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Discourse Power | June 2, 2023
The dawn of Xivilization, and el matador
Greetings from Jerusalem,
In addition to a translation of a recent interview with notorious Chinese diplomat Liu Xiaoming, today's issue features an article I wrote for the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) Insight series about Xi Jinping’s three new global initiatives.
The INSS is Israel's leading policy institution, and it consistently ranks as the Middle East and North Africa's top think-tank, so if you're not on our mailing list, you're missing out. Subscribe here.
I would like to take this opportunity to highly recommend an article written by my friend and teacher Alexander B. Pevzner for my former intellectual home, the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), about China's view of the world order, the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the war in Ukraine.
Thank you for reading,
The Dawn of Xivilization: Israel and China’s New Global Initiatives
In the last two years, China's leader, Xi Jinping, has announced three global initiatives: the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). What exactly are they, how do they differ from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and what do they imply for the State of Israel?
INSS Insight No. 1730, May 31, 2023, by Tuvia Gering
“This is a victory for peace,” pronounced China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, after overseeing the signing of a normalization agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia on March 10, 2023.
Wang emphasized that the credit for the breakthrough should be given to General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative (GSI). The same initiative had been mentioned by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang as a possible basis for resolving the Ukrainian war, and once more in a conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on April 17 as means of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Over the last decade, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) had been the centerpiece of Xi’s foreign policy, but three additional Chinese initiatives that have been launched in the last two years now challenge its primacy.
The first is Xi’s Global Development Initiative (GDI), which he announced at the UN General Assembly in September 2021. With global growth slowing in the shadow of COVID-19, its stated goal is to assist the international community in achieving the UN 2030 Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In June 2022, China announced 32 concrete steps (“deliverables”) for its implementation, which bring together existing Chinese-led development initiatives while adding new tools and resources. Among them are a billion dollars added to the three-billion-dollar Beijing-led South-South development fund and the training of 100,000 workers by China.
The second is the Global Security Initiative (GSI), launched in April 2022. It complements the GDI based on the Sinicized Marxist notion that “security is a prerequisite for development, and development is a guarantee for security.”
In a GSI Concept Paper published last February, on the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, China called for a “joint, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable” security that respects the sovereignty of countries and addresses their “legitimate security concerns.”
Chinese leaders maintain that the GSI promotes a “new” security concept that complies with the UN Charter, abides by peaceful resolution of disputes, and maintains world peace in “traditional security” (areas related to warfare and power politics) and “non-traditional security” (such as climate, economy, cyber, and pandemics).
The GDI and GSI were joined in March by the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI), which focuses on “soft power” fields such as education, culture, and values. According to the Chinese foreign minister, the GCI’s goal is to promote “unity, harmony, mutual respect, and mutual understanding among different civilizations” and to support the “shared values of humanity.”
What Distinguishes the Global Initiatives from the Belt and Road Initiative?
The BRI will be ten years old this December, and by that time, approximately 14,000 projects in 165 countries totaling trillions of dollars will have been associated with its name.
Regardless of the economic contributions it makes to its partners, the initiative has had an “image problem” in recent years due to corruption, lack of transparency, and damage to the environment and to workers’ rights (the prevalent claim that China sets “debt traps” to seize assets, however, has been thoroughly debunked).
Domestic and foreign funding constraints, as well as the number of projects and “competing brands” of the G7, the European Union, India, and Japan, have exacerbated the challenges.
The BRI has its roots at the turn of the century, more than a decade before Xi came to power, in localized development initiatives in China’s border regions. In comparison, the new initiatives are his and, by definition, “global” from the start.
Unlike the BRI’s Sinocentric “Silk Roads,” they promote issues that enjoy a broad international consensus, as a senior Chinese diplomat put it: “Who would oppose cooperation on development?”
Indeed, as of April, the GDI had received the support of over a hundred countries and international organizations, as well as the UN Secretary-General’s blessing, and nearly 70 countries had joined the “Group of Friends of the GDI” headquartered in New York.
With the 69-year-old Xi entering his third term and no successor in sight, the initiatives are accompanied by a personality cult campaign (party-state propaganda aptly coined the term “Xivilization”).
Their goal is to legitimize the leader’s perpetual rule and the party he heads, painting him as a “great Marxist strategist” who “cares for the fate of humanity” and is capable of identifying global “deficits” in development, security, trust, and governance. They also demonstrate the evolution of China’s foreign policy under Xi, from maintaining a low profile to “striving for achievement.”
