September 11th: A Challenge to Whom?

September 11th is more than a simple attack on a specific country. But does it knock on the gate of the new century or even the new millennium? Can it be a signal of much more significant and complicated changes at global and regional levels since much earlier than September 11th? The September 11th attack is a tragic event, but, in spite of so many victims and damages, and so much focus on them by the media and their audience, does not its primary significance lie with the exclusive challenge it presents to the world’s most powerful country, which has been severely and directly attacked on its mainland for the first time? Or does September 11 also illustrate that, after the end of Cold War, the increasingly globalizing world is not, as many optimistic observers predicted, oriented toward “peace and development,” and “the end of history,” where ideologically motivated conflict abates? Does September 11 actually show how complex the whole international system can be? Moreover, does it represent a failure of modern politics, and therefore a challenge to the very system deeply rooted in the nation-state framework?

These are the questions discussed and debated by critical intellectuals in China. This short essay will not fully demonstrate how the discussions are going, but instead will look briefly at the comments and disagreements on September 11 among younger generations, mainly internet-users, and then summarize discussions by Chinese intellectuals that have appeared in Dushu, or The Monthly Reader, a leading intellectual journal in China. 1 Finally the paper will conclude with some observations about the challenges September 11 present for China.

Some immediate responses to September 11th

Contrary to some reports in the Western media, the general feelings in China were sympathetic to the victims. Ordinary people, as well as the social elite, were really shocked, if not astonished, by the attack on the United States. This is mostly because of the processes of (more or less) pro-Americanization and pro-globalization, in terms of intellectual and political atmosphere, cultivated in China by both the official programme for the Reform and the intellectual New Enlightenment since the 1980s. 2

Of the messages concerning the U.S. losses, perhaps the most well-known is the “Open letter to the President of the United States and the people of America,” signed by 86 intellectuals, including some dissidents and writers, on the day following the attack. It expressed both sympathy to the American people (although it did not mention that the victims included people from other parts of the world) and animosity toward the possible terrorists:

Being in such infinite grief and indignation, we from another part of the ocean, … realize that the universal anger quickly expressed by peoples all over the world is the very base for the new global rules….

Now, when we have lost our brothers, human civilization is in crisis, and the American people are experiencing the most tragic moment ever. In such days we believe both the American people and the government will be able to bear the brutal tribulation, and the Statue of Liberty will stand forever….

Tonight we all are Americans! 3

This piece is well-known mostly because of its rare, outspoken quality, in terms of its wording as well as its strong position. 4

Given the huge population in China and its political and social background since the 1980s, feelings are more complex than could be expressed in a single letter or Internet message. It can also be easily imagined that, in a country that has had difficult relations with the United States for a long time, there are people who feel the attacks were a sort of retribution for American hegemony, or “at last, misfortune for the greatest winner.” One heard these sentiments on the internet, and in tea houses or cafés. However, in public nobody really dares to stand with the terrorists. The most common message will start with “Damn the terrorists! But why are there such attacks? Anything wrong with the US too?” This “DAMN…BUT…” becomes a typical response on the internet.

At times, when someone articulates “the rich deserve it” stance, there will immediately be severe criticism from those who find this kind of response inhuman and feel ashamed of it: “How impossible that my fellow citizens could have such disgraceful thoughts!” 5

Preliminary analysis

Beyond the various emotional expressions and responses there have been some attempts to understand what has been going on and, even, what has been going wrong. For some intellectuals in China, September 11th was more a symbolic than a real attack, in spite of the enormous loss of the lives of thousands of civilians and millions of dollars in property. No doubt the attacks were carefully plotted, and had deliberate dramatic effects for the world media, in order to both manifest what Hollywood images often show, and to let the rest of the world see how weak any superpower might be–not just the United States. It is more symbolic, some argue, because it did not destroy or shake the very foundation of the United States or the fundamental structure of today’s world system.

The Problem of Middle East Policies

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon; although it appears more frightening since the end of the Cold War, its roots have been in the modern world system for quite some time. For more than a half century, at least, peoples of the Middle East in general, and the Palestinians in particular, have been in an uneasy position. This situation has to be understood by looking into the whole set of policies toward them from the West, and especially from the United States. Some scholars claim that it has less to do with religious differences than with socioeconomics and especially geopolitics. It should be remembered that Muslims were getting on well with Christians for some centuries; and fundamentalism is not necessarily the cause of terrorism. There are strong fundamentalist countries that do not have difficulties, with the West at least, and, indeed, even some Western countries, for example, the United States, contain strong fundamentalist movements which affect national policies. There are unbalanced policies and politics toward/in the entire Middle East, and even some pro-American Arab professionals working in the West feel overwhelmingly unhappy with them.

