Discourse Power | February 9, 2023
Do you want to play a discourse game, enemy of my enemy, thirst for blood, and a turn of a friendly card
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“The Ukraine crisis made clear that in the digital age, there are not only hot wars, but also information wars, cognitive wars, and public opinion wars”
For professor Sun Jisheng, shaping global narratives and discourse in the international court of public opinion is a big game. If China is to become a true global power and win the great power competition, it cannot afford to lose it.
Sun is the Vice President of China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU), one of Beijing's premier schools for diplomats co-managed by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education.
“In recent years, the great changes [unseen in a] century have been accelerating. There is no end in sight for the once-in-a-century pandemic, and the task of global governance has grown more daunting, with traditional and non-traditional security issues becoming intertwined and the international community facing a risk of fragmentation and division.
“The question of how to define and interpret the increasing instability and uncertainty in our world today is, in fact, closely related to the issue of discourse. Countries have been fighting the COVID-19 outbreak while also engaging in a discourse game about prevention and control, virus traceability, vaccine production and distribution, and so on.
“The Ukraine crisis made clear that in the digital age, there are not only hot wars 热战, but also information wars 信息战, cognitive wars 认知战, and public opinion wars 舆论战; as the role of discourse has grown in importance, countries are increasingly battling over narratives.
“In 2023, it is expected that the global environment will become more complex, and competition between nations will continue to be influenced by the discourse game and the battle of narratives 叙事之争.
“As a major force of stability in the world and an influential actor, China must better respond to the various challenges that arise during the discourse game. Discourse shapes a country's international perception as well as its international [access to?] intangible infrastructure 软环境 [such as education, healthcare, finance, business services, and technology; lit. "soft environment"].
“China's global image is also shaped by the international public opinion arena, which affects its overall external discourse environment. China still faces some problems and challenges in these areas.
“First, there is still the issue of others commenting on China-related topics and shaping China's image...There is a mismatch between some international information and perceptions of China and the reality on the ground in China.
“China has undergone significant changes over the years, and despite some difficulties, it has benefited from long-term social stability and rapid economic development. However, in the international public opinion arena, discourse about and perceptions of China are frequently stuck in the past and have not kept up with China's development and changes.
“In some cases, they appear to be stuck in frameworks more suited to the Cold War era and ideological confrontation. It is possible for misunderstandings and misinterpretations to happen occasionally when such frameworks are used to explain, describe, and project China's future.
“Second, negative information about China frequently misleads global public opinion, putting China in the center of the international public opinion arena. It is not uncommon for some nations to spread negative information about China and erect discourse barriers in its path using their considerable discourse power 强势话语权 and their capacity to guide and deceive public opinion.
“China is increasingly becoming the focal point of the global debate. With the rise of its clout and international influence, the world is watching its every move. However, China's representation is not always comprehensive and objective, and in some cases, China has even become the target of criticism. When they don't wear tinted glasses 有色眼镜, those nations observe China through a magnifying glass 放大镜 or a filter 滤镜.
“Third, China at times finds itself pushed into a discourse crisis in the international court of public opinion. A number of countries frequently hype China-related topics, putting the country at a disadvantage on the discourse level.
“A wide range of topics are frequently hyped up to mislead international public opinion, from the various incarnations of the "China threat theory" and the "Chinese threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea," through the Belt and Road Initiative's "debt trap" theory, to the use of Covid to stigmatize China - all have had a significant negative impact on China. Not only do they deplete China's discourse resources 话语资源, but they also have an adverse impact on its international image.
“In the coming year, China will need to put in a lot of effort to ensure discourse security and to shape a favorable position in the discourse game. To achieve discourse security, one must ensure that one's own discourse is not compromised and is objectively understood and accepted throughout the communication process.
“It entails avoiding non-secure discourse domains, such as when your own discourse fails to elicit positive feedback. It could also mean that your discourse is purposefully suppressed, distorted, and misinterpreted, as well as that you are subjected to questions, denigration, or even attack at the discourse level.
“First, we should improve our own discourse capacity. Improve the design 设计 of discourse content and take the initiative to promote essential information about China, so that the world can better understand China, as well as Chinese ideas, Chinese thoughts, Chinese culture, Chinese values, Chinese practices, and Chinese theories.
“In addition, we should actively engage in topic design 话题设计 to set the discourse agenda and improve our ability to tell the China story well. On this basis, we can empower the capacity of discourse agents.
“Encourage the effective expression of various discourse topics in the media, academia, and politics through a multitude of channels. Moreover, increase the diversity of the information that China provides to the outside world, boosting China's discourse presence in key groups.
“Second, it is essential to boost the development of platforms for discourse dissemination. In the digital era of omni-media 全媒体, it is no longer enough to rely on traditional print media or television to disseminate the wide range of discourses, nor is it sufficient to rely on a single actor at the government level to do so.
