China Rises As The Ideal Civilizational State

In the Middle Kingdom, good governance is valued over indulgent rhetoric, unlike in many other countries, which has allowed it to evolve into a civilizational state that is both ancient and modern.

The construction site of a new stadium project in Beijing. Dec. 15, 2021.(Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Zhang Weiwei is the director of the Institute of China Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. From 1983 to 1988, he was an interpreter for the Chinese leadership, including Deng Xiaoping. The author of the best-selling book “The China Wave: The Rise of a Civilizational State,” he was invited in 2021 by the Chinese Communist Party Politburo to conduct a “collective study session” on his ideas.

The economic and technological convergence of globalization did not lead to a singular cosmopolitan order, but to a great divergence, in which prospering emergent nations, most notably China, once again attained the wherewithal to chart a path forward based on their own civilizational foundations. Economic and technological strength engenders, not extinguishes, cultural and political self-assertion.   

This development has led Bruno Maçães to argue we are seeing the return of “civilization states,” such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, that are pushing back against the universalist claims of a liberal world order.

In this series, we asked several thinkers, including Shashi Tharoor, to assess Maçães’s argument.

— Nathan Gardels, Noema editor-in-chief

SHANGHAI — The rise of China is not that of an ordinary country, I have long believed, but a country sui generis — a civilizational state, an amalgam of the world’s oldest continuous civilization and a huge modern state. Its rise is a new model of development and a new political discourse that questions many of the Western assumptions about democracy, good governance and human rights. 

My conceptualization of China as a civilizational state was in part an effort to dispel the widely held perception or misperception (unfortunately it remains) of China as a Communist state moving on the wrong side of history, as former American President Bill Clinton observed, and in part to distinguish it from a more conventional academic description of China as, in American Sinologist Lucian Pye’s view, a civilization pretending to be a modern nation-state. My view differs sharply from his, in the sense that being a civilizational state, China is first of all huge and modern and at the same time it has unique civilizational features; more importantly, its model of development enriches, if not redefines, what constitutes modernization and modernity in the 21st century.

Some interesting evolutions have since occurred. First, except for academic discourse, the line between civilizational state and civilization-state has been blurred to such an extent that they are used almost interchangeably now, which perhaps reflects a trend of the world moving increasingly beyond nation-states in the direction of forming some kind of civilizational communities, or even civilizational states, as exemplified by the growth of various regional arrangements.

Second and more importantly, major non-Western powers like Russia and India began to openly call themselves civilizational states, and certain Western political or intellectual leaders also endorsed this concept. As the Economist observed: “The term is in vogue. Chinese academics herald China as the world’s sole civilization-state, rather than an old-hat, 19th-century nation-state. Vladimir Putin, however, has hopped on the bandwagon, declaring that Russia’s status as a civilization-state prevented the country ‘from dissolving in this diverse world.’ Indian commentators have long wrestled with whether their country is one, too. Other potential candidates for civilization-state status include the United States and even Turkey. Another name is rarely mentioned, but should be added to this growing list: the EU”.

In other words, non-Western powers like China, Russia and India may differ somewhat on the definition of civilizational state, yet they seem to converge on the theme that they are respectively unique civilizations, fed up with the Western imposition of its values on them in the name of “universality,” and they resist the Western interference in their internal affairs. These rising civilizational states are indeed challenging the so-called liberal international order, with the result that the global order is shifting from a vertical one, with the West on top, to a horizontal one, in which the West and the rest, notably China, are on a par with each other in terms of wealth, power and ideas. 

With Washington’s political power and moral authority waning both at home and abroad, it’s only natural for the non-Western countries to draw inspiration from their own cultures and civilizations as a way to distinguish themselves from the discredited American model and its much-resented unipolar hegemony. However, the idea of civilizational state seems appealing also to many in the West. 

Faced with the daunting challenges of Europe’s “renationalization,” French President Macron almost openly admired the ideal of civilizational state when he referred to China, Russia and India as such examples and declared that France’s historic destiny was to guide Europe into a civilizational renewal. For those on the right, the model of a civilizational state is one method to defend traditional values and resist the excess of ultraliberalism and widely perceived cultural degeneration. For those on the left, it shows due respect for Indigenous cultures and traditions as a way to reject Western imperialism and the excess of neoliberalism.  

