China is unique in that it is a "civilizational state" - a marriage of the "nation-state" and "civilization-state" - with a development that has exclusive characteristics. China's rise is the renaissance of a special state that is distinctively different from any other.
To begin with, for thousands of years, China has been a society based on agriculture and clans. Family and gentry played leading roles in managing local affairs, with emperors holding overwhelming powers. In between the emperor and the family, the multi-tiered hierarchy coupled with the vastness of the land so diluted centralized power that it was often traditional morality that regulated civil behavior.
This fragmented and loosely cohesive tapestry was what caused China's defeat and downfall when it encountered the West in the First Opium War (1840-1842) and Second Opium War (1856-1860) and then the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). China lacked the ability to mobilize and organize, the very strategies that enabled the invading powers to win the wars.
Some Western scholars have concluded that China is only now evolving into a nation-state from an ancient civilization-state.
Most are eager to attribute China's backwardness to its identity as a pure civilization-state, making it easier to explain the many obstacles in China's development from a Western perspective. This perspective prompted Lucian Pye, American political culture scholar, to note that modern China was a civilization pretending to be a state.
All developing countries are presumed to follow the West's leads. But the Western pundits are blind to the fact that China as a "civilizational-state" is not just a civilization, but more importantly, a resilient "clan society" united by common values. China has been and will be such a "civilizational-state", nullifying the West's definitions and references.
It is beyond the West's comprehension that a civilization-state and nation-state can be merged, and that this fusion can define modernity in a way different from the nation-state, the universally accepted form in the West.
What makes China truly exceptional is the openness of its civilization, an accommodating breadth enhanced by the merging of its ethnic groups and cultures as well as its faiths and beliefs such as Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity - all of which have been absorbed without the bloodshed and war, which religious wars triggered in the West.
For China, the milestone is marked by the acceptance of the ideas of state sovereignty and universal human rights, which means it has stepped beyond the stage of the tributary system and ethnocentrism, and is heading in the direction of harmony and human-oriented development.
The Chinese "civilizational-state" and its rich deposits of historical and cultural legacies make it hard for it to follow or copy foreign models blindly. It must evolve and develop along its own unique path, which could be bumpy but is unavoidable.
It has the advantage of being able to take the strong points of existing models and temper them to fit its requirement without losing its own identity. It's a vibrantly living, growing and evolving organism that will make its original contributions to world civilization.
It is easier to understand modern China's development in reference to its past. The stability and size of China's population and territory as well as the inclusiveness and adaptability of its tradition and culture are the bedrock of its rise today.
There have been setbacks and difficult times in China's recent history. But the center of gravity has never shifted from the track of a "civilizational-state". China's rise is the largest rejuvenation of a great civilization in human history, and it is on a scale that will change the future both for China and the world.
The author is a professor at Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations.
(China Daily 04/27/2011 page9)