China: Which way? Which model?

At the end of January, the champagne was beginning to celebrate the Chinese disaster in the Washington offices. It was clear that it was not 104 cases of COVID and the three deaths announced in Wuhan on January 22 by the Health Commission Hubei that motivated the next day the lockdown of Wuhan’s city with more than 11 million inhabitants. Rather a hecatomb! But the wheel has turned, the virus has come, the West has shown unpreparedness and disastrous management for the most part. China, for its part, managed rather well afterward. The few barkers in the official media did not need much more to advocate adopting the Chinese health model. At the end of March, the inarguable Global Times urged other countries to follow the Chinese model, the only model that has shown success in the fight against COVID. The appeal convinced those who wanted to be convinced. One only had to look at the Asian neighbors, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam, to see that other systems prevented the catastrophe. On the strength of the victory against the epidemic, the same circles took the opportunity to return to the more political terrain to celebrate the political model’s greatness, the Chinese model.
It is interesting to look at this so-called Chinese model and to get rid of political imprecations in the official media or blame against the West to rally the troops, even if it goes back to the President of the Supreme Court who instructed his flock to “draw a line with the separation of powers, judicial independence and other Western misconceptions 要坚决与 “三权分立, 司法独立 “等西方错误思潮划清界线.
Many intellectuals have attempted to reflect on the path China should take over the past two decades. Xu Jilin 许纪霖, professor of history at the Huadong Normal University in Shanghai, wrote a text in 2013 that reflects the issue.
First, he describes modernity and makes the difference between modernity and civilization. China has arrived in modernity but has yet to find its way into civilization. It then represents the debates between the resistance fighters, supporters, and promoters of today’s dominant civilization while recalling the gap between universal values and the Chinese model. Then, he thinks that China should find a middle way between the two conceptions. Below is a summary of his text, 中国梦之何种文明:十字路口的抉择, Type of civilization for the Chinese dream: choice at a crossroads.

Historian in China

I. Modernity, a new axis of civilization

The crisis of civilization in China, which has lasted a century and a half, has not yet been resolved, although China has become rich and powerful. It is facing modernity. What is modernity? According to the Israeli sociologist Eisenstadt, since the 16th century, a new axis of civilization has gradually emerged in Western Europe, namely modern civilization.

Modernity and civilization

What exactly is modern civilization? There have been many studies and interpretations on this subject. Here, we would like to distinguish between two significant levels of contemporary civilization: modernity, which is value-neutral, and civilization, which has a definite value orientation. The first concerns wealth and power, the second a set of values and the corresponding institutional frameworks.
The so-called modernity of wealth and power today has several different concepts to express it: modernization, rationalization, secularization, globalization, capitalism. Although the ideas are different, there is a common characteristic that refers to a value-neutral capacity and order, which can be associated with varying axes of civilization and ideology, thus generating multiple pluralist modernities. More specifically, modernity in the sense of affluence can be divided into three levels, 1.the first being science and technology at the instrumental level, where the wealth and domination created by the scientific revolution in Europe from the sixteenth century and the industrial revolution from the eighteenth century onwards. In the twentieth century, it took on new forms such as the information technology revolution, the revolution in new energy technologies, and the biotechnology revolution, which continued to advance humanity’s ability to transform and control nature and itself. 2. The second dimension of modernity is the rationalized order, what Max Weber called rationalized capitalism, depersonalized sectoral management systems, accounting systems that account for inputs and outputs, etc. This modern business management system, which is becoming more and more widespread, has succeeded in colonizing the whole of society and has become the universal law of order in the economic, cultural, political, and even everyday life. 3. The third dimension of modernity is a secularized spiritual quest, Goethe’s Faust’s spirit, embodied in the great liberation and pursuit of human desires and the resulting spirit of adventure and enterprise, the insatiable quest for money and wealth, and the work ethic of economy and diligence. This capitalist spirit, which has no values, religion, or soul, has its own rules of survival, believing in the survival of the strongest and the weakest’s survival. Competition in the market and the most substantial victory will contribute significantly to the advancement of human society.
This technical ensemble of modernity, which aims at wealth and power, has become the universal force in today’s world, with an ambiguous face and no belief in the gods, but worships only its durable power. It can be combined with various secularized axial civilizations, which, in addition to the original form of Christian capitalism, have now branched out into Confucian capitalism, Islamic capitalism, Hindu capitalism. On the other hand, it can be combined with various contemporary ideologies, developing liberal modernity, socialist modernity, authoritarian modernity.


