Meditating Cultural Diversity

"As Confucius aptly put it, “to maintain diversity in the midst of diversity is the gentlemen’s way of life.” In this light, the Maoist endeavor for a unified Chinese-ness sparked the quest for cultural diversity in terms of class, gender and ethnicity. The most relevant understanding of "diversity" in the Chinese context emerged in tandem with the evolution of cultural diversity standards in the PRC over time. The Party-State-led pursuit of diversity was organized to serve grand political goals, most notably the promotion of ethnic diversity."

By Anbin Shi*

This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London.  Watch this space for the other 24 essays.

Meditating Cultural Diversity in the Quest for a Dynamic Chineseness in the Era of Globalisation 

SHI Anbin (Tsinghua University, China) 

As a constantly changing yet productive concept over different historical periods, the discursive formation of “Chinese-ness” remains central to constructing Chinese modernity and postmodernity. The single English word “Chinese” is both complicated and intriguing, for there is no single corresponding equivalent in the Chinese language that can encompass its denotations. There exist a cluster of terms in both spoken and written language to reflect its different attribute of “Chinese”: racial (zhongguoren/huaren, or the Chinese people); cultural (zhonghua/huaxia, or the Han/Huaxia civilization); ethnic (hanzu/hanren, or the Han people), and citizenry (zhongguoji, or the Chinese citizenship). Such a multi-layered concept of “Chinese-ness” therefore serves as an illuminating index of the complications of Chinese identities. 

In the self-reliant and isolated “Middle Kingdom” of the past five millennia, such conceptual frameworks as “Chinese” or “Chinese-ness” remained vague and insignificant. All the Chinese emperors held a steadfast yet naïve belief that they were the one and only ruler of the entire world. Consequently, the modernist concept of “Chinese” and “Chinese-ness” were not developed until China’s confrontation with the Western world during the Sino-British Opium War (1839-42). In the face of a national crisis, Chinese intellectuals’ two-fold mission of enlightenment and national salvation mandated the development of a clear-cut definition of Chinese ethnicity and/or national identity. To pursue this project, they were obliged to deal with such imported concepts as nation, state, sovereignty, citizenry, race, ethnicity, and national/cultural identity. The definition of Chinese-ness had therefore become part and parcel of the agenda of constructing Chinese modernity. The modernist notion of a unified, homogeneous, and unquestioned Chinese identity as represented by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949, the socialist Party-state, was emblematic of the consummation of the quest for Chinese modernity. 

As Confucius aptly put it, “to maintain diversity in the midst of diversity is the gentlemen’s way of life.” In this light, the Maoist endeavor for a unified Chinese-ness sparked the quest for cultural diversity in terms of class, gender and ethnicity. The most relevant understanding of “diversity” in the Chinese context emerged in tandem with the evolution of cultural diversity standards in the PRC over time. The Party-State-led pursuit of diversity was organized to serve grand political goals, most notably the promotion of ethnic diversity.  

Since 1949, 56 ethnic groups in China were identified and named under the aegis of a unified Chinese-ness. Han Chinese constitute the majority, accounting for 94% of the population. One of the most crucial ways China promoted ethnic diversity was by preserving the uniqueness of minority groups and the provision of regional autonomy. Following Mao’s political agenda, the central government granted 55 ethnic minority groups the right to use their own languages and practice their customs, traditions and religious beliefs, and even assist those who lacked their own scripts to further research their past cultural traditions. While clearly advocating for the development of cultural education in each ethnic group’s own language and writing, Mao also proposed that all ethnic groups learn each other’s languages and scripts on a voluntary basis, and specifically demanded Han cadres working in minority areas to learn the languages of the local ethnic groups. In addition, the government encouraged minority participation in politics and administration at all levels, and promoted cultural exchange and communication between various ethnic groups based on the needs of political, economic and cultural development.  

During this period, we can see a large number of novels, films, dramas and popular songs with ethnic minorities as the hero or heroine, in stark contrast to pre-1949 China, when limited number of art works were mostly written by western adventurers and journalists and merely captured exotic scenery to satisfy the Euro-American imagination. Suffice it to mention one example, more accurate and diverse media representation with 15 feature films with ethnic minority heroes and heroines were produced between 1957 and 1966. The most well-known is the musical Liu Sanjie (The Third Sister Liu) focusing upon Zhuang nationality’s culture in southwestern China produced in 1961, and later exported and became highly popular in Southeast Asian counties.  

