WASHINGTON - As China faces global criticism over its initial handling of the COVID pandemic, "re-education" camps for ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, online censorship and more, China's leader, Xi Jinping, used a high-level meeting to talk about a different topic: how archaeology should serve the interests of the ruling party.
At a recent meeting of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi said that "archaeology is of great socio-political and cultural significance." He recommended developing China's field of archeology to better understand the history of Chinese civilization, its origins and its contributions to humanity.
Archaeology is not typically an important topic for national leaders. Some analysts argue that Xi is ultimately looking for ways to strengthen the authority of the ruling Communist Party among China's own people.
Foreign scholars have pointed out that Chinese archaeology has for decades been caught up in different social and political agendas. Nationalism has long influenced the kinds of research archeologists pursue, and how their discoveries are interpreted.
Xia Ming, a political scholar at New York University, said that Xi's current goal is to use archaeology as a tool to create a better international image of China and to mobilize a nationalist sense of pride when the entire world is confronting China because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
"I think what Xi wants to say is that today if we can't have the world, we can still make the world's greatest civilization," Xia said. "The center and the driving force of world civilization is not in the West at all. Not in the United States, but in China. Xi wants the Chinese people to have a sense of nationalistic pride."
He also noted that the push will help emphasize how all sciences and research fields serve the party.
Xi is not the first Chinese president who has used archaeological discoveries to serve foreign policy.
On Oct. 24, 2003, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao addressed the Australian Parliament on a state visit to Australia, noting that the friendly exchanges between the two countries have a long history, although they are far apart.
"As early as the 1420s, China's Ming Dynasty's ocean-going fleet had been to Australia's shores", he said, emphasizing that China made a positive contribution to the economic and multicultural development of Australia.
Xia said Hu used China's archaeological findings to justify its approach to Australia in the past and to provide legitimacy for China's continuing interest in the area. However, Xia said, China's framing of their history was seen as offensive in Australia at the time.
China watcher Gordon Chang argued that for the CCP, archaeology has never been a neutral and objective science but a tool to promote the party line. One example was how China used "archaeological evidence" to prove that the South China Sea is part of China.
"China made the claim that these areas have been part of China from time immemorial. So, when you emphasize archaeology, you are emphasizing the continuity of Chinese civilization. So, therefore it is making the claim that all of these areas should be part of China," he said. "Yes, it has everything to do with China's territorial ambitions."
Other scholars see more personal motivations behind Xi Jinping's archaeology push.
Wang Juntao, China politics expert, said Xi's emphasis on the subject is primarily aimed at justifying the legitimacy of his rule.
He said that if Xi engages in dictatorship for himself, not the communist party, he must find reasons, basis and support from Chinese tradition. For most of recorded history, China was ruled by a succession of dynastic rulers, who exercised enormous power.