Discourse Power: A Xinderella Story
The Role of Intellectuals in Constructing China's International Discourse Power
And we're back!
Thank you for your patience while I was away, and a warm welcome to our new subscribers. The international convention season is over until mid-January, when I'll be back on the road for a week in Washington, DC.
Without further ado, today's edition of Discourse Power features an original essay based on a presentation I gave last week at the 5th India Forum on China in Goa. I'd like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the Goa University, the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) in Delhi, the India Office of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), and especially Professors Jabin T. Jacob and Aravind Yelery for organizing such a wonderful event.
If you enjoy what you read below or have any comments or inquiries, I would love to hear from you. To contact me directly, feel free to leave a comment below or reply to this email, and please take a minute to spread the word to your well-informed coworkers and friends.
And, as always, thank you for reading,
(Yes, I am aware of Xi's visit to Saudi Arabia this week and will report on Chinese reactions in the next issue, b'ezrat HaShem)
A Xinderella Story
When most of us consider the role of intellectuals throughout Chinese history, the first thing that comes to mind is the Confucian stoic, a man (unfortunately, almost always a man) who can speak truth to power and correct the course of the leadership.
From Qu Yuan of the Warring States Period (476-221 BC) to Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, it recalls scholars who would risk their lives or become dissidents if they believed the leadership was acting against the will of the populace, the polity, and Heaven.
But an intellectual is distinguished not only by the accuracy of his or her reasoning, moral integrity, or courage. Much like the shamans of the Shang dynasty, intellectuals today play a significant role in Chinese society, as they do in all civilizations - transmitting orthodox culture in a way that offers a coherent and compelling narrative of history in order to make sense of the present and inform the future.
Or, in one word: storytellers.
The Greatest Showman
Frequently referred to as "President" in foreign media, Xi Jinping has two arguably more important jobs as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and commander of its armed forces. A lesser-known fact is that the perpetual leader dons a fourth, equally important hat: China's Storyteller in Chief.
"As the lively narrator 讲述者 of China's story, General Secretary Xi Jinping captivated the foreign dignitaries," read a People's Daily article last month, calling him "the focus" of the 17th G20 leaders' summit in Bali.
According to the piece, after nearly three years of self-imposed isolation, Xi's coming-out party saw UN Secretary-General "rush over" to him 随之赶来 to “learn about China” 读懂中国. Even the President of the United States of America "listened attentively, occasionally bowing his head 低头 to take notes." Indeed, hearing him speak had certain Canadian leaders absolutely entranced.
More than a simple raconteur, Party-state media often depicts Xi as a prodigious consumer of stories from an early age. "I enjoy many different pastimes, but reading is by far my favorite," he stated in a 2013 interview.
According to Party canon, when young Xi was a rusticated "sent-down youth" in the late 1960s, his cave dwelling would shine brightly long after all the farmers had gone to bed as he would read late into the night.
A few years ago, his reading list was trending on Chinese media, demonstrating a precocious interest in a wide variety of genres; from Chinese and socialist classics to Shakespearean plays, and from history and economic tomes to the greats of Indian and Russian literature - he devoured them all. He even read Das Capital three times (Marx's own mother wouldn't even attempt to read it).
As a true man of letters, Xi Jinping is also portrayed as a prolific author. He has reportedly released no less than ten books in the last year alone, with the fourth volume of his monumental work, The Governance of China, hitting the shelves in July.
The series has sold millions of copies in dozens of languages, according to the Propaganda/Publicity Department's publishing house, with a whopping 5-star rating (and by that, I mean only 5 stars). Nowadays, Xi’s gleaming face on the cover has become a must-have on the desks of heads of state and business magnates.
Among this vast ocean of stories, the work on his magnum opus started exactly ten years ago last week, when the newly appointed General Secretary led the Party's leadership on its first tour under his direction.
For the highly symbolic event, he chose to take the Politburo Standing Committee to the Road to Rejuvenation exhibition at the National Museum in Beijing. That's when he revealed the title of our story - The Chinese Dream 中国梦: Realizing the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.
Who Doesn't Love a Good Comeback Story?
In his keynote address at the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference the following year, Xi introduced the notion of “struggle over public opinion” 舆论斗争 and stressed the importance of "telling the China story well, spreading the voice of China, and increasing China's discourse power in the international arena."
Therein lie the four components of a good story:
First, the protagonist is the Chinese Dream's titular hero the "sons and daughters of China." However, "the ship of dreams requires a captain 掌舵者, and the journey towards rejuvenation requires a guide 领路人," per canon. The masses yearn for a champion, a Moses to their Israelites.