Indeed, the rising civilizational states of Eurasia have defined themselves mostly against the liberal West, while the West is now struggling to find its own identity, which seems harder than it is for China or Russia. The West may well have more to deconstruct and construct, with its identity politics evolving into prevalent crises. For one thing, the liberal West has long preached universal values beyond national or civilizational boundaries, as if its values were not Western nor European nor Judeo-Christian. Yet, as the Portuguese political scientist Bruno Maçães has argued, “the liberal West” is now dead, having caused “a global rootlessness.” 

“Chinese believe that the ultimate test of a good political system is not procedural democracy, but to what extent it can achieve good governance or the substance of democracy.”

However, can the West exist as an independent civilizational entity? As the British scholar Christopher Cokernotes: “Neither the Greeks nor 16th-century Europeans … regarded themselves as ‘Western,’ a term which dates back only to the late 18th century.” Maçães asserts that some advocate a return to Europe’s Enlightenment, yet it was Enlightenment liberalism — with its universalizing tendencies leading the West to its current dilemma — that severed the West, and Europe particularly, from its own cultural roots. Maçães goes on: “Western societies have sacrificed their specific cultures for the sake of a universal project.” Indeed, the culturally, socially and politically divided West today has an uphill battle for shaping a common civilizational identity, if any. 

Interestingly, all this seems related in one way or another to China’s rise as a civilizational state. Samuel Huntington foresaw clashes between some states of a civilization and others of another civilization, but did not foresee the rise of civilizational states (or “the model of one-modern-state-one-civilization”) and its far-reaching implications for the West and the rest. China’s return to historic global primacy may make China the ideal type of civilizational state. China today is known for “four supers” and “one blend”: 1) a super-large population; 2) a super-vast territory; 3) super-long traditions; and 4) super-rich cultures. Each of these features is a blend of ancient and modern.

China’s super-large population, a fact since ancient times, is very modern in the sense that it is well-educated under the influence of the Confucian tradition of respecting learning, and China now produces more engineers each year than the Western countries combined. This fact alone has changed the world forever, as China is now the leader or a leader in many global industries, including electric cars, renewable energies, aerospace flights, big data, AI and 5G telecommunications.

Its super-vast territory, an inheritance from its past, is today interconnected with the world’s largest and most advanced networks of trains, highways and digital infrastructure.

Its super-long traditions have evolved, developed and adapted in virtually all branches of human knowledge. For instance, the West is critical of China’s one-party system, yet to most Chinese, it’s nothing extraordinary. Since its first unification in 221 B.C.E., China has been governed mostly by a unified ruling entity, otherwise the country would disintegrate. When China copied the American political model following its 1911 Revolution, which ended the last imperial dynasty, it degenerated into warlords fighting each other with millions of lives lost. 

Furthermore, this unified ruling entity had been buttressed by a system of meritocracy, with officials selected through a public exam system (the keju) since the Sui Dynasty close to 1,500 years ago. Now, this ancient system has been adapted into today’s meritocracy based on “selection + election.” China’s top-echelon leaders have mostly served as a party secretaries or governors for at least two Chinese provinces, which means they literally have administered more than 100 million people before taking up their current positions. 

Likewise, the tradition of a unified ruling entity for a huge and complex country has carried with it a holistic way of political governance. For instance, I would describe most Western political parties as partisan interest parties and the Chinese Communist Party as a holistic interest party. This explains why the country is able to reform and reinvent itself constantly to face new challenges with a political force pioneering ways to overcome vested interests. 

“Major Western powers have long pursued a strategy of divide and rule. In contrast, China, following its civilizational state’s tradition, pursues just the opposite: unite and prosper, both at home and abroad.”

