China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China 文明中华

China Story Yearbook 2013 edited by Geremie R. Barmé and Jeremy Goldkorn with contributions from leading scholars, journalists and writers, and a rich range of translated material from Chinese sources related to politics, social change, urban transformation, law and order, international relations, the economy, global trade, the Internet, culture, major news stories and much more, was launched at the Australian National University by the Hon Judi Moylan on 31 October. This second yearbook, produced by the Australian Centre on China in the World, covers the period from mid 2012 to September 2013, during which the fifth generation of leaders assumed control of the Communist Party and the government of the People’s Republic. The full text of the book can be read online, in PDF format, or as a print-on-demand book here.

Cover of China Story Yearbook 2013. Designed by Markuz Wernli

Cover of China Story Yearbook 2013, designed by Markuz Wernli

The following is an edited excerpt from the introduction to the book, ‘Engineering Chinese Civilisation’:

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.

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.

Following Mao Zedong’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 how to create 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.


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.

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 those tastes: 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.

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 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.


Other excerpts from the book published in the media include:

Barry van Wyk, ‘Spend it like Beckham’, SBS online, 30 October 2013.

Jeremy Goldkorn, ‘China’s material girls’, SBS online, 30 October 2013.

Geremie R. Barmé, ‘China – from ancient culture to new civilisation’, The Canberra Times, 31 October 2013.


A video interview outlining the concepts behind the book and its cover artwork can be seen at:


A review in Beijing Cream

Tom Baxter, ‘Recommended Reading: The China Story Yearbook 2013‘, Beijing Cream, 5 November 2013.