“Social networks, digital platforms, and even individuals can frequently play a significant role in the production and dissemination of discourse. The key questions are how to fully utilize this communication law in the digital age; how to establish and successfully implement effective international discourse dissemination platforms; and how to make them play a role in shaping a good international public opinion environment. All of these issues require immediate attention.
“Third, more dialogue partners in the international public opinion arena are required. For one thing, this can help prevent China from talking to itself in the public opinion sphere. For another, it has the potential to attract additional discourse partners who will support our narrative.
“They can help shape an objective and comprehensive view of China in the international public opinion arena by positively promoting Chinese-made content, telling China's story, and shaping an objective and comprehensive view of China.
“Finally, we should work hard to become a discourse powerhouse 话语强国. China's economic and political influence, among other things, has grown since reform and opening up, but, to be honest, China is still a long way from being a powerful country in terms of discourse; there is much room for improvement and hard work to be done.
“Much effort is needed in terms of discourse strategy, discourse agenda setting, topic design, international public opinion guidance, external-facing discourse system construction, Chinese narrative building, and international communication capacity development. Academia should also focus on how China can become a true discourse power at multiple levels.
“A major power's influence extends beyond just political, economic, and military spheres. It also manifests in a variety of soft aspects, with discourse serving as a crucial facet and dimension of the great power competition. Only when a major power is able to handle both the hard and soft can it successfully transition into a true global power.” (CSSN)
“With Iran's admission to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), its relations with China and Russia…will grow even more intimate”
According to MENA expert Ma Xiaolin, Iran's admission to the SCO can serve as a hedge against the strategic pressure that the US is putting on both China and Russia. At the same time, it has the potential to introduce the great power rivalry to the Middle East.
Ma is a senior professor at the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean Rim (ISMR) at Zhejiang International Studies University (ZISU). Before joining academia and the think-tank world, he was a senior Xinhua correspondent in Kuwait, the Gaza Strip, and Iraq.
According to unnamed US officials quoted in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, Israel was behind the drone attack on a military facility in Isfahan, Iran, on the night of January 28.
Less than 12 hours later, the Iranian Guardian Council announced that the bill for Iran’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) had been handed over to the president for final approval. Coincidence?
Ma Xiaolin’s response:
“It just so happens that the Iranian Guardian Council approved the bill of accession to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) exactly 11 hours after the [drone attack on Isfahan] incident, demonstrating Iran's increasing need for the SCO.
“While I agree there is an apparent connection in terms of timing, I don't necessarily believe there is one, logically speaking. That’s because Iran's admission to the SCO has been long in the making, and its quest for SCO membership is also an old story. Furthermore, Israel and Iran have been engaged in a shadow war for some time.
“That's why it's a bit of a stretch to connect the two. In any case, Iran's membership in the SCO will be extremely beneficial to its international standing, particularly in terms of strengthening Iran's political clout in the Asian hinterland.
“Everyone can see that Iran's influence has grown gradually in recent years as the international situation and regional power dynamics have changed. Iran's diplomatic "look East, not West" strategy has clearly yielded significant results.
“For example, it signed a 25-year comprehensive partnership with China in 2020. The Western media hyped this agreement at the time as a significant boost to Iran's status and a strengthening of the close ties between China and Iran, two so-called adversaries and enemies of the US. According to international convention, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
“Of course, the US is not pleased to see China and Iran advancing their relations. It can also be understood as China playing the Iranian card while Iran plays the China card.
“When the US abruptly withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021 after controlling it for 20 years, they left a vacuum in Central Asia. As a major regional player, Iran quickly stepped in to fill some of the void.
“The Taliban regime's improved ties with Iran over the past few years, despite the fact that 20 years ago they were at each other's throats. Iran has even served as a mediator in negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban armed forces.
“That is why, two years after the Afghan government changed, it seems that Iran is pleased to see the Taliban in power. The Taliban are also eager to expand their reach westward and strengthen ties with Iran.
“With Iran's admission to the SCO, its relations with China and Russia - and with the Central Asian region, including the Far East and East Asia, as a whole - will grow even more intimate. Naturally, this change in circumstances 水涨船高 will elevate Iran's standing as a regional power, making it better able to withstand the US blockade and sanctions.
“Naturally, the inclusion of Iran will significantly increase China's and Russia's presence in the Central Asian and Eurasian hinterlands. This is especially true if the SCO continues to expand into the Persian Gulf and the Gulf [states].
