Clarissa Tan

China’s civilising mission

The world’s oldest civilisation feels ready to teach the West a thing or two

China's civilising mission
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Last week, a distinguished Chinese thinker arrived in Oxford University to give a talk. His mission was audacious: to explain to Britain’s brightest young things that far from being a repressive or unhappy place, China is in fact pretty perfect. More to the point: now that Europe is on the rocks, China will be the next great world-shaping civilisation. He began boldly: ‘China is a unique country,’ he said. ‘It is the world’s longest continual civilisation. It is like the Roman Empire, but as if the Roman Empire had continued to this day! The western media presents China as insecure, as if the people are unhappy and the leadership afraid, but it’s not true. The Chinese are happy. We have greater justice and fairness, and now many countries look to us for rescuing.

The speaker was Zhang Weiwei, author of the book The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, a bestseller in China. Zhang’s been on something of a world tour, promoting his book and his country, but it’s not just his idea. He’s just one of the growing number of Chinese thinkers — increasingly strident on the global stage — who propound the idea of the ‘Chinese way’: a path of economic, political, social and cultural progress that is different (and better) than that of the West.

For Zhang and the gang, China is not repressive place at all — it is a storehouse of ancient wisdom and enlightened moral values. Even the food is better, they say. At a pretty high-level discussion in London this year, Zhang declared that French cooking couldn’t compete with the tasty and varied food available in China. This might be a boast too far, but what is true is that with the US mired in debt and the EU on its knees, there’s no better time to push this message than now. As Americans prepare for a lacklustre year of elections, Europeans take to the streets, and democracy itself seems paralysed, this is China’s moment to market its own myth to the world.

The chief prophet of Chinese exceptionalism is definitely Zhang, who used to be a senior interpreter for Deng Xiaoping, but there are other evangelists. The venture capitalist Eric X. Li, the founder of research shop Chunqiu Institute, wrote an editorial in the New York Times earlier this year headlined ‘Why China’s Political Model is Superior’. Li claimed that the alternatives to the Tiananmen tanks would have been ‘far worse’. Even President Hu Jintao himself is talking of a new civilisational clash, writing in a Communist party magazine that China must meet the ‘cultural demands of the people’ to counter ‘hostile international powers’ who are trying ‘to westernise and divide us’.

China, goes the argument of the myth-makers, is a ‘civilisational state’, the world’s longest continuous civilisation that is now also a modern state. It is millennia-old, it is huge, it is unique and unrivalled in terms of culture and tradition. (Zhang’s book contains substantial bits explaining why India, Russia, Canada and other countries cannot also be considered ‘civilisational states’.) The feeble western nation-state, by contrast, is a creation merely a few hundred years old. Worse, nation-states are prone to falling out with each other (witness the world wars), as well as exploiting others (witness slavery and colonialism). Here, Zhang and his ilk roll in that old chestnut — not entirely untrue — that China, throughout its thousands of years of history, has never been a global imperialistic force.

In short, the Chinese civilisational state is peaceful, the western nation-state is not. The Chinese civilisationists’ trump card, which they bring out often, is human rights. The West is obsessed with political and civil rights, they argue, at the expense of economic rights. We bang on about the importance of respecting each individual’s human rights; and the evils of eating dogs or whales — but turn a blind eye to the suffering of people as a whole. In the past decade the US economy has hardly grown, meaning zero jobs and wealth accumulation for its citizens, while the EU is all but actively impoverishing its citizens as its financial crisis escalates. On the other hand, China in only the past few decades has hauled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty — surely a feat like none the world has ever seen. They do have a point.

Alongside the making of China’s new creation story, Beijing is pouring billions into cementing what it views as its cultural renaissance. The party is spending 45 billion yuan (£4 billion) to expand its media abroad, including a UK edition of China Daily, news agency Xinhua, and China Central Television’s multilingual programming — all of which are, of course, state-run. Last year, the government splashed out on televised ads in Times Square, New York — a video featuring the smiling faces of Jackie Chan, Yao Ming and John Woo played on six giant screens, 300 times a day, to the bafflement of folks in the Big Apple. State-linked Confucius Institutes — which purport to teach Mandarin and Chinese culture, but which many argue help spread party propaganda — are sprouting everywhere, with 350 now around the world. There are 20 Confucius Institutes in the UK, and they are embedded within established British universities and colleges, instead of being stand-alone organisations like the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institute. On top of all this, China is pushing its pandas — the cuddly face of socialism. It’s paid for ‘panda taxis’ — cabs painted with black and white stripes — to cruise all over London during the Olympics. There are signs that these investments are paying off, too: a recent report by Ernst & Young ranking the soft power of emerging economies had China coming out on top.

To be sure, not all of China’s great PR push can be attributed solely to its desire to position itself as cultural supremo of the world. Underneath all the chest-thumping — and this could be felt in that panel discussion in London — there’s a real frustration with the West and a sense that China can never do right in its eyes. One email that went viral a while ago, purportedly from a Chinese citizen, went along the lines of: ‘If we have a one-child policy, we are draconian, if we don’t have a one-child policy, we are contributing to the world’s overpopulation problem.’ Indeed, if China were to buy up the eurozone’s debt, it would be viewed as having an ulterior, expansionist motive; if it didn’t, it would be allowing the global economy to go to pot. Beijing feels cornered and wants to control its own narrative. Still, there is something sinister and just plain odd about the arguments put forward by Zhang and co. The concept of a ‘civilisational state’ is vague and malleable, meaning in the future it can be shaped into, well, anything the Communist Party desires it to be. Zhang’s book is also ridden with contradictions, both of logic and execution: he says it’s impossible to view China as a single entity since it’s such a large, varied and complex country, yet at the same time pushes the idea of one coherent, paramount civilisational unit. He claims that one of China’s inherent qualities is to be ‘modest’, when on every page he proclaims the nation’s superiority. He says the Chinese model is defined by pragmatism — but can there be such a thing as a pragmatic model of thought? Moreover, how can we accept as fact that the Chinese are a pragmatic people, when they participated in intensely ideological movements such as the Maoist revolution?

Speaking of which, where is Mao? There is not a squeak, hardly a mention of him anywhere — nor of the millions massacred under his directive. If the US has no right to lecture China o n one-person-one-vote because it extended suffrage to black people only fairly recently, then how can China preach its civilisational model if it can’t give an account of its murdered multitudes? Similarly, referring to the bloodshed of the two world wars as the result of cross-border squabbling between nation-states, while completely ignoring the equally if not more disastrous loss of life within the boundaries of one’s own ‘civilisational state’, is chilling.

The most insidious and dangerous idea behind the new Chinese myth is, of course, what is left unsaid. When China dominates the world, and the One Civilisation is global, what happens to people who do not have the joy of being Chinese? What of the poor French, with their substandard food? For the subtext of this concept of super-nationhood is this: a person who differs or dissents with his or her (Confucian) leaders in any way is not behaving in a true ‘Chinese’ or ‘civilised’ manner. Thus will China’s party apparatus continue to exercise psychological control over those within its own frontiers who dare to question its authority. Is this part of the inherent cultural make-up of the Middle Kingdom? Surely not.