BEIJING — China has rallied countries around its ambitious ports-and-railways infrastructure plan as a global vision to shift the economic center of gravity away from traditional powers such as the United States.
President Xi Jinping is now increasingly advocating something similar in a less tangible arena: culture.
In speeches and a flurry of new cultural exchange programs in the past year, Xi has increasingly called on Asian countries to stand together with self-confidence and promote their culture as the world becomes “multipolar.”
Xi repeated his rallying cry Wednesday as he addressed dozens of leaders in Beijing, where he hosted the inaugural Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations. Xi did not name the United States, but the subtext was clear as he subtly criticized those who “insist on reshaping and replacing other civilizations.”
“We’re moving toward a multipolar world, economic globalization, cultural diversity, social digitization — human society is full of hope,” Xi said in a lofty speech that presented China as a peaceful leader, but also a humble peer, on a continent full of soaring civilizations and rich histories.
“We should uphold equality and respect, abandon arrogance and prejudice, deepen our understanding of the differences between our own civilizations,” he said to applause.
Under Xi’s rule, China is vying to position itself not only as a nexus of international trade but also as an alternative hub for global rulemaking, finance and cultural dissemination.
Xi’s administration has vigorously pushed back against the concept of universal liberal values and Western-style democracy. It has swatted aside international condemnation of its program to forcibly assimilate its Turkic Uighur minority and touted its authoritarian model of governance as a system suited to Chinese culture, which it says is steeped in a tradition of collectivism and centralized rule.
China’s global infrastructure projects have been heavily scrutinized by the West, while its stated aim of gaining influence over numerous other areas has often been overlooked, analysts say.
As it gains economic clout, China has made inroads reshaping discourse at the United Nations, internationalizing its currency and exporting its media, culture and language through well-funded educational programs such as the Confucius Institutes.
“Infrastructure is the most visible and concrete but probably the least consequential in the long run, whereas the ‘intangible’ or ‘invisible’ links are the ones that will probably help consolidate China’s long-term influence, or even dominance, over the region,” said Nadège Rolland of the National Bureau of Asian Research.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said it was in China’s national interest to make an appeal to its neighbors on the grounds of a loose cultural affinity.
But such an appeal would only work at a time when diplomatic relations were surging in the region, he said.
“If your relations are good in the first place then bringing up this subject is useful, but if they’re not on a good trend, why would you bring up Asian culture?” Shi said.
Wednesday’s conference came weeks after a top State Department official drew heavy criticism from within U.S. policy circles and from China for remarks casting U.S. competition with China as a cultural and racial clash.
The rivalry with China was a fight “with a really different civilization,” Kiron Skinner, the director of the State Department policy planning office, said at a forum in late April. Skinner called China the “first great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
Despite drawing civilizational lines himself, Xi said Wednesday there was no need for conflict.
“There is no clash between different civilizations,” he said. “We just need to have an eye to appreciate each civilization.”
As Beijing geared up to host the conference this week, China’s National Museum opened a new exhibit to show off Parthian figurines, Indian sculptures and other artifacts from across the continent.
In the run-up to Xi’s address Wednesday morning, the state-run China Global Television Network played a segment extolling Asia’s achievements, from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi to the Hindu numeral system. Persians, Arabs and Chinese traded along the Silk Road for centuries “before the first Western ships arrived,” the video noted.
Other state media offered a more pointed view.
In an editorial about the conference, titled “C.D.A.C. harmony is something Western critics can’t understand,” the nationalist Global Times newspaper said Westerners were “obsessed” with their central place in the world.
“In recent years, they have seen the rapid development of non-Western countries, and Asian countries in particular, which has made them sensitive and narrow-minded,” the editorial said. “Western vigilance, mistrust, and hostility toward foreign civilizations only agitate their differences and contradictions, and can ignite bloody conflicts.”