Asia Pacific

China Renounces the Goal of Cultural Superiority

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Xi Jinping in Berlin, Germany on 7/5/2017 © 360b / Shutterstock

May 17, 2019 00:30 EDT

Xi Jinping finds an alternative to exceptionalism to consolidate China’s bid to lead the global economy.

Raising the debate to the level of universal principles, Chinese President Xi Jinping has framed his response to US President Donald Trump’s doctrine of America First, a specific brand of the widespread idea of American exceptionalism. At a conference in Beijing, Xi promised that China would “be more open to the world,” while calling “stupid … those who believe in cultural superiority.”

Xi hopes “that all countries will adhere to the spirit of openness and promote policy communication, connectivity and smooth trade.” In what some might deem a glance at US history, he added: “It is stupid to believe that one’s race and civilization are superior to others, and it is disastrous to wilfully reshape or even replace other civilizations.” Could this presage good news for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, whose culture the Chinese government has been aggressively assailing? This would be an appropriate moment for them to remind President Xi of the implications of his new policy.

The reassuring message Xi wants the world to understand could be translated as: Don’t expect us to insist on Chinese exceptionalism. Behind it may be the idea that other nations should have no hesitation to join China’s “Belt and Road” effort to restructure geopolitics because, unlike the US, Beijing will not try to impose its cultural values beyond its borders.

President Trump didn’t invent American exceptionalism, an idea embraced by the overwhelming majority of the political class. In some ways, Trump’s America First policy undermines the concept itself, just as his aggressive philistinism has cast a shadow on the global prestige of US culture. Trump’s exceptionalism emphasizes celebrity, wealth, narcissism and a form of moral impudence Americans like to call assertiveness. John F. Kennedy invited Duke Ellington to the White House; Trump invited Kanye West.

Here is today’s 3D definition:


The sense that one is above all rivals and, therefore, entitled to and impose one’s values and refuse the criticism of others

Contextual note 

Xi spoke at a conference with the title, “Dialogue of Asian Civilizations,” an event organized by what Reuters refers to as Beijing’s “propaganda ministry.” The fact that the motivation behind the conference might be propaganda seems to contradict Xi’s message of openness, respect for other civilizations and denial of cultural superiority. But it was the author of the Reuters article that chose to use the term “propaganda,” which sounds fearful and reminds readers of the Cold War. The official translation, preferred by the Chinese, is the Publicity Department of the Communist Party. The English word “propaganda” itself comes from Latin and simply means “things that are disseminated, propagated or spread.” In this age of marketing, which means selling oneself as well as one’s products, spreading a loaded message has become a universal human activity.

The notion of publicity certainly sounds innocent and propaganda worryingly sinister, which explains why both sides — East and West — will promote the idea that propaganda is something the other side does but we don’t. The West is proud of its free press, which — as some have noticed — has a curious habit of echoing its establishment’s official line, while focusing its analysis and criticism not on policies but on personalities.

In contrast, the Chinese government effectively exercises centralized control over its media, which has the merit of not allowing propaganda to masquerade as independent reporting. In the West, and particularly in the US, the government has quietly but effectively subcontracted propaganda to the corporate media, who tend to be only marginally and occasionally disobedient.

To better understand the pertinence of Xi’s rhetoric and the contrast with the US, try to imagine Trump or indeed any US president inviting their media/propaganda team to propose a conference with the title, “Dialogue of American Civilizations.” This would be unthinkable from several points of view. For the US, there is only one America, a fact that constantly irritates both Canadians and Latin Americans, who have trouble accepting the idea that only US citizens have the right or rather the arrogance to call themselves “Americans.”

But the idea of speaking about “American civilizations” would also mean recognizing true Americans, those who populated the continent before Europeans and, more particularly, the British arrived in North America. The systematic genocide and land grab carried out over several centuries aimed not just at exterminating people and laying a claim to the valuable land that could, according to European cultural values, be divided up into exploitable property, but also at suppressing the very idea that the “savages” may have had a “civilization” (or civilizations).

Historical note

As we enter the period of history that future historians are likely to call the “Chinese century” following the decline of the US empire, Xi expects his message to sound reassuring to most regions of the world that have lived first through several centuries of submission to “European superiority” and then to what was commonly referred to as Pax Americana (the rule of American peace), which, as political scientist Michael C. Desch points out, should really be called Bella Americana (the rule of American wars). In his words: “While the Cold War was hardly an era of harmony and good fellowship, the post-Cold War era of American primacy actually deserves the sobriquet of Bella Americana.”

The US achieved its dominance after World War II by seducing Europe and Japan with its apparently generous effort to rebuild their economies, coupled with a monumental effort to spread its values through cultural channels. Hollywood and the music industry played major roles. But for the superficial icing on the cake, so did neoliberal economic theory, which was the cake.

The wonderful thing about theories, rather than actual pastry, is that you can have your cake and eat it if you get other people to believe in it. It contains the magic ingredient that has always fascinated Warren Buffett in the same way that black holes fascinated Stephen Hawking: compound interest. Albert Einstein jokingly called it the eighth wonder of the world, followed by this explanation: “He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”

In some sense, the China of Deng Xiaoping discovered the mystery of compound interest in the late 20th century. While retaining the Communist Party as the unique foundation of its political system, the world’s most populous nation got its hands on the secrets of capitalism’s internal mechanics and found ways of mobilizing energies that the West was no longer capable of summoning up.

This has put the West in a defensive position that increasingly relies on siege tactics and military organization. If China is capable of evolving toward the kind of openness that Xi Jinping is promising, even if it is a slow evolution, its seductive attraction for the rest of the world will enable it to achieve superiority while avoiding the narcissism of exceptionalism.

In any case, for the moment it’s a clever, seductive ploy that is bound to have some serious success. It has already begun having an effect in Europe — that may further destabilize the continent itself — as both Italy and the United Kingdom seem ready to sign on to the Belt and Road initiative.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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