Without such historical perspectives it would be hard to understand “Why they hate us/U.S. so much.” If it is easy to see why there are such strong feelings of patriotism and calls for counterattack among ordinary people in the United States, it is perhaps not too late to rethink the whole U.S. foreign policy framework, and to scrutinize the politics that to a great extent fail to maintain peace in the Middle East, and Central and South Asia. Simply and rashly mobilizing all possible financial and military resources to hunt down or bomb a group of terrorists led by, say, Bin Laden, without asking questions about overall U.S. politics and policies, would be very shortsighted. 6

The question is, are we in the historical moment to celebrate the “End of History,” or at the crucial crossroads to get out of the trap of the political and/or ideological stereotypes of the “Clash of Civilizations”?

Modernity and the Problem of the Nation-State 7

Some arguments go beyond policies and politics to claim that the problem is modernity itself and its major institutional outcome–the framework of the nation-state. The September 11th attacks were not plotted by poor evildoers in some remote mountains who were involved in fundamentalism, in “Jihad,” or in irrational self-sacrifice. They were more profoundly a consequence of modernity itself, which creates so many great opportunities for some, but in the meantime lets others–not necessarily only the poor–feel so marginalized.

It is thus not a war in any conventional sense; for instance, no one, either before or after the attacks, directly took credit for them, nor were the attacks actually launched by a nation-state or group of states. Although it does not really matter whether or not the attacks were launched by a handful of extremists from a certain region, with some specific religious or ethnic background, it would be a mistake if we simplistically attribute September 11th to the suicide mission of some poor, hopeless people. Rather, they included people who are rich, with advanced degrees and technology, who have been located in the midst of worldly activities for a decade or so. Indeed, they used to be armed and supported by various superpowers in the West!

The pieces published in Dushu (The Monthly Reader) in November and December 2001 offer some interesting interpretations that should be taken into account. More than exploring who are the specific “evildoers,” the authors try to understand how contradictory and problematic are modernity and the nation-state. They argue that terrorism in today’s world is an internal and institutionalized part of modernity. Only when we bind ourselves to the stereotype of modern vs. traditional, civilized vs. barbarian, the West vs. the Rest, can we view the September 11th attacks as plotted by some premodern barbarians. Violence has been industrialized and institutionalized within the modern system, which is one of the keys to understanding the dilemma of modernity. It is modernity that, on the one hand, promotes and legitimizes democracy, liberty, freedom, the rule of law for domestic politics and to ensure and secure civil rights, and, on the other, mobilizes, institutionalizes, and industrializes violence as the basis for protecting territory, sovereignty, and national interests. Never have there been such wars as those in the 20th century, all launched and systematized by and within the nation-state system. The nation-state as the essential framework of modernity is fundamentally the organized or industrialized container of violence. The difference and challenge this time is that the “war” was not declared by another nation-state, nor necessarily by a specific axis of “evil nations”–at least there is no evidence of that as yet. The terrorists could be individually scattered organizations from anywhere.

Accordingly, the central issue is not whether it is indeed Bin Laden or the Taliban who launched the attacks, nor how to catch them with the fewest casualties, or if it is necessary to use a canon to kill mice, but to review and rethink the system itself, to see how the global flows of capital, technology, information, and above all, people, as a consequence of the nation-state system, is paradoxically challenging the system itself. 8

High modernity has not developed a mechanism that could keep human beings from organized violence, nor that could protect people from being attacked by armed nobodies. The challenge is especially true when we are caught up in the nation-state perspective. Everything can be legitimized when it is tied to a particular nation-state; from economy to identity, all become national belongings and national properties. In the age of globalization, or that of the global flows of capital, technology, information, and people, however, this perspective becomes increasingly problematic. Everything today is becoming transnational. For more than a decade we have seen reactions and counteractions to such “globalization.” Examples can be seen from the “rise of nationalism in many parts of the world, fascism in some parts, and further from regional and transnational terrorism.” 9 The September 11th terrorists were not solely targeting the United States as a nation; the World Trade Center was more a multi- or transnational place than a U.S. property.

Today, because of September 11th, everyone is worrying about terrorism and terrorists. What is terrorism? Who are the terrorists? Where do they come from? It is clear that they were not attacking the World Trade Center in the name of any particular nation-state or government, nor is it a war in a conventional sense-a war of one nation-state against another. It is more a global challenge to the nation-state system per se, a challenge from groups or individuals who do not have to organize themselves as a nation-state. 10).]

