Just before we begin, I was interviewed last week on China in the Global South Project’s podcast, along with my Atlantic Council fellow Kenton Thibaut. The topic, of course, was Discourse Power, or the struggle for control of narratives in Africa and the global south between China and the West. You can listen to it here. I cannot speak highly enough of the show hosted by Eric Olander and Dr. Cobus van Staden, as well as their mandatory website and newsletter.
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"In order to provide a strong theoretical foundation for the practice of new forms of human civilization, we must establish a disciplinary system, academic system, and discourse system of civilization research with Chinese characteristics, Chinese style, and Chinese rectitude"
On Saturday, General Secretary Xi Jinping published an essay in Seeking Truth journal that aims to "tell the stories of Chinese civilization well, and present to the world a credible, lovable, and respectable image of China."
Seeking Truth (Qiushi 求是) is the Party’s Central Committee’s flagship journal for theory and ideology, and General Secretary Xi Jinping’s essay is titled “Advancing the research of the history of Chinese civilization, and developing a keener awareness of history while building up cultural confidence.”
It is based on a speech Xi gave on May 27, 2022, at the 39th collective study session of the Political Bureau of the 19th Central Committee - a 25-member group of the highest-ranking Party officials that lead China.
The study session centered on the 2002-2018 "national research project on tracing the origins of Chinese civilization 中华文明探源工程," a massive undertaking that dates back almost two decades to Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao.
The project was led by Professor Wang Wei, the director of the Academic Division of History at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), who also served as the study session's main discussant.
According to official reports, the origin-tracing project brought together more than 400 researchers from more than 70 research institutions and spanning over 20 academic disciplines, including archeology, molecular biology, chemistry, geology, and history.
On the “Three Systems” 三大体系
The opening quote by Xi calls to establish a “disciplinary system, academic system, and discourse system.” Also known as the "Three Great Systems" 三大体系, this edict was first made by General Secretary Xi in a speech at the Symposium of the Work of Philosophy and Social Science in May 2016.
The Symposium was attended by China’s “rising stars” 后起之秀 and the cream of the crop in the fields of philosophy and social sciences, including top Marxist theorists, nationally renowned experts, academics, think-tankers, and students.
Notably, Xi said in the 2016 symposium that “philosophy and the social sciences are important tools for people to understand and transform the world”, and that they reflect a nation's “thinking ability 思维能力, spiritual character 精神品格, and civilizational qualities 文明素质, and embody the nation's comprehensive national power and international competitiveness.”
Xi also said then that a “nation without a thriving natural science sector cannot lead the world, and the same holds true for nations without a thriving philosophy and social sciences.”
The head of the origin-tracing project, Professor Wang Wei, wrote an article earlier this month for the Party mouthpiece People's Daily that connects it to the Three Great Systems and shows how seemingly mundane things like academic publishing and archeology are highly regarded by the Chinese leadership as essential for their country to regain control over discourse power.
But before we unravel this idea, it is important to consider why Chinese leaders want to emphasize the idea that China is a "civilization nation" with a history spanning more than 5000 years, as well as what a "civilization nation" means in the first place.
The 1993 Foreign Affairs article by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington (1927–2008), which introduced his "Clash of Civilizations" theory, was intended to be "big and controversial" from the get-go.
By that measure, it was a raving success.
For academic literature, the simple yet potent hypothesis attracted unprecedented levels of attention and citations, convincing people worldwide that future world wars would not be dominated by conflicts between nation-states.
Rather, future wars would break out along the fault lines separating various “civilizations,” i.e., a group of nation-states with distinct "history, language, culture, tradition, and most important, religion."
The theory reasoned that as globalization makes the world smaller, there will be a greater emphasis on the qualities that set one civilization apart from one another, leading to the aforementioned "clash."
Due to its racial undertones and empirical flaws, the theory has lost favor in Western academia and within moderate policy circles over the last two decades, at the same time as the devastating effects of the War on
Islamic Civilization Terrorism have come to light.
It would appear that Putin's war in Ukraine (between ostensible brothers of the "Slavic-Orthodox Civilization") would put the final nail in the coffin of the failed prognostication. Nevertheless, the theory is still in vogue in Xi's China, where Huntington is a rock star, with many academics making a living off of it.
