Prior to Xi Jinping’s rise to power during the 18th National Congress of the CCP in November 2012, the term “discourse power” (话语权), literally “the right to speak,” was used infrequently in the Chinese media and in Chinese scholarship. Though it did appear from time to time in the Party-state media, it was not a part of the mainstream political discourse of the Party.
Generally, “discourse power” referred to the relative appeal of certain cultural, economic or technological actors. In the year 2000, for example, a commentary in the People’s Daily corresponding to China’s hosting of the “Asian Arts Festival” (亚洲艺术节) noted the “disadvantaged” position of Asian and Chinese art relative to art in the West. “Given the economic dominance [of the West], the strength of Western culture has dominated a lot of discourse power,” the author wrote. The article’s chief point was about the need for inclusivity, and it was not attempting a more forceful argument about the link between discursive power and national strength.
Questions of “discourse power” at this time could also enter into talk of industrial competitiveness. A Xinhua News Agency report in 2003, for example, stressed the importance for China’s domestic automotive enterprises of possessing “discourse power,” referring in this context to achieving real competitiveness internationally through independent research and development capabilities. Without such capabilities, the thinking went, China would have little say in the course of the global development of this key sector.
By the mid-2000s, “discourse power” was coming into more frequent use in China to refer to perceived global disparities in terms of news and information, more fully entering the terrain of global communication. In 2004, a report in the international section of the People’s Daily noted the launch by the US government of an Arabic satellite television service, Alhurra TV, in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition. “The United States, which has taken the lead in the field of modern media, has monopolized a large part of the international news discourse power,” the article read, “and the tentacles of its public opinion propaganda have long radiated around the world.” (As an interesting aside, the reference to “tentacles,” here suggesting something nefarious, is precisely how Xi Jinping later described the conduct of the CCP’s own domestic propaganda efforts when speaking at the Liberation Army Daily in late 2015).
From 2007, as the concept of “soft power” (软实力) appeared in Hu Jintao’s political report to the 17th National Congress of the CCP, the first high-profile employment of the term with mainstream Party discourse, the phrase “discourse power” appeared more frequently in contexts discussing China’s comprehensive national power. A report in September 2007 in the People’s Daily noted that “affiliated literary and artistic associations have actively joined relevant international cultural and artistic organizations . . . . playing an important role in striving for more international discourse power and effectively safeguarding national interests and cultural security.”
In 2008, as China faced fierce international criticism following unrest in Tibet, “discourse power” became a more urgent question for the CCP leadership. More and more officials and communications scholars addressed international criticism of China on human rights grounds as at core about the country’s weak “discourse power.” As Cheng Manli of Peking University wrote in April 2008:
To change this situation, to get out of the passive position of being left to judgment, and to break through the direction of international public opinion dominated by Western countries, we can only actively participate in the guidance of international public opinion and grasp the initiative in communication.
This meant, said Cheng, that Chinese journalists would need to speak up to “channel” international news in ways that favored China, that the country would need a long-term plan for constructing its national image, and that diplomats would need to “properly use discourse power.”
The discussion of “discourse power” inside China has often emphasized a deficit of influence over public opinion as a developed versus developing world issue. A 2012 article in the People’s Daily stressed that China’s globalization required an “objective and friendly” international public opinion environment, and that China’s news media had an important role to play in “enhancing understanding and eliminating prejudice in China’s diplomacy.” “At present, the main information flow of global affairs is still from developed countries to developing countries,” the article read. “Many major events, including those occurring in developing countries, are largely ‘interpreted’ by the media in developed countries.”
“Discourse Power” in the Xi Era
Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi Jinping has emphasized the need to “tell China’s story well” (讲好中国的故事) on the global stage, a phrase that has come to encompass the priority of developing soft power and advancing “discourse power.” Summing up the priorities in international communication in July 2014, an article in the People’s Daily called “Soft Power and the Rise of a Great Nation” said that the first objective was to “tell China’s story well, transmit contemporary Chinese values, display the unique charm of Chinese culture, create a favorable national image and raise international discourse power.”
Under Xi Jinping China’s ambitions in terms of “discourse power” have expanded to the idea of constructing a “discourse system for external communication” (构建对外传播话语体系), on the premise that China must promote its ideas with confidence on the world stage as an alternative to dominant Western discourse. Behind this goal is also a perception among many theorists within the CCP that China’s moment to enhance its global credibility has arrived as the dominance of the United States fades. The US decline has for many of these thinkers been evidenced by a series of failures that have “exposed the lies of the US” – such as the global financial crisis (2007-2008), Trump’s “America First” policy, the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan (2021), and the brutal murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
On May 31, 2021, a collective study session of China’s Politburo, the top decision-making body of the CCP, addressed the topic of external propaganda and messaging, and emphasized that “[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.” According to a readout by Xinhua News Agency, Xi Jinping emphasized at the meeting the need to “form international discourse power that matches our comprehensive national power and international status,” and to “create an external public opinion environment that is conducive to the reform, development and stability of our country.”