This activism, or “spirit of struggle,” is promoted in light of his catchphrase “great changes unseen in a century.” Because China has become so entwined with the world and vice versa, responding to the changes is not enough; Beijing must “get closer to world’s center stage” and seize the initiative so that the changes are in line with its interests and values.
Finally, the three initiatives demonstrate Beijing’s genuine faith in the “righteousness of its way.” After four decades of almost double-digit growth, China has turned from a backward country into an economic powerhouse.
In Xi’s view, China’s rise is a mirror image of the decline of the United States and the West, and it attests to the superiority of the “Chinese model.” Along with the BRI, the three initiatives serve as the “blueprint” for a new world order – a post-Western world order – that will see the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and the realization of Xi’s vision of a “community with a shared destiny for mankind”:
The GDI aims to set the agenda for global development by first co-opting this high-consensus concept and then transforming it. Under this kind of “development,” the sovereign state’s interests trump individual freedoms. And unlike the Sinocentric Silk Roads, the GDI works toward the SDGs and has its own exclusive and US-free China-led “Group of Friends of the GDI” under the auspices of the UN. This fact confers international legitimacy and makes its anti-liberal ideas more palatable. For instance, its emphasis on cyber cooperation is done under the guise of China’s “internet sovereignty,” i.e., securing a global network that is atomized, censored, and monitored.
The GSI’s very definition of a “new security concept” implies an antithesis to an “old security concept” led by the US. According to China, the latter advocates a zero-sum game, inciting camp confrontations and nurturing a Cold War mentality. In reality, the GSI is intended to undermine the legitimacy of the network of US-led security alliances and partnerships that Beijing sees as a threat, including NATO, the Quad, AUKUS, and the G7. The GSI Concept Paper, for example, calls for a “new security architecture,” for the holding of Middle East security forums in Beijing, and the convening of “a larger, more authoritative, and more influential international peace conference” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Xi stated at the unveiling of the GCI that the success of the Chinese development model “breaks the myth of modernization equals Westernization.” It presupposes that the US is fueling a “clash of civilizations,” whereas China wants to allow “all flowers to bloom in the big garden of world civilizations.” This remark by the Chinese foreign minister should serve as a stark reminder of the last time a Chinese leader wished to “let a hundred flowers bloom.” Today, China employs cultural relativism of so-called “shared values of humanity” to redefine the very essence of universal values such as human rights and democracy as subject to the dictates of the sovereign state. In doing so, it seeks to deter “interference in internal affairs” in the name of the universal values that it violates.
Implications for Israel
As with the BRI, China has not yet established any clear-cut mechanisms, budgets, nor timetables for the three initiatives. As for the Chinese mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it was evidently linked to the GSI only after the fact, much in the same way the BRI umbrella brought together a haphazard assortment of projects that had begun prior to its launch.
The three initiatives, however, should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Even if most of their projects remain on paper, their centrality in China’s foreign policy necessitates Israel’s awareness of and monitoring of their development.
Xi Jinping invited Israel to “take an active part in the GDI” in a conversation with President Isaac Herzog in November 2021. Jerusalem has yet to respond or take an official stance on the three initiatives. But if it does – or if senior Israeli officials publicly support it – they will join the company of anti-liberal nations who have embraced it, giving China a propaganda win.
If Israel joins and is later forced to withdraw, its relations with Beijing will suffer. In comparison, as the only G7 country to join the BRI in 2019, Italy is now looking for a way out, souring bilateral relations with China in the process.
At the same time, outright opposition to the initiatives will be perceived as too confrontational. Therefore, Israel’s interest is not to join the GDI or express blanket support for it, but rather to continue project-by-project cooperation with China on development while balancing economic, foreign policy, and security considerations.
The GSI, in contrast, is intended to undermine US-led security frameworks. In the Middle East, it may jeopardize the progress of the Abraham Accords and the I2U2 (a minilateral grouping launched in 2022 and comprised of Israel, the US, India, and the United Arab Emirates).
Furthermore, given that Beijing is dogmatically biased in favor of the Palestinians and provides Iran with an economic lifeline, international legitimacy, and technological solutions to ensure the regime’s survival, support for the GSI goes against Israel’s strategic interests.
Aside from security concerns, Israeli support will be misguided on a normative level. The GSI’s stated support for the UN Charter is a smokescreen for China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the most egregious violation of the charter, which Beijing and Moscow justify as a response to “NATO expansionism.”
