The Global Civilisation Initiative: Are ‘Asian Values’ Back with a Chinese Vengeance?
Through its Global Civilisation Initiative, China argues that there are different paths to modernity. While such a view might resonate with Southeast Asian countries, one should not presume that they will jump on the GCI bandwagon.
In March 2023, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Xi Jinping unveiled the Global Civilisation Initiative (GCI), in which he highlighted the “diversity of civilisations”, “mutual learning among different civilisations”, and “diversified paths to modernisation”. Xi essentially argued that modernisation is not equivalent to Westernisation; and the path to development does not necessarily entail political liberalisation. This proposition harks back to the 1990s’ ‘Asian values’ discourse, which asserted that there are multiple paths to modernity.
The ‘Asian values’ discourse was advocated by East Asian developmental states, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, riding upon their economic success. It emphasised the ‘collective’ interests of the community, society and state while ascribing cultural and historical qualifications to ‘individual’ rights. It challenged the notion of the universality of human rights and highlighted the importance of socio-economic rights. This discourse receded after the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis but is enshrined in the 2012 ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, which affirms that “the realisation of human rights must be considered in the regional and national context bearing in mind different political, economic, legal, social, cultural, historical and religious backgrounds”.
Xi appears to be re-threading the same line, as key ‘Asian values’ underscore the GCI’s propositions. For example, Xi highlighted the need to “put the people first and ensure modernisation is people-centred”. Left unsaid is the emphasis on “the people” as a collective whole over “the individual”. Xi also asked countries “to keep an open mind in appreciating the perceptions of values by different civilisations, and refrain from imposing their own values or models on others”. This is essentially the notion of cultural relativism and non-interference in internal affairs, another hallmark of the ‘Asian values’ discourse.
As the ‘Asian values’ debate showed, the liberal international order was not beyond contestation even at the apogee of its ‘unipolar moment’ in the 1990s. The GCI now carries that contestation forward with China leading the charge, driven by the CPC’s conviction in its governance system and Chinese-style modernisation. Beijing sees opportunities to enhance its ideational influence in an age where Western liberal triumphalism is coming to an end, as manifested in the deep polarisation and dysfunction of the United States’ political system and the retreat of democracy globally. There are also genuine concerns in the West about the intolerance of the liberals in pushing their progressive values. There, the ongoing cultural wars signify a revolt against such liberal excesses and a renewed salience of ‘identity’ politics.
Beneath its rhetoric about appreciating differences across civilisations, the GCI is clearly intended to challenge the West in ideological terms. As David Bandurski argues, culture for the CPC is “deeply political” as it has the mission “to advance the power and legitimacy of the Party and to strengthen the CPC against threats to its legitimacy globally”. It is also deeply geopolitical as it takes a swipe at what Beijing sees as the US containment strategy towards China, pushes back against American/ Western political power and ideational influence, and seeks to win over more like-minded partners in the developing world. As a recent CGTN commentary opines, “From the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative to the latest Global Civilisation Initiative, China has presented the world with an ideological system that gets increasingly mature.”
… the GCI’s call for a more pluralist international society of states, based on different national conditions, holds certain appeal for non-Western countries at a time when Western liberalism is in retreat. But just like the Shining City On a Hill (a metaphor of the U.S. as a beacon of liberty) also casts its “dark shadows”, China may fall short of the sweet-sounding ideals in the GCI.
Of note, the GCI continues China’s discursive offensive in redefining the concepts of “peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy and freedom” according to its statist values. For example, China identifies itself as a democracy based on the ‘democratic centralism’ principle whereby the CPC is the representative of the Chinese people, as against the liberal definition of a pluralistic system of political parties. China views ‘freedom’ as self-determining its own political system based on national conditions, in contrast to the Western yardstick of individual freedoms.
The GCI’s live-and-let-live approach to how other countries govern themselves should resonate with many developing countries, including in Southeast Asia, which have an aversion to Western countries’ values-driven foreign policy that interfere in their internal affairs. More importantly, the GCI’s normative propositions are buttressed by China’s economic offerings, which help boost their countries’ economic growth and contribute to the legitimation of their regimes.
Yet, one should not presume that Southeast Asian countries will jump on the GCI bandwagon. Doing so will get them entangled in China’s Asian-Western binary framing, just as they are wary of the U.S.’ ‘democracies versus autocracies’ narrative. Despite maintaining political differences with Washington, arguably no Southeast Asian country wants to land themselves in a China-U.S. ideological contest, which would only deepen the current polarisation and increase the risk of taking sides between the two powers.
The GCI should also be scrutinised in the light of the discrepancies between China’s words and deeds at home where the CPC is working towards “the unification of thought” for the entire society and nation. In Xinjiang, for example, the Chinese government has been imposing its version of modernity with a view to transforming “allegedly premodern, culturally backward, regionally identified, and devout Muslims” into “modern, progressive, nationally identified, healthy and secular Chinese Dreamers”.
Internationally, the GCI’s claim that “China will neither tread the old path of colonisation and plunder, nor the crooked path taken by some countries to seek hegemony once they grow strong” has come under growing scrutiny. Some analysts have associated China’s economic statecraft and Chinese business practices overseas with neo-colonialism, often with the consent and collaboration of the partner countries’ political elites.
In short, the GCI’s call for a more pluralist international society of states, based on different national conditions, holds certain appeal for non-Western countries at a time when Western liberalism is in retreat. But just like the Shining City On a Hill (a metaphor of the U.S. as a beacon of liberty) also casts its “dark shadows”, China may fall short of the sweet-sounding ideals in the GCI. Looking back, the ‘Asian values’ discourse demonstrates that Southeast Asian countries do not embrace the liberal international order wholesale. Going forward, that approach could well apply in their response to the GCI.
Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.