Focus topics

The new struggle for discourse sovereignty

By Marina Rudyak
Marina Rudyak is a sinologist at the Institute of Sinology at Heidelberg University. Her research focuses on Chinese development policy and coded communication in Chinese politics.

A question of discourse: What does China’s President and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Xi Jinping mean when he talks about the rule of law? How does the Chinese leadership define multilateralism? Did you know that China’s core socialist values include democracy and freedom? What is Document No. 9, and why does it reject universal values? And what is meant by “a community of humanity’s destiny”?

The Decoding China Dictionary, published in the run-up to the National People’s Congress, answers these questions. Compiled by a group of renowned China experts, it explains key terms in international relations and development cooperation that are interpreted very differently in China and Europe. Aimed at policy-makers and institutions in Europe engaged in dialogue and exchange with China, as well as all those interested in China, it is intended to facilitate a more informed and substantiated engagement with China.

Beijing exerts influence at international level

China’s rise as a global power is shifting global balances. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, Beijing has abandoned the maxim of restrained foreign policy that has prevailed since Deng Xiaoping. China now actively appears on global stages and increasingly exerts influence on the shaping of international rules of the game.

Chinese ideas are increasingly finding their way into UN documents, in which international norms and principles such as the rule of law, human rights, or democracy are given new meaning and “Chinese characteristics”. When human rights concerns are raised, China accuses the critics of “politicization” and an “imperialist” or “Cold War” mentality. Instead, it calls for “democracy” in international relations and mutually beneficial cooperation based on “common interests”. It opposes universal human rights to a hierarchy of rights, at the top of which is the “right to development“.

Discourse system and discourse power

Such conceptual framings are no coincidence, but the result of coordinated initiatives by the Chinese leadership to develop its own Chinese discourse system and expand its discursive power. Abroad, Chinese diplomats often complain that the West misunderstands China. Xi himself repeatedly emphasizes that China’s story must be “told well” and China’s discursive power must be strengthened in order to create a favorable climate of international public opinion.

The Chinese leadership is making considerable efforts internationally to promote a “correct understanding” of China, i.e., one that is consistent with the priorities of the Chinese party-state. The latter has always considered propaganda an important tool. In this, “correct phrases”, or “tifa” 提法 in Chinese, play a central role, for by forbidding certain phrases and prescribing others, the Party regulates what is said and written – and thus what is done. To outsiders, “tifa” may seem like empty words: Even in mainland China, hardly anyone knows what lies behind a phrase like “the community of humanity’s destiny”. Nevertheless, the tactic is working, as Western actors are beginning to adopt the phrases – without knowing what lies behind them.

Terms with Chinese characteristics

World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab thanked Xi Jinping at this year’s forum for his reminder that “we are all part of a community of destiny“. Xi had said in his speech that “adhering to multilateralism and pushing forward the building of a community of humanity’s destiny” was the only way to solve today’s complex problems. Xi speaks of multilateralism very often in general, and China’s state media refer to the country as the “champion of multilateralism”.

But the analysis of the party discourse shows that Beijing’s perspective on multilateralism differs from that of the West. While multilateralism actually stands for universally binding norms and standards, Beijing considers the existing rules-based multilateral system not “fair and just” but “serving the narrow interests of a small group (of Western states).” In his report to the 19th CPC Party Congress, Xi described his vision of multilateralism as “dialogue without confrontation, partnership without alliances”, international cooperation without generally binding rules but based on bilateral consultations. The multilateralism often invoked by Xi is, in reality, a multi-bilateralism. This is precisely what is hidden behind the “community of destiny” for which Schwab praised Xi.

Europe must learn to decode China

China’s rise as a global power in a multipolar world means increasing competition over international values and norms. The rules-based world order and multilateralism are based on a global consensus on the definition of the norms that underpin the international system.

When the meaning of concepts such as the rule of law, human rights, democracy, and sovereignty becomes blurred, international norms are undermined. An informed engagement with China, therefore, requires that European actors are able to understand the official Chinese meanings of the core terms and concepts of international relations. The Decoding China Dictionary is intended to serve as a reference for strategy development and communication with Chinese partners.


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