The Reform and Opening-up Policy has resulted in a rapid polarisation of China’s social classes since the 1980s, when many Chinese scholars who had studied abroad at Western universities, particularly in the UK and the US, started to import multiculturalism and identity politics into China. A hybrid approach to cultural studies is being developed in China by combining Western cultural theories and methodologies with Chinese traditional culture and philosophy. Due to the profound influence of culture studies in the Chinese social sciences academic field, scholars began to regard “identity” as a dynamic and constantly negotiated sense of self, rather than a fixed or predetermined attribute, through cultural practices and social interactions involving media, art, literature, and popular culture. In response to the growing belief that diversity should be a fundamental component of human societies, media outlets began critically examining the imbalance between the “minority” and the “majority” with the complex interplay between various identities, including gender, class, sexual preference, and nationality. 

In point of fact, news media play a central role in promoting cultural diversity in the quest for a more fluid, dynamic definition of Chinese-ness. For example, in 2005, China Central Television (CCTV) produced and aired an in-depth documentary featuring the Chinese gay community and “closeted gay men’s wives”. For the first time, Chinese mainstream media covered LGBTQ+ issues, emphasizing that this crucial social issue had long gone unnoticed and unaddressed. In the documentary, it was revealed that members of the gay community in China, far from being able to openly “come out”, had felt ashamed about their sexual orientation because they also felt an obligation to produce newborns to continue the family line. The lack of open discussion of same-sex relationships and the fear of rejection or ostracism may make LGBTQ+ individuals unwilling to reveal their sexuality or gender identity. Homosexuals were therefore unable to be honest about their sexual preferences. They sometimes had to pretend to be interested in pursuing a heterosexual relationship when interacting with family, friends and colleagues. Such dilemmas forced more and more Chinese gay men into “shadow marriage” without their spouses knowing the truth, resulting in a huge population of “closeted gay men’s wives”. 

Situations have changed again in the 21st century with the advent of the Internet and social media. Promoting cultural diversity has become a more effective way of mobilizing the “netizen power” in China. The de-stigmatization of Hepatitis B virus (HBV), a viral ailment that mostly affects the liver and is particularly prevalent in China with an estimated 100 million affected, is another example of changing social attitudes influenced by news coverage. Yet, many Chinese communities discriminated against and stigmatized those who had HBV at the beginning of the twentieth century, making it challenging for them to get the care they needed and lead normal lives. Zhang Xianzhu, an HBV-positive man, applied for a public service position in 2003 and gained first place in the competition among hundreds of applicants in both the written test and the interview. But he was not hired because of his infection. He decided to file an administrative complaint against the city’s Employment Department after sharing his tale on an online forum for HBV patients. This decision quickly attracted media attention. Many incidents of people being denied access to jobs, education, and even medical care because of their HBV condition were highlighted in related news reports. This media attention raised public awareness of the problem and made many people more conscious of the prejudice experienced by those with HBV. Over time, advocacy groups and organizations began to emerge in China that sought to raise awareness about HBV discrimination and promote greater understanding among the public, including public education campaigns, media outreach, and direct advocacy with policymakers and other stakeholders. In 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health issued regulations to protect the employment rights of HBV carriers. 

Admittedly, the year of 2016 witnessed a sudden U-turn around the world for the sweeping trend toward capitalist globalization, which had been growing since the 1980s. Both the Brexit vote in the UK and the advent of the Trumpian “America First” policy inaugurated a new era of the “post-West”, “post-order” and “post-truth” world, as succinctly summarized by these tag words of the 2017 annual Munich Security Conference (MSC). Notably, the MSC’s chosen theme in 2021 turned into a more desperate tag of “West-less-ness” in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trumpian “infodemic”’. The backlash of ultra-right nationalism, isolationism and protectionism in the Western countries has paved the groundwork for the crushing power of anti-globalization, or worse still, de-globalization, in the foreseeable future.    