In addition to modernity, which focuses on wealth and power, there is another higher level of modern civilization, namely civilization, “freedom as a body, democracy as a use.” The “body of civilization” is a set of values of the modern enlightenment, the core of which is respect for freedom and human dignity, and which has developed a set of values of contemporary civilization comparable to those of ancient religions: liberty, equality, fraternity, democracy, the rule of law. This enlightenment discourse has a conceptual form and a corresponding institutional framework, what Fukuyama calls the three elements of the modern political order: the state, the rule of law, and responsible government. Modern Western civilization has been able to conquer the world through the material and rational forces of modernity and a more robust civilizational discourse and system of public order.
However, modern civilization is not monolithic and is full of contradictions and tensions: rationalism versus romanticism, humanism versus technological supremacy, the supremacy of the nation state versus the dignity of individual rights, development versus social harmony, infinite enterprise versus leisure and moderation. The split into different ideologies within the civilization of modernity occurred after the nineteenth century, the enlightenment in the eighteenth century and the French Revolution, which laid the foundations for the civilization of modernity, this homogeneous modern civilization split into different ideologies within it in the nineteenth century: liberalism, socialism, and conservatism. After two centuries of conflict and struggle, these three political ideologies became internalized and merged to form today three exemplary models: American-style liberalism, European-style social democracy, and Russian or East Asian authoritarianism, in addition to more complex hybrid forms. The twentieth century’s history also saw the emergence of several failed “anti-modernities”: German fascism, Soviet totalitarianism, Mao Zedong’s agrarian socialism.
Western civilization did not completely conquer the world in the twentieth century, the ancient civilizations, whether Islamic, Hindu, or Confucian. On the contrary, wherever Western civilization has gone, it has provoked fierce resistance from the civilizations of the major axis, conquest, and counter-conquest, assimilation and counter-assimilation have coincided at the meeting of civilizations, with modern Western civilization transforming the civilization of the ancient axis, Forcing it to secularise and converge towards Europe, Britain and America are more focused on freedom and the rule of law, the European continent emphasizes equality, democracy, and social welfare, and East Asia focuses on development and prosperity. So what kind of modernity is symbolized by the rise of China?

II. Resistance fighters, supporters, or promoters of the dominant civilization?

China’s rise to power after 2008 has become a globally recognized fact. The question is, what is the nature of the increase and the modernity it brings. Yan Fu and Liang Qichao, from the end of the Qing Dynasty, discovered that there were two secrets behind the rise of the West: wealth, power, and civilization. However, in the eyes of generations of Chinese, wealth and power are of paramount importance, while civilization may be lagging. For a long time, wealth and power have prevailed over civilization. The Chinese attitude towards modern civilization has been more concerned not with the values of universal civilization and its corresponding legal and political systems, but with technical, unvalued technology, rational order, and its capitalist spirit. After a century and a half of hard work, the Chinese dream has finally come true. But this dream is only half-realized, a paralyzed modernity where the rich and powerful have risen, and civilization is still in limbo!

Power but no civilization

The secret of China’s rise, from a civilizational point of view, is to “learn from the best and use the skills of the barbarians to control the barbarians,” combining the laws of rationalization, competitive skills, and the thrift and diligence of Protestant Christianity, now in decline in Europe, with the age-old tradition of Chinese Confucianism of “making use of the knowledge of the world. Contemporary Chinese are more Western than Europeans, with a Faustian spirit of relentless progress. The laws of competition of modern civilization have shifted from Europe to the East. Today, even more than in Europe, the Chinese people resemble more the Europeans of the nineteenth century than the Europeans of today: ambitious, hard-working and moderate, full of greed and covetousness, believing in the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest, and very different from the traditional Chinese who favored justice over profit and harmony. What kind of victory is this? Is it the triumph of Chinese civilization, or the triumph of the Western spirit? Even if one day soon China surpasses the United States as a global, national power and becomes the leading world power, the West will laugh: you have conquered us in strength, but you have been captured by our civilization, by the old spirit, the worst of the 19th century! Although China rules the world, the ultimate spiritual winner remains the West. If it were to triumph Chinese civilization, it would not be refined Confucianism, but rather the French obsession with wealth and military power.

