Eye On China: The Geopolitics Of Xi’s Asian Civilisations Dialogue

Eye on China is a weekly bulletin offering news and analysis related to the Middle Kingdom. This week we cover Xi’s Asian Civilisations Dialogue speech; escalation in the Sino-US trade war and much more.

I. Analysis of Xi’s CDAC Speech

Late last month, Kiron Skinner, Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, cast the deepening geopolitical competition between China and the US within the framework of a civilisational clash. Skinner argued that “it’s the first time that we (the US) will have a great-power competitor that is not Caucasian.” In a not-so-subtle retort to Skinner’s proposition, Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed on Wednesday that “there would be no clash of civilizations as long as people are able to appreciate the beauty of them all.”

Xi’s remarks (speech videotext of speech) came as he inaugurated the first-ever Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations (CDAC) in Beijing. According to Chinese media, over 2,000 government officials and representatives from 47 Asian countries are attending the nearly weeklong conference.

Addressing the gathering, Xi hit out at the “hubris” and “prejudice” that leads one to believe in the superiority of one’s civilisation. “The thought that one’s own race and civilization are superior and the inclination to remold or replace other civilizations are just stupid. To act them out will only bring catastrophic consequences,” he said.

Instead, Xi spoke about the need for openness, mutual respect, inclusiveness and appreciation of diversity in order to promote mutual learning among Asian civilisations along with economic development. What this entails, he explained, is building connectivity and exchanges through film, television, education, collaboration among sub-national entities like non-governmental organisations and media along with promoting tourism. And in this context, Xi emphasised, efforts must be made to remove barriers, with exchanges not being coercive or imposed, one-dimensional or one way.

On the face of it, there isn’t much to quibble with this viewpoint. But the fact is that there remains a chasm between Xi’s rhetoric and China’s policy reality.

The Great Firewall continues to block content and platforms, which the Party finds problematic. Wikipedia is the latest to join the list of platforms blocked in China. Beijing continues to follow a quota system, permitting only 34 foreign films, sanctioned under a revenue-sharing system, access to Chinese audiences each year. While there has been some leeway in this context of late, the quota system remains the official policy.  In Xi’s regime, China has tightened its control over the operations of international NGOs in the country. The threats of the 2016 Overseas NGO Law are underscored by the Chinese foreign ministry’s suggestion in December 2018 that former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig had possibly been detained for violating the law. Finally, Beijing’s approach to ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet along with the campaign to sinicize religions undermine Xi’s rhetoric about inclusiveness and respecting diversity.

Despite this, the conference allows the Chinese leadership to further certain key strategic objectives.

First, Xi’s speech was as much targeted at a domestic constituency as it was at an international audience. Ever since assuming the leadership of the Party-state machinery, Xi has sought to cultivate an image as a leader of the masses who is connected to the grassroots while also being a man of learning and virtue. What was on display on Wednesday was Xi the worldly-wise, philosopher-emperor – appreciating the Talmud and Rig Veda – who has inherited the leadership of the Chinese civilisation. This was also evident from state media’s near hagiographic portrayal of Xi as the “champion of dialogue of civilizations” prior to the beginning of the conference. This image is carefully juxtaposed against the abrasive approach US President Donald Trump.

Second, in his speech, Xi lamented that the reduction of human civilisation to “one single colour” or “one single model” would render the world sterile and dull. He further stated that peace was a precondition for economic growth, which is the pillar of civilisation. The undercurrent in these comments is a reassertion of the legitimacy and distinctness of the Chinese Party-state model of governance, while rejecting the universality of concepts like human rights. In addition, it reinforces the notion that non-interference in internal affairs of states remains a key tenet of Chinese foreign policy.

Third, the choice of Asian civilisations as the theme for the forum is a matter of calibrated political signalling. Xi has previously proposed the framework of Asia for Asians and From trade linkages via the old Silk Road to colonialism, Xi spoke about the common historical experiences that bind Asian countries. In the same breath, he highlighted common challenges of security, stability and development, calling for the establishment of “an Asian community of shared future.” This is the extension of Xi’s broader vision for China’s preponderance in Asian affairs, which he first hinted at during the 2014 Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia.

Fourth, casting the Belt and Road Initiative as a bridge between cultures and civilisations helps take the edge off the narrative of debt and strategic ambitions. It also helps to shift focus from incidents of social frictions that are being reported as Chinese capital, enterprises and workers expand operations in different parts of the world. Some of the most recent of these are the threat of gang violence in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and allegations of trafficking of women from Pakistan.

In essence, the CDAC has much more to do with the current geopolitical environment than it has to with civilisational dialogue.

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