, it means something that might strike some as ethically problematic: it means, on the face of it, “accepting” the behavior that you are trying to change and not making that public stand that you “won’t put up with it.” In this sense, it may be that Bush’s claim is indirect; if so, it surely makes him look callous, even if his intention is to effect change.

As usual, more questions than answers. If anyone has any opinions on any of this, I’d love to hear them!


2 Responses

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  1. Charity Smith said, on February 20, 2008 at 2:28 pm

    Oh no! You’re becoming a Jullien fan!

    Seriously though, I just finished reading Detour and Access last month (I’d read a chapter last semester for the Analects course and promised myself I’d go back and read the book when I had time) and found much of what he says helpful, and his comments on the ‘indicative’ method of Confucius’ teaching especially insightful. Still, even when I’d read just a selection, I couldn’t help but feel that I was being pulled into a theory that’s a third generation incarnation of orientalism (and I suspect it will become fairly obvious here that I’m a Saidian).

    Yes, Jullien is right to try to analyze Chinese philosophy on its own terms. And I think a general worry in doing Confucian ethics—and an appropriate one—is that we shouldn’t try to map on Western philosophical models in ways that don’t fit (think of how controversial it was not so long ago to even call Confucianism a kind of ‘virtue theory’ for fear that we’d also start throwing around words like ‘telos’).

    But the problem here is that Jullien (and others) engineer a false dichotomy that extols the uniqueness of Confucius and other non-Western philosophies in ways that undermine the commonalities that we can—and should—examine with relation to method and content I find this especially perplexing in Detour and Access given that Jullien’s goal: to not only examine the method of detour as access in Eastern philosophy, but examine it as a way of ‘accessing’ Western philosophy (namely the ancient Greeks) better. Yet the contrasts Jullien creates are so vast and painstakingly engineered that when I return to his comparisons, they seem jarring and out of place. I wonder, ‘why even compare them then?’

    The danger of all of this is of course, that we WANT to talk about Confucius in terms of Western philosophy. We want to be able to call it a virtue theory. We want to consider whether its exemplar-based or dispositional. We want to contrast it with utilitarian and deontological thinking. But to do all of this, we need to have significant commonalities, and that’s something that Jullien just fails to give us.

    Alright, this has been a very long rant on Jullien, and one that doesn’t even tie in directly with the main point of your post. But in fairness to Jullien, I’ll say that my critique here is only true (if it’s true) of certain parts of his work. Though Detour is often talked about as a newer work, it’s actually been around longer but we just didn’t have an English translation of it. Jullien’s newer stuff, most notably In Praise of Blandness (2004) I think does a much better job of handling the distinctness/uniqueness dilemma. Best,

  2. Chris said, on February 21, 2008 at 10:28 am


    Oooh — hit a nerve with Jullien! Seriously, though, I don’t disagree with much of your criticism. I do think that there’s a strong sense of what I call “incompatibilism” in his work (I’ve only read Detour and Access, so I can’t comment about his other books). I think of the “incompatibilists” as those who suggest that the two traditions are not only fully autonomous but also not really translatable either way in terms of the other. Usually incompatibilists display in their understanding of the East a kind of singling out of the “mysterious” nature of the Chinese.

    On the one hand, I can understand the desire to move in this direction if one has concerns about cultural imperialism (which I do think motivates some). Here, there’s a general concern about reductivist hermeneutics and the attempt to show how Confucianism can be entirely reduced to virtue, or deontology, or what have you. At the end of the day, nothing “eastern” is left, if anything perhaps some odd cultural rituals that are inessential to the system that has been successfully translated into Western terms.

    I would not favor strong reductionism. If, for example, Confucianism is a virtue ethic (which I think is right), I don’t expect that it will “turn out” to be Aristotelean or Humean (though it may share similarities). These sorts of ways of understanding Confucius will no doubt require us to broaden our way of understanding what virtue ethics is, a way that honors what is distinctive to the Confucian.

    Clearly, then, I don’t care much for incompatibilism either, because, as you note, it leaves us asking “so what can I learn about this?” I do know some incompatibilists (on this issue), and my question is always yours: “so why are we reading this stuff?”

    By the way, I do agree that “detour” can be used also as a method for reading Western thinkers. But haven’t some already made that point? I don’t know much about his work, but from what I’ve heard it sounds like Strauss’ readings of Plato might fit here.

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