China's unique development path is rooted in the historical continuity of its culture, President Xi Jinping told a cultural symposium in Beijing, in his latest effort to defend the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.
The Chinese civilisation is "the only uninterrupted one in the world", Xi said, as he called for the building of a modern version, adding that cultural inheritance, innovation and development remained key factors for China to grow into a global cultural powerhouse.
Pundits said Xi's emphasis on the need to boost confidence in China's history and culture also underlined the central leadership's concerns about the risks to political stability amid a narrative war against the US-led West.
"With unwavering cultural confidence, a profound sense of mission and a spirit of relentless endeavour, we must unite our efforts to create a new culture for our times," Xi said in addressing the symposium on Friday.
Hailing the consistency and originality of Chinese culture, Xi emphasised the importance of "a comprehensive and profound understanding" of China's history, which he said was "essential to promoting a socialist culture with Chinese characteristics more vigorously", according to state news agency Xinhua.
"It would be impossible to understand ancient China, or modern China, let alone future China, if one does not understand China through the continuity of its long history," Xi said, adding such continuity showed "on a fundamental level that the Chinese people must follow their own path".
He also described unity and inclusivity as features of Chinese civilisation, where "various ethnic cultures of the Chinese nation are integrated and rally closely together, even when faced with major setbacks".
In a subtle message to those questioning Beijing's handling of the Taiwan issue, Xi said: "National unity is always at the heart of China's core interests."
"A strong and unified country is the pillar upon which the well-being of all Chinese people depends," he added.
Xi, who began a third term as China's leader in October, also had a message for Beijing's critics in Washington and other Western capitals when he went on to extol the peaceful nature of Chinese culture.
Describing China as "a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development and a defender of the international order", Xi said it would continue to promote exchanges and mutual learning with different civilisations rather than pursue cultural hegemony.
"China will not impose its own values and political system on others, and China will promote cooperation rather than confrontation or creating small, exclusive cliques," he pledged.
Defending one-party rule ahead of Sunday's 34th anniversary of the bloody Tiananmen crackdown, Xi said the party's understanding of the Chinese path and its cultural self-confidence had reached a new height through the integration of Marxism and China's traditional culture. "This integration is the most important tool for the party to achieve its success," he said.
Xi also underscored the need to remain open and inclusive while adapting foreign cultures to China's local context.
"To build a modern Chinese civilisation at this new historical starting point, China should remain confident in its culture and keep pursuing its own path, and promote the Chinese experience into Chinese theory to realise intellectual independence and self-reliance."
Observers said Xi's messages were in line with his efforts over the past decade to consolidate the party's ever-expanding control in the field of ideology, information, cultural and social studies and propaganda.
A mainland-based political analyst, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said compared to previous generations of Chinese leaders, Xi often appeared more affirmative when talking about China's long history and its cultural heritage, such as traditional Chinese medicine.
"We are seeing another authoritarian shift to the left under Xi. But, unlike the one during the Cultural Revolution, which fiercely denounced almost everything in our traditional culture, Xi has tried a different way by re-evaluating its past," the analyst said.
"His emphasis on historical continuity, including on some controversial aspects, is more about maintaining domestic stability in the face of a worsening external environment and a wide range of economic and social woes at home."
Xi's remarks came days after he warned of the complexity and severity of China's national security challenges, urging party cadres to "build up strategic self-confidence" and prepare for "worst-case and extreme scenarios".
His harsh warnings about "high winds, choppy waters and even perilous storms" at a National Security Commission meeting on Tuesday were clearly aimed at Washington and its allies, underlining Beijing's grim assessment about its acrimonious rivalry with the US-led West.
Many saw Friday's symposium, which was held at the Chinese Academy of History, as Xi's personal endorsement of the official institute after controversies around an academic article last year on the "closed-door" policy of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Published at the height of China's zero-Covid lockdowns, the article sought to defend isolationist policies of China's feudal rulers from the 16th to the 19th centuries as one of "self-restriction" designed to protect the country's sovereignty from Western invasion.
The article was widely criticised as an attempt to rewrite the past and challenge the country's commitment to reform and opening up. But in December, its lead author and historian Gao Xiang was promoted to head the elite Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) think tank.
Ahead of the symposium, Xi carried out an inspection tour of the institute, established in 2019 with his blessing, and praised it for its "fine tradition" and "high-quality results that deserve recognition".
According to the mainland political observer: "Xi's stance on the controversial article is clear because it is very common in Chinese politics to use the past to talk about present issues."
But Mei Xinyu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economics Cooperation, a think tank under the Ministry of Commerce, said the academic article had been over-interpreted.
Xi's messages at the symposium were of significance because Chinese culture had faced both domestic and external challenges in recent years, Mei said.
"For the first time in thousands of years, [Chinese culture] has been challenged by a strong Western culture with a higher level of economic and social development. This is a challenge common to almost all non-Western latecomer countries," he said.
He said despite China's economic rise, the revival of its cultural confidence had not fully kept pace with its national revival.
The dominance of Chinese culture at home is also being challenged by a range of trends, and China is in danger of losing its core culture, according to Mei.
"If such a trend continues, the ultimate result will be the disintegration of the state and society," he said. "China's development achievements come from its historical and cultural heritage, and its future success will depend to a large extent on whether it can consciously explore the essence of its historical and cultural traditions and further develop them."
Mei said the promotion of "cultural self-confidence" and cultural inheritance would be particularly important for aspiring global powers like China.
"China has embarked on the path of restoring the status of its core culture and promoting it, while the United States and other Western countries are intensifying their efforts to promote 'cultural pluralism'. I believe that in time the consequences of these two different paths of development will become very clear."
In an article for the Post in April, Beijing's top diplomat in Hong Kong, Liu Guangyuan, said Xi's emphasis on the equality of civilisations in his Global Civilisation Initiative had come as the antiquated thesis of a "clash of civilisations" was resurfacing.
"As Xi put it in his speech in March: 'One will not be seen in a more favourable light by blowing out others' lamp[s]; nor will they go further by blocking others' paths,'" Liu said.