Introduction: Engineering Chinese Civilisation

by Geremie R. Barmé


This second China Story Yearbook covers the period during which the fifth generation of Chinese leaders took control of the Communist Party, in late 2012, and then the government of the People’s Republic in early 2013. Xi Jinping became the new General Secretary of the Party and later President of the People’s Republic, and Li Keqiang was appointed Premier.

In the years leading up to the 2012–2013 power transfer, Chinese thinkers, commentators and media activists speculated widely about the path the new leaders were likely to take. Many offered advice on what that should be. Some argued that the previous decade-long era under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, although significant in many ways, had failed to confront or successfully deal with such major issues as income disparities, the environment, economic restructuring, political reform, population policy and foreign affairs. Others with a more neo-Maoist bent (whose views featured in China Story Yearbook 2012), criticised the government for what they saw as its neo-liberal agenda

 of rabid marketisation that, in their eyes – and for all the Communist Party’s rhetoric to the contrary – betrayed the Party’s traditions of frugality, following the ‘Mass Line’ (that is engaging with grassroot opinions and needs) and the upholding of socialist ideals.

A billboard promoting a Civilised Chaoyang district, with the burned out hotel of the CCTV tower in the background. The hotel was damaged by fireworks in 2009. Photo: Jim Gourley/rudenoon

A billboard promoting a Civilised Chaoyang district, with the burned out hotel of the CCTV tower in the background. The hotel was damaged by fireworks in 2009.
Photo: Jim Gourley/rudenoon

As the new leadership took command, it became clear that it would neither lurch to the right (the more liberal end of the political spectrum) nor return to the radical politics of the past. Instead they would continue what they celebrated as the China Way (Zhongguo daolu 中国道路), which focuses on economic reforms while maintaining stern Party domination of politics and the public sphere.

Transforming the National Character

Towards the end of May 2013, a Chinese tourist, a teenager, carved his name into the wall of the 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple in Egypt, sparking an uproar of outrage and self-reflection in China. China’s new Vice-Premier, Wang Yang, was already so concerned about the harm badly behaved travellers were doing to China’s image abroad that he had spoken about it publically just a few weeks earlier. According to a news report, on 16 May 2013, in the course of an official teleconference organised to promote a new tourism law:

Wang Yang emphasised that due to the popularisation of tourism among the Chinese, an increasing number of people were traveling overseas, where they are generally welcomed by the countries of the world. But some tourists display poor quality and breeding, and display uncivilised conduct such as shouting in public spaces, carving graffiti on tourist sites, crossing against the light and spitting. They’re frequently criticised by the [foreign host] media, to the detriment of the image of their countrymen.

Wang Yang’s solution: enhance the civilised qualities of China’s citizens.

For nearly a century, efforts to modernise Chinese society have focused on the issues of the quality (suzhi 素质) and level of civilisation (wenming 文明) of China’s population.

Late-Qing thinkers like Liang Qichao (1873–1929) spoke too of the need to remake the national character (guominxing 国民性) so that China could slough off tradition and become a vibrant, modern state. During the Republican era, in 1934, the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek launched a ‘New Life Movement’ to counter the influence of Communist ideology and to correct backward aspects of traditional public behaviour; it promoted such qualities as orderliness, cleanliness, simplicity, frugality, promptness, precision, harmoniousness and dignity and was partly influenced by Chiang’s Christian beliefs. (After Chiang was baptised in 1929, foreign observers joked that there was ‘Methodism in his madness’.)

After invading China in 1937, the Japanese attempted to impose their version of modern Asian behaviour on the country. When, in the late 1940s, the Chinese Communist Party came to power, it also quickly moved to clean up the vestiges of what it called ‘feudal’ China to create a model, new, socialist People’s Republic. Meanwhile, after Chiang’s government retreated to Taiwan, campaigns to transform the citizenry continued, not always with great success, as the satirist and historian Bo Yang noted in his controversial 1985 book The Ugly Chinaman (Chouloude Zhongguoren 丑陋的中国人).

Ensuring the watermelon is cut just right. Photo: Hsing Wei

Ensuring the watermelon is cut just right.
Photo: Hsing Wei

During the Maoist years (1949–1978), frequent civic campaigns aimed to transform the Chinese into a people who put the collective before the individual, production before consumption and the Party above all else. People may recall the mass destruction wreaked by the movement to ‘Destroy the Four Olds’ (po sijiu 破四旧: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas) during the first phase of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). But it is now generally forgotten that the destruction was supposed to clear the way for the people to ‘Establish the Four News’ (li sixin 立四新): New Customs, New Culture, New Habits and New Ideas. In other words, to create a transformed, and universally applicable, Chinese civilisation under the guiding light of Mao Zedong Thought — though the word ‘civilisation’ itself was eschewed. Meanwhile, on Taiwan, and in direct response to the Cultural Revolution on the Mainland, the authorities launched a campaign to revive Chinese culture (Zhonghua wenhua fuxing yundong 中華文化復興運動). It was used to promote traditional ethical norms and cultural values in ways both that harked back to the New Life Movement of the 1930s and presaged the language of revivalism that has become a feature of life on the Mainland today.