Universal values/Chinese model

As China’s overall national power is growing more durable and more reliable, the nation’s fundamental values are being lost, the ethical order of society is being disrupted, the legitimacy of the political system is being questioned, the authority and credibility of the government are being lost, and the rule of law is useless. The crisis of civilization and the country’s wealth and power provides a somewhat ironic and striking contrast. All this means that China’s ascent has been only the ascent of the rich and powerful, and not yet the rise of civilization.
Faced with this reality in China, there are two extreme views within the Chinese ideological community: the “universal value” theory and the other is the “Chinese model” theory. According to the universal value theorist, there is only one way to modernize the world, which the West demonstrated and proved to be the only correct way to modernize since the 16th century. Opposing theorists of the “Chinese model” argue that China’s success proves precisely that there is no need to imitate the West, that China can have its path of modernization, its civilizational values, and its unique political system adapted to China’s national conditions, and that China’s rise will provide a model for the underdeveloped countries of the world, even if they abandon Western civilization. We can attain national wealth and power. Thus, an unusually acute question has been asked: in the face of today’s modern civilization, does China want to be a rival or a follower of the dominant civilization? Or is there a third way?

Dram china Xi Jinping

Civilization and culture

To answer this question, we must first distinguish between the two concepts of civilization and culture. In the same vein, we must distinguish between the two concepts of culture and civilization: “culture and civilization constitute two poles: the word culture represents uniqueness, subjectivity, individuality; on the other hand, the word civilization represents transmissibility, objectivity, universality.” For example, in Europe, European culture and civilization are different: “European culture has its distinctive Judeo-Christian, Greek and Roman roots, while European civilization, characterized by humanism, science, and technology, has spread to Europe and is rooted in a completely different cultural context.” In other words, civilizations are values or essences common to all human beings, while cultures emphasize differences between peoples and ethnic identities. On the other hand, culture must be a spiritual form, referring not to the abstract value of human existence, but the values created by specific national or ethnic groups. Obviously, for civilization and culture, the theory of “universal values” and the “Chinese model” doctrine wage war between a universal civilization and a specific culture. A typical example is given by Germany trying to use the distinctive German culture to resist the universal British and French civilization.

Germany/ British and French universal civilization

When Anglo-French ideas spread in Germany in the early 19th century, the German intellectual elite used German culture to resist Anglo-French civilization. However, Germany’s unique path against the dominant European civilization was a dead-end road to war and unsustainability. After World War II, the Germans learned their lesson. The entire nation decided to merge into the stream of world civilization, fusing Anglo-Saxon political civilization with Germany’s Protestant Lutheran tradition and the social democratic traditions of modern times.

Which way?

Germany’s history has taught us that confrontation with the world’s dominant civilization is by no means the right path, but the wrong way of self-destruction. If those who believe in the “Chinese model” are prepared to imitate the West only in terms of wealth and power, while clinging to their own “unique” culture in terms of civilizational values and institutions, they will create a unique “Chinese way.” Is this a new version of Chinese civilization 2.0, or another fashionable Mongolian empire with only material conquests and a lack of spiritual creativity? In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongols conquered the north and south of the Yangtze River. They crossed Central Asia and Eastern Europe, becoming a vast empire extending across the Eurasian continent. However, the Mongolian conquerors, who only knew how to bend the bow, lacked civilization, and the empire that and supported by a spiritual charisma and an advanced system could not survive, and in a hundred years, the once unbeatable Mongolian Yuan Empire collapsed and disappeared. Hegel said in The Philosophy of History: “The position a nation occupies in the stage of development of world history does not depend on the external. Inmates of the nation, but on the spirit embodied in the nation. This world spirit is the mainstream of modern civilization. What China wants to pursue is not a single model confronting the world spirit, but precisely a universal path that is in tune with the dominant civilization and can be carried to new spiritual heights. China is not an ordinary nation, but a world nation with the historical tradition of an axial civilization, as Hegel said. Such a nation should take responsibility for the world spirit, and its actions should be measured from the perspective of a universal civilization.

