Interpreting China in International Cooperation and Diplomacy
China’s new position as a major global power is having a profound impact on international relations and global governance. China has long abandoned its previous foreign policy of “keeping a low profile and biding one’s time”, instead becoming an active international actor and norm entrepreneur. European public 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 international NGOs
are active in countries that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The PRC is also an increasingly important security actor
China's growing economic and political power has spurred a debate in the West about how best to engage with the country on a range of issues, from human rights to climate cooperation, science innovation 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 policy-makers in liberal democracies is that, while four decades of ‘reform and opening up’ has transformed China from an impoverished nation into the world’s second largest economy, the country has shown no inclinations to embark on political reform but remains an authoritarian one-party state.
Unfortunately, Europe’s recognition of China’s rise to global-power status has not been matched by much investment in knowledge about the country. An article by The Economist
from November 2020 queried queriedwhether democracies can compete with China without understanding it and warned of a “gradual hollowing out” of expertise on the country. The numbers of students taking Chinese languages or area studies at universities are falling, and European diplomats and policy-makers who are proficient in Chinese are as rare today as they were thirty years ago.
That expertise is needed more than ever. Chinese ideas 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 General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 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 Chinese Party-State's priorities.
The Chinese leadership strives to present the PRC 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 north, south, east and west lines since its founding in 1945. When human rights concerns are raised, China accuses its critics of “politicization” 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 over “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 recent 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 statedvowed
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 prioritizes Party-State stability as a collective interest, legitimizing even 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, but the outcome of coordinated initiatives by the Chinese leadership to develop China’s own discursive system and to build its discursive 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 a speech 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 integrating them into the CCP’s ideological canon and redefining them in a way that makes them harmless to its claim on power.
Many of the concepts discussed in this “Decoding China Dictionary” project filtered into the Chinese 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. When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, it was hoped that a further convergence of values and systems would occur. And indeed, the term human rights was introduced in the Chinese Constitution in 2004, hailed as 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.
At the same time, 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 not reliant on 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, most recently the Hong Kong National Security Law.
Meanwhile, China’s economic success and role as a motor of global growth in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has boosted confidence in China and its governance system as an alternative and superior model. As Xi Jinping has called for
on numerous occasions since 2013, the “ecosystem” of “Chinese values” discussed in this dictionary is increasingly being promoted internationally, most prominently the concept of “a community of shared destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体). The foreign-policy concept of “shared destiny” had a mixed global reception when it was first introduced in 2013, which is likely why later official Chinese translations into English refer to
a “shared future” rather than the more evocative “shared destiny”. As the CCP’s centenary on July 1 approaches, the global outreach positively present the Party-State and its role in the word will only intensify. A new campaign was just kicked off
to instil a correct understanding of the history of the party and the PRC. The campaign calls for proper ideological work when facing changes and challenges in the global arena.
While the space for international exchange and cooperation within China declined after years of political tightening and the passing of the Foreign NGO law
in 2017, there are more opportunities for cooperation in third countries and international organizations. Chinese institutions and non-governmental organisations are “going global.” Among these organisations, there is a wide spectrum of state, private-sector and civil-society actors with different interests that align sometimes more, sometimes less, with official positions. Yet, they are also tasked with strengthening China’s “discourse power” and defending its “right to speak”. Some of the most prominent Chinese organizations on the global stage are closely affiliated with the Chinese state and better characterized as GONGOs (government-organised NGOs). But even more independent social actors and NGOs often frame their work in accordance with officially sanctioned terms and CCP priorities.
This “Decoding China Dictionary” was developed with the aim of providing policy-makers 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 their Chinese counterparts, European actors need to be able to understand the official Chinese meaning of frequently invoked concepts and key terms in international relations and development cooperation. Despite widely different understandings of these concepts, they are frequently referred to as if they had fixed, normative meanings. China’s rise as a global power in a multipolar world means increasing competition over international values and standards. The rules-based world order and multilateralism rely on a global consensus on what the norms underpinning the international system entail. When the meaning of terms like the rule of law, human rights, democracy and sovereignty become blurred, international norms are undermined.
The idea for this dictionary came from discussions at a roundtable event entitled “Engaging with China: Challenges and the Way Forward in Higher Education, Human Rights and Public Diplomacy”, organised in Stockholm in 2019. The intended users of the dictionary are policy-makers and institutions in Europe who are engaged in dialogue and exchanges with China. Co-authored by a group of China specialists, the dictionary tackles a selection of frequently used terms with widely different interpretations between EU member states and China in both how they are defined and their underlying political priorities and values. It is our hope that this dictionary will serve as a point of reference for strategy development and communication with Chinese counterparts. As 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 these concepts within China also tells a story of contestation and different views on many 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 Courtney Fung, Isabel Hilton, Eva Pils, Nadège Rolland, Joshua Rosenzweig and Marina Svensson for their insightful, generous and encouraging comments on our drafts.
Malin Oud and Katja Drinhausen
Stockholm and Berlin
3 March 2021
Zhen Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, 2012, Columbia University Press, p.96