China, India and the rise of the ‘civilisation state’

Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times: “The 19th-century popularised the idea of the “nation state”. The 21st could be the century of the “civilisation state”. A civilisation state is a country that claims to represent not just a historic territory or a particular language or ethnic-group, but a distinctive civilisation.

It is an idea that is gaining ground in states as diverse as China, India, Russia, Turkey and, even, the US. The notion of the civilisation state has distinctly illiberal implications. It implies that attempts to define universal human rights or common democratic standards are wrong-headed, since each civilisation needs political institutions that reflect its own unique culture. The idea of a civilisation state is also exclusive. Minority groups and migrants may never fit in because they are not part of the core civilisation.

One reason that the idea of the civilisation state is likely to gain wider currency is the rise of China. In speeches to foreign audiences, President Xi Jinping likes to stress the unique history and civilisation of China. This idea has been promoted by pro-government intellectuals, such as Zhang Weiwei of Fudan university. In an influential book, The China Wave: Rise of a Civilisational State, Mr Zhang argues that modern China has succeeded because it has turned its back on western political ideas — and instead pursued a model rooted in its own Confucian culture and exam-based meritocratic traditions. Mr Zhang was adapting an idea first elaborated by Martin Jacques, a western writer, in a bestselling book, When China Rules The World. “China’s history of being a nation state”, Mr Jacques argues, “dates back only 120-150 years: its civilisational history dates back thousands of years.” He believes that the distinct character of Chinese civilisation leads to social and political norms that are very different from those prevalent in the west, including “the idea that the state should be based on familial relations [and] a very different view of the relationship between the individual and society, with the latter regarded as much more important”. …

Civilisational views of the state are also gaining ground in Russia. Some of the ideologues around Vladimir Putin now embrace the idea that Russia represents a distinct Eurasian civilisation, which should never have sought to integrate with the west. In a recent article Vladislav Surkov, a close adviser to the Russian president, argued that his country’s “repeated fruitless efforts to become a part of western civilisation are finally over”. Instead, Russia should embrace its identity as “a civilisation that has absorbed both east and west” with a “hybrid mentality, intercontinental territory and bipolar history. It is charismatic, talented, beautiful and lonely. Just as a half-breed should be.” In a global system moulded by the west, it is unsurprising that some intellectuals in countries such as China, India or Russia should want to stress the distinctiveness of their own civilisations.

What is more surprising is that rightwing thinkers in the US are also retreating from the idea of “universal values” — in favour of emphasising the unique and allegedly endangered nature of western civilisation….(More)”.