“The Confucian and the libertarian world view need to learn from each other”

Podcast with Lord Stephen Green

In this interview with Atlantik-Brücke’s Executive Director, Dr. David Deissner, Lord Stephen Green, Independent Member of the House of Lords, speaks about his new book “The Human Odyssee”. Lord Green looks at the impact of modernization and urbanization on our societies – East and West. He stresses the importance of looking at the human experience across cultures, and the necessity of learning from each other. Lord Green is the former Minister of State for Trade and Investment in the Coalition Government led by David Cameron as well as former Group Chairman of HSBC Holdings.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity:

David Deißner: Hello and welcome to Atlantik-Brücke On the Record. My name is David Deißner, I am the executive director of Atlantik-Brücke and our guest today is Lord Stephen Green. Lord Green looks back on a remarkable career in both banking and politics. He served as Group chairman of HSBC, the world’s largest private bank and was then Minister of State for Trade and Investment in the British government, retiring in 2013. He now chairs the Natural History Museum and Asia House. Lord Green is also an ordained priest in the Church of England and, of course, a member of the House of Lords. He has published numerous books on a wide range of topics such as Europe, Germany, European identity, and globalization. His most recent book is entitled the Human Odyssey: East, West and The Search for Universal Values. Lord Stephen, welcome to Atlantik-Brücke On the Record.

Lord Stephen Green: Thank you, great pleasure to be here.

Deißner: In your book The Human Odyssey you argue that it is somewhat misleading to conceive of Europe and Asia as two different continents, both geographically and perhaps even culturally. Could you briefly explain why?

Green: Well, geographically it is certainly one single landmass, if you think of it from Ireland at one end and Vladivostok at the other. That landmass includes two-thirds of the world’s population, produces now about two-thirds of the world’s economic output, and is home to all of the world’s great living cultures. With increased connectivity, these cultures are jostling up against each other more and more. And that is one of the principle features of life in the 21st century.

Deißner: At the same time, you also describe that there is no real sense of shared identity in Eurasia. And that consciousness of nationhood is at least as strong as ever. Do you concede this is a contradiction?

Green: No, I think it is the outworking of history and cultural differences. It is probably not even realistic to think of a common identity in such varied forms of human life. What is important to note is that in Asia there is a very strong sense of cultural assertion and national identity. We Europeans tend to be rather embarrassed about thinking about national identity for all the obvious reasons. That’s not the case in Asia.

Deißner: When people look at China, the hope 20 years ago was that with economic growth eventually democracy and individualization would come, but that obviously has not been the case. In your book, you state that the process of continuous urbanization will lead ultimately to the discovery of the individual. Not necessarily in an egoistic sense, but that people will strive for good lives and overcome thinking in terms of nations and national identity. Could you elaborate a little bit on this idea?

Green: Yes, urbanization is the great phenomenon of our times. Europe is now well over 80 percent urbanized, Asia is less than that, 55 to 60 percent, but is rising rapidly and within the next few decades will catch up. Urbanization changes people, and because we live in the midst of it in Europe, we have forgotten how deeply this affects us. You move from a traditional rural environment, where social structures are in place and are born into them. Expectations as to what you do in life and your place in society are all kind of ordained for you. That is not true in urbanized environments, and it will be just as liberating or disturbing for Asians who migrate to big cities as it was for Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries. Urbanization will change the way people think about themselves, and it is creating greater pluralism. One of the things that Chinese authorities are constantly balancing is the long-term direction they want to take the country in against a vibrant private sector economy and an increasingly pluralistic private sphere, which is very urban. That is a tension within modern China.

Deißner: Are you optimistic that urbanization will ultimately challenge autocratic systems, which really try to control people and that we see is going on at the moment in China?

