Written by Jeanne L. Wilson.

In the last decade, the Russian and the Chinese leaderships have come to focus on cultural and civilizational factors as a component of both their domestic and foreign policy. Neither Russia nor China has a coherent sense of national identity; this is a work in progress. The abandonment of Marxism-Leninism in Russia and its increasing irrelevance in China has left both regimes largely bereft of an ideological mooring, seeking recourse and redefinition in cultural themes. National identity construction has increasingly evolved as an act of cultural statecraft; as political elites seek a selective construction of cultural themes that bolster their legitimacy. This quest, moreover, can further be interpreted as a matter of cultural security, a search for an inoculating defence against the penetration of Western values that are seen to pose nothing less than an existential threat to both regimes.

While cultural statecraft is employed as both a domestic and foreign policy strategy, Russian and Chinese political elites consider it, in my opinion, first and foremost as a domestic endeavour that is directed toward the elaboration of a legitimating narrative for the regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin came into office as an enthusiastic (and uncritical) Westerniser. The failure of this approach discredited the Western values, but neither the Yeltsin regime, nor Vladimir Putin in his first years in office, placed any particular emphasis on elaborating a national idea to replace Marxism-Leninism. During the 2000s, however, the Kremlin devoted increasing attention to the cultivation of civilisational themes, as seen, for example, in the elaboration of the of the Russian World (Russkii Mir) as an ideational construct as well as an emphasis on traditional aspects of Russian high culture—literature, music, art, and language—as a pillar of national identity. The Kremlin’s preoccupation with cultural values intensified in the wake of the 2011-2012 political protests in Russia as well as the 2013 events in Ukraine, which indicated the appeal of Western liberal values to notable elements of the Russian citizenry. The emergent rhetoric has been oriented toward distinguishing Russian culture from that of the West, and indeed positing it as a superior alternative. This has taken the form of the celebration of Russian traditional conservative values, which are deliberately placed in opposition to those of a morally decadent and hedonistic West. Although Putin’s approval ratings remain in the stratosphere by Western standards—well above 80 per cent in recent months—and have no doubt been bolstered by Russia’s perceived successes in its Syrian expedition, the emphasis on the supremacy of Russian cultural values also serves an instrumental function in deflecting attention from Russia’s current economic troubles.

The Chinese leadership’s relationship to civilisational themes and traditional values is more politically fraught than its Russian counterpart’s, a situation that indicates the immense magnitude of the twenty-five hundred year old Confucian legacy, that, if not properly handled, threatens to overwhelm the Chinese Communist Party. In contrast to the Maoist era, in which traditional Chinese culture—and Confucian philosophy in particular—was treated with an unbridled hostility, the contemporary political elite has engaged in a cautious reassessment emphasising the positive elements of traditional national culture. The challenge for Chinese political elites is to forge some synthesis with traditional Chinese cultural values that bolsters, rather than undermines, CCP rule. In this capacity, the leadership has increasingly drawn upon vague Confucian derived themes, seen in former Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s concept of the ‘harmonious society,’ as well as current leader Xi Jinping’s elaboration of the ‘China Dream’ with its appeals to China as a unique (dute) civilisation rooted in a distinct (and implicitly superior) historical tradition.

Cultural statecraft also forms a constituent element of Russian and Chinese foreign policy. As with other states, both China and Russia have constructed a number of programs and practices that fall within the framework of cultural diplomacy, seen, for example, in the well known Confucius Institutes and the less publicized Russkii Mir centres, which stress culture, literature, and language. Both states, although China in particular, have also sought to develop (or in the Russian case, re-establish) a global media presence. The Chinese news agency, Xinhua, for examples currently operates more foreign bureaus than either the BBC or CNN. Although the Kremlin founded Russia Today (now RT) in 2005 as a means of providing information about Russia to an external audience, it changed its orientation over time to highlighting the negative features of the West. This process was further intensified with the Kremlin’s 2013 reorganization of the media, and the appointment of Dmitry Kiselev, a controversial figure known for his anti-Western views, as the organization’s head.

Moscow and Beijing’s positions as outliers in the international system has contributed to the efforts of their leaderships to utilize culture as an means of constructing an identity that is framed in opposition to the dominant liberal norms and values of the international system. Nationalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of this process of identity formation, which is strengthened and further legitimated with reference to civilizational components. Both states possess tendencies toward a cultural exceptionalism, but Sinocentrism is more dominant than Russocentrism. The Kremlin’s Russocentric tendencies have not precluded Russia’s recent efforts to cast itself as an icon of traditional conservative values and a civilizational model of global appeal, an endeavour that has won some support among European right-wing groups. In contrast, the Chinese leadership, despite its constantly expressed fears of ‘peaceful evolution’ for domestic consumption, has not been willing to challenge the West on the ideological level, which has led to a less than compelling portrayal of Chinese culture for external audiences, that relies on rather generic topes promoting China as a ‘harmonious society’ that will pursues ‘win-win’ solutions in its rejection of any aspirations for global hegemony. The Kremlin’s identification of the West as a hostile ‘other’ may serve as a means to increase regime cohesion, similarly to Beijing’s constant evocation of ‘peaceful evolution’ (heping yanbian) as a threat posed by Western actors, who seek nothing less than regime change in China. For both states, however, the foreign policy aims of cultural statecraft are secondary to its domestic use as a means of bolstering regime stability and legitimizing the right of the regime to govern.

Jeanne L. Wilson is Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Russian Studies and Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College Norton, MA, USA.  She is also a Research Associate at the Davis Center of Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, USA.  Image credit: CC by Ingmar Zahorsky/Flickr.