Similarly, the good intentions that pave China’s road to “inter-civilizational dialogue and cooperation” under the GCI erode universal values that underpin human rights, dignity, and freedom from oppression, and reject the foundation of liberal democracies on which countries such as Israel were founded.
Just as it is not advisable to sign a contract without thoroughly reading it, Israel should not adopt China’s new initiatives without carefully examining their content and implications.
“Telling the China Story well is not only the responsibility of diplomats but also of every Chinese person. Chinese people living abroad, whether studying, doing business or traveling, are all ambassadors for China's national image”
China’s former ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, believes that “telling the China Story well” is essential for the country’s continued rise to the world’s center stage. He sees Western criticism of him as "the original Wolf Warrior" and China's diplomacy as "coercive" as evidence of their unwillingness to accept China's growing international discourse power.
Full translation of the CCTV4 transcript, published May 24th, 2023:
He is the longest-serving Chinese ambassador in the history of Sino-British relations. He has given over 170 interviews to mainstream media during his 11 years in the UK, including 53 on TV and the radio.
He's been dubbed "the most photographed", and "the most oft-quoted ambassador to the UK." He claimed he was anxious about going on the air but he always regains his confidence in an instant when he remembers that the powerful motherland has his back.
He is the scion of a Chinese People's Volunteer Army soldier. Previously appointed as China's 15th ambassador to North Korea, now he serves as China's special representative for the Korean Peninsula and claims to have "an unbreakable bond" with North Korea.
He has been described as a man of exceptional intelligence and erudite knowledge, at times showing his biting sense of humor. Those with ulterior motives refer to him as "the original Wolf Warriors, a label he flatly rejects.
And to those who label Chinese diplomacy as "bullying," "coercive," or "Wolf Warrior-like", he has even stronger words: "Any attempt to denigrate China through stigmatization is bound to fail!"
The powerful motherland is the source of my confidence
Liu was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, the host of BBC Newsnight, on January 23, 2012, the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. This was his first live television interview in the West.
Paxman is widely regarded as the UK's most astute and deft television host. [Before the interview,] Paxman explained that the only reason he wanted to speak with the Ambassador was because he had been in the UK for a while. Liu accepted the invitation without hesitation, despite knowing full well that this chap 家伙 was a notoriously "unpleasant host" 横主儿.
"I do get nervous sometimes, but I know the powerful motherland has my back. There are lots of stories to tell about China's development, which gives me confidence and strength."
The British media is known for its ability to set "traps," and Liu recalls the "trap" set for him by Paxman for his first live TV appearance. In an interview with Lu Jian [on CCTV4], Liu recalled Paxman's first question: "Are you a communist?"
“At the time, the term "communist China" was frequently used in the Western media, and Liu decided to seize the opportunity to clear the air for the Communist Party of China and the country.
He told Paxman that while China is a Communist-led country, it cannot be described as "Communist," just as Britain is a Conservative-led country but cannot be described as "Tory Britain." Liu's response was promptly accepted by Paxman.
“Liu, a veteran of many battles 身经百战, believes that competing with Western media requires us to become more like a cool-headed "matador" 斗牛士 rather than an easily provoked bull 公牛.
Every TV and radio interview, press conference, speech, and article in the mainstream media is treated as a dialogue with the Western audience. "Through this dialogue, I am able to communicate with them and improve their understanding of China," Liu explained. “What I value are the people on the other side of the screen, the audience, and the readers. I am engaged in conversation with the Western public."
During Liu's final years in the UK, the international situation became more complicated, and the British media's approach to China became increasingly full of "pride and prejudice" 傲慢与偏见. Liu has thus conducted a greater number of interviews in order to dispel Chinese stereotypes in the UK.
However, some British reporters would only give him a few seconds to respond to a question before abruptly cutting him off, while others frequently misconstrued information, deliberately distorting the truth 颠倒黑白, and setting up discourse traps 话语陷阱.
For situations such as these, Liu has three sets of "weapons" 武器 at his disposal :
"The first is the spear 长矛, i.e., proactive offense - I need to prepare a set of statements that publicize China's domestic and foreign policies; at the same time, I have my shield ready 盾牌 - that is, we need to prepare for their various traps and grenades thrown in our direction and fend off the trickier questions; finally, I carry a dagger 匕首, or a counterattack, because the best defense is a good offense."
