China’s strategic thinkers expend a lot of time and a lot of ink these days on the question of how the country can project a positive image across the world. The basic idea is that if China can strengthen its “discourse power” (话语权) by “telling China’s story well” – Xi Jinping’s catchphrase in the arena of public diplomacy and soft power – then its strategic priorities globally can move ahead smoothly.
If there is one underlying flaw in all of this strategizing, however, it may be the fundamental difficulty China’s planners have in grappling honestly with the country’s own conduct and framing as a possible source of global perception problems.
Recently, the Shanghai Institute of International Studies cooperated with the Liaison Department of the CCP Central Committee and other official organizations to hold a seminar on “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) and “theoretical innovation of the Party’s foreign work” (对外工作). A number of the presentations at the seminar were published through the official WeChat public account of SIIS as a related series, and these were cross-shared at The Paper, a digital newspaper run by the Shanghai United Media Group (SUMG), which is controlled by the Shanghai committee of the CCP.
The Shanghai Institute of International Studies (SIIS) is one of China’s most important government-affiliated think tanks on foreign policy. As David Shambaugh has explained, SIIS, like many government institutions dealing with international affairs, performs a “dual function,” both projecting Chinese talking points (as part of a general “soft power” push) and “[collecting] views and intelligence from foreign experts and officials.”
Reading through the recent SIIS series published at The Paper, one certainly gets the impression that China’s think-tankers are talking. But are they listening?
Nearly all the pieces in the series repeat official CCP talking points, emphasizing the pre-eminence of “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” (习近平外交思想) and its component concepts, including “a community of common destiny” (人类命运共同体). They reaffirm rather than question claimed achievements like the Belt and Road Initiative, whose shared benefits, they say, “are more and more obvious.”
In fact, official think-tankers seem far more preoccupied with projecting loyalty upward – with talk of “maintaining the authority of the CCP Central Committee as the commander” (维护党中央权威为统领), and so on – than with thinking intelligently and outwardly about foreign audiences and their concerns. At times, one could be forgiven for thinking that the real audience, for all the chatter about “telling China’s story” to the world, is a single man at the top of the Party’s ranks.
To the extent China’s failings in external communication are acknowledged at all, these are chalked up to prevailing prejudices about China and the CCP, and to the “suppression” of China’s voice by “Western countries” or by “anti-China forces.” No consideration is given to whether it might be problematic that the “China story” and the “story of the CCP” have become so intertwined that they are impossible to untangle, and that narratives of the Party’s greatness and infallibility may do more to encourage skepticism than to inspire respect.
Of the talks in the SIIS series at The Paper, one in particular stands out for its attempt to address the current state of China’s external communications efforts, and their limitations, though some of these familiar patterns are also visible. In his remarks, Zhang Jian (张建), Secretary General of the Center for the Study of World Political Parties and Politics at SIIS, moans about the negative “narrative forms employed toward China by the US and the West,” as though reading China’s own rigid and centralized approach to narrative formation into complex democratic political cultures and societies. He decides that the “severe suppression” (严重打压) of China’s overseas communication platforms, such as Confucius Institutes, is again conspiratorial.
But it is interesting to see Zhang admitting at one point that even “the perceptions that developing countries have of China are also becoming complicated.” And he does, unlike many of his colleagues, attempt to offer strategic points, though these are broad-brush and not exactly original. He outlines six points that China should heed in its effort to be “accepted by the international community.” These include, for example, using “differentiated storytelling approaches” for different countries and regions; attempting to “localize” (在地化) stories, making them more palatable and relevant to audiences; and complementing the “grand narrative” (宏大叙事) with more concrete examples, in the form of case studies, of Chinese approaches in various policy areas and how these have succeeded.
This last point brings us to another fundamental contradiction at the heart of China’s external propaganda work – the insistence on offering Chinese lessons and experiences as a form of soft power even as China’s leadership is emphatic that these stories must serve a propaganda role, making the case for the capable leadership of the CCP. When the starting point is political and ideological, and narratives must conform to political objectives, this can, or should, raise serious issues of credibility for foreign audiences.