China, the "Civilization Nation"
Huntington’s theory appeals to Chinese nationalists and leadership for a number of reasons, as evidenced by Xi's Seeking Truth essay:
It boosts Chinese exceptionalism, forming what Xi calls “the soul for national rejuvenation.” Look no further than the title of Xi's essay, which binds "civilization nation" to "cultural confidence."
Xi strongly believes that Chinese people should take pride in their “splendid civilization” and “excellent traditional culture,” which according to the origin-tracing project, is the only one with an uninterrupted history spanning more than 5,000 years - a phrase repeated five times in Xi’s essay.
“Over the course of more than 5,000 years of civilizational development,” he writes, “the Chinese people have created a dazzling civilization and made significant contributions to the advancement of human civilization.”
Indeed, “the compass, gunpowder, the art of paper-making, and block printing invented by the ancient Chinese have contributed immensely to the progress of mankind,” as reads the official narrative.
According to Shen Jiliang, an official with the Ministry of Education in charge of textbooks, the “new academic achievements” of the origin-tracing project have been added to school syllabi. "History education concerns our nurturing of national pride and cultural confidence," he explains.
It strengthens the Party’s leadership and legitimacy and cements Xi’s “core” position. Marx was not Chinese, and neither were his ideas, but Xi insists that the Communist Party "has carried forward China's excellent traditional culture," imbuing it with Marxism's basic tenets and China's realities, constantly adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the “needs of our times.”
Last November, the Party passed its third-ever resolution on history. The resolution described Xi as the "core, helmsman and principal founder" of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, recalling the old Soviet joke, “the future is certain; it's the past that keeps changing.”
Accordingly, the Communist Party of China is the inheritor and representative of all that is Chinese, as shown by a linear, deterministic line that extends from the present all the way back to antiquity.
“We need to do whatever we can to exhibit the long history and cultural heritage of Chinese civilization, and encourage the world to better understand China, the Chinese people, the CPC, and the Chinese nation,” Xi said.
It provides “Chinese solutions” and “Chinese wisdom” to the global study of civilizations and “enhances the influence and appeal of Chinese civilization.”
Xi writes: "For a long time, the West has formed a set of civilization theories from which we should learn, but not copy." He emphasizes that the origin-tracing project has redefined the ways we can understand the concept of civilization 提出文明定义, providing Chinese solutions for creating a more civilized world 认定进入文明社会的中国方案.
He wishes the people and institutions involved in the origin-tracing project to step up their marketing game. To be precise, Xi wants them to increase the allure of Chinese civilization and the influence of Chinese theoretical contributions to the field.
To achieve this, they must enhance the way they communicate and disseminate their discoveries and come up with better ways to exhibit the unearthed historical sites and artifacts.
It sets China apart from other countries, most importantly, Western ones. Xi writes: “[T]he Chinese nation has gone through a development process different from that of other civilizations in the world.”
By designating non-Chinese civilizations as alien to China, the Chinese leadership can more effectively isolate and eradicate unwelcome "foreign" ideas, such as “historical nihilism” 历史虚无主义者 and “cultural nihilism” 文化虚无主义者, as Xi warns against in the final paragraph.
It is able to turn an inevitable “clash” into “coexistence” through Xi’s vision of a “community of shared future for mankind.”
Xi emphasized in his Seeking Truth essay that there is “absolutely no distinction between superior and inferior civilizations”, stressing that the discussion must move beyond a "clash of civilizations" and instead focus on coexistence and mutual learning.
Similar ideas were highlighted in his keynote address at the opening ceremony of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations (CDAC) in Beijing in 2019: “The so-called "clash of civilizations" argument is a grave error that will harm or even destroy the bridge for exchanges between civilizations.”
It is able to unite China’s diverse ethnic groups. The PRC is comprised of 56 recognized minzu 民族, (loosely translated as ethnic-cultural groups). Despite making up over 90% of the population, the Han majority still experiences challenges in governing tens of millions of minorities of non-Han Chinese identity, including Muslims, Mongols, and Tibetans.
Hold the phone. Didn't I say that Islam is regarded as a distinct civilization?And what about the Mongolian minority, who, unlike the downtrodden Tibetans, Uyghurs and others, do possess a nation-state that is a multi-party representative democracy?