At this historic juncture, it is even more ironic that a die-hard Communist Party commissar, as stereotyped in the Western media, instead of a leader from the “free world”, made a strong case for advancing economic globalization and rejecting trade protectionism in a keynote speech at the 2017 annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In lieu of chanting a similar “China First” slogan, or reiterating his famous slogan of “Chinese Dream”, Xi advocated a more cosmopolitan ideal of building “a community with shared future for mankind” (hereafter CSF) in a speech delivered in the United Nations Office at Geneva just one day after the Davos talk. Both speeches positioned Xi as the new standard-bearer of globalization, and showcased China’s blueprint for mapping out a feasible alternative to the omnipotent Pax Americana through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

In its ambitious blueprint, BRI covers more than 100 countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, and Oceania, estimated to include 64% of the world’s population and 30% of the global GDP (World Bank 2018). A predecessor, the Euro-American-centric Marshall Plan, smacked of Cold War mentality and did not transcend the age-old dichotomy of the West vs. the East, or of nationalism vs. neo-liberalism. Therefore, the Marshall Plan pursued a parochial yet highly ideology-laden agenda of building a free world to combat the Eastern bloc in the service of America’s national interest.  

By contrast, BRI is more cosmopolitan in the sense of engaging the least developed countries and bridging the economic gap between the Global North and the Global South, mapping out an alternative route to reshaping the order of global communication with little resort to economic, cultural, or ideological warfare. Under the framework of BRI, the historical legacies of the “middle kingdom” have been transformed into a new role of the “Global Middle”, or more precisely, the “global mediator”, as evinced by the most recent reconciliation, in March 2023, between Saudi Arabia and Iran via China’s diplomatic efforts. 

With regard to the macro-level global environment, this ‘new era’ reflected a power shift among major global players, such as China, US, EU, and Russia, and therefore called for the necessity and urgency of revising, if not reshuffling, a new geopolitical order. Incessant crises such as the Sino-US trade war, the ‘chip war’ and high-tech competition, as well as the Russo-Ukraine warfare since February 2022, unveiled a new era for globalisation characteristic of ‘post-West, post-order, and post-truth’, as succinctly summarised by the tag words of the 2017 Munich Security Conference (MSC). Notably, the MSC’s chosen theme in 2021 turned into a more desperate tag of ‘West-less-ness’ in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trumpian ‘infodemic’15. The backlash of ultra-right nationalism, isolationism, and protectionism in Western countries also paved the solid groundwork for the crushing power of anti-globalisation, or worse still, de-globalisation, in the foreseeable future  

The new positioning of a ‘global China’ does not just constitute a theoretical and practical innovation from that of the West but also evokes a brand-new identity in terms of what constitutes ‘being Chinese’ in the new era. Scholarly discussion should be focused on the framing of identity (re)formation in China’s media discourses, wherein in the midst of increasingly transcultural exchange and social integration worldwide, a fluid and dynamic identity is, by and large, replacing the monolithic and essentialist conceptualisation of ‘Chinese-ness’.  

A case analysis can help illustrate these points.  Eileen Gu (Gu Ailing) is an American-born Chinese Olympic champion in freestyle skiing and the first foreign-born naturalised athlete to win gold medals for Team China in the Olympics. More importantly, she is a social media influencer or KOL both on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, and Instagram, attracting millions of followers around the world as the new icon of ‘global China’.  

Yet, the popularity of Eileen Gu has raised a highly controversial issue, athlete naturalisation, as China is known for perhaps the strictest immigration policies. This issue has become more prominent as officials resort to naturalisation as a quick fix to the pressure they face to perform well in such global competitions as the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Before July 2022, China had fielded 42 naturalised athletes in eight Olympic events that were considered weak spots for Team China, including soccer and ice/snow sports. Efforts to improve the country’s Olympic achievements resulted in eleven non-ethnic Chinese gaining Chinese citizenship. As postulated by Coakley, the social and cultural environment provides an ideal entry point to study how people make sense of self through the medium of sports.  

Conversely, sports may also provide a venue in which many individuals can articulate their own cultural identity. In an interview with The South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based English-language newspaper, Eileen Gu said, ‘I am fully American and look and speak the way I do. Nobody can deny I’m American. When I go to China, nobody can deny I’m Chinese because I’m fluent in the language and culture, and completely identify as such’. This quote is a perfect illustration of how sports, as a medium of international communication in the era of neo-globalisation, redefine and integrate the concept of national identity, instead of dividing it. The so-called ‘third culture individuals’ (TCI) are raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality and live in a different environment during their childhood and adolescence.  

