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The Quality of Discourse: The Key to Improving China’s Discourse Right

[Editor’s Note: In its effort to bolster China’s image, Beijing faces a dilemma. Despite its impressive economic growth and burgeoning military spending, few countries subscribe to its values. The Communist government realizes that it has to strive for more and stronger “discourse right” in order to be recognized as a true world power.

In his article, “Red Flag Manuscripts,” Professor Zhang Zhizhou of the International Relations Institute at Beijing Foreign Language University provides his observations and insights. He suggests that China’s current effort to gain international discourse rights falls short of its goal, and is based merely on “increasing the propaganda sound volume and widening communication channels.” He believes China needs to improve the quality of its message. The article asks some open-ended questions that are difficult to answer within China’s political environment.

The following is a translation of excerpts from the article] [1]

What is “Discourse Right?”

The concept of “discourse right” originally came from French Sociologist Michel Foucault’s theory on discourse and its social power. The expression refers to “power,” not “right.” In other words, “discourse right” is not about one’s right to speak, but the power behind one’s words.

The “discourse right” uses words as a vehicle, but it carries its intrinsic character. To a certain degree, the influence of “discourse right” comes from its logic and persuasion; the message of the discourse inevitably conveys its values and ideology.

China’s Quality Problem in International Discourse

Currently, China wants to up the ante in achieving more “discourse right,” and calls for more respect for China’s voice as it is heard from many businesses and government entities in China. However, our media oftentimes misunderstand the issue, and believe that our discourse right comes from our economic might. This misconception may be caused by a misleading phenomenon: the powerful U.S. and Europe possess tremendous international discourse right. But, the reason that the U.S. and Europe command a dominant influence cannot be attributed entirely to their power. Their new thinking often defines important international topics and agendas, and their ideas have strong and convincing logic. In fact, in some areas and on some topics, smaller countries have more influence than big countries. For instance, on the subject of upholding national sovereignty and territorial integrity, Cuba is more righteous than the United States; on global climate change, some small Nordic countries have more influence than some big countries.

China should turn its own superior concepts into mainstream discourse in the world. Although it is under the current Western dominance, China’s influence is undermined by Western mainstream ideology. If we can present powerful proof, (China’s ideas) can still become the mainstream international discourse. Furthermore, we do have superior viewpoints on a number of international issues. For instance, China was the first nuclear power to declare not to use nuclear weapons first, and it also called for total destruction of nuclear weapons in the world. After the Cold War, China promoted “democratization of international relations” and a “harmonious world.” However, despite our good concepts, we could not provide an in-depth academic presentation and sound supporting principles. As a result, these superior concepts became a policy announcement, and their persuasive power was greatly compromised. We have been unable to force the opposing countries into the moral predicament of always having to defend their principles and actions. Therefore, our superior ideas have failed to become leading discourse in the world community.

China should also strive to increase its right to set up an international agenda and define the rules of the game. In the post Cold War era, the most prominent subjects include globalization, global management, human rights, humanitarian aid, peace keeping, anti-terrorism, anti-nuclear proliferation, poverty, women’s development, civil society, environmental protection, climate change, emission control, Internet security and information freedom, bio-tech risk management, ethical taboos, financial system reform and stability, regional economic cooperation, etc. Generally speaking, (in these areas) China’s discourse power and quality are still weak.

China needs to change the current situation in which its international identity is “being defined.” Since the Cold War, China has developed a clear identity. It is the largest developing country, a socialist country with Chinese characteristics, and a country that is rising peacefully. China recognizes itself as an emerging industrial country and one of the BRIC nations. But at the same time, China’s international identity has been defined by others. Some Western forces view China as a country with no freedom and democracy, and a non-market economy; some believe China is a challenger for world powers; some claim it is a pre-modern state and even a human rights violator. These negative identities form the basis for the “China threat theory.”  In recent years, the West redefined China’s position. The European Community, UK, France and Germany call China a trade partner or strategic partner. The U.S. sees China as a stake holder, and demands that China becomes a responsible big country in international affairs. Some American scholars even coined “Chimerica” and “G2” to describe the Sino-U.S. relation. Although positive identities are better than negative ones, China’s identity is still being defined by others.

Ways to Improve the Quality of China’s Discourse

In recent years, promotion of Confucius Institutes, China’s CNN – China Xinhua News Network Corporation (CNC), China National Network TV (CNTV), and the English editions of Qiushi and Global Times all signify China’s effort to improve its international discourse right. But these measures and actions share a common trait: they are all based on increasing the propaganda sound volume and widening communication channels. To truly raise China’s discourse power to the next level, the right action strategy must be used to fortify the quality of China’s discourse.

In the post Cold War ear, the West not only has the upper hand in its values and ideology;  its discourse in politics, economics and culture are also widely accepted with little contest. Western concepts such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the market economy have become a “common language” in international society. Due to a lack of competition, the Western ideology has become “discourse hegemony.” We must establish a systemic international discourse strategy, and identify the future direction of discourse quality development from the strategic level.

The current Western dominance of discourse is not an accident; it is inseparable from its advanced humanity and social sciences. The seminal ideas of freedom, democracy, quality, human rights and rule of the law all came from Western humanity and social scientists in history. Now looking at China’s current humanity and social science research, (one finds that) although many books have been written, and the research topics are abundant, a phenomenon should be noticed: in today’s China, mainstream researchers of economics, laws, political science, sociology, education, history, international relations and other areas all use Western core concepts and vocabulary to define their language. To improve China’s discourse quality, this situation must be changed as soon as possible. China must develop and nourish basic humanity and social science research.

To effectively promote China’s socialist core values and the mainstream ideology, a principle must be upheld: China must strike a balance between its modernization, globalization and traditional culture. Only after achieving such a balance, can China’s discourse acquire new values, and China can then gain powerful discourse rights.

[1] Qiushi Journal, July 27, 2010