Enter the oxymoron of the “Chinese civilization's Pluralistic Unity Structure” 中华文明多元一体格局. This idea, officially translated as “being united in diversity”, was repeated several times during Xi’s sanitized inspection tour last week to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region - his first in 8 years.
It is also conveyed in a second article in Seeking Truth, which looks at the truly magnificent new discoveries from the Sanxingdui archeological dig in the southwestern Sichuan Basin as a “vivid example of the pluralistic unity of Chinese civilization”. Quote:
“Even a sky-high tree must have its roots, and water in the mountain's bosom must have its source 参天之木，必有其根；怀山之水，必有其源. Although Chinese civilization is diverse, it has not developed through the mutual extinction of other civilizations but through a process of mutual integration.”
Civilization-nation and Discourse Power
The Sanxingdui culture, dated from ca. 1700 to 1150 BCE perfectly encapsulates the challenges to China's control over global narratives.
When the archeological site just north of Chengdu was first excavated in 1928, its most striking feature was its lack of "Chineseness": Gold masks with protruding eyes, bronze trees, and elongated humanoid sculptures were discovered inside imposing rammed-earth city walls - all entirely distinct from the contemporaneous Shang Dynasty bronzes (1600 to 1050 BCE) found along the Yellow River valley.
The new findings raised important questions about the origin of “Chinese civilization” in the mainland, suggesting the existence of a “state-level civilization” that developed its own unique local culture, according to UCLA Chinese Archaeology and Art History Professor Lothar von Falkenhausen.
My Hebrew University teacher, renowned archeology Professor Gideon Shelach-Lavi, explains that although the production methods for the bronzes from the Shang and Sanxingdui were similar, the latter's emphasis on statues rather than vessels, as well as its unique artistic motifs and mixed-media sculpting, have no parallel in the former.
Such caveats by non-Chinese archaeologists and historians have called China's state-sanctioned chorology of 5000 years into question, and they are partly responsible for the Chinese leadership going to great lengths to provide physical evidence to support the assertion, including the origin-tracing project.
Physical evidence is insufficient; it’s what you make of it that counts. In other words, the new discoveries must be supplemented by a corresponding "Chinese" discourse system.
Metallurgy, written characters, and cities are thought by Western scholars to be three essential elements to define a civilization by Western scholars, project leader Professor Wang tells the China Daily. “Following their criteria, the earliest Chinese civilization only appeared around 3,300 years ago” [emphasis added].
However, if you follow “Western definitions”, Wang continues, many great civilizations around the world are omitted from the list, such as the Maya who lacked metalworking, and the Inca who lacked a writing system. "Based on our research, Chinese scholars developed our own definition of civilization, which may be applicable to more civilizations around the world" [emphasis added].
This is about more than simply understanding history; Xi was very clear in the 39th study session that “the past serves the present” 古为今用. Furthermore, anyone who questions Party orthodoxy risks being labeled a "historical nihilist" 历史虚无主义者 or a “cultural nihilist” 文化虚无主义者, because it nullifies the aforementioned merits of China being a distinct and enduring "civilization nation."
To illustrate, if the ancient Shu culture, represented by Sanxingdui, can be seen as an "essential part of the pluralistic origin of Chinese civilization," then the same logic applies to minority cultures in China today, held "together tightly like pomegranate seeds" - an integral part of Chinese territory.
This notion underlines Xi's remarks last week in Xinjiang, where he called for even more historical research:
“We should make full and effective use of the historical facts, archaeological objects, and cultural heritage on the exchanges between various ethnic groups in Xinjiang, to prove that this region inhabited by many ethnic groups has been an integral part of China since the ancient times and that various ethnic groups in Xinjiang have been important members of the big Chinese family in weal and woe.”
The crux of the problem, as Xi outlined at a previous study session in May of last year, is that Chinese history - like the “China Story” and “China's international image” - is not "established by Chinese people," which leads to “some negative views and even voices that distort China's image.”
Most notably, in an "attempt to use Xinjiang to contain China," foreigners exploit their control over discourse to produce reports on the abysmal treatment of its Muslim minorities, presenting "fake news" on forced labor, and fastidiously focusing on the erasure of Uyghur and Islamic cultural spaces, when they should have been portraying Xinjiang as the "wonderful land" that it is.