China has one of the world’s richest cultural heritages, from arts to literature to architecture to statecraft and more. For instance, being a civilizational state, it has a rich reservoir of a unique political culture, which prioritizes people’s livelihoods. In today’s context, this means whatever political, economic or social policies the state pursues, all must deliver tangible benefits, material and non-material, to the people. China values what the system delivers to the people rather than indulgent rhetoric, as is the case with many other countries. For example, Barack Obama came to power with the slogan “hope and change,” yet eight years passed without much change, which is inconceivable in the Chinese political culture

There are also two important concepts for political governance: minyi, or “public opinion,” and minxin, which refers to “the hearts and minds of the people.” The twin concepts were first put forward by Mencius in the 3rd century B.C.E., but remain highly relevant for today’s internet age.

Public opinions may be fleeting in today’s connected world, yet minxin is mostly stable and lasting. So, despite the rise of populism in China like elsewhere, the state has, on the whole, practiced “rule by minxin,” thus allowing the country to better overcome the short-termism so prevalent in the West. The Chinese state is capable of medium to long-term planning and pursuing reforms that are hard but necessary in the interest of most Chinese.

It follows that, as far as democracy is concerned, the Chinese approach starts with the dao, or the overall purpose of democracy, is to achieve good governance, and then the shu, which means specific procedures. Chinese believe that the ultimate test of a good political system is not procedural democracy, but to what extent it can achieve good governance or the substance of democracy. I have therefore long advocated for a paradigm shift from “democracy vs. autocracy” to “good governance vs. bad governance,” which suggests we should encourage different political models to compete to see which delivers better governance as judged by their peoples. 

It’s also true that in international relations, major Western powers have long pursued a strategy of divide and rule since colonial times. In contrast, China, following its civilizational state’s tradition, pursues just the opposite: unite and prosper, both at home and abroad. 

Indeed, many Western discussions of the civilizational state are dominated by a zero-sum attitude, rather than a win-win way of thinking, which is China’s cultural and civilizational state’s preference. Over the past few decades, China has learned so much from the West and will continue to do so for its own benefit, and it may be time now for the West, to use Deng Xiaoping’s famous phrase, to “emancipate the mind” and learn more about or even from the Chinese approach and Chinese ideas, however extraneous they may appear, for their own benefit. This is not only to avoid a possible collision between the West and China, a civilization in itself, but also to overcome the obvious weaknesses embedded in the Western model and its narratives and enrich the world’s collective wisdom in tackling all the challenges and crises facing mankind. 

In a long-term perspective, as the global order becomes increasingly more horizontal than vertical, and as the West and the rest, notably China, are more on a par with each other in terms of wealth, power and ideas, we are likely to witness the rise of more civilizational communities or states, self-claimed or genuine, including most likely a Western one. The West’s so-called “universal values” may well be reshaped or even replaced by certain common values, still to be identified democratically, discussed thoroughly and endorsed fully by the entire international community, such as peace, humanity, international solidarity and one human community. All civilizational communities or states or others should make their contributions to this noble endeavor in the interest of all mankind.

Civilization Doesn’t Determine Foreign Policy

China is a modern state that pretends to be a civilization.


Alexander Lukin is the scientific director of the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

MOSCOW — Today, China is not a civilization pretending to be a state (as the Yale University China scholar Lucian Pye famously put it), but rather a modern state that, for various political and ideological reasons, pretends to be a civilization. 

But even if we were to agree that Chinese civilization is somehow especially unique, it would still be very difficult to prove that it is this uniqueness that determines its foreign policy behavior and approach to the so-called “liberal world order.” The territory of contemporary China is of course quite large, but it still does not span the entire region of what is usually called the Sinic world. The two Korean states, Japan, Vietnam and Singapore are also parts of this civilizational area, and they all have very different policies towards the West. Some became a part of the Western world order; others cooperate with it quite differently than China. Even Taiwan, which is obviously part of China both ethnically and culturally, at least at the moment has a very different approach.

We observe this situation in other civilizations as well. According to Samuel Huntington, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia belong to the same Orthodox Christian civilization but are quite hostile to each other, while Russia and China are currently very close to forming an alliance. Civilizational values therefore are only one and perhaps not the most important factor in determining foreign policy. Geopolitics, balance of power, security concerns, economic interests and many other things play an even greater role.