“It will, in particular, shift the competition's focus to West Asia [i.e., the Middle East]. In some ways, it can also be said that it can serve as a hedge against the strategic pressure that the United States is putting on both China and Russia from two different directions.” (ZJU’s Ma Xiaolin, starting from 03:09)
“We ought to take the lead in deciding how and when to resolve the Taiwan issue, and we shouldn’t be dancing to the beat of the American drum”
Firebrand professor Jin Canrong maintains composure in the face of provocation from "bloodthirsty" US generals and mousy Taiwanese and American politicians.
Jin is the associate dean of Renmin University's School of International Studies, and an influential pundit in China and abroad.
On January 27, a memo from Air Mobility Command chief Gen. Mike Minihan began circulating on social media, predicting a clash between China and the US in the Taiwan Strait in 2025. The viral document provoked controversy and an urgent debate in both China and the United States.
Transcript (lightly edited for brevity):
“General Mike Minihan of the US Air Mobility Command (AMC) has been in the talk of the town for the last few days. This old chap 老兄 was talking about a possible US-China war breaking out in 2025, which piqued everyone's interest.
“Here's my take: First, I believe his statements reflect the US military - they do love a good war *laughs*. They have some sort of bloodlust impulse 嗜血的本能. It's because to them life without war seems incomplete; they are yearning for it.
“I also believe that what he said represents the US military-industrial complex. In America, many interest groups, such as financial groups, the military-industrial complex, agricultural companies, and many other important organizations, control the country's fate, but it’s the military-industrial complex that has this bloodthirsty desire for war.
[I’m old enough to recall Jin telling Nikkei that “it is very likely that the leadership will move toward armed unification by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the PLA's founding.” What does this reveal about his drinking habits, and about Xi’s for that matter?]
“The second point is that it clearly reflects...the US' current need to hype the Taiwan issue. We must be cautious because this is exactly how they hyped the Ukraine issue with Russia. They wouldn't go a day without announcing the upcoming fight to the world.
“It was clear that their negotiations had been going well, but America had kept saying, 'they're going to fight, they're going to fight,' adding that Russia would start it. That's how they instill the notion that a region is dangerous.
“Similarly, if something does happen [in the Taiwan Strait], China will be held accountable. Therefore, we must keep an eye on this thing. Both points are bad, with their bloodthirsty instincts and deliberate instigation of trouble in Taiwan, so they can pin the blame on us.
“And here's another thing... [Taiwanese President] Tsai Ing-wen may climb out of her hole for a little visit 窜访 to the US in early April, and McCarthy may do the same 窜访 with Taiwan. This is indeed severe, especially given the possibility that the Taiwan Policy Act (TPA) will pass through the US Congress, effectively nullifying the Three Joint Communiqués.
“I assume our relevant authorities are communicating with the US in the hope that they will prevent this from happening, but my intuition tells me that it may be futile. As previously stated, the battle between the two parties in the US is fierce, and the Biden administration's ability to exert control is limited...That is why, rather than putting our hopes in the hands of others, we must deal with the situation objectively and trust ourselves.
“Of course, we must devise countermeasures to Tsai Ing-wen’s and McCarthy's furtive visits, as well as the TPA, but what those countermeasures will be is difficult to predict at this point. I’m not saying the mainland can't handle Taiwan. Sure we can, but because this issue is a major element of the strategic game between China and the US, it is difficult to predict.
“Furthermore, between the two countries, the US remains stronger and we are weaker 美强我弱. This must be acknowledged. To be sure, we now have an advantage in cross-strait relations, and our side of the triangle is getting stronger. However, when weighing China and the US, the latter remains strategically superior. This is a fact we must face, so we must be realistic in our response, and we must approach these complex situations holistically.
“My intuition is that the relationship between China and the US in 2023 will be threatened by the three factors: McCarthy's visit to Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen's visit to the US, and the TPA.
“For the former, we need to communicate ahead of time and issue a warning. Before we react, we must first clarify our position, actively communicate, and draw our red lines. After the fact - and we've been clear about it, that communication will have little effect - we'll have to take countermeasures. But to what extent?
“Our choice must be based on the overall trajectory of our country's development. The options and tools at our disposal today, in my opinion, are expanding, but the bigger strategic question might not be resolved in one fell swoop.
“You can be sure that there will be repercussions for each of these three offenses, but that doesn't mean a showdown 摊牌 will take place this year, does it? I'm not convinced that this will start "the war which decides the fate of the world" 一战定天下.
“I do believe we should keep in mind one particular principle, though. We ought to take the lead in deciding how and when to resolve the Taiwan issue 操之于我 and we shouldn’t be dancing to the beat of the American drum. That's just playing passive.”
“China is providing an alternative development model to the West, a Chinese-style modernization path that would allow for both economic growth and political stability”
Professor Niu Xinchun of CICIR channels Xi Jinping, who said on Tuesday that "Chinese modernization is a new model for human advancement, and it dispels the myth that 'modernization is equal to Westernization'".
