Why China And India’s Populism Threatens The World Order

The rise of India, China and Russia as “civilization-states” is setting up a new clash of civilizations, this time against their modern “nation-state” neighbors.

Rokas Aleliūnas for Noema Magazine

Haiyun Ma is an associate professor of history at Frostburg State University specializing in Islam, the Muslims of China and China-Muslim world relations.

At the G-20 meeting in September, participants and observers were surprised by a particular dinner invitation sent on behalf of India’s president that referred to her as the “President of Bharat” — a racially tinged callback to the Indian king, Bharata, who is featured in Hindu mythology as an ancestor of the Hindu race. That same day, a tweet by a senior spokesman of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) referred to India’s Narendra Modi, who was attending a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Indonesia, as the “prime minister of Bharat.”

Meanwhile, on the global stage, India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar mentioned “Bharat” twice during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly the same month. These name changes have sparked rumors that Modi’s BJP may change the country’s name to Bharat. A BJP leader, T. Raja Singh, recently prophesized that India will declare itself a Hindu nation by 2025. The process of Hindunizing India — and further marginalizing Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs — is clearly underway in the BJP-led country.

A parallel cultural movement is being carried out in China. As scholars on China have long noticed, Chinese President Xi Jinping has initiated a Sinicization campaign. In addition to well-known, well-documented assimilationist policies in Xinjiang, Sinicization also targets other non-Chinese (non-Han) peoples including the Mongolians, the Hui and the Tibetans. Non-Chinese (Non-Han) ideologies and religions — including Buddhism from India, Christianity from the West,  Islam from Arab states, and Marxism from Germany — have all been subject to forceful Sinicization programs such as removal of foreign-style architecture and obeisance to the governmental interpretation of religious texts or ideological doctrine in traditional Han Chinese cultural terms.

Sinicization (often misunderstood by Euro-American scholars as China-nization) is essentially the assimilation of non-Chinese ethnic minorities into the majoritarian ethnic Chinese, or Han people, a term referring to what’s considered the golden era of the  Han dynasty and its subject population in history for roughly 2,200 years. Today the Han people have been euphemized and are cherished by the CCP as the Chinese people, known as zhonghua minzu, a term made popular by early-20th century Han Chinese nationalists.

All this occurs at a time when China and Russia are being treated as authoritarian, rival superpowers and India as a crucial counterweight and democratic ally. But India and China are not ordinary nation-states, they are fashioning themselves as civilization-states, striving to return to a prior period of historical glory and territorial largess by relying on their rich and ancient cultures and promoting populism. Such lines are mostly represented by India and China, but civilization-states also include Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.

And so, contrary to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis, major civilization-states do not directly clash with one another; their geopolitical priorities are focused on regions they historically dominated or influenced, such as “Bharat” in South Asia and Shen Zhou —“continent of the gods” or “divine land” — an old and Sinocentric name for China’s territories in East Asia.

Instead, civilization-states clash with adjacent nation-states that were carved out of civilization states, such as Pakistan out of India; Ukraine out of imperialist Russia; many Arab countries out of the Ottoman empire; and Taiwan — and to a lesser degree, the Korean peninsula, Vietnam, and Ryukyu — out of China’s Sinocentric world order.  It is the modern borderlands between major civilization-states and their smaller nation-state neighbors where “unification” wars or territorial disputes are underway or being prepared for, either through action or rhetoric.

Re-envisioning the new world order — and recognizing that these nation-states are civilization-states — may help us understand past wars, present tensions and possible future conflicts between civilization-states and their nation-state neighbors as well as with their Western allies.

The People’s Leaders

In the modern era, the party or state leaders of these multi-ethnic civilization-states have moved beyond their own established institutions and directly involved themselves in their country’s majoritarian populace and its cultural movements in order to gain influence and access to power. As an eight-year-old, Modi had already joined the local branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (known as the National Volunteer Corps or RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist militia organization in Gujarat.

Modi also portrays himself as a devout Hindu, and his devotion towards Hinduism, especially Lord Shiva, is well known. By participating in the majoritarian people’s organization and religion, RSS and Hinduism have become the best paths to political power in a populist era.