"I reject the so-called “original Wolf Warrior' label"
In recent years, some Western politicians and media outlets have repeatedly labeled Chinese diplomacy as "bullying," "coercive," or "Wolf Warrior-like." Liu retorted categorically and piercingly 斩钉截铁 that those Western politicians simply cannot accept China's growing international discourse power 话语权.
“They are uncomfortable hearing China speak justice and truth to power 义正词严, righteously 理直气壮 defending its sovereignty, security, and development interests. That's why they try to diminish its influence by stigmatizing it, but they are doomed to fail.
Liu Xiaoming has been dubbed the "original Wolf Warrior" due to his active public diplomacy. Liu rebuffed the label outright, claiming he doesn't give it much thought.
"I believe that diplomats, whether they appear on TV or give speeches, are there to engage in dialogue. Every conversation must be turned into an opportunity to tell the China Story well. Such rumors and lies must be refuted as they are presented, and the only way we can tell the truth is by calling out the lies,” he told Lu Jian.
"The 'special relationship' between the UK and the US should not impact Sino-British relations"
Liu remains concerned about Sino-British relations, even after leaving his position as China's ambassador to the UK: "Sino-British relations have indeed undergone relatively big changes in the past few years, with the UK initially viewing China as an opportunity. It now views it as a challenge.
The reason for this, according to Liu, is that a lot has happened in the last few years, both internationally and between China and the UK, particularly after the fiasco surrounding the 2019 Hong Kong legislative amendment [the extradition bill and subsequent National Security Law].
Following that, the UK has been increasingly meddling in Hong Kong's affairs. "We have always advocated mutual respect, seeking common ground while reserving differences, and non-interference in each other's internal affairs," Liu said. "Nonetheless, the UK has meddled in Chinese domestic affairs, which is bound to elicit China's vehement opposition."
In recent years, British policy toward China has been heavily influenced by America. Liu told Lu Jian that the "special relationship" between the UK and the US is historic in nature, but some British people now believe it exists only in name and that it means nothing more than an unequal partnership.
Liu's only concern is that the British-US "special relationship" may have an impact on Sino-British relations. He believes that the UK should take a stand for what is right and just and that if Britain continues to "dance to America's tune" 随美起舞, it will end up harming its own interests.
"A diplomat's most important skill is a firm conviction"
The 1970s saw rapid changes in Chinese diplomacy, including the UN General Assembly passing a resolution to restore all of the PRC's legal rights in the UN, Kissinger's secret visit to China, the issuance of the Sino-US Joint Communiqué in Shanghai, the normalization of Sino-US relations, and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the UK.
That was the point at which Liu decided to leave his English major at the Dalian University of Foreign Languages and join the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Over the course of his nearly 50-year diplomatic career, Liu has spent 28 years based in nations like Zambia, the US, Egypt, North Korea, and the UK. Being apart from his family has become Liu's norm.
"In the diplomatic corps, we have this old saying that you can't be loyal to your country and filial to your parents at the same time 自古忠孝两难全." Liu was in Britain for the holidays when his mother became critically ill, and he was unable to return home before she died. "I'd like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all my brothers and sisters in the foreign service; their support alone gave us the strength to carry on," an emotional Liu told Lu.
“Liu revealed, when asked about his future plans, that he published two books last year, Sharp Dialogue and Tell China's Story. He hopes to continue sharing his experience and knowledge of telling the China Story in a variety of formats with everyone.
“He believes that telling the China Story well is not only the responsibility of diplomats but also of every Chinese person. Chinese people living abroad, whether studying, doing business or traveling, are all ambassadors for China's national image. He added that he will do his part by helping to educate the next generation of diplomats.
What is the most important skill of a diplomat? " Liu's response is having a firm conviction. "Throughout my interviews, I would mention repeatedly that I have self-assurance, confidence, a strong sense of responsibility, and unwavering conviction.
“Premier Zhou Enlai, the progenitor of the Chinese diplomatic corps, would summarize it in a sixteen-character dictum: Unswerving loyalty 站稳立场, mastery of policies 掌握政, professional competency 熟悉业务, and observance of discipline 严守纪律 [the English translation is the official motto of China Foreign Affairs University (CFAU), which trains diplomats in Beijing].
"The sixteen-character dictum has been carried forward to the present day, forming the fine tradition of China's diplomatic service. It has since been distilled into six characters, namely loyalty 忠诚, sense of mission 使命, and dedication 奉献." (CCTV4 | h/tfor flagging the interview)
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