The Turkish example

Like the theorists of “universal value,” can we follow the West’s example and make China a completely Europeanized country? In this respect, Turkey is another example of civilization replacing the culture, unlike Germany. The opposite of Germany is the path of modern Turkey. Turkey, which has its origins in the Ottoman Empire, embarked on the path of total Europeanisation at the beginning of the 20th century with Kemal’s Turkish revolution. There was a separation of church and state, but it was also completely secularised, with the formerly dominant religion of Muslims being expelled from all public spaces and existing only as personal faith. This process of replacing culture with civilization lasted almost 100 years. Turkey, despite its modernization, has never been able to regain the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire, and Huntington argues that Turkey has become a country torn apart, at-risk – fractured between a modern civilization system at the top, similar to that of Western Europe, and a Muslim culture that is still unbeatable at the bottom. In other words, civilization has not been able to defeat culture and has instead torn the country apart.
In the twenty-first century, Turkey has started to try to get out of this modern dilemma, with the moderate Islamic party in power, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), experimenting with the way of intrinsically combining the universal modern civilization with the Turkish culture and Islamic civilization peculiar to Turkey. While continuing the modern tradition of secularism, Islam has returned to society’s centre to save the souls of individuals “Religion of the heart” and a “Religion of order” that integrates social ethics and the human heart. In this process, Gökalp, a thinker from the end of the Ottoman Empire, was revisited. Gökalp’s question was how Turkey could, on the one hand, accept modern civilization and, on the other hand, maintain its cultural identity in a period of great historical transition. With the advent of modernity, the original Islamic civilization has stepped back and become a specific national culture. Still, a universal civilization cannot replace or abolish a particular national culture. The universal civilization constitutes the state’s legal and political system, while the specific culture is the ethical, religious, and spiritual identity shared by the people. Today’s Turkey is a manifestation of Gökalp’s idea of a new living cultural tradition in line with the dominant civilization.

A middle way

The history of Germany and Turkey leads to the conclusion that neither using culture to resist civilization nor using civilization to replace it is the right path to national rebirth, and that China should follow the middle way between these two extremes, not as a confrontation with or mere follower of the world’s dominant civilization, but as a developer of modern civilization, responding to global trends and at the same time using its cultural traditions to contribute to the development of universal civilization. Growth and progress make their contribution. And to do so, to return to the ranks of the nations of the world, we must first move from the rise of the rich and powerful to the rise of civilization, and navigate out of the traditional trinity in the construction of civilizational values and institutions.

3. The Three Units, Civil Religion, and Constitutional Patriotism

There are three important cultural traditions in China today: the traditions of ancient Chinese civilization, with Confucianism at its heart; the traditions of modern civilization, marked by the Enlightenment since May 4; and the traditions of socialism in the last century.
Within modern civilization, even on both sides of the Atlantic, the American model is very different from the European model.
Because of the complexities and divergences within ancient civilization, modern civilization, and the socialist tradition, the question is not whether to “unite the three units,” but what kind of “three units” should be united? It is like a bartender’s contest, a modern cocktail made of different mixtures, with very different tastes. If we take the old French model, a prosperous nation with a strong army, the capitalist wealth and power of Western modernity and the authoritarian traditions of Eastern socialism, then the monster that will emerge from this “unification of the three” will be a kind of state elite capitalism or bureaucratic, legalistic socialism. Suppose we combine the Confucian tradition of the people with the humanist tradition. In that case, the liberal ideal of freedom, the rule of law, and democracy with the socialist ideal of equality, then the ‘Three Unifications’ will combine the wisdom and essence of all civilizations at all ages and in all places, opening up another landscape.

From the United States to Europe

In a sense, China’s rise is also the result of a certain version of the three units, but it is an unsustainable and bad unit. At the juncture of the transition from wealth and power to civilization, we need to change the formula of the “unification of the three”, from the rich nation and the strong army of legalism to the human centrality of Confucianism, from the rationalization of modernity to the rule of law and the democracy of civilization, and from the authoritarian traditions of Eastern socialism to respect for the freedom and equality of the ideals of the early Marxist classics. Even if we learn from the West, our gaze must shift from America’s study to Europe’s study. China and the European continent have more points of comparison. For example, China, like Europe, has an ancient axial civilization with a complex pluralism within its civilization; China, like France, has a strong tradition of a bureaucratic state and, like Germany, was once backward, faced with the economic overtaking of advanced countries and a tense clash between civilizations and cultures; China, like Europe, is also deeply influenced by Marxism and the less religious, rather deeply secularized socialist traditions. In developing a country’s civilization, it is impossible to erase existing traditions and start all over again. Therefore, China should shift its vision from the United States to Europe, draw more wisdom from Europe’s historical experience and rebuild a new Chinese civilization by merging ancient civilization, modern enlightenment and socialist traditions.

