China’s International Right to Speak

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 20

Discourse Power, A Subject De Jour

As Beijing’s reach continues to expand, Chinese analysts are increasingly troubled by the country’s weak ability to influence how international issues, especially the rise of China, are framed and evaluated—called the “right to speak” or “discourse power” (huayuquan). The Western concern about Chinese doping at the Olympics, for example, showcased China’s weakness and the strength of Orientalist discourse in the West that discounts China’s abilities and accomplishments (Wen Hui Bao, August 9; Phoenix TV, August 7; Global Times, August 3). Although this idea is not new, a regular discussion has emerged since the summer concerned with the gap between China’s power as the world’s second largest economy and Beijing’s ability to shape international discussions and values (People’s Forum, October 17; Red Flag, October 16). The question facing Chinese analysts is how Beijing corrects this imbalance, because reversing China’s weakness is an “urgent strategic need as the competition among nations intensifies” (Red Flag, October 11; People’s Daily, December 9, 2010).

The idea of “right to speak” or “discourse power” is an extension of soft power, relating to influence and attractiveness of a country’s ideology and value system. As an important analysis this summer characterized it, “Who has ‘huayuquan’ ultimately depends on whose ideology, especially whose value system, best answers contemporary global issues and provides impetus for human progress and development.” In this respect, Beijing needs to “face the grim reality that the West is strong while China is weak (xi qiang wo ruan)” and start learning how to communicate more effectively to foreign audiences (Red Flag, October 11; Caijing, August 18; People’s Forum Biweekly Political Commentary, July 13).

The proof of Beijing’s weakness is evident in how Chinese accomplishments and policies are characterized domestically and internationally. Domestically, people complain China’s foreign policy is too soft; internationally, governments complain China’s diplomacy is too strong. This shows Beijing must make it clear to both domestic and international audiences how China will use its growing power and what kind of world China wants. The key to doing this is strengthening China’s right to speak (People’s Forum, October 17). Moreover, despite the accomplishments of China since the beginning of Reform and Opening, some Western elements have used their “discourse power” to promulgate the “China Threat Theory,” demonize China, promote trade protectionism and impede China’s peaceful development (People’s Forum Biweekly Political Commentary, July 13).

China’s weakness stems from a couple of different sources. The first is that there is a contradiction in promoting a set of universal values and respecting non-interference in a country’s political affairs. So long as Chinese foreign policy is governed by the latter principle, Beijing will find it difficult to break Western hegemony in huayuquan (People’s Forum, October 17). The second is that China is not necessarily creating new ideas about how countries should run themselves or find their place in the increasingly integrated world. As a military analyst from the Nanjing Command Academy wrote, if China only translates or adapts Western ideas, then the spread of “Chinese ideas” inadvertently spreads Western values and places China in a passive position (Red Flag, October 11; Caijing, August 18). The third problem is that promoting the value of each country’s individual development choices according to national circumstances does not offer the kind of guidance that Western ideas provides for rational or ideal political and economic choices. This shallow characterization of China’s development model as a country’s right to choose for itself shortchanges socialism with Chinese characteristics. Therefore, China needs to do a better job of publicizing and explaining the Chinese experience with “seeking truth from facts,” reform and opening policies, “letting practice be the criterion of truth” and harmonious society (People’s Forum Biweekly Political Commentary, July 13; People’s Daily, December 9, 2010; Lianhe Zaobao, February 6, 2009).

This first step in strengthening China’s discourse power is to develop a more sophisticated understanding of foreign audiences. Because of a lack of in-depth research into foreign attitudes, Chinese propagandists sometimes push messages that may be a positive self-expression of Chinese civilization, but is not received positively by foreign audiences (Red Flag, October 11). Beijing’s challenge is how to ensure China’s voice reaches others—something that is not happening now and requires further study, especially on how to improve the international penetration of socialism with Chinese characteristics (Wen Hui Bao [Shanghai], August 9; People’s Forum Biweekly Political Commentary, July 13).

China can enhance its right to speak with three steps, according to the Wu Ying deputy director of the Shanghai Foreign Studies University’s international public opinion center. First, Beijing needs to be more aggressive about setting international discourse. Second, China needs to be able to break down the Western media’s Orientalism and “responsible power” discourses to free up China’s international discourse space. Finally, China should focus on researching Western media, watching for feedback on Chinese efforts to shape public opinion (Wen Hui Bao, August 9). One of the ways in which China can improve its influence is to accelerate the “Going Out” policy for Chinese media organizations, such as the Southern Media Group’s sponsored features on Guangdong overseas. Through this experience, Chinese journalists can learn the laws of cultural transmission (Caijing, August 18).

Beijing does have to be careful in promoting its discourse power, because having a greater influence on international narratives is not an unalloyed good. China’s Reform and Opening policies led the West to believe that China was on a convergent road with the Western development model. Pursuing China’s right to speak is the starting point for ending that belief and making it clear that China’s course is different (People’s Forum, October 17). Yet, according to Tsinghua media specialist Zhang Zhizhou, China cannot rise without challenging the Western concepts that denigrate China’s accomplishments—e.g. democratic peace theory, great power politics, the end of history, etc.—and thereby showing China’s divergent development path (, August 9).