Niu is the director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the MSS-linked China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR).
“State Chairman Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia from December 7 to 9, 2022, to attend the first China-Arab States Summit and the first China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit. During that time, the Sino-US rivalry in the Middle East was heavily hyped in the US media.
“[This begs the question,] Europe and the "Indo-Pacific" are critical components of the Sino-US global strategic competition, while the Middle East is marginal; moreover, the US and China have broadly similar interests in the Middle East, with no inherent contradiction; so, what does the US have to fear and be concerned about China's involvement in the region?
“In terms of economics, the United States has traditionally been at the higher end of the industrial chain, engaged in activities such as energy exploration, finance, insurance, design, regulation, management, and consulting. China, on the other hand, specializes in mining, construction, manufacturing, and processing, making the two sides more complementary than contradictory.
“The competitive side of Sino-US economic engagement in the Middle East, though, has started to grow. China has been gradually climbing up the industrial value chain and growing more competitive in the digital economy, aerospace, clean energy, military industry, and other fields.
“This should have been seen as simply the inevitable result of economic growth. However, in today's tense global strategic environment, the US views economic competition through a political and strategic lens.
“Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at the US State Department, has been outspoken in this regard. She asserted that the US and the Middle East have developed a large system of infrastructure, weaponry, high-tech products, and dual-use technologies over the years and that China is now attempting to break through this system. America is worried that China is compromising the system's integrity, albeit it is more concerned that China will take its place.
“Hence, the US has increased its competitive exclusion against China in what it considers to be its core areas, such as 5G, space technology, ports, and the arms race, as well as tech standards, market access, and the industrial ecosystem. This has resulted in a confluence of economic interests, political suspicions, and security dilemmas.
“In the ideological sphere, Chinese and American influence has ebbed and flowed in recent years, whether through active choice or natural cycles, resulting in a contest between the two models. The rise of the "China Model" inevitably means a decline in the influence of the "US Model," given the obvious differences between the two nations in terms of ideology, political systems, economic systems, and diplomatic values.
“Although few people believe that China's Middle East policy is primarily aimed at weakening the US, some Americans believe that China's words and actions are objectively eroding US influence.
“While international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) attach political conditions to economic aid, the China-led BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the Silk Road Fund have explicitly stated that they come with no strings attached.
“Chinese-led international financial institutions and the Shanghai Petroleum and National Gas Exchange are experimenting with yuan-denominated [oil and gas trade settlement], potentially undermining the US dollar's hegemony.
“China is also providing an alternative development model to the West, a Chinese-style modernization path that would allow for both economic growth and political stability.
“China is not directly involved in hot-button issues in the diplomatic arena, but as an emerging power moving closer to the center of the world political stage, it will stick to its principles on important issues, with no exception.
“China has offered a "five-point peace proposal" to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a "three-point basic principle" to resolve the Libyan issue, a "six-point proposal" to address the Syrian issue, and a "five-point initiative" to address Middle East security. These initiatives and principles all highlight the very different thinking and approaches that characterize China and the US.
“In the military sphere, the US considers the Middle East to be its exclusive property 禁脔. US Officials have categorically stated that while economics is one thing, security is an entirely different ballgame.
“The US has accepted China's dominant position in the Middle East in trade and energy and may recognize China's leading role in investment in the future. However, it will never forfeit its military dominance and is extremely protective of it.
“In terms of strategic security, both China and the US are concerned about the Middle East becoming a card in the other's hand, potentially resulting in a classic security dilemma.
“As a defending power, the US has a tendency to overestimate the strength and intentions of rising powers. And China, as a rising power, wishes to demonstrate its strength and status as a major power. Being the odd man out, the Middle East is concerned about American decline and is eager to use China's rise as a counterbalance.
“The most concerning Middle East-related issue for China is whether the US will cut off energy supply lines from the region. On the other hand, the US is concerned that the Middle East might start to rely increasingly on China for energy sales, turning it into a card in China's hands.
“Some of the contradictions mentioned above exist objectively, but they are not global or strategic in nature. If properly managed, they should have no negative impact on the overall situation in the future. But if they are allowed to deteriorate - or are deliberately overplayed - they can easily escalate into a strategic conflict.
“So far, America’s containment 遏制, counterattacks 反击, and grievances 抱怨 against China in the Middle East have been local, sporadic, and emotional 情绪性, with no strategy in place for a systematic competition.
“The US is not at all concerned about China replacing it in the region, nor does it believe China can challenge its dominance across the board. Yet, in the context of a volatile global strategic environment, these contradictions are sufficient to justify a policy of suspicion and hostility toward China.” (Aisixiang)
Playing in the Background
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation 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 Fund’s Krauthammer Fellow. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia