Kuora: On the idea that China is a civilization, not a nation-state

Aerial photo- the Yellow River in China.

As a history buff, Kaiser prefers the long view, of looking at how our present is inextricably part of the past, and how it continues to react against its shadow and discourse with it, often in subtle and imperceptible ways. Here he answers a question on history, originally posted on Quora on May 23, 2015:

Is there any truth to the claim that China is a “civilization state”? What are some of the manifestations of this assertion?

The idea that China doesn’t fit comfortably into the Westphalian concept of the nation-state certainly has some merit and its implications are worth pondering.

But I think it’s dangerously essentialist to take that idea too far, whether as a criticism, an excuse, or as an explanatory tool.

In particular, the evidence that the OP cites in question details* — the idea that there’s some kind of phenotypical criteria for membership in a nation — is actually quite common around the world, and it’s only in relatively recent times that this has ceased to be the case in some exceptional nation-states: the countries of immigration.

*From the original poster [sic throughout]: I have heard an argument that for Chinese, race and ethnicity is highly binary, you are either a Chinese or you are not.

Everyone who looks non-east Asian looking are quickly dismissed as non-Chinese — even if you were born in China — and people who even look remotely east Asian looking is counted as Chinese (unless proven otherwise later) — no matter where you were born. The reasoning is because China is a civilization state. No matter how much time you spend overseas, you are merely a cog in the civilization project, growing China and expanding her perimeter as the ancestors have done eons ago. 

This has profound meaning in terms of the development of China and spread of her culture in the future. What does it mean for China to be a civilization state and what are some examples that reflects this effect?

It’s a laudatory development, to be sure, but it’s not the norm for most of the world, and if this is sufficient reason to suggest that a given nation is a “civilization state” and not a nation-state, then we’re really not left with too many authentic nation-states. One might cite the example of the United States — and indeed, it is one of the admirable qualities of the U.S. that at least notionally it accepts as its own immigrants and their descendants, no matter where they come from or what they look like. (Let’s leave aside for a moment that people who are phenotypically East Asian are still routinely asked, “Yeah, but where are you really from?”) [Kaiser, update: And of course all of Trump’s retrograde policies and views.]

Part of what people were really talking about — people like the eminent sinologists John King Fairbank and Lucian Pye — when they said that China was (as Pye put it) “a civilization pretending to be a state” was that China is among a handful of nation-states in the world today that roughly (but imperfectly) contain within modern borders most of the people who would self-identify as belonging to one of the world’s ancient civilizations. That’s not true of any country for civilizations that are no longer really extant or have morphed into something that’s no longer accepted as the direct, relatively undiluted descendant of a discrete, ancient civilization. There is no single state ruling over what’s still a recognizably Mesopotamian civilization; Egypt hasn’t been Pharaonic Egypt since the Roman conquest, if not the Alexandrian (and then Ptolemaic) period; the modern Greek state is not truly classical Greece, though perhaps it is more so than Italy can stand in for Rome; the Arabo-Islamic civilization is fragmented into many nation-states; Mesoamerican and South American civilizations were long ago destroyed and their descendants incorporated into several separate states; and so on. Even the Indian civilizational zone is divided into four modern states (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka). Only one state comes immediately to mind that might, like China, be a “civilization pretending to be a state,” and that is Iran. This is of course a matter of considerable debate.

What of other modern nation-states that still share geographic contours with their pre-modern selves, still have relative ethno-linguistic homogeneity and so forth — countries like Japan? We also find that they are more like China, really: Assimilation into Japanese national life — social, cultural, even legal — isn’t just difficult for non-East Asians, but for the many people of Korean and Chinese descent, many of whom are not “racially” dissimilar.

For China, while it’s useful to understand where concepts of ethnicity and nationality are not contiguous, Chinese themselves are often puzzled why this is paid such attention. (I would submit that this itself is a symptom of the problem.) The fact is these questions aren’t ones that Chinese themselves seem to wrestle with as much as China-watchers, who often feel it’s quite important to sort through the many ethnonyms attached to “Chineseness,” to China, to its component nationalities. Is China Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo (中华人民共和国, the People’s Republic of China)? Is it Zhongguo (中国, Middle Kingdom)? Is it Huaxia (华夏, a historical concept of “China”)? Who are the Huaren (华人, Chinese) and are they the same thing as the Han (汉)? What is meant by “Da Zhonghua” (大中华, Greater China)? Tibetans are Zhongguoren (中国人, Chinese people) but they’re not Huaren, is that right? It actually does get very confusing for someone who has not waded in with the deliberate intent of sorting it all out.

There are two important areas where the imperfect congruity comes into play. One is in the claims that the Chinese state still lays, legally or just psychologically, on Chinese in diaspora, who have left China and even taken on citizenship in other countries, sometimes across generations. In its legal impact, you can see this in the way the PRC government has treated foreign nationals of Chinese ethnicity who are perceived to have gone against PRC interests. The ugly charge of “race traitor” will be there, now beneath the surface, now erupting into the open. Look at the case of Stern Hu, who was an Australian national jailed by the Chinese for industrial espionage on behalf of the mining company for which he worked. Psychologically, too, we see this in a different set of expectations that Chinese (or even the Chinese state) lays on people of Chinese ethnic extraction. Gary Locke, former ambassador to China from the U.S. and the first U.S. ambassador to China to be of Chinese descent, was disparaged as a “banana” (“yellow on the outside but white on the inside” — but good Christ, he was third generation!), and I’ve certainly encountered it too.

The other area where I think it’s very important is in dealing with ethnic minorities in China: Most visibly, the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, but also the Mongols (of Inner Mongolia), the Kazakhs, the Koreans, the Manchus, the Hui, and the 40-odd other officially recognized minority nationalities. The People’s Republic of China is supposed to be a multiethnic state, comprising the Han Chinese (who are roughly 92 percent of the population) and the many other minority nationalities, but the tendency to conflate “Han” and “Chinese” is incredibly commonplace, and significant problems remain: discrimination and prejudice, a refusal by many Chinese to confront root problems in Tibet and in Xinjiang, and so on.

Where it really isn’t all that important is in the way that China interacts with other nation-states of the world. Here, while there may be some behavior that can only be accounted for by resort to this “civilization-state” idea, for the most part China behaves pretty much as any Westphalian actor. From its first encounters with the gunpowder armies of the West — the Russians, the British, the French — Qing China really began to assimilate, however unwillingly, into a global system of nation-states. True, historically China rarely demarcated actual borders until the Treaty of Nerchinsk with Russia in 1689. But since that time it has played by Westphalian rules.

Yes, the Chinese civilization has been shoehorned imperfectly into a concept of state that developed out of 17th-century religious strife at the other end of the Eurasian landmass. But that doesn’t mean that China’s foreign policy can only be understood in terms of pre-modern, imperial Chinese notions like the tribute system (in which China was somehow a “moral power” from which civilization radiated outward). Perhaps such ideas still inform thinking at some deep subconscious level, but until you can get Xi Jinping on the couch I doubt that exploring such factors will be of much help in understanding Chinese foreign policy grand strategy, thinking, and tactics.

Kuora is a weekly column.