Last week, the Party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, published a series of articles to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Chinese Dream. According to the articles, the strong leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, guided by Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, is credited with the protagonist's future success.
Second, as legendary film critic Roger Ebert observed, a story is only as good as its villain, since “only a great villain can transform a good try into a triumph.” Here, too, the Road to Rejuvenation exhibition provided the exposition:
“Since the First Opium War (1839-1842)…the West had occupied China's territories, established concessions, and drew up spheres of influence." This unmistakable mortal antagonist is to blame for the Chinese nation's “extraordinary hardship and sacrifice in modern history.”
Xi's address to the 20th Party Congress in October concurs that China continues to face "external blackmail, containment, blockade, and extreme pressure." The core leader only implied what Chinese scholars and diplomats have been saying aloud: The West cannot tolerate China's inexorable rise because it poses a threat to its hegemony.
Which brings us to the third component, the conflict of the odyssey. Party historiographers now dub it The Three Afflictions 三挨, each of which corresponds to a valiant generation of Communist leadership:
It was Mao Zedong that took a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society, a beaten 挨打 and humiliated China, and made it rise up from its knees 站起来. His second successor, Deng Xiaoping, transformed a backward and starved 挨饿 China into the world’s second-largest economy 富起来.
It is now up to Xi Jinping to resolve the third and final affliction of “being scolded” 挨骂 by making China strong 强起来 and telling the US-led West to their face “the Chinese people will not put up with this any longer!” 中国人不吃这一套.
Finally, a resolution follows. Spoiler alert: by 2035, socialist modernization will have essentially been accomplished. By 2049, the centennial of the People’s Republic of China, the irredentist civilization nation will have (“re”)unified with Taiwan and all other “lost” territories, and be built into a prosperous, strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and beautiful modern socialist country. From humiliation to rejuvenation, Xi is the man who will Make China Great Again 国之大者.
A storyteller is nothing without an audience. Who, then, is the beholder of the Chinese Dream?
Chinese communication scholars provide a market segmentation that neatly divides the target audience into internal 对内 and external 对外, aka domestic and international, aka public opinion guidance and public opinion struggle.
The hundreds of millions of Chinese people, therefore, make up the majority of the inner circle huddled around Xi Jinping's proverbial campfire. After all, it is they who are the ultimate arbiters of what the Chinese Dream means and how it will be achieved.
It is a vision for China's future where the nation is prosperous, and its people's lives are improved, a source of inspiration for Chinese citizens to work hard for a better life and a better China. National rejuvenation “will not be achieved by merely beating drums and gongs,” Xi always says, but rather by fostering a “fighting spirit.”
If any of this sounds familiar, please know that it is not. As bestselling novelists Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and Jane Goodall have discovered, being accused of literary plagiarism and using ghostwriters are the unavoidable prerogatives of a successful storyteller.
To be sure, Xi, who has been accused of plagiarizing his 2001 doctoral thesis, is also blamed nowadays for "borrowing" his signature ideology from James Truslow Adams' American Dream, with Party theorist Wang Huning accredited as the Chinese version’s true wordsmith.
But unlike that capitalist flight of fancy, the Chinese Dream is based on the principles of socialism. Not an individualistic concept of success, but rather a collectivist vision of national prosperity. More than matter, it requires a spirit. Without it, a wealthy and powerful China would be nothing more than a hollow shell.
"If we are to create a modern socialist nation in every way, we must develop socialist culture with Chinese characteristics," Xi beseeched the 20th Party Congress in October. In other words, this is a fight to “forge the heart of the country and the soul of the nation” 为国家立心, 为民族立魂.
Consequently, Xi uses stories that can "dictate public opinion and establish the ideological mainstream" in order to boost the Chinese people's "cultural self-confidence"文化自信 and "spiritual power" 精神力量.
They must also "ensure the existence of strong mechanisms for arming the Party 武装全党, educating the people, and guiding their practice, with the ultimate goal of cultivating the New Man 育新人."
After decades spent developing humanity's most pervasive and sophisticated information control and censorship apparatus, the inner circle is largely a captive audience. Besides, they are sure to listen because this story is about them.
The non-Chinese outer circle, on the other hand, is a tougher sell. For one thing, they are farther away—both literally and figuratively. For another, they are distracted by a bonfire lit upon a hill like a shining beacon. At its center, the rabid and contorted shamans of the American Dream and their Western-led enablers interjecting China’s storytellers, besmirching their country. Worse, they have a megaphone.
And their scorn knows no bounds. They would rather portray a one-dimensional man than present a “true, multi-dimensional, and panoramic view of China.” They would rather distort China’s image than take notice of its "man-made miracles" and the many “wonderful contributions it has made to the world.” They would rather fan the flames of "color revolutions" in the hope of bringing about the Party's downfall than realize that it is only interested in the well-being of the Chinese people and global stability and development.
