Civilising China

China's Great Wall. Photo by Stuck in Customs on flickr.
31 October 2013
China's Great Wall. Photo by Stuck in Customs on flickr.


One of the world’s most ancient civilisations is undergoing a new civilising mission. But China’s efforts to be more like ‘the West of us’ are not only having impacts at home but also abroad, writes GEREMIE R BARME.

Since the late 19th century efforts to create modern societies in East Asia have involved redefining ancient civilisations and integrating new ideas into old cultures.

This is the challenge faced today by the Chinese Communist Party, which uses the expression wenming or ‘civilisation’ within China to improve civic standards, promote patriotism, evoke flexible cultural and political traditions and limit dissent.

And as China becomes wealthier and more confident on the global stage, it also expects to be respected and accommodated as a major global force and a formidable civilisation.

But how does one go about ‘civilising’ (read here modernising in the image of the West) one of the world’s most ancient civilisations? And can ‘the West of us’ fairly expect China to be and behave like the ‘rest of us’?

A recent spat over graffiti proves illuminating.

In May this year a Sina Weibo (a Chinese microblogging website) user named ‘Independent Sky Traveller’ uploaded an image he said made him feel shame and a loss of face. The image was of a graffito reading ‘Din Jinhao was here’ defacing an ancient frieze at the Luxor Temple complex in Egypt.

An animated discussion on social media ensued about this vandalism, which many felt had caused all of China to lose face. Within a day angry Internet users discovered that Ding Jinhao was a fourteen- year-old boy living in Nanjing. Ding’s parents apologised on his behalf and asked for forgiveness from the public. But the debate raged on; within a week the original post was forwarded almost 100,000 times and generated close to 20,000 comments expressing anger, embarrassment and deep sadness.

This furore came amid an explosion of Chinese outbound tourism. But it’s not all one way traffic.

China’s growing wealth is having a profound impact on the world. This takes many forms, from large-scale investment in Africa and Latin America to the conspicuous consumption of wealthy Chinese who are becoming world leaders in the market for luxury goods.

And as Chinese consumers acquire global tastes, they will potentially fashion and change what those tastes are: a recent Australian documentary, Red Obsession, shows how increasing demand in China for Bordeaux wines is influencing the fate of the famous French wine-growing region.  

At home, the Chinese Communist Party describes its transformation of society in the language of Marxism–Leninism: a socialist values system, nationwide civilised city campaigns and the new socialist village movement that would transform the rural environment along urban lines. It also promotes usefully rejigged elements of China’s political, historical and cultural heritage.

Internationally, it insists on global acceptance of its particular interpretation of China’s ancient culture as well as the historical narrative that the Communist Party rescued China from a political and economic decline that began in the 19th century and for which both Western and later

Japanese imperialism must take a significant share of the responsibility.

Both at home and abroad, its outlook is informed by a combination of insistence on the legitimacy of its one-party system, hybrid economic practices and the ethos of state-directed wealth creation.

And here lies the paradox at the heart of China’s renewed interest in civilisation; a revitalised enthusiasm for Chinese culture and civilisation and enhanced nationalism versus appeals to rediscover the ideals of shared universal values held at a global level.

The government of the People’s Republic of China reasonably believes that the norms and behaviours of the dominant economic powers should not be regarded as the sole global standard; it argues that those of emerging (or in its case re-emerging) nations like itself are equally important.

Accommodating to (official) Chinese views, standards and interpretations, therefore, broadens and enriches the existing global order and challenges it at the same time.

The old order, as represented by such Western capitalist democracies as the US, Canada, the UK, Europe and Australia, may stand in awe of China’s economic prowess. Yet state socialism and its authoritarian politics are anathema to its own concepts of civilisation. The Communist Party’s ongoing efforts to redefine and refine Chinese civilisation, to promote wenming Zhonghua, literally ‘a civilised China’, and the notion of sagacious one-party rule as an integral part of this civilising process is thus of great importance and interest to the world at large — not to mention other parts of the Sinosphere, such as Taiwan, which holds competing notions of Chinese civilisation and the role of the Communist Party in its promotion.

Professor Geremie R Barmé is Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This is an edited extract from the
China Story Yearbook 2013 ‘Civilising China’ to be launched by CIW this Thursday and available online.

This article was also published at The Canberra Times.

More: watch a video of Professor Geremie Barmé discussing China's 'civilising' mission.

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