Chinese communists are orienting their fellow citizens towards a new civilization path critics call the ‘Xivilisation’ initiative because it is nothing but how President Xi Jinping visualizes China’s civilization through his de-Westernised eyes.
The Global Civilization Initiative is part of the trio of ideological frameworks Xi has unleased on his people last month, the other two being the Global Security Initiative and the Global Development Initiative.
Shorn of all frills and Xi-isms, the Civilization Initiative preaches what Chinese leaders have preached for decades, that Chinese civilization is ancient and unique and constant because it is based on local traditions without being influenced by the calls for Westernization and Western democratic concepts.
For the record, Xi Jinping proposed the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) at the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting on March 15, 2023. The event, with the theme ‘Path towards Modernization: The Responsibility of Political Parties,’ was aimed at bringing together more than 500 leaders of political parties and political organisations from over 150 countries.
Chinese civilization, in its latest form, is all about Xi, ensuring the cultural and political primacy of Xi. It is a system where everything turns around Xi’s blessing, officials and private companies will “rush to claim that whatever they’re working on is part of the leader-approved project”, to quote a Western media report. For example, the Global Times has—without apparent irony—launched a “Xivilization’ series to praise the leader’s thoughts on global culture.
Civilization thus defined in Xi’s terms, its initiative is an extension of Xi’s projection of China’s soft and military power across the world. For he Chinese people, the initiative in practice means Xi mediating a truce between Saudi Arabia and Iran, between Israel and Palestine, possibly even between Russia and Ukraine now that the Chinese and Ukrainian leaderships have broken the communication ice between them, and, of course, the Belt and Road Initiative that, as Xi understands, is how he is spreading his country’s civilization across the world.
The Global Civilization Initiative offers some insight into how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi view culture and how China’s soft-power push is working. At the initiative’s core is the notion that China is unique in its historical continuity—that it has been a dominant power throughout its supposed 5,000 of history. Although some Western commentators are quick to give credence to this claim, in practice it is quite ahistorical: Until the 1970s, educators on Chinese civilization, such as Lin Yutang, generally described Chinese civilization as 3,000 years old, to quote Foreign Policy.
What is simply means is the Xi maybe attempting to re-brand Chinese civilization in his terms. Armed with a history of 5,000-odd years, he may want to ‘teach’ civilization, principles of living and democracy and possibly even human rights and trade, to other countries in the world. Possibly to the exclusion of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Indian civilizations, he may want to ‘Xivilise’ the rest of the world.
His sudden interest in archaeology and history and culture and civilization may be because he has convinced himself that what he considers China has always been Chinese and, therefore, Uyghurs and Tibetans are Chinese and their lands belong to China. He can theoretically can then expand the principle to Taiwan, the South China Sea, possibly the Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region too. He could then say the BRI is China’s Xivilizational plenipotentiary to civilize the remaining parts of the world, excluding the United States and some parts of Europe.
In Chinese interpretations, the Global Civilization Initiative uses the length of Chinese history to form a connection with other civilizations that claim tobe as old as China’s, Greece for instance. But there is a catch. It is hard to imagine that this is a compelling selling point for the overseas public, which is a problem with China’s cultural push: It’s focused on a limited view of supposedly traditional culture, as Foreign Policy writes, rather than the creation of new cultural products. Compared with the wave of cultural content that came out of Japan in the 1980s, for example, the constant emphasis on traditional Chinese medicine, Spring Festival celebrations, and calligraphy looks pretty hollow.
Sadly for Xi, his civilizational drive cannot work until he resolves a matter of history back home. Traditional Chinese culture was largely religious for most of its existence. It is only after 1949 the concept of communism came in by raising suspicions about religion. Ironically, while Xi articulates Xi Thought or the Civilizational Drive as having ancient cultural moorings, he can be called out if he fails to explain the religion-communism binary. He simply cannot sell a newly minted civilizational initiative by cloaking it in ancient Chinese culture.
Attempts to draw on the appeal of traditional Chinese culture are also self-limiting because so much of pre-1949 Chinese culture was religious—and the CCP, especially under Xi, is deeply suspicious of religion. Chinese Buddhism, Daoism, and other forms of traditional religion have genuine global appeal, as do practices such as ‘qigong’—but any promotion of traditional Chinese culture under the CCP is stripped of the beliefs once at its core.
The Chinese government is going to throw a lot of money at “Xivilization,” but foreigners are not the real audience. As ever, the push is intended for Xi himself.
In his reply to some Greek scholars who had positive words for the Civilizational Initiative, Xi Jinping, finding a straw to latch on to, wrote a letter to them, propagating, in general terms, the need for a synthesis between the two ancient civilizations.
“Each nation’s civilization embodies the rich accumulation of its historical exploration and development, and provides an underlying guide for it to survive and thrive nowadays. To promote the development of human society and jointly build a human community with a shared future, it’s a must to have a deep understanding and grasp of the age-old origins and rich contents of different civilizations and let the essence of all civilizations benefit the present generation and all mankind.”
In the letter, Xi described civilizational understanding between countries as an aspect of relying on “spiritual strength to nurture a lofty mind and a sincere heart”. The values and the views on the world, the universe, life, science and culture filled in the Chinese and Greek civilizations are profound and extensive, and keep growing with new vitality through test of time, can surely be important spiritual guidance for mankind to solve the problems of the times and promote the building of a human community with a shared future, he said.
Given that Xi complicated things for himself and his neighbors and distant countries alike in complex border and other disputes, he is now trying to tell the world that they can all be civilizationally one even if politically divided. The countries’ lives are “intertwined”, he now says. For him, the process of modernizing world cultures beginning with the world accepting the primacy of Xivilization.
For the record, there are not many takers for his initiative. Except, perhaps, Iran. Veteran Iranian politician Asadollah Badamchian, general secretary of Iran’s Islamic Coalition Party, hailed Xi’s Initiative, and said “the approach pursued by Xi is based on the notion that human civilizations should all join together and enable their diversity to cause greater growth and better transformation”.
The Iranian leader’s endorsement was unconditional: “We also believe that the world’s peoples should be invited to put their civilizations and cultures in the global civilization basket and all together move toward a civilization built upon all human civilizations within the present framework of international relations and communications and in view of the future industrial advances.” The West, led by the United States, has not reacted at all.