Following Mao’s death in 1976 and the formal end of the Cultural Revolution with its extremist politics, civilisation began to feature in Chinese politics and public discourse once more. In his National Day speech for 1979, at the time when the Party was launching the Open Door and Reform policies, the People’s Liberation Army leader Marshal Ye Jianying recalled the devastation of the Cultural Revolution years and called on the country not only to build the economy — its ‘material civilisation’ (wuzhi wenming 物质文明) — but also to reconstruct China’s ‘spiritual civilisation’ (jingshen wenming 精神文明). In drawing a distinction between these two forms of civilisation, Ye’s words harked back to a debate about creating modern Asian societies that had been going on for at least a century.

The Sino-Japanese word for ‘civilisation’, wenming in Chinese pronunciation and bunmei in Japanese, written in both cases as 文明, was coined in 1867 by the Japanese thinker Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901), who had been influenced by François Guizot’s 1828 General History of Civilisation in Europe. Fukuzawa elaborated on the concept in his book An Outline of the Theory of Civilization:

What, then, does civilization mean? I say that it refers to the attainment of both material well-being and the elevation of the human spirit. It means both abundance of daily necessities and esteem for human refinement. Is it civilization if only the former is fulfilled? The goal of life does not lie in food and clothes alone. If that were man’s goal, he would be no different from an ant or a bee. This cannot be what Heaven has intended for man. …[T]here must be both material and spiritual aspects before one can call it civilization.

While it carries this historical and philosophical baggage, in common parlance, wenming is often used in a sense that is more akin to the concept of ‘civility’ or ‘decorum’. It is this sense that is summoned by the frequent civic campaigns against ‘uncivilised behavior’ (buwenming xingwei 不文明行为) like spitting, littering, jaywalking, loitering and treading on the grass.

Constructing Socialist Civilisation

Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader and acclaimed ‘general engineer’ (zong gongchengshi 总工程师) of China’s post-1978, post-Cultural Revolution Reform era, described spiritual civilisation as encompassing education, science, culture, communist ideology, morality, a revolutionary attitude and other abstract ideas. He warned against the dangers of ‘spiritual pollution’ (jingshen wuran 精神污染), including dangerous ideas from the West (‘flies and mosquitoes’ that would come in through China’s Open Door) and, in 1983, unleashed a nationwide campaign against it. At the same time, the authorities promoted ‘Five Behavioural Standards, Four Points of Beauty’ (wu jiang si mei 五讲四美), with ‘civility’ (jiang wenming 讲文明) as the very first standard, defined to include courtesies such as saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ that had fallen out of use in the Mao era when such niceties were denigrated as bourgeois.

The authorities regarded the reintroduction of the concept of civility as crucially important for the rebuilding of public life following the long years of political infighting, fear-mongering campaigns and general brutishness. Fears that the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign could revive political stridency into Chinese life and possibly stifle nascent economic reforms led to leaders cutting the purge short, but the long tail of ideological rectitude and anti-Western attitudes continued to have an influence in subsequent campaigns (the 1987 attack on ‘bourgeois liberalisations’ and the post-4 June 1989 purge of dissidents), and do so to this day.

The Party Central Committee incorporated the new long-term campaign to promote party-ordained social principles into its 1986 ‘Resolution on Guiding Principles for Building a Socialist Society with Spiritual Civilisation’ (Zhonggong zhongyang guanyu shehuizhuyi jingshen wenming jianshe zhidao fangzhende jueyi 中共中央关于社会主义精神文明建设指导方针的决议). This campaign would unfold in tandem with a gradual revival of traditional, conservative social values and authoritarian politics, creating the ideological bedrock of contemporary China.

