Modern Diplomacy
‘He Who Controls the Discourse Organises the World.’ How China Resists the Information Hegemony of the West

It is in China that the concepts of “discourse” and “discourse system” are included in the reports of the country’s leadership — they were voiced at the recent 20th Congress of the ruling Communist Party. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do they pay such attention to these concepts, writes Valdai Club expert Ivan Zuenko.

The current process of rapid transformation of the post-bipolar world can be traced in different planes. One of them is a change in approaches to the information support of the foreign policy of the leading powers. China has been at the forefront here.

For a long time, it was expected that after China’s integration with the global economy and the increase in the living standards of the population, a liberalisation of the regime would inevitably follow the “Eastern European scenario.” When it became clear that Beijing did not intend to abandon sovereign development, the focus of Western perceptions shifted towards alarmism. With the start of the “trade war” and the Sino-American “decoupling,” the West has turned this positioning of China as a threat into a real geopolitical weapon.

China itself was one of the first to realise that it is impossible to win in a game on a foreign field according to someone else’s rules. Now it is trying not so much to succeed in a competition with an opponent who rewrites these rules on the fly, but to defend the opportunity to play its own way. “Rules” are the socio-political discourse that on a global scale is still being constructed primarily in the United States. As long as most of the world looks at China and all China’s actions on the world stage through the eyes of the West, the stability of the system built in the PRC will always be in jeopardy.

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The “end of history” era: passion for “soft power”

Meanwhile, this was not always the case. China began to return to the world stage as a serious player only during the late 1980s and early 90s, after a decade of “cultural revolution” and its first years of economic reforms. That was the time of the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the bipolar system and the triumph of the Western socio-economic structure, way of life and culture in the broadest sense of the word. It was impossible to resist the temptation to copy it all.

China did not resist, although the events of June 1989, when the Beijing authorities expressed their “dissenting opinion” on the “pro-democracy people’s movement,” complicated political contacts with Western countries. Nevertheless, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, China was rapidly Westernising and adopting not only technologies, but also meanings, which was assisted by the creation of a global information and cultural space (thanks to satellite television, and later the Internet) and the globalisation of the elite.

At the level of political concepts, there was also an active borrowing of Western achievements. During this period, the concept of “soft power” came into fashion. This idea dated back to the works of Joseph Nye and explained the success of the United States on the world stage in terms of the attractiveness of American mass culture and everyday life.

Chinese intellectuals tried to combine the approaches of “soft power” and China’s cultural legacy, which is thousands of years old, firmly convinced of its greatness. The resulting construct — “cultural soft power” — became the basis for China’s outward movement for a couple of decades.

With the help of “cultural soft power” China tried to increase its attractiveness in the eyes of foreigners and thereby facilitate the promotion of Chinese capital abroad, as well as the solution of foreign policy problems using non-military methods. It was for this that Confucius Institutes were opened all over the world, and millions of renminbi were spent on scholarship programs, press tours, internships, the Olympics and world exhibitions.

However, by the late 2000s and early 2010s, it became clear that “cultural soft power” was not working as efficiently as Beijing would have liked. Contrary to the “end of history” feeling that characterised the 1990s, rivalry on the world stage has not disappeared. China, which skilfully took advantage of the openness of the West, but did not exchange its sovereignty for high positions in Western ratings, was increasingly perceived as a threat. The more Chinese efforts were made to promote their “cultural soft power” abroad, the more active and dirty the counter-efforts from the United States became.

As early as 2008, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, Western media reports of anti-Chinese “free Tibet” and Falun Dafa sect protests overshadowed news about the preparation of the Chinese capital for the grand sports festival. What in the case of the United States was called “investment and technology transfer” in the case of China was labelled “expansion and neo-colonialism.” Later, while all of Facebook was praying for Italy, which had suffered heavy losses due to Covid-19, the Chinese were looked upon as lepers, their eating habits were criticised, and some American politicians even went as far as to demand billions of dollars in compensation from China.

