INTERPRETING CHINA IN INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION AND DIPLOMACY
China has long abandoned its previous foreign policy of “keeping a low profile and biding one’s time”. Instead, it has become an active international actor and norm entrepreneur in the UN and at other multilateral fora. China’s new position as a major global power is having a profound impact on international relations and global governance. European policymakers, business representatives, and civil-society actors encounter China at every turn. The country has become a major player in the global development sphere through both aid and development-focused investment. All major transnational NGOs are active in countries that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The PRC is also an increasingly important security actor.
These ambitions were renewed and reformed when Xi Jinping announced China’s new Global Development Initiative at a UN General Assembly in September 2021. Xi followed up with a proposal for a new Global Security Initiative (GSI) in April 2022 at the Boao Forum for Asia, which was further elaborated upon in a February 2023 concept paper. Both initiatives strive to establish China as a provider of global goods through aid, opportunities for development and geopolitical rebalancing. They also promote the Party State’s vision for an international order that is more aligned with the political values and priorities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), especially its understanding of security and sovereignty.
China’s growing economic and political power has spurred debates around the world about how best to engage with the country on a range of issues, from human rights to climate cooperation, science, and nuclear non-proliferation. The European Union sees China as a necessary partner in addressing global challenges such as climate change, global health and reducing global inequalities, but also views it as a “strategic competitor” and a “systemic rival”. A central conundrum for policymakers in liberal democracies is that, while four decades of ‘reform and opening up’ have transformed China from an impoverished nation into the world’s second largest economy, the current leadership has rolled back previous political reforms of cautious liberalization and separation of party and state. China remains an authoritarian one-party state. At the 20th Party Congress in late 2022, Xi Jinping was reaffirmed as Party, and thus, state leader. Under his leadership, China continues to expand CCP control over all aspects of society, seeks modernisation through technological and scientific progress, and demands a major role on the world stage as part of the country’s “rejuvenation”.
Unfortunately, Europe’s recognition of China’s rise to global-power status has not been matched by adequate investment in knowledge about the country. The Economist queried whether democracies can compete with China without understanding it and warned of a “gradual hollowing out” of expertise on the country. The numbers of students choosing to study Chinese languages or area studies at universities are falling, and European diplomats and policymakers who are proficient in Chinese are as rare today as they were thirty years ago. Lack of exchange and insights have been amplified through pandemic-related travel restrictions and the increasing controls China’s government imposes on international engagement with scholars and policymakers.
That expertise is needed more than ever. Ideas promoted and endorsed by the Party State are increasingly making their way into UN documents, where international norms and principles such as the rule of law, human rights and democracy are imbued with new meaning and “Chinese characteristics”. Chinese diplomats often lament that “the West” misunderstands China. President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed the importance of “telling China’s story well” and boosting its voice in order to “create a favourable climate of international public opinion”. The Chinese government spends significant efforts both internationally and domestically on promoting a “correct understanding” of China, i.e., one aligned with the priorities of the Chinese Party State.
China’s leadership strives to present the country as a benevolent and responsible international power, a champion of fair multilateralism and a leader of the developing world. China’s discourse of peace, development and democracy is framed around the notion of a global anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggle, which positions China as a developing country in the Global South that is challenging the hegemony of the Global North. This debate is not new at the UN, where member states have been divided along different ideological lines of north, south, east and west since its founding in 1945. When human rights concerns are raised, China accuses its critics of “politicisation” and of having an “imperialist” or “Cold War mentality”. Instead, it calls for democracy at the UN, respect for China’s right to development, and mutually beneficial cooperation based on “shared interests”.
A notable difference can be discerned in the messaging for domestic audiences compared to what occurs on the international stage. For example, in his statements at the UN General Assembly in 2020 and at the World Economic Forum in 2021, Xi Jinping called for the world to “join hands to uphold the values of peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom shared by all of us and build a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind.” By contrast, in an article in the Party’s leading theoretical journal Qiushi in 2019, Xi Jinping vowed that China “must never follow the path of Western ‘constitutionalism,’ ‘separation of powers,’ or ‘judicial independence’”. Instead, Xi said, China should follow its own path and “be adept at using law when participating in international affairs. In the struggle against foreign powers, we must take legal weapons, occupy the high ground of the rule of law…. We must actively participate in the formulation of international rules and act as participant, promoter, and leader during the changing process of global governance.”
A similar ambiguity of treatment becomes apparent in a deeper reading of Chinese official sources. While ostensibly invoking the same concepts of freedom, democracy, rule of law and human rights, there are fundamental differences in the definitions and underlying political priorities and social values of these concepts in liberal democracies compared to China. While there is common ground with regard to strengthening legal predictability, effective governance and sustainability, the Chinese leadership prioritises party-state stability – as the collective interest of the ‘people’ – over the rights of the individual, and uses it to legitimise repressive measures. For example, the crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong are routinely framed in terms of human rights protection and good governance.
This conceptual framing is no coincidence. It is the outcome of decades of coordinated initiatives by the Chinese leadership to develop China’s own discursive system and to build its discourse power. Domestically, the Chinese government has always paid close attention to propaganda and how to “do things with words”. The influx of “Western” liberal values in the 1980s, such as democracy and human rights, were seen as a root cause of the protests of 1989 and a threat to the survival of the CCP. China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping stated in 1989 that he considered insufficient ideological and political education to be the biggest reform failure of the 1980s. But the long-term approach taken by the Party State was not the blanket repression of terms, but rather their integration into the CCP’s ideological canon and redefinition in a way that renders them harmless to its claim on power.