In 1997, the Party established a Central Guidance Commission for Building Spiritual Civilisation (Zhongyang jingshen wenming jianshe zhidao weiyuanhui 中央精神文明建设指导委员会), the activities of which feature throughout this Yearbook. Its operational arm, the Central Office of Spiritual Civilisation (known as Zhongyang wenming bangongshi 中央文明办公室), is typically headed up by a deputy director of the Party’s Central Publicity Department (in less media-savvy times known in English as the Central Propaganda Department). In April 2006, China’s major state-run news portals released a joint ‘Proposal for a Civilised Internet’ (Wenming banwang changyishu 文明办网倡议书) in which they pledged to promote ‘mainstream values’ and cultivate a ‘healthy online environment’. They took President Hu Jintao’s ‘Eight Honours and Eight Shames’ (ba rong ba chi 八荣八耻) as their guiding principles, which were also heavily promoted by the Office of Spiritual Civilisation.

In 2007, the Commission launched a national campaign to ‘Welcome the Olympics, Promote Civility, and Create a Favourable Social Environment’ (ying Aoyun jiang wenming shu xinfeng 迎奥运 讲文明 树新风), and it continues to promote both national and local good behavior campaigns. The Office sponsors the Civilised Cities (wenming chengshi 文明城市) project, which assesses cities based on a wide range of ‘civilised’ criteria. Civilisation has traditionally been so closely identified with cities that there are now initiatives to ‘send civilisation to the countryside’ (wenming xia xiang 文明下乡), involving technological and medical assistance as well as culture and entertainment for people living in rural areas.

The Party has championed other aspects of civilisation in the wake of its Eighteenth Party Congress in 2012, turning the phrase ‘ecological civilisation’ (shengtai wenming 生态文明), for example, into an environmental buzzword. With the advent of the new leadership, a ‘civilising’ austerity drive was launched as well. This time around calls to fight against widespread corruption were linked to the viability of the Communist Party and the army itself and they were accompanied by dire warnings that if the cancer was not cut out, or severely limited, the People’s Republic would be facing an existential crisis.

Close on the heels of Xi Jinping’s calls to limit lavish government spending and corruption came a ‘civilised dining table’ (wenming canzhuo 文明餐桌) initiative to discourage over-ordering and encourage diners to clean their plates. Xi himself is said regularly to request meals consisting of a meagre ‘four dishes and one soup course’.

Frugality as Civilised Behaviour

The expression ‘four dishes and one soup’ (si cai yi tang 四菜一汤) has been in common bureaucratic parlance since the fourteenth century when the founding ruler of the Ming dynasty, the Hongwu emperor (Zhu Yuanzhang, 1328–1398), decided to do something about the excessive wining and dining among his own officials. In the early years of the Communist Party’s Reform era, much too was made of limiting official meals to ‘four dishes and one soup course’.

In fact, drives for frugality date back to the Party’s days in Yan’an in the early 1940s. Yet due to a lack of independent supervision and sustained political will, they usually peter out after a suitable interval. Nonetheless, Xi Jinping has made a point of attempting to reconcile the economic boom generated by the Reform policies with the Communist values of plain-living and frugality championed in the early years of the People’s Republic under Mao. After coming to power, the new Party General Secretary signalled his intention to honour both the legacy of what is known as the Maoist ‘first three decades’ of the People’s Republic (1949–1978) and that of the ‘second three decades’ of the Reform era (1978–2008) by retracing Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour and then, half a year later, visiting Xibaipo, Hebei province, the last way station of the Communist Party under Mao as it prepared to move on Beijing in 1948.

The German sociologist Norbert Elias famously noted in his work on ‘the civilising process’ that curbing and guiding social behaviour is regarded by many as a mark of ‘civilisation’, which may be defined as the opposite of barbarity. In January 2013, Xi Jinping himself said it was necessary to ‘keep power restricted in a cage of regulations’ (ba quanli guanjin zhidude longzili 把权力关进制度的笼子里) adding this to his Eight-point Code (Baxiang guiding 八项规定) of official conduct. To many this sounded like a formula for even greater amounts of red tape and bureaucracy. Although the anti-corruption push was a feature of Xi’s first year in power (and reached a high-water mark in late August 2013 with the trial of Bo Xilai, the Party Secretary of Chongqing and rising star until his ouster in March 2012), there was little indication from the new leader about how he might address the longstanding dilemma of one-party rule: in the absence of a free press, how effectively can a ruling party operating above the courts and parliament police itself? To date, Xi Jinping’s answer has been to reinspire the Party (and nation) through greater attention to ideology, instituting stricter controls on its members and emphasising its positive Maoist traditions related to social welfare and populist politics.

During the December 2012 meeting of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party, the body entrusted with guarding the operational purity of the Party, the official Han Henglin said that the Party should try harder to win public trust. For months party leaders and writers had been warning that overly rapid reform could hasten the collapse of the political status quo. Han referred to the nervous speculation that China was facing a crisis of political confidence. The official media reported on Han’s remarks:

‘A recent report shows that the public’s trust in the Party and the government has fallen to a critical level.’

