The Chinese Discourse of Power: Diplomacy at its Core

The basic premise of discourse theory is that humans use communication whether verbal or written to construct knowledge and truth. Michel Foucault argues that the knowledge and truth that shape our lives is created through discourse by people in power. The western discourse of power in the 20th century was so powerful that the marginalized world found it difficult to counter it with an alternative discourse. It is only in recent years that emerging economies have been able to find some space in the Western discourse.

Of these, China appears to be more innovative in offering an alternative discourse of power, be it the multilateralism of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) or the pillars of its foreign policy or a more recent construct of Chinese style modernization (中国式现代化).      

Shared Future for Humanity

The larger framework of China’s diplomacy is based on so-called two central pillars–“to build a community with a shared future for humanity” (人类命运共同体)  and “a new type of international relations” (新型国际关系). The former was advocated by China on a number of occasions since 2013, elaborated in a keynote speech by Xi Jinping at the General Debate of the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2015. The idea is rooted in Chinese traditional philosophy of “the world is one family” (天下一家).

The concept upholds that since interests, aspirations, and destinies of mankind are intertwined, therefore, the challenges are common and require common solutions. It is for this reason that the Chinese Dream has been integrated with the desire of the people, particularly of the developing countries, for building a peaceful, secure, and prosperous world that is open, inclusive, and ecologically friendly. The latter takes a new approach for developing state-to-state relations with mutual respect, fairness, justice, and win-win cooperation at its core. Forging a new type of international relations will pave the way for a community with a shared future for humanity, such is the belief of China.

Other discourses such as the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Security Initiative (GSI) have been fed to the basic framework; it is the second pillar that has two distinctive flanks–major country diplomacy and China’s relationship with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries. The GDI was proposed by Xi Jinping in September 2021 while addressing the 76th Session of the UNGA aimed at helping the UN to achieve its 2030 sustainable development goals. Some of the stated objectives are poverty alleviation, food security, COVID-19 response and vaccines, financing for development, climate change and green development, industrialization, digital economy, and connectivity.

Building a Health Silk Road and a “Community with a Shared Future in Cyberspace” rolled out on November 7 could be part of the GDI as well as GSI. The GSI is a precondition of the former and castigates the Cold War mentality, formation of blocs, small cliques, and the old thinking of zero-sum game. On its part, China pledges not to seek hegemony.

As regards the “major country relationship”, China has argued that major countries must co-exist in harmony and cooperate with each other on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and mutual benefits. By way of “mutual respect”, China has demanded that the U.S. respect its chosen path, ideology, and system, believed to be the root cause of ideological confrontation between the two besides its race for global leadership with the U.S. “Working together, we both win; fighting each other, we both lose”, the phrase has been repeatedly used. Taiwan has been placed at the core of China’s core interests (核心利益中的核心), a red-line and a bottom line that must not be crossed (不可逾越的红线和底线).

As regards China’s relations with Russia, the same has been pronounced as an anchor of international balance and strategic stability. However, in the backdrop of Russia’s prolonged war with Ukraine and reverses in the war, China has found itself in a difficult situation, and the position it has taken may be difficult to defend in the coming days, albeit its support to Putin is certainly a bargaining chip vis-à-vis U.S.’s position on Taiwan. China’s relationship with the BRI countries doesn’t carry the element of “mutual respect”, nonetheless is based on the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness.  Whether the new discourse–the Chinese style modernization, rolled out during the recently concluded 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will make the China model more attractive in these countries or not, only time will tell.  

Chinese Style Modernization

The Chinese style modernization can be traced back to the “Self Strengthening Movement” (1861-1894) when Qing officials gave the slogan– “Chinese learning as essence, Western learning as application” (中学为体,西学为用). After the collapse of the dynasty, the leading intellectuals of China, including Hu Shi, called for “total westernization,” and “science and democracy” shaped the discourse during the May Fourth Movement of 1919.  In 1937, when Mao Zedong wrote “On Contradiction”, he was clear that Chinese socialism will not take the “old historical road of the Western countries.” In 1956 , in a speech entitled “On the Ten Major Relationships”, Mao presented an alternative mode of socialism away from the Soviet model that conformed to the Chinese conditions and avoided errors made by the former. Mao also denounced Soviet Union openly and drew a strategy to forge alliances with like-minded forces, neutralize the neutral countries and split and make use of forces antagonistic to China.

These discourses are no different from socialism with Chinese characteristics practiced by China during the reform period. However, it appears that in order to build a “socialist market economy”, China attempted “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” These “stones”, according to Wen Tiejun, a top agriculture economist of China, were “symbolic norms defined by the West,” in other words treading the path defined by the Western institutions of international order. Therefore, if Mao denounced the Soviet discourse on socialism and modernization in 1956, Xi Jinping has denounced the western discourse on modernization by proposing an alternative Chinese style modernization.

Xi Jinping defines Chinese style modernization as modernization of a huge population (人口规模巨大), common prosperity (共同富裕), material and cultural-ethical advancement (物质文明和精神文明相协调), harmony between humanity and nature (人与自然和谐共生), and modernization of peaceful development (和平发展道路). These have been pitched against the capital centric, materialistic and expansionist western modernization that leads to social disparities and ecological crises by some of China’s leading scholars like Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University.

These discourses at the same time are presented as important public goods provided by China for the benefit of humanity. China opines that western discourses of power and the practices associated with them are inadequate for creating a peaceful, just, and sustainable social order, and hence the justification for providing alternate discourses. This rationale may not necessarily find appeal in the West, but China is hopeful that these discourses would be accepted by the wider sections of developing countries and find legitimacy over a period.