What Has Changed in Today’s World?

September 11 has caused many to wonder if any fundamental changes have occurred in the world because of it. Authors who contributed essays to Dushu have been involved in this conversation. These are some of the questions that have been posed. 11

1. Almost immediately after the attacks there was mobilization and condemnation from all parts of the world. It was mostly because of the tragic loss of civilians and the total destruction of world’s most well-known trade center. It was also partly because of global media and that a superpower was involved. There is worldwide consensus on the threat of global terrorism; however, had there been no mass media and, more importantly, no superpower–the most authoritative and influential of which was this time shockingly attacked–it would have been unthinkable that any nation-state, or at least its government, could have worked in such an effectual way. This leads to another issue: had the attacks taken place somewhere else, especially in a poor, remote area of some small country, where there might have been even more victims, what would have been the international response? We have to ask ourselves: what are the sociopolitical sources of this response to terrorism?

2. Because of the terrorist attacks, we have begun to rethink/redefine our conceptions about “war,” “civilization,” and “international order.” As a matter of fact, along with the new alliance formed against terrorism, a new international order is also in the making. All nation-states or governments, except for a very few this time, have been united overnight. Further, it will be the first time since the end of World War II for some countries, such as Japan, to join with others in military action–for Japan, it is “logistical support” of military action; for China, it is the first time for such an alliance with the United States, also since World War II; and for some others, it is the first time for opening their air space unconditionally to US armed forces. Such a powerful alliance has never been seen before; more meaningful, however, is that such an alliance has been established, for the first time, to fight against a non-nation state organization or organized terrorists, like the Taliban or Bin Laden. War was declared, but not against a nation-state. Such a change in terms of war (or the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries) is something we have to cope with seriously. This change at the international level is far more than an emotional or moral response, or reasonable counterattack, or some sort of revenge; it is not just a matter of how the United States reacts. However, one must ask whether these apparent changes are perduring: will they last beyond this historical moment and signify a fundamental restructuring of the world order? 12

3. The issue is not only about how to define war and civilization, but to examine our deeply rooted political unconsciousness. Not only politicians, but also journalists, academics, and ordinary citizens have some very biased notions of “the Other.” We frequently refer to the attacks as proof of the “Clash of Civilizations,” to the counterattacks as “crusades,” and, even more, reduce the problem to a battle between Good and Evil! Are these the schemes deeply but unconsciously cultivated in our thinking? Some feel there is a need to restore old-fashioned colonialism in order to maintain the global order. Patriotic, nationalist, and racist newspapers seem overlappingly and paradoxically to be back on our breakfast table. Political and moral correctness cannot deny such unconsciousness, which might be more difficult to deal with than a group of terrorists or extremists in some caves in Afghanistan. If we cannot overcome such created fissures between cultures and peoples, any peace and order after a war against terrorism will be impermanent at best. Is there something more urgent for us to consider than where to stand, with whom, for whom, and against whom? 13

4. Last, but not least, is the problem of the binary approach. We have been used to thinking and acting within the framework of either/or. Once again, it is more than just whether China and other countries should be with us/U.S. this time; it is a question of possibilities. If the world were indeed divided by the criterion of either black or white, and by black vs. white only, the answer would be much clearer. Since the Enlightenment, we have gotten used to a way of thinking and asking: What do we really want? Either the modern or the traditional, the rich or the poor, the us/U.S. or the Other, the West or the Rest, and so on. We have to decide. In most cases we prefer the former to the latter. When we make the decision, we unsophisticatedly ignore the enormous diversities in-between. With such an either/or paradigm, we have rarely noticed, among many others, the enormous number of refugees, the increasing number of over-stay tourists, the millions of cheap-labor migrants, who are indeed somewhere in-between, not to speak of those cultures and peoples who never know what is going on or going wrong between the Good and the Evil. Are we keen to prove an old Chinese saying that “where there is a war between Good and Evil, there is disaster for the ordinary masses”? 14

Some Challenges for China

It would be naive to say that any difficulties or problems between China and the United States will all disappear simply because of September 11th. Nor would it be rational to claim that nothing will change, for September 11th is also a challenge to China, for several reasons.

First, China, is an old-and-new country, still on its way to the “modernization of the nation,” in terms of both nation-building and state-building. It is a transformation from an aged empire to a modern nation-state. If September 11th was really a challenge of the Global–terrorism is merely a part of it–to the nation-state system per se, it will be a headache for those “architects” who are planning for China’s “modernization” (marketization, urbanization, privatization, professionalization, etc.) and its belated catch-up agenda.

