What is China?

“China is”, in the words of Bertrand Russell, “much less a political entity than a civilization”. Chinese civilization would exist even without a Chinese state, just as we may speak of European civilization despite Europe not being a state. It is not easy to define exactly what “Chinese civilization” or “Chinese culture” is, and it would be misleading to try to define precise boundaries around “Chineseness”. Cultural entities tend to be hybrids, their boundaries indistinct rather than clear.

Ancient Origins

The ancient roots of Chinese civilization or culture can be traced back at least to the third millennium BCE, and it was only in 221 BCE that a first unified Chinese state emerged, led by the infamous First Emperor of Qin. Ever since the short-lived Qin Empire (221–206 BCE), the first priority for Chinese rulers has been to maintain unity and prevent dissolution. To that end cultural homogeneity and ideological orthodoxy have been crucial. Even the revolution of 1911 and the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912 were largely undertaken to prevent the country from dissolution and chaos and to bring about what was at the time often called a “Chinese renaissance”.

The first and foremost task after the collapse of the empire was to create a wealthy and powerful China which would be able to meet the threats to the Chinese state posed by foreign powers. These goals remained central throughout the Republican period from 1912 to 1949, but during this period China became nevertheless more culturally diverse and ideologically pluralistic than it had been. This was a period characterized by relatively weak central governments and the search for a new order, politically and culturally.

Radical Reform

When the Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the search for wealth and power continued, and the new authoritarian regime gave high priority to cultural homogeneity and ideological orthodoxy as tools to achieve this goal. Today, China’s economic and military strength is formidable, although the living standard of large segments of the population is still so low that China has a long way to go before becoming a truly affluent society. The leaders in Beijing declare with pride and nationalistic overtones that China no longer has to “hide its strength and bide its time” (taoguang yanghui 韬光养晦), which Deng Xiaoping had proclaimed as a guideline for China’s foreign policy in his era. As Xi Jinping put it in his report to the Nineteenth Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017, the world is now entering an era in which “it is time for us to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind”.

During the decades after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 and well into the twenty-first century, Chinese society and culture became, despite many setbacks, increasingly pluralistic and the scope for political discussions broadened. The opening up of China, which was an essential part of Deng Xiaoping’s modernization program, sparked unprecedented economic, technological and cultural exchange. This led to improved cross-cultural understanding and also resulted in relations of economic interdependence that many thought would serve to preserve peace.

In the ideological and political arena people inside and outside the Party began to advocate radical reforms, such as a clear separation between Party and state and an independent judiciary free from Party control. To take just one concrete example, the former vice president of Renmin University Xie Tao 谢韬 (1921–2010) in 2007 published an article in the influential journal Yanhuang Chunqiu 炎黄春秋 in which he argued that successful “socialist modernization” was impossible without political democracy in China and that the Swedish social democracy represented a model for the Chinese Communist Party to emulate. He went so far as to say that it was not the social democrats in Europe but Lenin and Mao who were “revisionists”.

Trend Towards Pluralism

Many people in China and in the West hoped and believed that this trend towards a higher degree of pluralism in Chinese culture and politics was irreversible. They believed that the increasing wealth and power of the Chinese state would give China’s leaders the self-confidence and courage to recognize the transition to an open and democratic society as an essential part of China’s modernization.

There is still considerable cultural pluralism in Chinese society. Its people know more about the rest of the world than ever before, and the mindsets of hundreds of millions of people have undergone a rapid transformation, which has catapulted them into the digital age where they share the values, aspirations, concerns, and fears of people in other parts of the world.

However, in spite of the economic and military strength of the Chinese state and its increasing international power and influence, Chinese leaders continue to view the ideals of the open society as a threat to the Party State. In terms of culture, the regime has encouraged a turn to an indigenous tradition, interpreted so as to serve the needs of the government. The focus is on Confucianism as a cohesive force and on those characteristics of Chinese culture which are said to distinguish it from other cultures. The notion of “universal values” has become anathema. In politics, there has been a turn to extreme authoritarianism which allows for little or no dissent.

It is impossible to say how long this will continue, but it would probably be a mistake to believe, as some observers seem to do, that the Chinese political system possesses a special kind of resilience rooted in history which makes it exceptionally inimical to change. The enlightenment ideals of human dignity, freedom, human rights, respect for difference etc. are not exclusively European or Western but have for just as long been intimately linked to Chinese culture and therefore will not simply perish.

Be that as it may, it is important to note the discrepancy between the rigid and authoritarian ideological orthodoxy on the one hand and the cultural diversity and vitality outside the control of the Party State on the other.

Within the Stockholm China Center, “China” means “Greater China”, which includes not only Mainland China but also Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and other regions with significant numbers of Chinese inhabitants. The term is used without any overtones of Chinese chauvinism to underline the insight succinctly captured in the words of Bertrand Russell quoted at the beginning of this article, “China is much less a political entity than a civilization”.