While the phrase “new form of human civilization” first came into more common official use following Xi Jinping’s July 1, 2023, speech to commemorate the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), official media reporting and scholarly writings before and after the 19th National Congress in 2017 offer tantalizing clues to how the leadership was beginning to conceptualize power and legitimacy in anticipation of Xi’s convention-breaking third term after October 2022 — responding to the political necessity of claiming a theoretical breakthrough that served a legitimizing function.
The process of fermentation seems to have begun following Xi Jinping’s May 17, 2016, address to the Symposium on Philosophy and Social Science, during which he emphasized how breakthroughs in human history had come with intellectual transformations: “Every major leap forward in human society and every major development of human civilization,” he said, “cannot be separated from the intellectual transformation and ideological vanguard of philosophy and social sciences.” This could be understood as Xi issuing a call publicly for a process of intellectual (though really political) creation that was likely already underway.
In his address, Xi stressed the deep historical strengths of “Chinese civilization” (中华文明), but also upheld and defended the contemporary relevance of Marxism against the backdrop of problems in the global economy reaching back to the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Referencing the work of French economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the 21st Century, which had been published in Chinese about 18 months before, Xi told his audience of Chinese academics: “It has been said that Marxist political economy is outdated and that [his] Das Kapital is obsolete. This claim is mere dogmatism.”
According to Xi, deepening social tensions in Western countries demonstrated the failure of capitalism as practiced by the West — and made the case for Chinese solutions emerging from both ancient traditions and the modern practice of socialism under the CCP. This was the task before China’s academicians, said Xi. “In realizing the two centennial goals and achieving the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, philosophy and social sciences in China can and should make great achievements.”
Shortly after Xi’s address, the People’s Liberation Army Daily published an article called, “Every Leap Forward in Human Society is Accompanied by a Philosophical Change” (人类社会每次跃进都离不开哲学的变革). Given the political fact that Xi’s New Era was to be understood as a leap forward for China and the world, the need for a corresponding philosophical breakthrough was paramount. It was incumbent on China’s theoretical minds to make it happen.
Several months later, in one of the earliest appearances of a “new form of human civilization,” Sun Zhengyu (孙正聿), a professor of philosophy at Jilin University, wrote in the People’s Daily about the “transformation of civilizational forms” (文明形态变革). He suggested that “socialism with Chinese characteristics is not only a theme for development in contemporary China, but also has positive significance and value for building a new form of human civilization.” Sun spoke in lofty terms about the role of Chinese philosophy: “Contemporary Chinese philosophy should stand on the tide of the times and be the forerunner of thought,” he said, “so as to promote the change of human civilization through conceptual innovation,” he wrote.
Sun also made clear that one of the key benefits of these philosophical advancements would be the “strengthening of the cultural soft power of contemporary China,” a theme that was further developed in 2017 and 2018, as studies of “new forms of human civilization” took off — and as Sun’s Jilin University became a center for related theorizing, with funding for the work from the Ministry of Education (below).
One early use of the phrase can be found in an article in the March 2018 edition of the CCP journal Forward (前进), published in Shanxi province, which was re-posted at People’s Daily Online. Written by a local Party school official in the city of Nantong in Jiangsu province, the article uses “new form of human civilization” to conceptualize a deficit in China’s soft power that must be remedied (a familiar refrain going back to the late 2000s):
China has improved its hard power, such as the economy and the military, but is weaker in soft power, such as a cultural value system that can lead a new form of human civilization and a political system that is widely recognized by the international community.
The Forward article demonstrates the phrase’s early link with the issue of cultural value systems and global influence, which in the five years prior had already become central to the Party’s conceptions of domestic legitimacy, with concepts such as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” tied to more globally ambitious programs like the Belt and Road. The upshot of the Forward piece is that China, in order to achieve the “great rejuvenation” promised by Xi Jinping, would require a theoretically robust value system to compete on the world stage.
The fact that the CCP was able to progress within just a few years from a theoretical need to what we are told is a theoretical breakthrough is a reminder of a basic fact about CCP discourse — that one of its most important roles is political fantasy fulfillment. It is not an exaggeration to say that the articulation of a political goal by the CCP is equal to its realization (see our rundown of China’s pledge to eradicate poverty). Political promises by the leadership are generally too big to fail.
Because power claims by the CCP have always asserted a Marxist pedigree, and because what we might call China’s theoretical industrial complex is tonally Marxist, the value framework of course had to incorporate such claims. Marx, who according to CCP scholars had himself created a new framework that was historically and civilizationally transformative, pointed the way.
Writing about Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy in February 2019, Jinan University Professor Wei Chuanguang (魏传光) argued that Capital had been “not just a ‘revolution in worldview’ or a ‘change in the mode of production,’ but also the construction of a ‘new form of human civilization’ and a ‘rewriting’ of world history.”
Writings like this one offer clues to how thinkers within the establishment were working far in advance of the 20th National Congress to develop what would become the next elaboration of CCP ideology in order to build and defend the Party’s (and Xi’s) legitimacy both domestically and globally.
Xi Jinping’s speech to commemorate the centennial of the CCP on July 1, 2021, was the earliest dress rehearsal for the Party’s 20th National Congress to follow more than 15 months later. At several points, Xi spoke about “human civilization” (人类文明), and said at the outset that the Chinese people (中华民族), “a long history of civilization of more than 5,000 years,” had “had made indelible contributions to the progress of human civilization” (为人类文明进步作出了不可磨灭的贡献).
Xi then turned to developments in China over the past hundred years, saying that the “great achievements” (伟大成就) of the CCP would be written not just into the chronicles of the Chinese people but into “the chronicles of human civilizational development” (人类文明发展史册).