“Contrary to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis, major civilization-states do not directly clash with one another; their geopolitical priorities are focused on regions they historically dominated or influenced.”

As if to exemplify the intertwining of spirituality and politics, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a journalist focusing on India’s right-wing politics, mentioned in his book “Narendra Modi The Man, The Times” that Modi said to him,“I went to the Vivekananda Ashram in Almora. I loitered a lot in the Himalayas. I had some influences of spiritualism at that time along with the sentiment of patriotism — it was all mixed. It is not possible to delineate the two ideas.”

Modi’s early involvement with RSS and later the BJP and his embracement of a type of extremist politicized Hinduism known as Hindutva appealed to the majoritarian Hindu population, paving his way to power. In return, Modi and his BJP party have become more Hindu nationalistic than any prior modern-era ruling party.

Although Xi rose to power as a result of party appointment, he has long understood the power of the majoritarian Han population and their social-cultural movements. At the age of 15, Xi was involved in a mass social-cultural movement against the established institutions known as the Cultural Revolution that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. 

He was sent to a village, Liangjiahe in the Shaanxi province where he soon became Liangjiahe village’s party secretary. It is said that here was where Xi spearheaded a series of initiatives around well digging to help provide drinking water and efforts to make land arable for local peasants. His devotion and contribution to the community’s well-being shaped his charismatic portrayal as “the man of the people.” Today, Liangjiahe village is an open-air shrine to Xi meant to demonstrate his close relations with the people.

After the Chinese Communist Party appointed Xi as Hu Jintao’s successor in 2012,  Xi claimed that the people are the creators of the nation’s history and the fundamental forces that determine its future and the destiny of the Chinese Communist Party. Beyond state apparatus and institutions, Xi has imitated Mao Zedong’s practices of mobilizing mass populations and taken a people-centric philosophy and approach to power consolidation and party-state building over the last decade: Those efforts include an anti-corruption campaign that has encouraged citizens to report on corrupt officials; the launch of a people’s war against terrorism; promises of an egalitarian society and common prosperity for all; and a new anti-spying law in 2023 that urges China’s citizens to seek out and report on foreign spies.

Like Modi’s RSS supporters, Xi’s followers are known as xiao fenhong, “little pink” fans, and constitute the strongest supporters of his leadership both online and offline.

Restoring History’s Civilization-State

Drawing on their respective long histories and rich cultures, Modi’s India and Xi’s China have utilized historical writings, cultural performances and cartography to make their state more civilization-like than nation-like. Modi’s BJP party has equated modern India with ancient Bharat by promoting Hinduism and demoting non-Hindu minority religious-cultural practices. 

Externally, Modi and his BJP have portrayed Hindu/Bharatiya cultures as peaceful and harmonious. In 2014, Modi put forth a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly asking other nations to recognize June 21 as the “International Day of Yoga” and to identify India as the spiritual birthplace of yoga. Modi claimed that yoga was “an invaluable gift of [India’s] ancient tradition” and indicated Yoga and, by expansion, Hinduism, can contribute to solving current world issues such as climate change and conflicts. Co-sponsored by 170 member states, the UNGA adopted the resolution.

On International Yoga Day, even the Indian army performs yoga on the world’s highest-known battle site, Siachen Glacier. In reality, India’s support for International Yoga Day — like China’s effort to proliferate the Confucius Institute, which spread from its establishment in 2004 to more than 140 countries by 2017 — is aimed at projecting traditional cultural influence on a global level.  

Modi and the BJP’s promotion of Hinduism as tied to India goes hand in hand with his appetite for geographic expansion.  In 2019, the BJP-led India corrected what it called a “historical blunder,”: It revoked nearly all of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that granted Kashmir a certain political and legal autonomy by allowing it to have its own constitution and flag.  India’s territorial ambitions, however, do not stop at disputed regions. In 2023, Modi’s BJP installed a mural of Akhand Bharat on India’s new parliament building, which featured an undivided India that includes the sovereign nation-states Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

“Modi’s India and Xi’s China have utilized historical writings, cultural performances and cartography to make their state more civilization-like than nation-like.”

