Like other theories on civilization, the distinctive features of the new Chinese civilization are defined in terms of how they differ from other civilizations. As one Chinese theorist concludes,
The new form of human civilization is a new creation of the Chinese people, created under the guidance of the Communist Party—that is led by Marxist teachings—and born on the basis of firm adherence to socialism with Chinese features and its development, the continuity and development of Chinese culture and the borrowing and assimilation of the achievements of human civilization. It differs from both the Western capitalist form of civilization that is open to vices and from the socialist form based on the Soviet model. It conforms to the demands of the universal laws of world civilization and goes beyond the assimilation of Western capitalist civilization. It has overcome the numerous flaws of capitalist modernization, freed itself from the vice of capitalist alienation and destroyed the West’s monopoly on so-called “universal values.” This form of civilization continues the best traditions of Chinese civilization on the basis of assimilating the advanced achievements of human civilization and possesses great vitality. It has enriched human knowledge about the laws of civilizational development and is of great value for the great revival of the Chinese nation and the future development of world civilization.
In theoretical terms, the adoption by Chinese communists of civilizational theory marks a new stage in the indigenization of Marxism on Chinese soil. This indicates that Sinicization is proceeding not by mixing Marxism with traditional Chinese thought, but with the Chinese thought of the first half of the twentieth century which had already largely absorbed the Western theories that were widespread at the time. This blending can be seen in the wording of the plenum resolution cited above. The term “Great unity” (Datong) is taken here from classic Chinese philosophy where it meant “an ideal society.” But it was not until the turn of the twentieth century that the philosopher and reformer Kang Youwei shifted its meaning from a past to a future society. It was in this sense that Chinese thinkers and politicians, including, for example, Chiang Kai-shek, began using it. The concept of “modernization” was taken from contemporary Western sociology and political science, with the result that only sentences about the Party and the people can somehow be attributed to Marxism in its Leninist interpretation.
If to disregard differences in terminology, we find that the line espoused by today’s CPC ideologists differs little from the theory of Liang Shuming who, by the way, began identifying the Chinese civilizational model with socialism towards the end of his life. The only difference is that, unlike Xi Jinping, Liang still believed that the highest civilization should be built on Hindu spiritual principles. Of course, the Beijing theoreticians can proclaim that the new form of civilization they have invented is communism itself—that is, the highest stage of human development to which all other civilizations will eventually come. This would put their theory back on the path of classical Marxism. However, they are unlikely to do this because it would force them to completely abandon the idea that other civilizations hold great value—the very argument on which they base their opposition to Western claims of exceptionalism.
In practical terms, it is obvious that the new civilizational ideology reflects the Chinese leadership’s growing pride and self-confidence due to the country’s tremendous economic success. It is no coincidence that in many countries—Germany, Russia, the United States (home, for example, to Frederick Turner’s “frontier thesis”), Japan and African countries—such ideologies arose when the growth of nationalism made it necessary to set their own traditions and culture against those that had previously dominated. This is a new step in the movement away from the modest foreign policy of Deng Xiaoping. Beijing began looking disparagingly at other countries, arguing that their political and economic systems were outdated and, unlike China’s, unable to adequately respond to the challenges of the modern world—such as the need to accelerate economic growth or effectively fight the Covid-19 pandemic. The Chinese leadership is telling the world (or rather, itself) that China has nothing more to learn from others; on the contrary, others should learn something from China.
Of course, unlike the United States or the Soviet Union, China does not yet impose its political or economic model on others. During his conversation with President Joe Biden on November 16, 2021, Xi bluntly stated, “China does not intend to spread its approach to the whole world. On the contrary, we always encourage other countries to search for the development path that meets the national conditions of their country.” However, the very idea that the new form of Chinese civilization is closer to perfection and surpasses all others in all respects might naturally elicit the desire to extend it to others, at the very least through more vigorous propaganda. After all, if your model is the closest to perfection, only stupidity or the intrigues of enemies might cause others not to accept it. Stupidity can be eliminated through reeducation as China does, for example, with its citizens who fail to understand the advantages of the Chinese political system. Enemies, on the other hand, must be fought.
The possibility that events might unfold in this way is seen by the idea, already generally accepted in China, that China has shown the world a new path to modernization that differs from the Western model. Thus, expressing it in Western political science terms, official Chinese propaganda is trying to undermine the very basis of the ideology of the United States and its allies—as expressed in the Western theory of modernization—according to which, on the one hand, prosperity can only be achieved by adopting the economic model of the West and, on the other, that economic development and the creation of a middle class inevitably leads to democratization and the adoption of the Western political model.
Different countries throughout history have put forward claims for successful alternatives to modernization, but none has yet succeeded. In this regard, the collapse of the Soviet Union is especially telling and important for China. This is precisely why China claims that the Chinese model has corrected not only Western, but also Soviet mistakes. Of course, proponents of modernization theory might argue that the time will yet come for the democratization of China, but China clearly does not think so. China believes that it has finally found another path that can attract others.
The argument that one’s own civilization is perfect calls to mind not so much the Soviet idea concerning “the advantages of socialism” (the Soviet Union never claimed to have a special civilization) as it does the classical China-centered model of world order in which the world was divided into one part that was culturally Chinese (hua) and one that was barbaric (yi) —although the job of the Chinese emperor was not to conquer the barbarians, but to convince them of the superiority of his “brilliant” civilization. His methods of persuasion ranged from trade and other privileges to military support for pro-Chinese forces in barbarian territories. This often caused neighboring states and tribes to fall into vassal-like dependence on China, even without a direct conquest, and to them paying tribute to the emperor of the Celestial Empire. At the same time, China sincerely believed that it was acting for the good of the barbarians. Modern China actively levels economic sanctions against neighboring countries (Mongolia, South Korea, Australia, etc.) that reject Beijing’s advice on how to view Chinese policy. Chinese diplomats around the world speak sharply and sometimes rudely, criticizing those who, in their view, misinterpret what they consider China’s humane and fair approach to those countries. This sometimes prompts such countries to change their position and even to apologize. And Chinese leaders sincerely do not understand why such actions—which they believe are aimed at these countries’ best interests—cause them irritation.
The new Chinese civilizational approach could create two problems for the Chinese leadership. First, the assertion that Chinese civilization is superior might raise red flags for many countries, especially neighbors who were already vassals of imperial China (Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Myanmar, etc.). Beijing’s assertive foreign policy and its pushy new style of diplomacy have already caused China’s popularity to decline in many countries. Any further decline would hardly contribute to an expansion of Chinese trade with the rest of the world—the very foundation of China’s economic development.
Second, most civilizational theorists, such as Spengler and Toynbee, argue that civilizations, like people, are born, reach maturity and die—that is, reach their natural end. Such a conclusion, however, is unlikely to satisfy Chinese ideologues, who will have to come up with arguments as to why the CPC’s new form of civilization will last forever.
Alexander Lukin is Head of the Department of International Relations at HSE University and Director of the Center for East Asian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies at MGIMO University, Moscow, Russia.