Second, China’s political and economic elites have reached a kind of consensus, or at least a compromise, after hard experiences over several decades, that it is the West, and the United States in particular, that China should seriously learn from, in terms of business management, administrative and legal systems, banking and finance, social security and pensions, science and education–in a word, the whole set of so-called “modern systems.” 15 If these systems, and the models of the United States, are actually in the weak position of being easily attacked by nobody from nowhere, China should be seriously on the alert, and needs to be supportive of the U.S., especially if elites feel sure that there is no alternative to the route of modernization they have chosen.

Third, of course, China has had problems for some time with its own regional terrorists and local separatists. However, an alliance with the U.S. is not just a pragmatic strategy that will be helpful in handling underground organizations. China does not have to share values with the West over the issues of Tibet and Taiwan, but China needs to have the West understand its difficult situation, and the attacks of September 11th may paradoxically provide an opportunity for such understanding. If both do not take it seriously, both will miss a chance, which may not be so important for the West, but it will definitely be so for China. This is so obvious that only closed eyes would lead to confusion. It would to be ironic if everybody knew that except the Americans! 16

Among China’s intellectuals, younger generations, and the public there will be constant discussion and debate on both the events of September 11th and their impact on the United States, China, and Sino-American relations. If this turns out to be a serious issue to both China and the United States, it might be a turning point in their relations. If it is a real challenge to the U.S. superpower, it would be even more significant. And if it was a bomb threat to the whole system–from early capitalist expansion to the establishment of the modern nation-state–it would be a real shock and an unintended consequence of modernity.

It is too early to say now; only time will tell.

  1. In both cases, responses to, or the analysis of, September 11th took place mostly during the first one-two months, i.e., from September 12 to November 2001.
  2. It may also have something to do with Chinese culture itself, which, since Confucius at least, almost never favors any kind of terrorist action. Even official spokesmen have clearly indicated, when being asked if China would take this “opportunity” to set specific conditions in exchange for support, that “the fight against terrorism is a different issue, and China is not making bargains” (International Herald Tribune, September 19, 2001). Additionally, the very moral base of the Confucian tradition is, as a Chinese saying signifies, to never take advantage of another when he is in danger. It would be immoral for us to “hit a person when he is down.” Those who keep inquiring as to the possible pragmatic reasons behind China’s sympathetic and co-operative policies and attitudes toward the U.S. after September 11 should understand this basic but deep cultural root.
  3. The letter was signed that evening and later circulated to a wide readership via the Internet.
  4. In the intervening months, more emotional messages appeared, especially on the Internet. A recent piece claims that it is extremely important to have a “global policeman” in order to maintain the world order, and the United States is the only one that can be relied on to do the job, in terms of power and legitimacy. This piece justifies not only U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Kuwait-Iraq, and Yugoslavia, but also in Korea: “the honor of global policeman belongs to the great United States and the most heroic American people” (Century Forum, web site, 09:28:30, 14 February 2002).
  5. Mainly from, between 12 and 20 September 2001.
  6. See Shu Chi, “International Terrorism and International Politics”; Wang Xiaoming, “The Failure of Politics”; Chen Kuan-Hsing, “Turning Point of American Image”; and Wang Hui, “The Failure of Politics and Global Democracy,” all in Dushu, November, 2001.
  7. See Wang Xiaoming (ibid.), Wang Hui (ibid.), Zhang Rulun, “The Sources of Terrorism”; and Huang Ping, “Another Dimension of Modernity,” all in Dushu, November, 2001.
  8. Huang Ping (ibid.).
  9. Huang Ping, “Cultural and Community Securities,” UNDP Workshop paper, Beijing, November, 2000.
  10. Huang Ping, “Beyond Boundaries: Imagining Impossibilities,” lecture at International House of Japan, Tokyo, 28 October 2001 (forthcoming in Asian Leadership Program, 2001 [Tokyo: International House of Japan, The Japan Foundation, 2002
  11. See, in particular, Wang Hui, Chen Kuan-Hsing, Wang Xiaoming, and Huang Ping, all in Dushu, November, 2001; Wang Jisi, “Shocks of the Terrorist Attacks in the US,” and Zhang Lun, “Can We Live Together?” Dushu, December, 2001.
  12. Wang Hui, “The failure of politics.”
  13. Wang Hui, ibid.
  14. Huang Ping, “Beyond Boundaries.”
  15. See Nicholas D. Kristof, “Our Man in Beijing,” New York Times, 25 January 2002, Sect. A, p. 23.
  16. Ibid.