Many of the concepts discussed in this volume filtered into official CCP language in the decades of “reform and opening” that commenced in 1979, were accelerated after Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour in 1992, and laid the ground for China’s accession to the WTO in 2001. Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 sparked hopes that a further convergence of values and systems would occur. And indeed, the term human rights was introduced in the Chinese Constitution in 2004, initially hailed as a new era of constitutional rights protection. Democracy, freedom and the rule of law are now part of the canon of core socialist values being promoted under Xi Jinping, whose musings on human rights, diplomacy, security and modernisation have been published in an ever-expanding canon of Xi Jinping Thought.
But these concepts have undergone a major revamp to make them compatible with the CCP’s political and ideological system. Under Xi, measures to define and safeguard a Chinese value system independent of liberal ideas have intensified. Document No. 9, issued by the Party leadership in 2013, was a mission statement to guard against constitutional democracy, universal values and civil society in their liberal sense. The concern that liberal or “Western” values are a threat to China’s unity and political stability is equally reflected in a set of security-related laws and regulations introduced in the last decade, such as the Hong Kong National Security Law.
China’s economic success and role as a motor of global growth in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and, more recently, its management of the Covid-19 pandemic boosted confidence in China’s governance system as an alternative and superior model. Around the CCP’s centenary on 1 July 2021, China’s global outreach intensified. A new campaign was initiated to instil a correct and positive understanding of the Party and China’s role in the world, calling for proper ideological work in facing changes and challenges in the global arena.
The ultimate goal is to establish China’s viewpoints and practices in the international order. As Xi Jinping has called for on numerous occasions since 2013, “Chinese values” and “solutions” should be promoted internationally, most prominently the concept of “a community of shared future for mankind” (人类命运共同体), where countries follow their own path, cooperate where desired and refrain from criticising each other. China’s government wants to establish itself as model that other countries emulate. This is evident in its efforts to present China as a “democracy that works” in a White Paper in December 2021 and at various events. It is equally apparent in China’s rhetoric around its partnership with Russia, portraying both as “progressive forces” against Western hegemony and as defenders of peace and sovereignty.
The space for international exchange and cooperation within China has shrunk significantly after the passing of the Foreign NGO Law in 2017. Conflicts over human rights issues and China’s verbal support for Russia’s interests after its invasion of Ukraine have further deepened the divide. But opportunities for engagement and cooperation in international organisations and third countries remain. Chinese institutions and non-governmental organisations are “going global”. They, too, are tasked with strengthening China’s “discourse power” and defending its “right to speak”. Some of the most prominent Chinese organisations on the global stage are closely affiliated with the Chinese state and better characterised as GONGOs (government-organised non-governmental organisations). Even more independent social actors and NGOs also often frame their work in accordance with officially sanctioned terms and CCP priorities for strategic reasons.
China’s rise as a global power in a multipolar world means increasing competition over international values and standards. Policymakers worldwide must come to terms with the fact that China, like other great powers, uses its growing economic and political clout to shape the international order. But a rules-based world order relies on a global consensus on what the underpinning norms entail. When the meaning of terms like the rule of law, human rights, democracy, and sovereignty become blurred, international norms are undermined. Simply brushing aside China’s efforts to reinterpret established norms and promote an alternative value system won’t suffice to meet this challenge. Instead, liberal democracies need to strengthen and protect their core democratic values, and counter China’s rhetoric – by making a compelling argument for why international norms in their liberal, universal sense matter and what benefits they hold for citizens.
The “Decoding China Dictionary” was developed by a group of China specialists with the aim of providing policymakers and practitioners with a simple and practical tool to help them decipher the official Chinese narrative, or “New China Newspeak”. To enable informed engagement with Chinese counterparts, actors in Europe and elsewhere need to understand the official meaning of frequently invoked concepts and key terms in international relations. It is our hope that this dictionary will serve as a point of reference for communication and strategy development. The dictionary is a living document. We welcome comments and suggestions for how it can be improved and developed further.
Although focused on party-state discourse, the evolution of many of these concepts within China also tells a story of contestation and differing views of these terms and associated practices. In this context, it deserves to be mentioned that the Chinese philosopher and diplomat Peng-Chun Chang, then Vice-Chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, played an instrumental role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The dictionary does not attempt to introduce the reader to the wealth of Chinese scholarship and debates on these issues, which is both rich and diverse. We have, however, included a list of English-language references and resources for the reader who would like to learn more about different Chinese perspectives on these ideas and concepts.
Finally, we would like to acknowledge the sinologists and decoding experts whose work has informed and inspired this project. We have included some key works in the list of references and thank Geremie Barmé, Magnus Fiskejö, Lars Fredén, Courtney Fung, Fredrik Fällman, Hurst Hannum, Isabel Hilton, Manoj Kawalramani, James Miles, Eva Pils, Nadège Rolland, Joshua Rosenzweig, Rolf Schwartz, Marina Svensson, and Jörg Wuttke for their insightful, generous, and encouraging comments on our drafts.
Malin Oud and Katja Drinhausen
Stockholm and Berlin
February 27, 2023
 M. Schoenhals, Doing Things with Words in Chinese Politics: Five Studies, Center for Chinese Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1992.
 Z. Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, New York, Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 96.