China’s discourse power in geostrategic competition

Securing the future means much more than the military balance, given current strategic competition with China for influence across emerging economies worldwide. China’s rise goes beyond global dominance of production of strategic minerals and the technologies reliant on them. These are great challenges, but we know how those challenges can be met, including through self-reliance, strategic reserves, re-industrialization.

China’s ambitions stretch far beyond dominance of global supply chains. China seeks discourse power. That means not only amplifying China’s voice, on China’s terms, but also being heard, believed and heeded. Discourse power frames what is normal and what is no longer sayable or even imaginable.

What China is proud to call propaganda has never been more important, both as the only source of information available to Chinese citizens and, beyond China, a story of China’s “rightful place” that demands acceptance.

At present, China’s discourse power lags its economic power. That disparity is much lamented by China’s leaders, ideologues and elite intellectuals now working to amplify China’s voice. China has plans, at the highest level, to engineer its acceptance as not only a great civilization, but the great civilization, of such unbroken continuity, super-stability and magnificence that everyone will be dazzled and then deferentially kowtow. As Deputy Foreign Minister Hua Chunying says, discourse power is “an important battlefield for the strategic game of great powers.”

In the richer countries, heeding China’s discourse seems a remote prospect, just as China’s mastery of so many technologies and industries and export markets once seemed to be remote prospects. But if you live in Africa, Central or Southeast Asia or the Pacific, if you rely on Mango TV or CGTN to know the wider world, you are already a client of China’s burgeoning discourse power.

The ancient silk road conveyed much more than silk. Buddhism travelled from its Indian origins into Central Asia and then into China on the silk road with the traders. Today’s silk road, the Belt and Road Initiative, is about more than importing coal, oil and gas into China and exporting railways, power grids, pipelines and highways. Positioning Chinese culture as the great civilization to be admired and emulated is the long-term agenda in the expanding sphere of influence of a regional superpower.

Within China, “public opinion guidance” is a major state-owned industry, ensuring citizens have access only to the official line. Ramping up or dialling down the powerful emotions of patriotic pride and anger, in real time on social media, has enlisted an army of influencers who herd dissenters away from thinking the wrong thoughts and guiding the masses to think only the right thoughts. China has built its own internal online alternative universe to disseminate, without contradiction, the Chinese Communist Party’s alternative facts and debate framings.

Beyond China, normalizing an alternative master narrative is much harder, as Chinese civilization so far lacks the appeal of Korean boy bands and squid gaming, Japanese brands, Taiwanese tech or European heritage. China envies Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood, but has as yet little rejoinder. China is now investing in “national culture export bases” tasked with finding that elusive formula that will dethrone Hollywood.

China’s new frontier is hearts and minds worldwide. Extending China’s reach into deep space and the deep seafloor, into a massive blue ocean force projection navy, are all familiar dangers which can be contained. But the new horizon of attaining discourse power proceeds. As with the militarization of the South China Sea, a response to the rising challenge has been belated and haphazard. Advancing China’s discourse power within the UN system has progressed for years, with little pushback.

It begins with China’s repudiation of universals and insistence on exceptionalism, especially universals such as the UN’s foundational Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which insists that to be born human is to be born with rights. The first step of naval expansion was to dredge coral reefs into islands with military airstrips; the first step of redefining master narratives is to blunt what had been normal, demanding “Chinese characteristics” exempt China from any oversight or accountability.

Having blunted the scope of hitherto universally accepted universals, China’s next step in public diplomacy is to insert its own slogans as the frame. One example is the UN Convention on Biodiversity meeting in a Conference of Parties in Kunming in Yunnan province in October 2021, which issued its agreed Kunming Declaration, titled “Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth.”

China is immensely proud of this achievement, combining two key propaganda slogans into one document title, that does nothing for endangered species. What is “ecological civilization”? Why does it require, as CCP propaganda repeatedly tells us, “arduous struggle” to construct it? What does an anodyne phrase like “a shared future for all life on Earth” matter so much that China lobbied hard for its inclusion? How is it possible that China’s official policy instructions on biodiversity conservation repeatedly speak of “harmony between man and nature” and “shared future for all life,” yet in the same document impose exclusion and displacement of pastoralists from their remote pastures deep inland, leading to loss of land tenure rights, food security and livelihoods?

China is building a new reality based on a master narrative of mastery, of atomistic science and state simplifications that erase the accumulated local knowledge of local communities who have sustainably managed vast landscapes for thousands of years, now recategorized as “rural labourers,” a lumpen rural proletariat no longer fit for purpose in a new era of consolidation and scaling up intensification of land use, while proclaiming “ecological civilisation.”

To those skilled pastoralists, expert at living off the uncertainties of a highly variable climate, that’s confusing. It is as confusing for observers trying to reconcile fieldwork reporting of mass displacements with the rhetorics of building a shared future for all life on Earth.

As China’s discourse power building program gathers momentum, as new propaganda slogans are issued with greater frequency, we need reliable guidance that unpacks and decodes the proliferating building blocks of discourse power.

As China codifies its agenda for a new order, with distinctly Chinese characteristics, we face a growing need to decode, to discern implicit meanings and motives. The China model is actively exported to developing countries worldwide, especially in government-to-government transactions that bypass civil society and community engagement, on the explicit basis of China’s doctrine of “non-interference.”

China’s expanding campaign to assert soft power complements China’s global economic reach, and its expanding military hard power; they go together. For these reasons, China’s vague yet meaningful propaganda slogans need to be included in non-traditional security analysis just as much as security analysts assess China’s latest missiles and what they portend.

For some geostrategists, all that matters is hard power. They see China’s propaganda as at most China steering its domestic audiences; no need to bother taking is seriously. This seriously under-estimates how central propaganda is to China’s rise, the extent to which Xi Jinping’s regime sees propaganda as a frontline, and the appeal of carefully framed propaganda slogans to emerging country governments.

Decoding China’s rapidly proliferating discursive propaganda power is increasingly necessary. The DecodingCCP website unpacks core slogans that matter to China—and now matter globally. DecodingCCP.org critiques those vague phrases China works so hard to insert into UN documents and treaties: common but differentiated responsibilities, belt and road, ecological civilization, new development paradigm, public opinion guidance, splittism, bottom-line mission, common prosperity, non-interference in internal affairs, patriotic education campaign, to name a few.

With subtle humor rather than antagonism, DecodingCCP identifies implicit meanings, hidden assumptions and party-state intentions, with plenty of scope for the reader to decide what to make of it. DecodingCCP comes to the task from a different angle, as a Tibetan product, an outcome of centuries living alongside a giant neighbor and its arrogant imperial court framing all foreign relations as submission and tribute paying. Tibetans learned quickly to master Maoist and contemporary CCP rhetorics: Their survival depended on it.

The Tibetan angle of this trilingual decoder is a fresh voice, from Tibet’s global South experience of China’s world-making hauteur.

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Tsering Tsomo is director of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, which worked on developing the Decoding CCP website. Her email is director@tchrd.org.

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The International Campaign for Tibet's blog periodically features guest blogs by individuals who can provide unique insight to ICT programs and current events.

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