A translation of Zhang Jian’s remarks in the SIIS series follows.
Along with China’s growing strength and its entry into the center of the world stage, the perception of China in the international community has taken on greater complexity. Judging from the international situation in recent years, and particularly from interactions between China and the United States and the West, the narrative forms (叙事方式) employed toward China by the US and the West have tended toward the negative, whether we are talking about power structures or about opinion in society – to the extent that even the perception and understanding of China in some developing countries has been affected. Against this background, in order to tell the story of China (the Chinese Communist Party) in the New Era, we must first clearly recognize the macro environment we currently face, and then move on to the question of how to proceed.
In terms of the current macro environment, the first [issue] is that interactions between China and the West have become more complex. The question of how to recognize, understand and accept a socialist China that has emerged as a major power in the world with a vastly different system is a common “point of difficulty” for the West as it faces China. The perception of China in the West is relatively negative, with perceptions in 14 developed countries having reached their lowest point. Although the West is in the minority in terms of the number of countries [in the world], their influence remains the greatest. At the same time, our own perception of the West has reached its lowest point.
The second [issue] is that the US and the West are exerting pressure on China in the ideological field, and our overseas communication platforms have been severely suppressed (严重打压). If we can say that previously arrangements and deployments overseas, and particularly in Western countries were conducive to speaking and telling the China story, in recent years Confucius Institutes, Chinese-invested enterprises, Chinese associations, Chinese media and others have been suppressed, and our overseas communication has been substantially hindered.
The third [factor] is that a conflicted psychology in the perception of China is on the rise among developing countries. Influenced by various forms of Western incitement (煽惑), by internal political contradictions and struggles, and by gaps in development levels and governance capabilities, the perceptions that developing countries have of China are also becoming complicated.
While the international environment facing China is becoming increasingly complex, as China provides more and more public goods to the international community and as China plays an increasingly positive role in international affairs, there are more and more people in the international community who look at China rationally and objectively, and more and more people who praise China. As General Secretary Xi Jinping has said, “Time and momentum are on our side, and this is where our determination and stamina come from, as well as our resolve and confidence.” To be accepted by the international community, socialist China must expend even greater effort.
In the face of this complex macro environment, when telling China’s story abroad, we must first adopt a differentiated storytelling approach and tell targeted stories from the perspective of the other’s situation and needs. Small and medium-sized countries, and developing countries and regions should be the key areas for spreading China’s story under the tightening conflict and struggle between China and the West.
Secondly, it [is important to] combine grand narratives and subtle emotions, paying special attention to the emotional receptivity of the grassroots and the general public.
Third, telling the China story is the responsibility of every single one of us. In addition to propaganda departments, the main body of external propaganda can be expanded to include concrete individuals, including scholars, grassroots units and individuals, as well as various platforms. All of them can preach (宣讲) the China story and the story of the Chinese Communist Party. In particular, we scholars in the humanities and social sciences should give full play to our strengths and advantages in international exchanges, and should tell the international community a more diverse story of China and story of the CCP.
Fourth, telling the Chinese story should be localized (在地化). China’s story is not something to be put out in a singular manner. For the international community to know, recognize and understand, the China story must be more integrated with the stories of the local countries, so that China’s story becomes integrated into the society and life of the local country.
Fifth, [there is a need to be] concrete about [China’s] governance practices, linking up the grand narrative (宏大叙事) with China’s concrete experiences in governance. For example, the editing of a collection of cases could be organized that selects governance cases at various levels, particularly at various levels of society — dealing, for example, with ecological governance, the environment, concretization of governance, combining the grand narrative with the concrete practice of China’s governance, for example, can organize the preparation of a collection of cases, selecting cases of governance at all levels, especially at all levels of society, such as ecological governance, the environment, grassroots construction, and even with neighborhood committees and so on. This is more suited to target countries and more relevant to the various social problems they face. It also make [these lessons] easier to absorb in experience.
Finally, [we need to use] professional and scientific language to tell China’s story. Scientists, professional groups and social organizations can tell [the story] on different levels, and can also provide public products on China’s development to the international community in the form of popular science materials, raising understanding and awareness [of China].