Defining China's "Civilization State". Where is it heading


The notion that China is more than simply a nation state, but a cultural entity with an identity founded on unique values has been around for a long time. This appears most noticeably in descriptions  of the country as a `civilisational state’ rather than a purely geographical one most famously associated with the works of pioneering American sinologist John King Fairbank over half a century ago.  In the era of post-modern globalizations, we are rightly cautious of slipping into the easy language of exceptionalism.  And yet there is something in the history of China’s development and its contemporary articulation of this through things that elite leaders, public intellectuals and even school textbooks used in the country’s classrooms say that sounds different to, for instance, the European or American view of what a state and its functions are.  Even the fact that so many Chinese believe their country’s state has a unique historic and cultural basis is itself worthy of deeper analysis and reflection.


Alastair Campbell has long engagement with China, as a business person and an analyst. This background gives the discussion presented here of what sense to make of this notion of civilsation state a very practical flavor. How people internalize and conceptualise the nature of the political entity within which they live matters hugely. It is not just an abstract thing, which can be left to specialists to devote time to. It is a major part of their lives, and circumscribes their relationship both with themselves and the wider world.


Campbell shows in this paper that while this idea of a Chinese civilization state is one we have to take seriously, there are no easy answers to how best we, as outsiders, can easily conceptualise it. Part of that is connected to the issue of core beliefs.  This challenge of trying to describe what Chinese believe remains as vexed now as it did four centuries ago when the first Christian missionaries became active in Ming China and were met with a bewildering market place of ideas and belief systems, ranging from Confucianism to Buddhism and Daoism. In fact, in recent times the situation has become even more complicated, with the addition of the widespread practice of Christianity, and of course the ideology of Marxism with Chinese characteristics. But part of it is also simply because the traditions of Chinese philosophical thinking are so diverse, ancient and rich in China that they offer a wide range of resources by which people can articulate their own identity and world view today.


Campbell offers a refreshing riposte to the trivializing attempts by many to answer this question of core beliefs by asserting some monolithic form of Confucianism as a grounding characteristic from the past right up to contemporary times. He detects in the superficially warm words of the Xi Jinping leadership on the ancient pre-Qin dynasty sage nothing more than rhetorical posturing, an attempt to recruit the cultural capital of the historic figure of Confucius to the Party-state’s current political priorities with no real coherence or depth. But his paper also shows that in the end, an easy reconciliation and acceptance of the varieties of Chinese belief systems by, in particular, modern western countries with their democratic traditions, is unlikely.


This paper is an antidote to the desire to pretend away different world views and cultural or ethical philosophies.  Its implicit suggestion is that the best we can all manage, inside and outside the Chinese cultural sphere, is to try to be more knowledgeable and have a more complex understanding of each other. We have to accept this difference, and be open about it, rather than wishing it away.


Professor Kerry Brown
Director, China Studies Centre