Is China A Civilization, or, is it a State?

Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

Is China A Civilization, or, is it a State?

Not many political scientists understand that the thumb of the golden rule, invariably, of their trade, is to set up puzzles; which they must be able to answer. In the context of a Sinologist, if China is a civilization that also participates in international institutions, as a state, why does it not follow the most common norms ? It helps if China does not have a nine dash line in the South China Sea that, according to Bill Hayton, author of “The Invention of China,” was hastily created by a cartographer prior to the end of the rule of Kuomintang in 1949.

That in itself is a puzzle worth exploring: why do so many countries take China, as it is, and not as some “constructed” entity like all countries of various sizes. Even the United States is a “constructed" entity, which is centuries after the emancipation, movement such as “Black Lives Matter" still recoil.

Thus, the tendency to accept China as an unproblematic enigma, by all Sinologists, suggests the weaknesses of the political theories with which they have come to rely on. This implies a persistent capacity to use “history” or “political history,” to diagnose China.

But it would not be far fetched now to use the theory of Hannah Arendt “on the origins of totalitarianism" or the “banality of evil" on China. Countries do progress. As did Nazi Germany once did. But when they overcome their previous inferiorities, they can and do become berserk, literally. Operation Barbarossa was one. The Final Solution was another. Even the refusal to use child soldiers to keep the allies at bay, as defeat was imminent, was yet another example.

As things are, China can’t seem to participate in any international events with sheer calmness or equanimity, often asking journalists who ask sensitively to “put on their masks and shut up” or to brush them off altogether. Mainland Chinese students, as far away as Australia, would prevent other students from peaceful protests; taking away their microphones, going eyeball-to-eyeball with peaceful Australian protestors, and tearing down the Lemon Wall of the pro Hong Kong protestors. The failure of Sinologists, young and old, including Professor Wang Chung Wu, must suggest a weakness to speak with courage. To the degree some young Sinologists do speak up, they are considered area studies specialists on Xinjiang, not China. Thus the likes of Ria Thum, Darren Myler, to name but just two, are drowned out, even ostracized. The works of Adrian Zenz, a German scholar on China, with a specialty on Tibet and Xinjiang, are reduced to sheer pulp; with Zenz being referred by China as a “quack". Other scholars such as Azeez Azeem, are given the short shrift when he writes about the Genocide in Xinjiang, in addition to the Rohingya in Myanmar.

To be sure, political science is based on the “manipulation” (done in a positive and non propagandistic manner) of the independent and dependent variables, to capture the causality of the cause and effect. Yet, there is a caveat that must first be promulgated: what is an independent variable, in different circumstances, can be a dependent variable too, and vice versa. Both are reversible; which makes political science supremely exciting since what is true, once, can be falsified, and re-examined in future. Within the context of Sinology, China may have been poor, than “rich,” but no one knows how it works, leading David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda to proclaim there is “no independent variable" on China yet.

Postmodern political thinkers, be they Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Paul Ricoeur, and their disciples that come after them, have seen political science as a subject that is guided by “relativism”, since what was originally A->B can become B->A. But the post modern political thinkers are not wrong by much on contemporary China. No one assumed Cultural Revolution would recur. Yet under President Xi Jin Ping, with the help of Chinese Communist Party, his factional support from Fujian and Cheqiang, invariably, the United Alliance, China can get away with how Covid-19, of all places, began in Wuhan, where there is a level 4 virology lab, and not other 30 provinces ? Indeed, how can China claim to be innocent, when it has censored and imprisoned all their citizen reporters, only to allow their “Wolf Warriors,” to reign supreme ?

This fluidity implies that there is “no truth”. Rather, only the information that has been censored on a grand scale is presented by the state, in this case, China as digestible. It also suggests another factor: any causality of the independent and dependent variables, indeed, to capture the relationship of the
cause and effect,
is subservient to the state.

Yet, there is a caveat that must first be promulgated: what is an independent variable, in different circumstances, can be a dependent variable too, and vice versa. Both are reversible; which makes political science supremely exciting since what is true, once, can be falsified, and re-examined (anew).

Now, in Sinology the phrase made famous by the late Professor Lucian Pye on China was this : “China is a civilization pretending to be a state”.

In other words, China is so complex that David Shambaugh has repeated, time and again, that it is almost impossible to know what makes China ticks, or, who makes China run?

The likes of the late Lucian Pye and David Shambaugh, who is the doyen of Chinese studies at George Washington University, are not the run of the mill political scientists. They speak the language, and have trained hundreds if not thousands of Chinese and non Chinese political scientists.

Yet, in an edited book by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, two of the leading Sinologists in the world, all the authors concluded that there are “no independent variables,” in other no deciding factor, to draw a clear picture of how China can evolve.

The reason for the revisit of this question is the growing prevalence that China has “won”, especially the effective manner by which it contained the spread of SARS Cov II. But the concept or metaphor of “win, lose or draw” is problematic if not flawed, granted that all civilizations and states will always undergo a renewal, marked by decay, only to see a resurgence.

At this stage, China can be a civilization and a state, since the latter can always claim to be an inheritor of the past. When things do go wrong, the local and central authorities may resort to censorship, in the case of SARS Cov II, total lockdown and zero permission of any investigative journalism to understand the origins of the outbreak.

Founder of Strategic Indo-Pacific Arena (

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Phar Kim Beng, PhD

Phar Kim Beng, PhD

Founder of Strategic Indo-Pacific Arena (

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