Marxism in China

Constitutional Patriotism and Civic Religion

Civilization is both a system of law and order and a public culture. Values are divided into two dimensions, political and religious values, which are expressed in two different forms: constitutional patriotism and civic religion*. Constitutional patriotism is the thinnest national identification with the political values and public political culture represented by the Constitution, while civic religion is much thicker and includes the historical and cultural traditions and moral and ethical values shared by the entire nation as the understanding of transcendent sources.
Culture, ethics, and religion must allow adequate space for the autonomy of communities of different faiths. Public identity as a national community can only be a limited identity of political values, i.e., constitutional patriotism, the fundamental political values on which political communities are based: freedom, equality, the rule of law, constitutional government, separation of church and state, and responsible government. This is not the “good” of religion and ethics, but only the public political culture that governs “right” in the political sphere, which is above religions. It is also clearly stipulated in a country’s constitution, providing institutional recognition and legal guarantees.

Religion of the heart and religion of the order

Constitutional patriotism is a political identity that has nothing to do with cultural identity and is confined to the public sphere of politics. However, in addition to the political area, citizens’ public life also includes the social and cultural spheres, what Habermas calls the “world of life” outside the “systemic world.” In the social and cultural public world, there is a need for a civic religion that is more valued in terms of political values and ethical, moral, and even religious values shaped by shared historical and cultural experiences. Two different religions should be distinguished here: the “religion of the heart” and the “religion of order.” The “religion of the heart” saves the human soul and provides the faithful with a sense of belonging and meaning to life.
In contrast, the “religion of order” provides only basic moral and ethical norms for society’s public life, although it also has a set of transcendent sources behind it. The civic religion referred to here is not the “religion of the heart” linked to the individual spiritual order, but the “religion of order” that supports society’s public order. In Europe, where secularization is relatively complete, the concept of civic religion is rather weak, but in the United States, which has a strong religious tradition, what Robert Bellah called civil religion has existed since the founding of the country. The American values of freedom and equality, supported by the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, both have a transcendent source, stemming from the will of the Creator. Civic religion is concerned with not worshiping the state, but belief in the values to which the state adheres, nor worship of specific deities, but adherence to the communal values they symbolize. While in the private sphere, each individual may have different religious beliefs, in the public field of the nation-state community, there are civic religions – public political and ethical values, and thus embodied in the fundamental values of a nation. Civic religion is a religion of enlightenment, not a religion of religion. It is not a state religion, but it is one with the nation; it is separate from the political order, but the state recognizes it. Civil religion is a historical experience, a shared national culture, and a standard set of values that all members of a nation live together. However, it may come from different deities or moral philosophies.

So, what form will civil religion take in China in the future? Is it liberalism, or traditional Confucianism, or a synthesis of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and other modern ideologies such as liberalism and socialism in a new public culture? This is a question that deserves serious consideration. The possibility of the Chinese nation becoming a unified nation and achieving Chinese nation-building depends on the possibility of China emerging from its vacuum of fundamental values and forming a civil religion recognized by the entire Chinese people. This civic religion must conform to the dominant civilization and embody all humankind’s universal values and have its own historical and cultural origins in China. It can be said that when China’s civil religion is formed, that will be the day when Chinese civilization is revived. This is a much more difficult civilizational transition than institution building.
It is a long road, and all we need to rebuild our civilization is patience and a clear vision of where we are going and not to take any more detours.

Xu Jilin’s text could have been entitled “China under construction.” Indeed, suppose the country has built an economy that allows us to get out of poverty and improve everyone’s life. In that case, it lacks, according to the intellectual, a shared value system to lead to civilization. China is, therefore, at a crossroads. Xu believes that rejection and resistance to the dominant civilization is not the right solution. He prefers a path between Chinese culture and Western contributions. Where will China go?

Text by Xu Jilin

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