Even more recently,  Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly spoke of the assassination of a Sikh separatist activist and Canadian citizen as a “grave violation” of Canada’s sovereignty “if proven true.” The FBI subsequently warned American Sikh activists of potential threats to their lives by India’s government. The alleged Canadian assassination and the U.S. warning suggest that the Hindutva BJP’s war against non-Hindu separatists and activists is transnational and lethal and that it is willing to violate the sovereignty of its Western allies to accomplish its goals. The spillover of Hindutva and its hatred of Muslims also resulted in a suspected Hindu extremist allegedly burning a Quran in Naperville, Illinois this summer.  

Early in Xi’s presidency, he promised to rejuvenate the Chinese nation, or essentially, make China’s civilization-state great again. In contrast to the earlier CCP’s attack on ancient Chinese cultures under Mao Zedong (1949-1976) and the CCP’s tolerance toward foreign and non-Han cultures in Deng Xiaoping’s time (1978-1989), Xi has supported an emphasis on teaching ancient Han/Chinese history by standardizing the historical curriculum for compulsory education in 2022.

A history school at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was also established under Xi’s guidance for studying and propagating ancient Han Chinese history and culture. And Xi personally approved the construction of China’s National Archives of Publications and Culture, which were built in 2022; the investment resembled the Qing-era’s establishment of libraries and collections of texts in the late 18th century.

Xi has also demanded that Chinese archeologists redouble efforts to trace China’s history as far back as possible to emphasize the country’s ancient history and culture and imbue nationalist pride through the un-earthing of treasures from the early and mythological Xia dynasty. 

Meanwhile, China’s cultural assimilation of minority populations is equally repressive and geared toward glorifying the Han people. China’s efforts to eradicate colonial legacies and influence in Hong Kong, to reunify with Taiwan and its historical ownership or “historically mine” claim in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as well as its claim that the “East is rising and West declining,” all reflect its ambition and efforts to revive the renown of its ancient civilization and recover territories it lost to modern nation-states.

Demonstrations of traditional Chinese culture as reflective of its long history have grown. In May, Xi held a summit with Central Asian leaders in Xi’an, one of the ancient imperial capitals, arranging a grand Tang-dynasty style opening ceremony for the first time that included a performance and procession in the newly built Tang Furong Garden. The opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Hangzhou last month was intentionally scheduled on Qiufen or the autumnal equinox — a traditional Chinese farmer’s harvest day — and featured a theme of “Tides Surging in Asia”; on show was a  jade bird and other jade items discovered in the ancient Liangzhu culture as far back as roughly 5,300 years ago.

To promote the influence of traditional Chinese civilization globally, Xi initiated a global civilization dialogue, suggesting a new world order that is centered on civilizations, with China being a major one along with Greece, Egypt, Persia and India. From the civilization-state’s perspective, one could conclude that the rest of the world’s countries, especially modern nation-states, are comparably young and therefore culturally lacking. The implication, among these civilization-states, is that these supposedly less-civilized Western nation-states have no rights or legitimacy to apply their rules and laws (over issues like human rights), or their democratic ideologies, to ancient civilization-states.

China’s territorial claims are largely based on historical boundaries and nationalistic sentiments. Xi and prior leaders have often claimed that there has been a great yearning for unity and stability among the Chinese people throughout its history. Chinese government propaganda states that reuniting Taiwan with the motherland is the supposed shared will and aspiration of the 1.4 billion Chinese people. The Chinese government’s newly released map of China, or “Standard Map” for 2023, claims swathes of neighboring territories, including the entire Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island (which had been divided between China and Russia), Taiwan and the South China Sea — the last being a claim that dates back about 2,000 years to the time of the Han dynasty.  

Clashes With The Nation-State

India’s transformations from a secular, multicultural state in the late 1940s and the BJP’s Hindunization process today have intensified domestic violence against non-Hindu populations. Hindu supremacists’ violence against minority populations, notably Muslims, Christians and Sikhs has become routine, particularly in Hindu-dominated states in India.