Han said he had read The Old Regime and the Revolution, by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59), a book recommended by commission secretary Wang Qishan. The book analyzes French society before the revolution of 1789.

‘The book showed that the revolution was caused by a collapse of public trust.’

Civilising China and Civilising the World

South China International Materials City, Pinghu, Shenzhen. Photo: Robert S. Donovan

South China International Materials City, Pinghu, Shenzhen.
Photo: Robert S. Donovan

Since the late nineteenth century, efforts to create modern societies in East Asia have involved redefining ‘civilisation’ itself and imposing new ideas on old cultures. Of course, the project of ‘civilisation’ is not unique to the region. Worldwide, governments, businesses and educators have long tried to mould the economic, social and political behaviours of their citizens (or consumers, sometimes blending the two concepts). The Chinese Communist Party may be tireless in using the expression ‘civilisation’ within China to promote improved civic standards and limit dissent (perceived as harmful to society), but as the country becomes wealthier and more confident on the global stage, China also desires to be respected and accommodated as a major global force — and civilisation. In this, we hear echoes of the past.

Dynastic China was one of the world’s greatest ancient civilisations, with deeply embedded cultural norms and unique forms of social organisation. As the historian Wang Gungwu recently remarked on Chinese ideas of universal values and the revival of the traditional concept of Tianxia 天下, ‘All-Under-Heaven’:

Empires stand for conquest, dominance and control, although the degree of actual control may vary from one empire to the next. Tianxia, in contrast, depicts an enlightened realm that Confucian thinkers and mandarins raised to one of universal values that determined who was civilized and who was not. It is not easy to separate tianxia from the Chinese idea of empire because tianxia was also used to describe the foundation of the Qin-Han empire. By itself, tianxia was an abstract notion embodying the idea of a superior moral authority that guided behavior in a civilized world. The concept could be loosely applied to other universal systems of ideas, even those derived from secular philosophies or from various religions, for example Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. When secular, it could refer to recognized authority that has been legitimized to check and moderate state violence and political and military dominance. When applied to religion, it could highlight the underlying moral values behind acts of faith.

China’s growing wealth is having a profound impact on the world. This takes many forms, from large-scale investment in Africa and Latin America to the global reach of Chinese tourists, to the changing consumption patterns of wealthy Chinese who are becoming world leaders in the market for luxury goods, be they cars, clothes or speciality products. As Chinese consumers acquire global tastes, they will potentially fashion and change what those tastes are: a recent Australian documentary, Red Obsession, shows, for example, how increasing demand in China for Bordeaux wines is influencing the fate of the famous French wine-growing region. Just as the policies of the People’s Republic challenge the political and economic status quo of the post-WWII order, so do the actions of Chinese producers and consumers.

At home, the Chinese Communist Party describes its transformation of society in the language of Marxism–Leninism: a socialist values system, nationwide civilised city campaigns and the new socialist village movement that would transform the rural environment along urban lines. It also promotes usefully rejigged elements of China’s political, historical and cultural heritage. Internationally, it insists on global acceptance of its particular interpretation of China’s ancient culture as well as the historical narrative that the Communist Party rescued China from a political and economic decline that began in the nineteenth century and for which both Western and later Japanese imperialism must take a significant share of the responsibility. Both at home and abroad, its outlook is informed by a combination of insistence on the legitimacy of its one-party system, hybrid economic practices and the ethos of state-directed wealth creation.

Wang Gungwu points out the paradox at the heart of China’s renewed interest in civilisation:

Since the 1980s … there have been two remarkable developments. There has been an avalanche of new books and essays to renew enthusiasm about Chinese culture and civilization. Underlying this stress on civilization is also an interest in the idea of tianxia. This is occurring in the midst of calls for a new patriotism that can be seen in efforts to arouse nationalist fervour. Some such calls are linked with the commitment to reunification with Taiwan, an echo of tianxia yitong [天下一统] but they are actually appeals to the modern idea of national sovereignty. However, there is more to that. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chinese scholars have been divided between those who have renewed their Marxist interest in the capitalist roots of empire and think that empire is now disguised as globalization, and those who reject narrow definitions of the nation-state and would like the Chinese multinational republic to re-discover the ideals of shared universal values in the idea of tianxia.

The government of the People’s Republic of China reasonably believes that the norms and behaviours of the dominant economic powers should not be regarded as the sole global standard; it argues that those of emerging (or in its case re-emerging) nations like itself are equally important. Accommodating to (official) Chinese views, standards and interpretations, therefore, broadens and enriches the existing global order and challenges it at the same time.

