Nation State or Civilisation State?

16 May

One of the first posts ever made in this blog was an interview with Martin Jacques about China’s future and the possibility of becoming the most influential country in the world. He argues that this will be an extreme challenge to the western world view, because China is modernising but not westernising. He also points out that there is a big difference between the western conception of a state (as a nation state) and the Chinese conception of a state; the Civilisation state.

This article aims to analyse the validity of this argument.

The validity of the Chinese state goes far back and is mainly rooted in the relationship between State and Society. The sense of being Chinese, the identity of China is not rooted in the last 100 years, the years when China could be defined as a nation state. It is more a consciousness developed over the past 2000 years by the development and expansion of the Chinese empire. Most of the rites, beliefs and culture that make China Chinese still stem from this ancient civilisation state. China’s identity is rooted in this period.

Although China has a central Government it is in many senses very decentralised and relies on local governance. The sheer size of the nation can be considered a challenge to the country, it however, equally can be considered a strength. The main focus of the Chinese government is to keep the civilisation together. Although the country is arguably very pluralistic, it still rests upon the same values and to a certain extent on the same race. 90% of the Chinese consider themselves to be part of the same race, the Han; A concept that is found only in China and it has big implications for Chinese politics. The understanding of race for example is one of the explanations for China’s treatment of Tibet. My article will aim to expand on this implication in a further paragraph later on.

As various articles over the course of the last semester showed, the Chinese government and state are very competent in working with the Chinese economy. This is an argument Martin Jacques makes to explain why, although China is not democratic, its state is more supported by the people than in Western Countries.

He argues that while not democratic, the Chinese state is effective in delivering results. Although the GDP growth has been slowing down over the past years, it is still one of the biggest in the world. The government effectiveness, however, cannot yet be observed in other issues such as the environment, since they are not yet sufficiently discussed on a national level. This causes the general public to feel wearier toward the national leaders. The general opinion of the public concerning politics in general remains still positive, which is more than can be said about European governments.

Although supported by its people the government displays a sense of near paranoia concerning popular power, especially when it comes to the Internet.. The internet is even with censorship allowing people of different backgrounds and areas to communicate and exchange view points and this is a development the Chinese government feel  the need to keep a close eye on.

An important argument for the existence of a civilisation state rather than a nation state is the development of the one nation two systems policy. This policy is most famously used in Hong Kong, it was however originally introduced in Tibet as well. The one nation two systems policy rests upon the idea that certain parts of the state, which had different values or systems before, are allowed to upkeep those values as long as they accept Chinese sovereignty and China taking charge of their exterior politics as well has having final say in major debates of exterior politics.

This system was originally offered to Tibet during its occupation. However, as shown in recent uprisings and their brutal down break, it did not work out. (See the self immolations in October 2012). The Chinese government does not hold on to the contract it forced upon the Tibetan people.

The reason for this behaviour can be, at least to a certain extent, traced back to the earlier mention of the understanding of race in China. The Tibetans are considered their own race, different from the Han. When China occupied and subsequently annexed Tibet, they considered themselves to be taking what was rightfully theirs and additionally assumed that the indigenous race, was inferior to their own, and by no means Chinese. Although they claimed that they were liberating Tibet from foreign influences, ultimately for China it can be considered as an issue of reclaiming what was theirs.

Hong Kong presents a completely different situation and can be considered as the most famous example for the one nation two systems policy, especially since the Sino-British Decleration, was largely accepted and held up on both sides. Since the hand-over in 1997 Hong Kong was not only able to keep its capitalist system; it was also able to retain the democratic features its government displayed. This success has numerous reasons. Hong Kong Chinese and Mainland Chinese share the same race for once. Secondly, Hong Kong was not occupied, but formerly ‘owned’ by Britain and so, subsequently returned to the previous owners. Thirdly, Hong Kong still accepts Chinese sovereignty provided the Chinese do not interfere with their development towards more democratic systems.

This analysis aims to show that the ‘civilisation-state’ is in fact a justified system to explain Chinese politics and the Chinese nation as a whole. It does however, hold it’s implications, for example since one nation two system policy is not effective everywhere (Taiwan is a further aspect to argue about…) The argument that the state is justified and upheld by it’s people is equally disputable due to recent developments. None the less, China is a considerably big nation. Although the idea of a civilisation state is disputed it is still a better explanation than the attempt to fit Chinese politics into our western mindsets. China is, after all, modernising but that does not immediately make it more western or more understandable to western people.


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