“The implication is that these supposedly less-civilized Western nation-states have no rights or legitimacy to apply their rules and laws or their democratic ideologies, to ancient civilization-states.”

Not only have Hindu nationalists suppressed non-Hindu minorities domestically, but they have also developed an expansionist dream in the historical domain of South Asia as illustrated by the mural on India’s parliament. These expansionist behaviors have riled smaller sovereign nation-state neighbors, raising concerns about India’s territorial claim and expansion, especially in Bangladesh and Pakistan

The Chinese maritime disputes in the South China Sea, especially disputes over the ownership of specific reefs with the Philippines, are most representative of this civilization-state assertion. Beijing’s rejection of the International Tribunal’s 2016 ruling in the South China Sea case, which determined that China’s land reclamation activities in Philippine waters were unlawful, was a challenge to the Philippines’ sovereignty rights over an Exclusive Economic Zone and breach of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

These (re)emerging civilization-states view their current nation-state status as imposed on them by the West. And the smaller neighboring nation-states, which used to be affiliated with or included in a dominant civilization, as modern-era creations that came at the expense of civilization-states. For example, to Modi and his BJP, the inception of India’s modern nation-state existence was representative of the “shackles of colonialism,” given that the British empire determined its modern boundaries and divided it up into several countries, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the formation and expansion of the modern nation-state system brought a “Century of Humiliation” to China, according to the government, beginning with the British invasion in the 1840s and ending with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The re-rise of civilization-states India and China has increased the likelihood of conflicts with their neighbors. Just like Putin’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and its annexation of parts of their territories, Xi’s “Asia for Asians” mantra and Modi’s ambition of restoring India’s sphere of inference in the Indian Ocean constitute a kind of civilizational doctrine that seeks exclusive dominance or influence in East Asia and South Asia, respectively, much like the U.S.’s “Monroe Doctrine.”

For the U.S., Japan and Europe, allying themselves with one civilization-state, India, for the sake of containing another, China, in the Asia Pacific, is narrow-minded and shortsighted, setting the stage for future geopolitical power struggles. Just like the West’s failed engagement with China for the sake of containing the Soviets, beginning in the 1980s, the West’s alliance with India will similarly fail and birth a new future challenger to it.

To protect against the expansionist aspirations of these civilization-states, Western nation-states, especially, should strengthen their economic, political and security ties with countries neighboring China, Russia and India. The West’s inclusion of smaller Baltic nation-states in NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union and more recently, with the addition of Finland, prevented Russia from moving its territory westward.

In contrast, the failure to include Ukraine in NATO after promising it in the Bucharest Summit Declaration in 2008 emboldened and may have even invited Russian invasions. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s alliance with South Korea, Japan and possibly Vietnam and even North Korea in the future, may also help protect the sovereignty and security of these smaller nations.

In South Asia, however, the West’s neglect of India’s smaller neighbors, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, may only serve to boost India’s civilization-state ambitions in the region and endanger the sovereignty and security of these smaller nation-states and the larger nation-state-based international order.

With these somewhat contradicting goals in mind, Western leaders must rethink the politics and implications of this emerging world order from a civilization-state versus nation-state lens rather than the historical authoritarianism versus democracy perspective.  The West must strengthen its relationship with neglected small nation-states and re-adjust its relations with civilization-states; doing so may be crucial to reduce or prevent potential social and political upheaval, or even war, especially in South and East Asia.

For many thousands of years, from the Buddhist Maurya empire to the empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, Mughals and the era of Europe’s Crusades, civilization-states have attempted to conquer territory and convert people through a mix of political spiritualism that has made a resurgence today. The inception of the modern nation-state had helped bring some stability to the world order, with states acting as equal sovereign nations helping to regulate and maintain a broad nation-state-based international order.

Whether we want to maintain this system today, is an open question. But without the West’s efforts to curtail such populist-based movements led by China, India and others, the domestic repression of minority groups is sure to continue and regional expansion is likely to occur. The threat to global peace and stability is much too great to ignore.