In his “On Balance” column today, South China Morning Post columnist Robert Delaney writes that, in the context of growing tensions with the United States, China is “moving from its standard emotional appeals and towards reason-based appeals to a global audience.” In particular, Delaney argues that in their external messaging Chinese leaders have moved away from the phrase “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” as a standard response to perceived slights, reasoning that such language underscores China’s weakness.
“Beijing seems to have, at some point in recent years, concluded that characterizing its people as being so emotionally fragile doesn’t really help the country’s image,” Delaney writes.
As a long-time student of China’s official discourse, I couldn’t help raising an eyebrow at the suggestion that the Chinese Communist Party might be dispensing, just like that, with emotion — which is the heart and soul of propaganda — and opting instead for “reason-based appeals.” For all of its talk of doing so, China’s information control and messaging machine has never been very adept at calibrating its language for foreign audiences, and one major reason for this is that much of this jargon is really directed as domestic audiences, not least within the Party itself.
But picking apart Delaney’s thesis is simple enough, so I won’t beat around the bush.
Yes, China has certainly moderated some of its more boastful and triumphant language (much of it unspooling from the 19th National Congress of the CCP) in the midst of trade tensions with the U.S. It is not strategically smart for your state media to constantly boast about surpassing the West in this or that strategic technology when you’re trying to convince other countries that you are not a strategic threat. And a number of people inside China, including Luo Jianbo (罗建波), head of the China Foreign Policy Center at the Central Party School, warned last summer about the need to tone down the hype and bluster.
But the emotional fragility? It is still very much there. And it’s a fiction to imagine that somehow China has moved to a newly “reason-based” approach in dealing with foreign affairs and external propaganda. Things were of course very, very emotional last year as China voiced various forms of unhappiness with Sweden, culminating in the bizarre row over the fate of three Chinese tourists. Remember that case? Well, here is the overseas edition of the People’s Daily (which is all about external propaganda) responding to that case on September 17, 2018:
A number of Western countries including Sweden boast about their human rights, freedom and equality. And then, in their treatment of Chinese people, they routinely show another face, another standard. What of the human rights and freedom of the Chinese tourists throughout this whole matter? Where have the Swedish authorities shown their fairness? This incident has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, and hurt the image of Sweden.
In fact, the phrase “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” is not routinely used to respond to international incidents, and colorful though it is, it actually appears rather infrequently in the Party’s flagship newspaper.
Looking back through the People’s Daily archives, the phrase generally appears at most around four times a year, though there was a very slight uptick in 2012. The phrase has yet to appear in the paper this year, but I would guess that it certainly will before the year is out. Almost everything is emotional for the Chinese Communist Party, after all.
When was the last time the phrase appeared in the newspaper? That was on December 21, 2018, when the U.S. Congress passed a bill on reciprocal travel to Tibet. The People’s Daily fumed that the act “violated the basic rules of international relations, crudely interfering in China’s internal affairs and hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”