It became clear that as long as the West decides who is “bad” and who is “good”, things couldn’t be otherwise. Despite the fact that the gap in socio-economic development between the former colonial powers and the Global South was shrinking, the overall dominance of the West remained. In an attempt to explain this phenomenon, Chinese intellectuals turned to the search for new forms of information support for foreign policy.

The era of the “crumbling world”: the search for “discursive power”

Paradoxically, the answer was again found in the West. The ideas of Michel Foucault (1925-1984) and other post-structuralists about discourse as a system of meanings embedded in information, and about the realisation of power through control over discourse, fell on fertile Chinese soil.

True, the Chinese treated the creative heritage of Europeans quite freely. “Discourse is power”, “discourse is the power that people need to fight for”, and “he who controls the discourse organises the world”, these quotes come to us from Chinese works on the theory of discourse; they vaguely resemble what Foucault and his colleagues wrote about.

Moreover, Chinese intellectuals have expanded the limits of the concept as much as possible, which in their interpretation began to cover such issues as technological standards and moral principles. In all these areas, it is necessary to develop and strengthen Chinese discursive power (话语权 huayuquan, which can also be translated as “the right to vote”). Only then will it be possible to speak with the West on an equal footing and resist the West’s discursive hegemony. Moreover, this is true both in neighbouring countries and in China itself, which is also experiencing the power of Western information influence.

It must be said that the Chinese were not the first to challenge the West in the formation of meanings. One can recall the Qatari Al-Jazeera TV channel or the activities of the Russian RT media corporation (by the way, both are the subject of close attention of Chinese scholars, and the Chinese scientific database CNKI contains dozens of academic articles devoted to the analysis of their discursive influence).

At the same time, it was the Chinese, perhaps, who most accurately formulated the request to oppose Western discourse as an existential task, and began to most systematically implement the concept of discursive power. It is no coincidence that it is in China that the concepts of “discourse” and “discourse system” are included in the reports of the country’s leadership — they were voiced at the recent 20th Congress of the ruling Communist Party. Perhaps nowhere else in the world do they pay such attention to these concepts.

At the same time, China is still at the beginning of a difficult path and makes many mistakes. An attempt to “cosplay” the assertive and peremptory style of Western speakers on the social media (so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”) often plays against China. Foreign policy concepts, which include the idea of a “Community with a Common Destiny for Humanity” and the Belt and Road Initiative, seem confusing and often meaningless to foreigners. An attempt to experiment with digitalisation tools has yielded scandal with the introduction of the “social credit system”. The image of China as a country with a well-thought-out and long-term development strategy has been undermined by the three-year Covid-19 saga — the Chinese have not been able to convincingly explain to the world both their persistence in pursuing a policy of “zero tolerance” and the landslide removal of all restrictions.

At the same time, we cannot say that China hasn’t enjoyed any success at all. Discursive power is the ability to impose on another the language that describes realities, and this takes time. The Chinese are promoting the concept of a “new era” (in fact, this is the period since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power) — and now headlines in the Russian media about a “new era of Russian-Chinese relations” are already appearing. Such expressions as “Chinese dream” and “Belt and Road” have firmly entered the expert lexicon — we use them, often without even thinking about their origin and meaning.

Another example is the term “Near-Arctic State” (近北极国家 jin beiji guojia). Its advancement in the world arena, along with the concept that the Arctic is the common property of mankind, and not just of the Arctic powers, is a good case study of what “discursive power” is, and how it is applied in practice. Roughly speaking, if we keep repeating that China is a near-Arctic state, in 10-20 years no one will question why a country as far from the North Pole as China would interfere in Arctic affairs.

Thus, the current stage in the development of international relations is happening amid the “crumbling” of the world order, which was established for a short, by historical standards, period of a couple of decades, around the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries. But “crumbling” involves the creation of new, load-bearing structures; the formation of new, alternative “discursive realities” is one of them.

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In order to implement its ambitious development programme, China needs enormous resources. Making it so that access to these resources is accompanied by the receipt of relative benefits by all participants in the process is an exceptionally difficult task.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.