Green: Well, I don’t know about that. I have visited many Chinese and Indian cities. What you see on the streets are vibrant, buzzing modernized cultures. Families are doing exactly the same sorts of things as they do at this end of the Eurasian landmass. That doesn’t mean that this is a simple narrative of Asians waking up to democratic liberalism of the kind that we take for granted in Western Europe and North America. It’s more complicated than that. Because I think the world faces some common challenges, and we need to discover a shared approach which must entail learning more about each other and respecting and valuing what the other brings. If you think just about the two big powers of this coming century, America and China, one is profoundly individualist in its whole make-up. This isn’t just about modern consumerism, it goes back to the founding fathers, to the pursuit of happiness, and is deeply embedded in the philosophic traditions of John Locke, on the one hand. And on the other, in China, you have a strong Confucian bedrock, very ancient and long predating the communist era, in which the individual’s role is defined more by their place in society and in the cosmos and more in terms of purpose, role, and obligation than in rights, liberties, and freedoms. But there is a lot to be said in that human beings have responsibilities as well as rights. There is a great amount of learning that can take place, which will mutually benefit both their Confucian perspective and our libertarian one. Actually, if we want to meet this common, existential challenge, we are going to have to do this, and I do have is a great deal of hope. We need to be determined to learn from each other and perhaps discover a truer, more mature individuality that recognizes that the more we engage with each other, the more we become ourselves. That sounds rather philosophical, but actually it is going to have to underlie the way the great powers, America and China, engage with each other. Right now, the signs are not very good on that front. But it also affects the way communities think about each other and how we, as individuals, think about our place in modern society. This profoundly important for the challenges of the coming decades.

Deißner: Still, it sounds quite idealistic to me. If you look at some of our current debates, it seems that the set of values, for example in China, Europe, and the U.S., are not easily reconciled. Particularly, if we look at social media, which in China, is used an instrument to control people’s lives.

Green: I think it is much too simplistic to think of it like that. China is wrestling with the Corona virus, and you see that social media is full of comments and criticisms and hopes and experiences, both heroic and tragic. This is absolutely not just an instrument of social control.

Deißner: Let’s look more at the big picture now. You also mention in your book that the European enlightenment project has in a sense succeeded all too well. Do you think that the willingness to raise doubts about ourselves, to be self-reflecting and self-critical has maybe undermined Europe’s sense of identity, of who we are, as opposed to autocratic regimes or other countries, which have a less complicated approach to national identity?

Green: It is certainly true that Europe has a complicated approach to national identity and tragically the British have just made matters worse by stepping out of the EU. You can tell from my comments that I don’t sympathize with the Brexiteers. But, it is certainly true that Europe has difficulties with national identity, and there are historical reasons behind this. And in a sense, yes, the enlightenment project succeeded all too well. Europe needs to discover what it stands for on the world stage and to present itself as cohesively and coherently as possible. I think this has resulted in Europe punching below its weight, and I am afraid this will continue for some time yet. It’s tragic for the world because I think Europe has some important insight into the role of the individual, which everyone needs to listen to, including the Asians. We have learned much of this out of our own history, which, as we all know, has been traumatic, divisive, and full of bloodletting. So, we are not coming from the same place as the Americans, and we should not be forced to choose between an American or Chinese worldview. We Europeans need to avoid that choice.

Deißner: But sometimes it seems to me it’s very hard to avoid this choice, right? If you look at certain policy issues at the moment, the 5G question or telecommunication infrastructure, it seems as if we have to make a decision: do we want to stick to the U.S. narrative? If we involve Huawei in infrastructure there will be certain consequences, but we also might face retaliation.

Green: We are going to do what is pragmatically sensible. Now, that is a very short-term, rather specific, almost technical question about how to equip European societies with a 5G competence. I am thinking in broader and longer-term perspectives. Do the Europeans see themselves as simply part of the West? I would suggest we shouldn’t think of ourselves like that. Europe, although it has much in common with America and overlaps in very important ways, including the commitment to democracy, is nevertheless a series of societies, which in their self-understanding is in a different place from America’s. And you see this in questions like capital punishment, gun control, and the readiness of people to move around. I am not making value judgements; I am just saying they are manifestly different. Anyone who actually goes to the United States or lives there, as I have done, will recognize, (1) what a hugely exciting, vibrant, creative, reinventive society it is, and (2) that it is actually rather different from the European perspective. So, I think that Europeans have something really important and distinctive to offer on the world stage. I think it will be dominated by America and China for a number of decades to come. The contest for legitimacy, between a world view that is fundamentally individualistic and a world view that is more communitarian and more structured, the Confucian versus the libertarian, is one where the challenge is to learn to understand each other’s strengths and how they can be meaningfully brought together in a more comprehensive approach and enable to rise to the huge challenges that are looming over all of us.

Deißner: I think this is a wonderful wrap-up. Lord Stephen Green, thank you so much for being with us today.

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