#66 Event Report – Can China Shape Global Modernity?



LIANG Xuecun 梁雪村, Assistant Professor, Renmin University of China


On March 23rd ThinkIN China inaugurated the new spring season with Professor Liang Xuecun from Renmin University of China. As an expert in IR, following a PhD in nationalism of contemporary China at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and post-doctoral studies at the University of St Andrews and King’s College London, during the event she investigated one of the most debated issues within the scenario of international relations: can China shape global modernity and support a development that promotes cooperation with the rest of the world?


Towards the essence of Chineseness: understanding the concepts of modernity, identity and nation


In order to answer these questions, Liang pointed out the importance of these three terms: modernity, identity and nation, stressing their controversy and complexity.


What is modernity? Not all the scholars perceive this word in the same sense. It is not only referred to the present meaning, but also to the emergence of rationality, of a market-industrial economy, of a bureaucratically organized state and of a political creed of popular rule. Charles Taylor perceived modernity as “a wave, flowing over and engulfing one traditional culture after another”. But if it is a process in constant evolution, is it right to consider the existence of only one type of modernity? Liang stressed that the meaning of modernization is often perceived by many Chinese people as a process of westernization, since the concept is a Western creation, that aims at changing a country according to Western values.


The concept of identity is difficult to define, too. According to Anthony Giddens, in the post-traditional order identity is not inherited or static, but it becomes an endeavor that we continuously work and reflect on. It’s not a set of observable characteristics of a moment, but becomes an account of a long process. As the identity of each individual is not only the result of heritage, but also of social interactions and experiences, also contemporary China is not only a reflection of the past, but also a process of continuous changes which are subject to external influences.


Liang also introduced the complexity of defining what a nation is. Many scholars since 1882 have contributed to explore the meanings of this concept. Among them, Charles Tilly analyzed state-making and nation formation interdependently, but he soon realized that nation “remains one of the most puzzling items in the political lexicon”.  Liang stressed that the concepts of nation and nationalism are difficult to be articulated especially in China, since they are not the results of home-grown processes in traditional Chinese politics. Before the Chinese empire collapsed at the beginning of the twentieth century, different ethnic groups had coexisted under the same Tianxia (天下, which is literally translated into “all under the heaven”, in ancient China denoted the land, space and area divinely appointed to the Emperor by universal principles of order, but is today associated with political sovereignty), but managed to keep their own customs and dialects. When the modern Chinese state was founded, it tried to join the international club of nation-states by reconfiguring its political structure on the basis of rather fragmented imperial legacies. This is an onerous task.

China is a multinational state which largely inherited the imperial territory of the past. Since nation refers to a distinct, homogenous group of people united by common history, culture, language and territory, the concept is totally foreign to ancient Chinese tradition. For example, during Tang dynasty (618-907AD) the society was very multiethnic, not only Persians, Indians, Koreans and Vietnamese held positions of high-rank officials, but also the Emperor Taizong (reigned 629-649 AC) married a Xianbei (proto-Mongol) wife.

Since the concept was not native to the Chinese tradition, it became an arduous task to decide where the boundaries between Chinese people, state and nation should be drawn and how to operate as a single nation in political practices despite the very complex composition of 56 ethnicities.


Zhonghua minzu (中华民族) and the principle of sovereignty 


The term Zhonghua minzu (Chinese nation) was first coined by the late Qing political thinker Liang Qichao in 1902. Initially it only referred to the Han ethnicity but it was then expanded to include the Five Races Under One Only Union (Wuzu Gonghe 五族共和), one of the most important principles upon which the Republic of China was founded in 1911. It referred to the five major ethnic groups in China based on the ethnic categories of the Qing: the Han (汉族),the Manchu (满族), the Mongols (蒙族), the Hui (回族) and the Tibetans (藏族).

When Sun Yat-sen seized power at the beginning of last century, he initially considered the Manchu as a group of foreign invaders to be expelled, but then he identified only the Manchu ruling class as the perpetrators to be eliminated for the purpose of nation unification. Today, the Chinese nation refers to all 56 ethnic groups living inside the borders of China.

The fact that the country faces serious challenges in terms of nation-building has led to China’s adherence to Westphalian sovereignty, since Westphalian sovereignty bases authority on the territorial state rather than on cultural identity. This is also evident by the fact that respect for sovereignty, as well as territorial integrity and national unity, remains the core Chinese national interests.


A list of twelve “core socialist values” was then showed to the audience. Among them appeared: prosperity, rule of law, democracy, patriotism and equality. How do we make of these principles, Liang asked? A plethora of good words reveal the indecisiveness in articulating a Chinese identity.  And it is impossible even in principle to be harmony between all good values, according to Isaiah Berlin. Other charts showed that the percentage of Chinese citizens who believe in the necessity to defend their way of life is significantly lower than its neighboring countries. These figures underlined that the primary goal of Chinese nationalism is not to defend a “Chinese” way of life, Instead, Chinese nationalism concerns itself primarily with enhancing the country’s international status. The promotion of The Double Top University Plan in 2017 or hosting the Olympic Game as it did in 2008 are good examples to illustrate this point.


Is it therefore correct to say that China has adopted Western values?


Alastair Iain Johnson made distinctions between the process of learning and adapting. Learning involves a fundamental change of assumptions and approaches while adapting requires no more than adjusting to changing circumstances. The question is whether China has been learning or adapting.

Some scholars as James Mann argued that a big number of China observers assume economic liberalization would sooner or later lead to political liberalization. That is how engagement policy with China has been sold politically in the United States. Other decision makers like Wesley Clark considered the Chinese approach as an adapting one. Clark stressed that China was not becoming more like a typical Western country, which suggested that it had merely adapted to the external environment, but not learned from it.

Liang asked what if the primary goal of engagement policy – to transform China according to a Western blueprint – cannot be achieved? There is no doubt that China is trying to make contributions to the so-called international society, but it does so in its own way.

Referring to the public speech held by Xi Jinping at the UN Assembly in Geneva in January 2017 titled “Work Together to Build a Community with Shared Future for Mankind”, it appears reasonable to ask what are the principles on which this global community should be founded. Is it possible to build a shared future without liberal internationalism, universalism and cosmopolitanism?

If on one side China is going abroad, supporting a development which promotes cooperation through cultural plans and important infrastructural projects, on the other side it still keeps its own characteristics without being conquered and dominated as were other countries in the past. So nowadays it is difficult to determine which directions Chinese foreign policy will take and which strategies it will adopt in the future. What is sure is that a real change within the political Chinese system will not occur tomorrow, but new outlooks and features will be gained through a process which requires time.


The Q&A  session gave space to a stimulating debate that expressed the expectations and at the same time the uncertainties regarding future developments in global modernity. Liang, however, showed optimism in the future, arguing that despite China may perhaps find itself in the trap of Thucydides, facing an increasing rivalry with the US, at the same time it does not intend to subvert the international order. China is more helpful to the world today and is struggling to improve its soft power. The Belt and Road Initiative was launched in response to the economic threats arising from the TTP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and through this project China encourages new business routes and promotes economic development. Chinese government tries to enhance its image also abroad doing much effort for the overseas community: through the diaspora, China has the possibility to understand foreign countries and influence them.

At the same time, however, its engagement in Africa and the “peaceful rise discourse” leave us with a big question about China’s real strategic intentions. Can the further increasing engagement in the economic framework stay apart from security? Is China an harmonious nation or does the government use this rhetoric to justify Chinese behavior?

These questions will be answered only in the modernity that will be revealed day by day.


Report written by Alessia Bonato


Related Posts