This, in Xi’s opinion, is intolerable; losing the “public opinion struggle” against the US-led West is a luxury that China cannot afford. During the Politburo’s 30th group study session last May on strengthening China’s capacity for engaging in international communication he urged to “accelerate the development of Chinese discourse and narrative systems, effectively communicate the voice of China and portraying a credible 可信, lovable 可爱, and respectable 可敬 image of the country.
In addition to considerations of legitimacy and national pride, a positive image can cultivate a favorable external environment, facilitating China’s reform, development, and stability.
But more than anything, it all boils down to control. The micromanaging Chairman of Everything wants to “actively and proactively” make China’s voice heard, “so that the outside world can understand what we want them to understand.”
Do Your Job
The 20th Party Congress supposedly made Xi the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Still, he cannot do everything by himself. "China's international image must be constructed by Chinese people, and telling the Chinese story requires the participation of each and every Chinese person," he told his Politburo colleagues at the 30th study session. "You and I are both narrators of the China story" 你我都是中国故事讲述者, as a Party-state media quip goes.
The media, “surnamed Party,” is undoubtedly viewed as "the main force for telling Chinese stories well," and it goes without saying that this is the expectation of the 95 million Party members. According to political advisor Zhai Huisheng, executive vice-chairman of the China Journalists' Association, cadres who cannot tell the story of China are not good cadres.
But the role of intellectuals goes beyond that of mere mouthpieces. Xi delegated to them the task of assisting him in the creation of the story by expediting the development of a "disciplinary system, academic system, and discourse system of philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics."
This special directive, also referred to as the Three Great Systems 三大体系, was first stated by General Secretary Xi in a speech at the Symposium on the Work of Philosophy and Social Science in May 2016.
It was attended by "rising stars" 后起之秀 in China's intellectual world, the cream of the crop in philosophy and social sciences, including top Marxist theorists, nationally renowned experts, academics, think-tankers, and students.
Notably, Xi said in the 2016 symposium that “philosophy and the social sciences are important tools for people to understand and transform the world”. He contented that intellectual work reflects a nation's “thinking ability 思维能力, spiritual character 精神品格, and civilizational qualities 文明素质.”
In what brings to mind the bitter competition with the US over the technologies of the future, Xi pronounced that a “nation without a thriving natural science sector cannot lead the world,” but added, “the same holds true for nations without a thriving philosophy and social sciences.”
In his closing remarks, he reminded intellectuals not to shirk their mission or be afraid of hardships, but to use their “wisdom and efforts” to contribute to the realization of the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
A previous edition of Discourse Power looked at the National Research Project on Tracing the Origins of Chinese civilization 中华文明探源工程, a massive multi-disciplinary undertaking led by Professor Wang Wei of CASS with the involvement of hundreds of researchers from more than 70 research institutions.
The next section will concentrate on a second important and novel cultural initiative entrusted to intellectuals, that has been largely overlooked by outside observers. In contrast to the Origin-Tracing project, which showed how "the past must serve the present" 古为今用, this new initiative seeks to influence the future.
Perpetual Humiliation, Eternal Happiness
The Yongle Encyclopedia 永樂大典 is a monumental achievement of Chinese scholarship and a source of immense importance to the history of East Asian civilization. Compiled during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), it was a compendium of knowledge covering 11,095 volumes and 22,877 chapters in more than 370 million words.
Before it was mostly lost to time, it contained over 3,000 categories of knowledge, ranging from astronomy, mathematics, and medicine to philosophy, religion, and literature, and it is still regarded as one of the most influential works of East Asian reference literature, or leishu 类书 (lit., “classified writings”).
According to historian Endymion Wilkinson, approximately 600 such leishu were compiled in China between the third century and the modern era, with only one-third remaining in existence.
Aside from their historical value in preserving written works that would otherwise have been lost, leishu were compiled to provide their contemporaries with comprehensive information and quick access to knowledge on a wide range of topics.
More importantly, they had a political role, as indicated by the fact that many new editions or revisions were made in response to changes in the political landscape or the emergence of new rulers.
In order to legitimize their rule and project an image of themselves as the legitimate and just rulers of the land, new sovereigns first used them to control historical narratives.
The kings and emperors had complete control over the content of these documents, influencing how people viewed historical figures and events. They might, for instance, include information that supported their own rule while leaving out or altering details about their predecessors.
Second, by providing authoritative information on subjects like philosophy, religion, science, and law, they were used by the rulers to impose their own orthodoxy. This information was then used as the foundation for state policy and principles, setting the bar for what was deemed "correct," and punishing those who deviated from it.
