This article was originally published on The Diplomat on June 1, 2023.
As in other parts of the world, Latin American history is marked by the recurring tragedy of publics rallying around leaders with attractive-sounding rhetoric, from new constitutions to government-led development and social justice, to prosperity through privatization. Whether on the right or the left, the most consistent outcome is to empower and benefit the elites selling the concept. As I reflected on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) new Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), announced by Xi Jinping in his March 15 keynote speech at the Chinese Communist Party in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-level Meeting, I was struck by how much it parallels the Latin American experience with leaders selling attractive-sounding concepts whose practical implications ultimately benefit them.
China’s GCI compliments the previously announced Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Security Initiative (GSI) as a triumvirate of complimentary, if amorphous, concepts in the PRC “Community of Common Destiny,” that Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party are indirectly advancing as the alternative to the Western-dominated “rules-based international order.”
The appeal of GCI is enabled by its ambiguity. Xi’s address presenting it spoke of “common aspirations” (not rights) of humanity of “peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom.” At the same time, the concept advocates against a world in which those concepts can have meaning by calling out and collectively acting against those who violate them. GCI argues that the perceptions of such “common” aspirations are “relative” and argues that countries must “refrain from imposing their own values or models on others.”
As a rhetorical tool, such language arguably plays to resentment in many parts of the world that the West has often been overbearing in its manner of promoting its concept of democracy and universal human rights, as well as the economic models and belief systems.
Despite such reasonable-sounding language, CGI’s most insidious effect is that, by promoting the relativism of values and arguing against calling out bad behavior and seeking to stop it, GCI is fundamentally a self-serving effort to disarm the “rules based international order,” appealing to regimes desiring to do what they wish, from criminality and repression, of their people, to the ruthless invasion of their neighbors under the spurious mantle of “legitimate security concerns.”
GCI is rooted in a convenient “forgetting” of the origins of international law and institutions of global governance (however imperfect) rooted in the recognition that state sovereignty, while an important principal, is not the only principle, and that a world in which they who could appropriate control of physical territory can impose their will on their subjects and neighbors without external interference, is not an adequate basis for global security.
Chinese authors approvingly discussing Xi’s GCI speech have invoked the names of philosophers such as Confucius and Socrates. The more appropriate reference is arguably Thomas Hobbes who observed that, in the absence of governance, the stronger takes what they will from the weaker.
Xi proclaimed in his GCI speech that the PRC would avoid the “crooked path taken by some countries to seek hegemony once they grow strong.” The statement must have seemed ironic to many of China’s neighbors, particularly those whose waters have been encroached by PRC “nine-dash line” maritime claims, found in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, yet still imposed by the PRC on its neighbors through the militarization of reefs and shoals in the South and East China seas, reinforced by the activities there of the China Coast Guard and Maritime Militia. Xi’s GCI statement that the Chinese “firmly oppose hegemony and power politics in all their forms” might also seem ironic to Taiwan (which suffers regular large-scale displays of PRC military force aimed to intimidate them), Canada (after the PRC detained two of its citizens in an attempt to coerce them into not honoring a U.S. extradition request for wanted Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou), or Australia (against whom the PRC imposed brutal sanctions after calling for an investigation of the Wuhan origins of COVID-19).
In addition to China’s external behavior, Xi’s CGI imperative that “countries need to uphold the principles of equality, mutual learning, dialogue, and inclusiveness among civilizations” appears not intended to apply within a country’s borders. The PRC does not seem to acknowledge a duty to respect the civilization of more than one million Uighur Muslims who have been interned in re-education and forced work camps in a PRC effort to eliminate their “culture”. Similarly, PRC attempts at absolute control of the internet and public discourse within its territory, and even beyond that territory through Chinese “police stations” and other forms of intimidation abroad, highlights that the CGI’s advocacy of a dialogue “between civilizations” is not intended to extend to when that diversity is found within its own territory.
In addition to giving the PRC and other illiberal actors greater space to pursue their will against their neighbors and those in their territory, GCI also shifts the questions of whose communication is valued in international discourse, and on what basis, to the PRC advantage. Xi’s GCI speech language shifts uncritically back and forth between references to “countries” and “civilizations” reflecting the PRC conflation of the two concepts. The emphasis on “civilizations” arguably prioritizes China, as well as other states with linkages to ancient empires, including the PRC’s current illiberal partners Russia and Iran (Persia), and global south countries the PRC is courting (Egypt and Turkey) while deprivileging the voice of the United States as a relatively new and heterogeneous actor in civilizational terms.
Ironically, despite CGI’s role as part of China’s ongoing attempts to court the “global south,” the concept shows no PRC awareness that, for Latin America, as in Africa and elsewhere, the legacy of “civilizations” in the contemporary context, from the marginalization of indigenous, to colonial legacies, is problematic. Xi speaks unproblematically about “modernization,” arguing that countries must “push for creative transformation and innovative development of their fine traditional cultures.” GCI does not reflect that in much of the world; there is not a consensus on the historical legacy, how the “traditional” is to be incorporated in moving toward the “modern,” or even what “modernization” means and whether it is desirable. As China’s Uighurs learned, in a totalitarian system, the party in power determines which culture is “modernized” and what elements are safely “celebrated” in museums and folk festivals.
Finally, while the GCI “respect for diversity” supports non-interference in the internal affairs of authoritarian states, Xi’s call for expanded people-to-people and interparty dialogues actually supports the very network building initiatives that are key to PRC subversive influence in the internal affairs of countries throughout the world. Indeed, Xi calls for a “new type of international relations” through “fostering stronger partners with world political parties.”
In the end, the effects of CGI as a tool of strategic discourse will depend on the embrace of elites for whom it serves their self-interests, and those who don’t focus on the contradictions in CGI’s logic, or with China’s own behavior. Western efforts to promote values and norms, concrete enough to be meaningful, enshrined in enforceable laws and international institutions, have been far from perfect. China’s GCI reminds us of the lesson that Latin Americans and many others have repeatedly learned through tragedy: The alternative that sounds too good to be true, usually is.
The author is Latin America Research Professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.
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