Aside from asserting a new vision of being Chinese, Eileen Gu’s articulation via social media platforms also functioned to consolidate the ideal of promoting multiculturalism and social/ethnic equity in the post-Trumpian world. Her multi-ethnic identity as a daughter of California and an active participation in such online campaigns as the #StopAsianHate helped highlight efforts to combat the backlash of racial discrimination in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s quasi-white-supremacy advocacy and the ‘infodemic’ around Chinese or even Asian immigrants in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Notably, TCI has become an emergent force in the sphere of global media culture, with more emerging Chinese-originated movie and sports icons asserting their fluid and dynamic identities, including the Oscar-winning female director Zhao Ting; the first Marvel hero of Asian origin Liu Simu, a Canadian citizen born in northeastern China; the US Open Tennis champion Emma Raducanu, a British national whose mother emigrated from China; and the Olympic gold medalist of men’s figure skating Nathan Chan from Team USA, among others.  

Predictably, TCI’s prevalence in the realm of global social media culture further evinced the potency and relevance of “platform cosmopolitanism”, echoed by President Xi Jinping’s call for constructing ‘a community of shared future for mankind’. In the foreseeable future, as a global China surges and takes the spotlight on the world stage, the mission of China’s global communication is not only to make China known to other global players, but also to map out a new vision and new order of global communication. This new vision and order bridge the information gap and digital divide between the Global North and the Global South and reconcile the age-old cultural and ideological contestation between the West and the Rest.   

On March 15, 2023, President Xi Jinping proposed “Global Civilization Initiatives”, an effort that reinforces the Party-State’s belief in and advocacy for cultural diversity and inclusiveness. Chinese-ness in the context of globalisation should be constructed on the basis of a dynamic relationship between China and the West. Their politico-economic and cultural dialogue, communication, and interaction have become both permissible and desirable in the post-Cold-War era. What Chinese intelligentsia should keep a critical eye on is any form of politico-economic and cultural hegemony, be it native or foreign, rather than Western culture per se. Moreover, modernization or globalisation is not identical to Westernization.  

More importantly, the reconstruction of more “globalised” Chinese identities also requires more intensive intercultural communications with China’s allies in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The successful China-ASEAN and China-Africa summits in 2006 are emblematic of China’s rising impact upon the non-West world. To redefine a dynamic Chinese-ness therefore plays an important role, if not the decisive one, in the construction of Chinese modernity, an ongoing process of incessant global/local encounter, conflict, and negotiation. 

As my genealogical overview and auto-ethnographic reflections have shown, Chinese-ness remains a nexus of meaning whereby national identity and cultural subjectivity can be reasserted not merely as a discursive formation of radical otherness, but also as a locale wherein difference, disjunction, and displacement between class, race, gender, and ethnicities can be incorporated and coordinated into a dynamic, organic entity. It is precisely due to “dynamic” Chinese-ness as such that we can never settle into “being” Chinese but will be always “becoming” Chinese. As such peripheral colonies as Hong Kong and Macao have been handed over to the PRC, as the reunification of Taiwan may be accomplished ideally by peaceful negotiation in the future, as the Chinese “diaspora” all over the world (particularly in North America and Oceania) has become a significant socio-cultural phenomenon, the problematic of Chinese-ness will remain at the core of the prospering fields of Chinese media and cultural studies, wherein every journalist and scholar will play an active part. 

【The author wishes to acknowledge his research assistant Ms. YU Yayun for her help with collecting data and preparing parts of the draft.】 


SHI Anbin is currently the Ministry of Education Endowment Professor of Global and Media Communication with Schwarzman College and the School of Journalism and Communication, Tsinghua University. His English publications include China and the World in the 21st Century: Communication and Relationship Building (Routledge, 2022), China’s Media Go Global (Routledge, 2018), Redefining Chinese-ness in the Era of Globalization (Edwin Mellen, 2001), and numerous journal articles.  

*Professor/Dr. SHI, Anbin is currently Ministry of Education Endowment Professor of Global Media and Communication Studies with the School of Journalism and Communication, and Director of the Israel Epstein Center for Global Media and Communication, Adjunct Professor of Global Media and China, Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, China. His research interests include intercultural communication, global communication, public communication, press and politics. He has published six books and over 200 articles in Chinese and English academic journals, the latest entitled China’s International Communication and Relationship Building (2022, Routledge), and China’s Media Go Global (Routledge, 2017). In addition, Professor Shi is now serving as the special consultant and guest professor for the State Council’s Information Office and has completed the training of more than 10,000 government spokespersons and press officers at central, municipal and provincial level. He also frequently appears on CGTN (CCTVNEWS), The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Al Jazeera to comment upon contemporary China’s press and politics.