In the earliest assertion of two related keyphrases that would become central to the CCP discourse during and after the 20th National Congress, Xi said further down in the speech:
Walking our own path is the foothold for all of the theories and practices of the Party, and it is the historical conclusion we can draw from our century of struggle. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is a fundamental achievement of the Party and the people, achieved through great hardships and at great cost, and it is the right path to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. By adhering to and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics and promoting the coordinated development of material, political, spiritual, social and ecological civilization, we have created the new path of Chinese-style modernization (中国式现代化) and a new form of human civilization.
The August 1 speech paved the way for the full 20th National Congress dress rehearsal that was the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee, held in November 2021. At the Sixth Plenum, Xi Jinping introduced his Resolution of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on the Major Achievements and Historical Experiences of the Party’s Hundred-Year Struggle (中共中央关于党的百年奋斗重大成就和历史经验的决议), only the third resolution ever on the Party’s history.
The first two resolutions, in 1945 and 1981, had dealt with shorter periods in the Party’s history, and were corrective in nature, seeking to clarify questions raised in previous years. The first dealt with what Mao deemed to be “left-leaning opportunism” (左倾机会主义) within the CCP from the 1930s. The second dealt with the “questions” raised by the Cultural Revolution (see “Deciding History, Sealing the Future“).
By contrast, Xi’s 2021 resolution was expansive, dealing with the entire sweep of CCP history. It defined Xi’s so-called “New Era” as a time of great historical significance. Xi’s decade in power, a period covering just 10 percent of the Party’s entire 10-year history, dominated more than one-half of the resolution.
Under a section on the “historical significance” (历史意义) of the CCP’s century of struggle, the fourth item for the first time introduced the concept of “a new form of human civilization” at the most senior levels of the CCP leadership. The passage read:
The Party’s century-long struggle has profoundly influenced the course of world history. The cause of the Party and the people is an important part of the cause of human progress. Over the past 100 years, the Party has not only worked for the happiness of the Chinese people and the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, but also for the progress of mankind and the commonwealth of the world, and has profoundly changed the trend and pattern of world development through its unremitting struggle for self-improvement. The Party has led the people to successfully embark on the path of Chinese-style modernization, creating a new form of human civilization, expanding the ways for developing countries to move towards modernization, and providing an entirely new choice for those countries and peoples in the world that wish to accelerate their development and maintain their independence at the same time.
Five and a half years after he declared that “intellectual transformation” was required to propel “every major leap forward in human society and every major development in human civilization,” Xi’s bold new phrase purported to fulfill the promise of that transformation.
Of course, there was nothing genuinely intellectual about this process. It was, like so much CCP-speak, little more than a bold, top-down authoritarian project of framing. Essentially, the entire sweep of CCP history, and the economic and social development of the past 40 years, was being repackaged and brightly gift-wrapped to present the leadership of Xi Jinping and the CCP as a gift — not just to Chinese, but to all of humanity.
The logic behind could essentially be summed up as follows:
This new logic of legitimacy construction was essential for Xi Jinping in particular as he consolidated his power and prepared for an unprecedented third term as China’s top leader. And it is interesting to note that official CCP “intellectual” activity surrounding “new form of human civilization” picked up pace from 2018, the year during which Xi amended China’s constitution to remove presidential term limits.
The phrase “new form of human civilization” reached its apogee of development as a CCP slogan on October 16, 2022, as it appeared twice in Xi’s political report to the 20th National Congress. The first mention was toward the beginning of Xi’s report, as he introduced “the work of the past five years and the great changes of the [first] decade of the New Era” — including the advancement of the so-called “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” through the engine of “Chinese-style modernization.” The phrase appeared again in Section 3 of the report, dealing with the Party’s missions and tasks in the “New Era.”
In the wake of the 20th National Congress, “new form of human civilization” has become a staple in the CCP discourse, billed as a culmination of the lessons of China’s miraculous development, rooted in the ingenious combination of the country’s ancient civilization and its Marxist political and economic thought. All of this would have been impossible, of course, without the leadership of the Party, the ultimate prerequisite, and the inspirational leadership and ingenuity of Xi Jinping.
As state media summarized the concept in a wave of coverage during and after the Congress:
The new form of human civilization is a summarization and overview by General Secretary Xi Jinping from a civilizational perspective of the resplendent 100-year history of the Chinese Communist Party and the great achievements made through the new path of Chinese-style modernization, providing a brand-new choice and experience from which other countries and nations of the world can learn as they move towards modernization and the development of modern civilizations . . .
The core-most claims within the notion of a “new form of human civilization” have to do with the legitimacy of the CCP under Xi Jinping’s leadership. But we can also see clearly in the passage above how the concept has become central in Xi’s third term to broader notions of Chinese soft power — exactly as the CCP scholar Sun Zhengyu posited early on in his writings (see above). Ultimately, China’s “new form of human civilization” can be understood as the fancy gift box in which the CCP leadership hopes to pack 1) a set of value claims that legitimize its leadership at home, and 2) a coherent set of aspirational values abroad that serve China’s strategic interests — particularly in the Global South.
On this last point, it is important to observe that the claim to the “new” made by this phrase refers concretely to the supposed difference between China’s value propositions and those of the West. State media have gone to great lengths since the 20th National Congress in 2022 to emphasize that “the Western path to modernization and development model” (西方现代化道路和发展模式) is not the only model, nor is it the “ultimate model” (终极模式). They have spoken of “dispelling the myth that ‘modernization = westernization'” (打破了“现代化=西方化”的迷思).
These explanations of what “Chinese-style modernization” and the new civilization are not go a long way to explaining the basic function they are ultimately meant to serve — namely, the defense of CCP legitimacy both at home and abroad. And they are a reminder, too, that Chinese notions of soft power are often hard-edged with defensiveness, less about confident appeal than about desperately and insistently hanging tight.