Finally, they were also important in keeping intellectuals and scholars busy. The production of a single leishu required an incredible amount of time of research and writing. They demanded thousands, if not tens of thousands of historians, experts, editors, illustrators, binders, translators, scribes, censors, and countless other literati.
Keeping them busy with work that was largely apolitical in nature, prevented the participants from engaging in work of dissent that might be seen as a threat to the rulers. Furthermore, the projects provided intellectuals with a source of income, allowing them to remain financially secure and less likely to engage in activities that could be perceived as a challenge to the powers that be.
Returning to the present, it now seems that the Storyteller in Chief wants to have his own Yongle Encyclopedia to establish the canonical status of the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
In late November following the 20th Party Congress, Party-state publishers, media, and propagandists gathered in Chengdu to celebrate the launch of the first three parts of Xi’s leishu, the Library of National Rejuvenation 复兴文库.
“For thousands of years,” Xi wrote in the preface to the Rejuvenation Library, “the Chinese nation has the tradition to document historical records and compile classic works, so as to draw on the lessons of history and civilize the people through cultural development.”
The publisher, Zhonghua Book Company, a subsidiary of the Party-controlled China Publishing Group, began work on Xi's leishu in 2017. Jin Chongji, former executive deputy director of the Central Literature Research Office and renowned expert in modern Chinese history and Chinese Communist Party history, was entrusted with the editing process and overseeing an army of scholars and experts in relevant fields to complete compilation tasks.
As the name implies, the project is solely dedicated to collecting works that tell the story of the Chinese Dream. The finished five-part series will include more than 60 volumes 卷, 300 books 册, and 110 million Chinese characters 字.
Spanning the period from the First Opium War in 1840 to just before the start of Xi Jinping's New Era in 2012, its stated goal is to “systematically reflect the glorious course of the Chinese nation from poverty and weakness to great rejuvenation.”
As Xi's forward shows, the key is to never forget national humiliation: “The Chinese nation is a great nation, and has made indelible contributions to the progress of human civilization. Since the start of modern times, however, the Chinese nation suffered unprecedented disasters.”
And the harder the fall at the hands of foreign antagonists, the greater the triumph of the protagonists. The narrative is linear and deterministic, leading the reader to the foregone and inevitable conclusion that Rejuvenation would not have been possible without the Party's able leadership:
“Countless noble-minded patriots spared no efforts in seeking the nation’s salvation with strong will and fought hard for the country’s survival. After its founding, the Communist Party of China, pressing ahead against all odds, has united and led the Chinese people through arduous struggles. Staying committed to the guidance of Marxism, the Party has found the right path to realizing the national rejuvenation.”
As mentioned above, the Rejuvenation Library ends in 2012, the year that Xi Jinping first assumed office. How then will the story advance? "In the new era and new journey,” its editor-in-chief, Jin Chongji, told Xinhua News Agency, “we must draw wisdom and strength from history to create a more brilliant tomorrow under the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era."
Following that, the role of intellectuals is to be propagators and uncredited co-authors of the Storyteller in Chief. As a reminder of their importance, Xi's report to the 20th Party Congress concludes with a recommendation and a warning: "Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend."
Playing in the Background
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah’s Krauthammer Fellow, specializing in Chinese security and foreign policy, and emergency and disaster management. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia
Excellent analysis Tuvia. As you have noted in previous posts "telling China's stories well' includes recruiting the resources of gullible and ill informed foreigners.
I admire your creative approach to historiography, but I suggest grounding it in actual history.
"A lesser-known fact is that the perpetual leader dons a fourth, equally important hat: China's Storyteller in Chief" is imaginative nonsense. Like 90% of the world's governments, China has no term limits. And since Xi had eliminated poverty, housed 93% of people in their own homes, reduced serious crime 30%, doubled China's military power, and more than doubled all real incomes, including pensions, in his first two terms, he was given a third term. Just as he would have been in any country on earth. Why would anyone with such a record need to invent stories?
And "Deng Xiaoping, transformed a backward and starved 挨饿 China into the world’s second-largest economy" is simply counterfactual. Deng was the biggest bungler in PRC history. After Mao drove China's takeoff (its real GDP) faster than any country has ever done for 20 years, doubled the population, ended death by starvation (including during America's 1959-61 Grain Embargo) and ended serious crime, Deng so mismanaged the introduction of capitalism that, by 1989, the entire country had had enough. Students marching into Tiananmen Square carried banners reading, "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, as long as the cat resigns".
Just why Deng had anything to do with the matter is unclear, since his portfolio was defense.