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The idea of civilizational state has been around for a long time. However, a lot of analysis of this notion remains detached from the ground reality. What goes unreported is how the notion of civilization tends to be subsumed under political nativism, victimhood mindset and inward-looking economic practices in democracies and single party regimes alike where the notions of a perfect national history are used for grandstanding purposes. Moreover, in such cases, authority often takes charismatic form instead of a legal/juridical one, leading to emotionally driven domestic and foreign policies. This is the reason why a more critical analysis of the claims and righteousness of civilizations is felt necessary.


Civilizational states imagine themselves to be as guardians of the great civilizations that once were, and which declined in the history of wars and conquest. They always believe that the decline of the civilization happened because of two factors. The first one is the enemy from outside who attacked the civilization because of its prosperity, growth and values, which were seen as inimical to the interest of the aggressor. The second factor in this process is considered to be those insiders who acted against the “national interest” in courts and against the common will and welfare of the people. Thus, the civilizational state has a perfect imprint in its mind of who is and who is not an enemy. Because of this excessive necessity to classify people and states as enemies or friends, the civilizational state operates on a narrow definition of nationalism. This becomes the first major problem of a civilizational state.


Civilizational states take recourse to nativist policies and legitimise its actions on the basis of attempting to correct the historical mistakes. Because of this, it often pushes its own people to begin to believe what Neibuhr and Chomsky calls “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications”. The notions of “Making America Great Again” and “China Dream” fall under this category. Civilizational states guide the domestic politics in their country in a manner in which these become the tools for governing, messaging and managing the propaganda.


Civilizational states like China also push for greater acquisition of territories and geographies on the basis of selective historical claims. They show little or no regard for the process of negotiations or negotiated settlements or give little value to the role of international institutions. Moreover, they undertake these claims from the position of correcting the wrongs that were done to them by imperial powers. The Chinese Communist Party has made rather successfully a sustained attempt to appropriate the history of the People’s Republic towards stressing its centrality. It began the patriotic education programme (1992) in the era when Communist ideology and life goals were receding, and the nature of state-society relationship was undergoing a significant change.


China began to stress upon the minds of its own people the history of Japanese aggression and atrocities on the mainland. This was a significant departure from the days of Mao and Deng when China was seeking to break away from its past, not using it for political purposes. China’s nationalism in Mao era was different from the modern nationalism projected in patriotic education program. China never sought Japanese apology under Mao or Deng. When the Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China on the first official visit in 1972, Mao had said that Japan did not need to apologize for the crimes of Imperial Japan. In the modern era, China also built a lot of museums which narrated the story of China’s history in a manner that put the party at the centre of reinvigorating the idea of China. China now has more than 5000 museums across the country, whereas this number was only about 200 in 1978.


This reinvented patriotic education also reinforced the notion of the “Century of Humiliation”. A lot has already been written about China’s victim mentality and how it affects its role in the international system. China for its part continues to play a victim and continues to argue that its behavior, as it rises in the international system, will largely be shaped on the basis of what it has learnt from its past. However, that does not seem to be the case at all. China is playing by the same rulebook which it claims had hurt it in the past.


China is pursuing power and status in international system by arguing that it is going to be a different kind of leader in the world, instead of being a new great power that lenders around and implements its own interest as part of a hegemonic order. This is what China continues to argue, as it pushes for a benign image in the contemporary international order. This is the same methodology that it uses for the promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative by calling it an opportunity for win-win cooperation.


Perhaps, the biggest problem with civilizational states is the excessive tendency for homogenization. While this tendency is present in both democracies and in the single party systems, it is particularly damaging in the single party systems. In China, it takes many violent forms. It has in the recent past given up on the pride in ethnic diversity for policies that have led to social, political and cultural repression in the ethnic minority provinces.


Under Xi Jinping, China opened up the debate on ethnic identity versus the Chineseness among its minority population. Official documents and statements by Xi have regularly stressed on the need to strengthen the ‘four identifications’— identification with the motherland, the Chinese nation, Chinese culture and the socialist road with Chinese characteristics. Consequently, the minorities have to face serious scrutiny and prove being Chinese first, something that has become a central feature of state policy, and this has also caused an extensive securitisation of the minority provinces. In Xinjiang, in particular, this has led to creation of what are termed as the “vocational education and training centers”, which teach “laws, Mandarin and skills” as part of the “de-extremism” strategy.


Stability remains the primary concern as well as driving force for the Chinese government not only in its minority provinces, but also amongst its population in general. China is a massive surveillance state on the basis of new information technologies like face recognition, social credit and 24X7 physical and digital tracking. A true civilizational state would perhaps not undertake such surveillance on its citizens.


Thus, in China, and elsewhere too, the idea of a civilizational state is a contradiction. It is nothing more than a tool at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. China may be the strongest example of this phenomenon but it needs to be kept in mind that it is but one example of many such processes underway across the world. Whether the strengthening of the perception of states as civilizational states is antithetical to the notions of a free, open and inclusive world and whether there is an inevitable movement in the direction that Samuel Huntington warned of way back in 1993, is therefore something, which needs to be relooked into.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.