China faces a growing list of setbacks internationally that might suggest its turn in diplomacy away from a more “cautious and passive” approach in favour of active assertiveness is backfiring. Nevertheless, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi (王毅), declares in the latest edition of the official Seeking Truth journal that his country’s new model of diplomacy is not just an unqualified success but an historically significant contribution to international relations.

In the florid language of a true devotee, Wang credits Xi Jinping with “the vision and sagacity of a great strategist” in sussing out the complexities facing the world, and crafting “comprehensive” long-term solutions in a tidy package now to be called “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.”

But reading Wang’s language in Seeking Truth in order to better understand the substance of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy would be to miss the point. Wang’s article, which we must assume is the full text, or very nearly the full text, of his speech last month to commemorate the opening of a new “Research Center on Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” is really not about China and its relations with the rest of the world so much as grandiose visions of Xi Jinping and his seemingly unassailable position at the “core” of power.

Here are the first two paragraphs of Wang’s article in translation, which provides a taste of the general tone. I follow with some comments on the rest of the article.

Looking back on history, [we can see that] great eras must give rise to great thoughts. Since the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party [in 2012], socialism with Chinese characteristics has strode forward, head high, into a new era, and the Chinese people have, through long tribulation, welcoming a leap from standing up, to growing prosperous, to finally growing strong. Today’s China, is coming closer than it ever has come to realizing its dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, and it is moving closer than it ever has to the center of the world stage. At the same time, the world is in the midst of a major and unprecedented transformation, and is experiencing profound and complex change.

Facing uncertain international trends, General Secretary Xi Jinping has, with the vision and sagacity of a great strategist, accurately grasped the principles of the development of human society, fully determined the direction of international terrain and the historical position of our country, and he has raised a series of new concepts, new propositions and new initiatives to lead the trend of human progress. With a clear banner, he has answered the question of what kind of world China should advance and create, and what kind of international relations it should build. On what kind of diplomacy China needs, how to carry out diplomacy for the new era (新时代外交), and a series of other major theoretical and practical questions, the emergence and establishment of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, or Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, provides the fundamental guide for Chinese diplomacy entering the new era.

We should note that after the initial use of the longer 16-character phrase, seen in the opening passage above, the Seeking Truth article consistently uses the shorter phrase. This is significant because we have the prominent and repeated use in a major CCP journal of a term that clearly points to the emergence itself of “Xi Jinping Thought,” a shortened and more potent permutation of the leader’s banner term introduced at the 19th National Congress of the CCP in late 2017, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” This is something Qian Gang wrote about in greater detail last week.

The Seeking Truth article is organized into two major sections. The first makes five basic assertions about Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, beginning with bolded summary sentences. The bolded statements follow with my observations:

Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy is an integral part of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Wang Yi emphasizes here that the “core concepts” of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy are “the promotion of a community of common destiny for mankind” (推动构建人类命运共同体), and “the promoting of the creation of a new model of major power relations” (推动构建新型国际关系). He calls the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party the “most fundamental character” and the “greatest political advantage” of this diplomatic “thought.”

Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy is the latest result of 21st century Marxism in the realm of diplomacy. The assertion by Wang follows the more vociferous promotion in recent weeks and months of the idea that Xi Jinping’s set of ideas under his banner term represent already, one-fifth the way into the new century, the totality of “21st Century Marxism.” This is once again about shoring up the power and status of Xi Jinping himself, and has little substance otherwise.

Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy is a continuation and an innovation of China’s outstanding traditional culture. Here we find generalized references to the glorious past, conforming with the CCP’s increased use under Xi Jinping of references to China’s “excellent traditional culture” as a source of legitimacy.” Specifically, in this context, this brings modern-day diplomacy into the broader historical perspective of China’s return to prominence. Wang Yi does not elaborate the “traditional” elements of diplomacy today, other than listing out references to the phrases “all under heaven are equal” (天下为公) and “great harmony” (世界大同), which are drawn from the Confucian Book of Rites (I’ll avoid deeper discussion of these for the moment), and to “the spirit of the ancient silk road” (古代丝绸之路精神) as there is a reference to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy is a continuation and development of new Chinese foreign relations theory. This section emphasizes the links between Xi’s “new era” diplomacy and Chinese diplomacy since 1949, referring to the “collective diplomatic ideas of several generations of leaders.” This is essentially about China’s emphasis since Mao Zedong on its status as a “champion of the developing world,” reiterating its opposition to colonialism, hegemonism and might-makes-right politics.

Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy abandons and surpasses traditional international relations theory. This is a huge can of worms, and deserves more attention and research. What does China mean here by “traditional international relations theory,” and which aspects does it reject? Wang Yi speaks only in the broadest terms. “In recent years,” he writes, “traditional international relations theory finds it more and more difficult to explain today’s world, and views such as advocating strength and zero-sum thinking are becoming increasingly incompatible with the direction of the times.” This amounts rather transparently to the building of straw men in order to form the basis of Xi’s supposed breakthroughs. Do China’s strategic thinkers really suppose this is the sum total of “traditional international relations theory”? Wang goes on to talk about “unifying the common and fundamental interests of the Chinese people and the people of the world,” about “long-term peace,” “common prosperity,” “openness and tolerance,” “mutual respect.”  Anyone reading this passage in a vacuum might suppose that China invented peace, security and mutual benefit. Here also we find the concept of a “community of common destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体).

In section two of the article, Wang deals with the study and practice of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy. The three bolded statements in this section are as follows, with my observations added:

Further strengthening research, to truly and deeply understand the sense and essence of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy. This talk of research and understanding yields nothing in the way of concrete formulations of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy. If anything, it should remind us of the obvious point that international relations theories in China are not the products of the discipline of international relations so much as about the consolidation and protection of power and legitimacy within the CCP. This is more about internal relations than international relations. Wang writes of the “core significance” and “rich content” of Xi Jinping’s thought within the theoretical lineage of the CCP, which is clearly outlined in ritualistic form: “We must link together the study of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era, link [it] together with the study of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of the ‘Three Represents,’ and the scientific view of development . . . “This procession of CCP spirits is like the invoking of the ancestors who provide the basis for Xi’s legitimacy. For Wang, this is another opportunity to flatter Xi Jinping and hitch himself to the wagon of his growing power.

Actively carrying out international exchange, allowing other countries and other people’s more deeply understand the scientific and advanced nature of Xi Jinping Though on Diplomacy. Wang Yi argues here that “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy is a thought with world significance, with important and practical significance for various global challenges facing the world.” Despite clear setbacks for China’s international relations that are not at all addressed in the article, Wang insists that “international society is giving ever greater attention and ever greater priority to Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.” Wang says China must continue to “go out” and to “invite others in” (think of carefully scripted official junkets with guests from around the world), strengthening dialogue and cooperation with 1) state governments, 2) political parties (this is an crucial aspect of Chinese diplomacy in recent years), 3) think tanks (China has announced the intention of building up its own “new think tanks”), 4) the media and 5) “other areas.” The focus is on expanding what China has elsewhere called its “international discourse power,” though this term is not used here. It has been replaced increasingly in recent years with the Xi Jinping phrase “telling China’s story well.” Wang writes: “We must learn and apply Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, telling China’s story, China’s concepts and China’s plans well internationally, steadily raising China’s influence and appeal.”

Insist on applying what we have learned, steadily using Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy to guide the practice of great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. Here, in the last paragraph before he closes, it seems that Wang is ready to talk about practical applications. He effuses: “Thought is the guide for action, and theory provides direction to practice.” But watch what happens next. Just as Wang begins to speak of the need to unite thought and action, he finds himself back on the carousel of legitimacy signaling language: “Maintaining a high-level of unity in our politics and actions with the CCP with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, [we must] resolutely implement the strategic deployments of General Secretary Xi Jinping on diplomacy.” The very next sentence begins: “[We] must arm our heads with the new theory of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, leading us to steadily strengthen great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. . . .”

If the previous points do not convince the reader that Wang Yi’s Seeking Truth article is chiefly not about diplomacy, but about signaling obedience to Xi Jinping and advancing his personal power, the article’s conclusion should do the job.  It repeats the language of the “core,” urging the need to “more closely unite around the central Party with Xi Jinping as the core,” and then mentions the so-called “442 formula,” a fixed formula of three separate phrases (“four consciousnesses,” “four confidences” and “two protections”) that since 2018 has symbolized the need for party-state officials to pay loyalty to Xi as the party-state leader. The “two protections” refer specifically to the need to 1) protect the core status of General Secretary Xi Jinping, and to 2) protect the central, unified leadership of the Central Committee of the CCP.

The bottom line: Even as Wang Yi discusses the central concept now unifying Chinese diplomacy in one of the CCP’s most important journals of theory, his discourse of diplomacy is in fact not about diplomacy at all. It is a discourse of obedience and power-signaling. And this is something we can certainly expect a great deal more of as we approach the 100th anniversary next year of the Chinese Communist Party.

[Featured Image: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Image by the Austrian Foreign Ministry, available at Flickr.com under CC license.]