The old order, as represented by such Western capitalist democracies as the US, Canada, the UK, Europe and Australia, may stand in awe of China’s economic prowess. Yet state socialism and its authoritarian politics are anathema to its own concepts of civilisation. The Communist Party’s ongoing efforts to redefine and refine Chinese civilisation, to promote wenming Zhonghua 文明中华, literally a civilised China, and the notion of sagacious one-party rule as an integral part of this civilising process is thus of great importance and interest to the world at large — not to mention other parts of the Sinosphere, such as Taiwan, which holds competing notions of Chinese civilisation and the role of the Communist Party in its promotion.

The China Story Yearbook

The China Story Yearbook is a project initiated by the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) at The Australian National University (ANU). It is part of an enterprise aimed at understanding what we call The China Story (Zhongguode gushi 中国的故事), both as portrayed by official China and from various other perspectives. CIW is a Commonwealth Government–ANU initiative that was announced by then Australian Prime Minister, the Hon. Kevin Rudd MP, in April 2010 on the occasion of the Seventieth George E. Morrison Lecture at ANU. The Centre was created to allow for a more holistic approach to the study of contemporary China — one that considers the forces, personalities and ideas at work in China when attempting to understand any major aspect of its sociopolitical or cultural reality. The Centre encourages such an approach by supporting humanities-led research that engages actively with the social sciences. The resulting admix has, we believe, both public policy relevance and value for the engaged public.

Most of the scholars and writers whose work features in Civilising China are members of or associated with CIW. They survey China’s regional posture, urban change, politics, social activism and law, economics, the Internet, cultural mores, history and thought. Their contributions cover the years 2012–2013, updated to September 2013; they offer an informed perspective on recent developments in China and what these may mean for the future. Civilising China provides a context for understanding the ongoing issues of modern China, issues that will resonate far beyond the year they describe.

The China Story Yearbook is produced in collaboration with the Danwei Media Group in Beijing, a research organisation that has been collecting and collating Internet and media information in and on China for CIW and this project since 2010. The chapters are arranged thematically and they are interspersed with Information Windows that highlight particular words, issues, ideas, statistics, people and events. Forums, or ‘interstices’, provide discussions on relations between the polities on either side of the Taiwan Straits, on top ten lists and official Chinese views on China’s achievements, as well as issues of social, political and cultural interest. The list of People and Personalities and the Chronology at the end of the volume provide an easy reference for words, peoples and events featured in the body of the text. Footnotes and the CIW–Danwei Archive of source materials are available online at:


The editorial duo that has overseen this project, Geremie R. Barmé and Jeremy Goldkorn have worked closely with Jeremy’s colleagues at Danwei Media in Beijing — Eric Mu, Joel Martinsen, Barry van Wyk and Rachel Wang. Many of the original drafts of Information Windows were written by interns working at Danwei, and we would like to express our gratitude to Janny Wang, Hans Gaebler, Alex Ye, Johan van de Ven and Neil Thomas. We would like to thank the authors who have generously allowed us to reprint material in these pages, including Susan Jakes of ChinaFile for permission to reprint Sebastian Veg’s essay on Hong Kong. We are especially grateful to Linda Jaivin for her extensive and painstaking editorial work on various drafts of the manuscript and to Linda Allen for her copy-editing. Markuz Wernli of CIW created the cover and designed the distinctive look of this volume.

Cover of China Story Yearbook 2013 with calligraphy of Tang-dynasty monk Huaisu (怀素 725–799CE). Artwork: Markuz Wernli

Cover of China Story Yearbook 2013 with calligraphy of
Tang-dynasty monk Huaisu (怀素 725–799CE).
Artwork: Markuz Wernli

The Cover Image

The cover features four Chinese characters, read from the top right-hand corner, top to bottom. The character wen 文 (‘pattern’, ‘design’, ‘the written’) features a writing brush; the word ming 明 (‘bright’, ‘illuminated’) contains a Huawei mobile phone with an iconic image of the model People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldier Lei Feng on its screen (the fiftieth ‘Learn from Lei Feng Day’ was celebrated on 5 March 2013). Together these words form wenming, ‘civilised’ or ‘civilisation’. The main vertical stroke of the next character, zhong 中 (‘central’, ‘middle’, ‘China’), features a high-speed train, while the word hua 华 (‘flourishing’, ‘embellished’, ‘China’) is in the calligraphic hand of the Tang-dynasty monk Huaisu (725–799CE). It is taken from a ‘grass-script’ version of the Thousand-character Classic (Qianziwen 千字文) written in the last year of the monk’s life.