Image of Professor Zhang Weiwei, available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

On Monday this week a collective study session of China’s Politburo, the top decision-making body of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), addressed the topic of external propaganda and messaging, which in recent years has fallen under the rubric of what Xi Jinping calls “telling China’s story well” (讲好中国故事). Over the past two years, that story has seemed a rancorous one, delivered with venom from the “wolf warriors” at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Analysts who sought clues to a possible tactical reset in the language of the collective study session found encouragement in one phrase in particular: “[The Party] must focus on grasping the tone, being open and confident as well as having modesty and humility, striving to build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” Language about the need for China to expand its “circle of friends in international public opinion” (国际舆论朋友圈) added, for some, to the sense of a tonal change.  

The word “lovable” was an obvious temptation. If China wished to be loved, then surely it would begin to speak more cordially, if not affectionately. As for “grasping the tone,” could that not suggest an inclination to tone things down? A report from Bloomberg took the language on lovability and friend circles as “a sign that Beijing may be looking to smooth its hard-edged diplomatic approach,” and that “Xi may be rethinking his communication strategy on the global stage.”

Before we invest ourselves too deeply, we should look carefully at the context.

Within the textual fabric of the news of the collective study session there is plenty to give pause: the characterization of the challenge at hand as a “public opinion struggle’ (舆论斗争), a term redolent of the Mao era; the persistently tone-deaf language about educating foreigners about the goodness of the CCP; the talk of mobilizing, funding and training and, importantly, ideologically assessing local leaders on their input in terms of international communication work, which hardly seems conducive to a broad change in tone. On the issue of broadening the “friend circle,” how can it escape notice that the next line is a reiteration of the “public opinion struggle”? In such a struggle, there are friends in the form of compliant media and apologists, and there are enemies in the form of recalcitrant journalists, academics and politicians who insist on criticism – exactly what this external push is designed to neutralize.

But beyond the text itself, remembering that we have only Xinhua News Agency reporting, there is an important point of context so obvious many observers seem to have missed it.

This was a collective study session, and such sessions, whatever their topic, generally benefit from the instruction of experts. In this case, we are told right at the outset of the official news release that “professor Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University offered his explanations on this issue, and suggestions for work.” What sort of teacher would Zhang Weiwei be?

A professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, Zhang Weiwei (张维为) is director of the university’s Institute for Chinese Studies. In the 1980s he served within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an interpreter for senior leaders, including Deng Xiaoping. He is an old hand when it comes to Chinese diplomacy, and in the course of his career has visited many countries.

Zhang is also a staunch defender of what he regards as the superiority of the political system led by the CCP, and of the so-called “China Model,” which he insists has ‘performed better than other models.” Internationally, one of his most remembered exchanges is his 2011 debate with Francis Fukuyama, in which he extolled the virtues of the Chinese system and suggested that Western democratic systems “might be only transitory in the long history of mankind.”

The rise of China is what we call “shi” or an overall trend, the scale and speed of which is unprecedented in human history. My own feeling is that the Western system is trekking on a downward slope and in need of major repairs and reforms. Some Chinese always speak and think highly of the US model, but to someone who has lived in Europe and visited the US many times, this is a bit too simplistic and naive.

In a 2013 interview with Phoenix Weekly, “The Chinese No Longer Require the ‘American Dream’”, Zhang spoke glowingly of China’s achievements and the ways in which it has already surpassed the West. “We have learned a lot from the West and will continue to learn in the future, but we have a vision today that goes beyond the West,” he said. Importantly, he spoke of a coming era of “post-Western discourse” (后西方话语) in which the rising dominance of a “Chinese discourse system” (中国话语体系) should be expected.

The notion of a “Chinese discourse system” appears, in fact, in the announcement from the collective study session, and we should note that it has generally not been among the terminologies in the arena of external propaganda, soft power and so on. Here is the portion of the Phoenix Weekly interview in which Zhang discusses this emerging system and its implications for scholarship and the “new world order”:

Chinese intellectuals should no longer be subservient to the Western discourse, but should think independently and, with their own conscience, knowledge and patriotic spirit, absorb the wisdom of the world while rejecting Western neo-obscurantism (西方新蒙昧主义). They should jointly explore and construct a Chinese discourse system in the era of “post-Western discourse,” making their own contribution to the formation of a new world order.

Zhang has repeatedly urged “self-confidence” in China’s model, and in the building of a “Chinese discourse” grounded in self-confidence that can then be applied in public diplomacy. In a 2014 talk called “Chinese Must Have Self-Confidence” (中国人你要自信), Zhang urged an end to uncertainty: “Let us remove the hat of flagging self-confidence and give it to our opponent,” he said. It was with this newly asserted self-confidence that China should combat the distortions and misunderstandings of the West.

Given the unshakable premise that China’s system is superior in terms of its performance, it naturally follows that the core problem is Western resistance. “Because the mainstream media in the West have long reported on China in an manner that is not factual, and with a strong ideological bias and cultural prejudice,” said Zhang, “many people in many Western countries, and even many experts and scholars, have a very poor understanding of China.”

In a video interview with People’s Daily Online posted today, Zhang again places the blame for miscommunication squarely on the shoulders of the West. To the extent that the project of “telling China’s story well” has not succeeded as it might, and misunderstandings persist, this, he says, is “mainly a problem on the part of the West.”

Zhang speaks of the urgent need and responsibility of the West to “understand China.” Given his emphasis on the glories of the “China Model” and the objective truth of “China’s story,” which at its core is about the infallibility of the CCP, this need to “understand China” is not really about dialogue or dialectic. It is about acceptance. China must act with confidence to overcome these misunderstandings. As one senior German diplomat told GMF’s Noah Barkin recently: “Dialogue is now conditional on us not criticizing China.”

If one detects a certain wolfishness in this perspective, Zhang does not disappoint in his views on how China should respond to the prejudices that are standard fare, according to the CCP narrative, for the West. Here is what Zhang said in September 2020, during an interview on the “This is China” television program:

The Chinese have a culture of ‘being kind to others’ and of giving face to others, which the West does not have. That’s why I often say that in order to communicate better with the West (与西方交流), we have to learn to confront the West (与西方交锋), and after confrontation we can often communicate better. Of course, confrontation does not mean you shout yourself hoarse, as the Chinese say. Confrontation is about stating your principles clearly. Western culture is a culture of the strong (西方文化是强者文化). They respect the strong, respect the winner. If they raise a provocative issue and you dare not respond, dare not confront, then you have lost. And you’ve lost representing the country.

Zhang, with his talk here of “crossing swords” (交锋), sounds very much like a proponent of what is so often now called “wolf-warrior diplomacy.” He is a champion of the Chinese system, and of its assertion in international discourse and diplomacy as “self-confidence.” Considering that the Shanghai professor has advised the leadership for a number of years on these questions, including at a May 2016 symposium hosted by Xi, we should perhaps view him not as a moderating voice on the question of international discourse and diplomacy, but rather as a one of a number of architects and supporters of the approaches that have been applied over the past several years.

The West must be persuaded to see things China’s way. And to this end, confrontation, the crossing of swords, will likely remain as a core component of communication as conceived by the leadership.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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