Systemic, multi-year repression of minorities is rarely associated with the "credible, lovable, and respectable image" that China needs to cultivate a favorable external environment that will facilitate China's reform, development, and stability (internal goal), and make positive contributions to the creation of a “community of shared future for mankind” (external goal).
Another issue with the quest for “civilizational” discourse power, is that some academics in China ignored Xi's call for dialogue between civilizations. Instead, they have been conflating greater self-confidence with "civilizational superiority" over the West. To illustrate, Professor Wen Yi of Shanghai Jiao Tong University told students in February:
“What can we learn from the history of syphilis today? The war for discourse power is one of the most important takeaways. How so? The syphilis plague in Europe has unsettled Europe's pompous and cocky population.
“The Europeans had always claimed to be civilized, colonizing every continent and boasting to be superior to everyone else, but syphilis was a major embarrassment for them, so they played the 'blame game'…European civilization is an aggressive civilization that operates under the law of the jungle.“
The idea of “civilizational superiority” has been disseminated ad nauseam by Han supremacists and nationalists like Fudan University Professor Zhang Weiwei, who claim that the West "can't understand China" because of "their ideological bias and Eurocentric perspective that prevents them from understanding a system that has not been interrupted for thousands of years."
Once more, this is less about Westerners’ mental capacity, let alone pure academic discussion, and more about control of narratives. In Zhang's case, it is the paranoid need to shield China's humanities, arts, media, and social sciences from Western “cultural infiltration” and stop the rise of fifth-columnists "spiritual Americans."
Similarly problematic and factually incorrect is the ubiquitous notion that "peaceful development" is an "inherent gene" of Chinese civilization, which sets it apart from other civilizations.
Professor Peng Zongchao, Secretary of the Party Committee of the prestigious Tsinghua School of Public Administration has recently published an article titled “The Cultural Gene and Historical Experience of China's Peaceful Development”, in which he writes: “The Chinese peaceful gene transcends the competitive zero-sum game thinking advocated by Western realism."
Similar language was stated by State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, following the deadly border skirmish with India in June 2020, aggression and expansionism have never been in the "genes" of the Chinese nation.
China as it exists today is a truly unique historical, linguistic, cultural, and religious entity. Additionally, instilling a love for one's country and promoting patriotic education are neither exclusive to China nor necessarily bad.
By wishing to convey to the world that "China's development has achieved so many great things," General Secretary Xi Jinping is doing what every leader should be doing. He seeks to facilitate China's peaceful ascent to the center of the international stage, viewing it as a positive force that "has done so many wonderful things for the world."
Perhaps the Central Committee, with Xi at its core, sincerely holds that because they were able to scientifically recognize the Questions of Our Times, they can offer the world "Chinese solutions and wisdom," a positive vision of "a community with a shared future for mankind."
Still, the premise of China as a "civilization nation" is a double-edged sword, as cultural confidence breeds cultural chauvinism, "unity in diversity" stifles pluralism and erases culture, and "historical nihilism" undermines academic integrity and threatens free speech.
Now that the sword has been drawn, it is up to the Chinese leadership and intelligentsia to capitalize on the positive aspects of the "civilization theory" while decrying its darker manifestations. Otherwise, Xi's goal of mutual learning and dialogue between civilizations will end in a dialogue of the deaf.
Playing in the Background
Baba Yetu, Swahili for “Our Father”, was the first videogame soundtrack to win a Grammy award. It was composed for Sid Meyer's Civilization IV by Christopher Tin, who also conducts the orchestra in the video below:
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah’s Krauthammer Fellow, specializing in Chinese security and foreign policy, and emergency and disaster management. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia
"It would appear that Putin's war in Ukraine (between ostensible brothers of the "Slavic-Orthodox Civilization") would put the final nail in the coffin of the failed prognostication." I find it difficult to agree with this statement, as this clash has among other things to do with a much greater connection of the region which is now the state of Ukraine to what can be broadly called the Western European cultural space. Even if we put aside the historical facts (which in my opinion prove that fundamental difference between the Ukrainian and the Russian historical development), from the Russian as well as the Ukrainian internal point of view this war is all about the clash of civilizations, one side striving to be something more similar to what China represents and the other sticking to the US-European model. So actually one could argue this war pretty much supports Huntington's theory.