Asia and Eurasia
Chinese Transfer: From Soft to Discursive Power

Some allege that Beijing intends to reduce its foreign policy activity, return to Deng Xiaoping’s guidelines for pursuing a “passive” foreign policy and move towards direction of “closing” China from the world. On the contrary, one should expect an intensification of China’s efforts to strengthen its positions in the world, including by building up “discursive power,” writes Valdai Club expert Yana Leksyutina.

At the end of last year, the Institute of International Studies (IIS) at MGIMO University published a report, “From soft power to discursive power: new ideologemes of China’s foreign policy”. This report, which was the result of a collaboration between two Russian professional sinologists, Igor Denisov and Ivan Zuenko, is aimed at  introducing the Russian audience to the concept of “discursive power”, which is relatively new for Chinese foreign policy, thought and practice.

As follows from the introduction of the report, Beijing’s appeal to the concept of “discursive power” reflects “a change in approaches to the information and ideological support of the country’s activity on the world stage” — and it’s hard to disagree with that. Moreover, it is possible to go further and characterise Beijing’s appeal to the concept of “discursive power” as the beginning of a new stage in China’s evolution as a great power. Without officially putting forward the goal of moving towards global leadership, on the contrary, in all official documents and speeches, in every possible way denying the desire for world domination, Beijing is actually looking for and testing various ways to increase its influence in the world, moving to the “centre of the world arena”. Some will diplomatically call this China’s desire to strengthen its position in the world, while others openly will call it a desire for global leadership.

Be that as it may, the notion has taken root in China that significant economic, technological and military power by no means guarantee its ability to set the vector of development of world processes and its shift towards a pursuit of great power status. As it is seen in Beijing, the economic and military power accumulated by China over four decades of reforms and opening up has not been properly converted into China’s influence on the world stage. Moreover, the country’s newfound national power not only did not make China universally attractive, but, on the contrary, increased the fears of individual countries about China and its intentions on the world stage, prompting them to launch an information and narrative war against China.

Approximately since 2004-2005, China has been taken with the concept of “soft cultural power”, but probably considers it insufficiently effective in strengthening of China’s influence on the world stage. So, the past few years, the ideologists of Chinese foreign policy have turned to the promising concept of “discursive power.” This concept not only became the subject of research and expert discussions by prominent Chinese political scientists, but began to appear in the speeches of the President of the PRC and in official party and government documents starting in 2015.

In Xi Jinping’s report at the 20th China National Congress of the CPC, held in October 2022, the category of “discourse” (话语, huayu) is mentioned in the context of setting goals to strengthen confidence in Chinese culture, build up China’s cultural power and achieve success in the development of socialist culture. In particular, the report formulates the following tasks: “to speed up the work on building the Chinese discourse system (话语体系, huayutishi) and the narrative system, skilfully speak about China and convey the voice of China, demonstrate to the world the image of China as worthy of trust, approval and respect”, “increase potential in the field of international communication, comprehensively improve its effectiveness, and win the right to vote (国际话语权, guojihuayuquan) in the international arena, commensurate with the combined power and international status of China”.

Economic Statecraft
20th Congress of the CPC and China’s New Vision of the World Order
Xu Bo
The Chinese leadership believes that the main reason for the current changes in international relations lies in the acceleration of the transfer of power between East and West, which is a reflection of changes in the structure of the world order. From a historical point of view, this process of transfer of power will be a long-term process, writes Xu Bo, Professor at the Northeast Asia Research Center of Jilin University (Changchun, China)

Attention is drawn to two circumstances. First, this is the fact that the concept of “discourse” does not appear in the part of the report that sets out China’s foreign policy goals, objectives and priorities, and not in the context of increasing China’s role in the world arena and global governance. It solely features in connection with building up integrated power in areas of culture. By the way, it should be noted that even before, when adapting the Western concept of “soft power”, Chinese ideologists focused precisely on the cultural component. Such an emphasis on  this component in both the concept of “soft power” and the concept of “discursive power” is probably due to the fact that the modern Chinese leadership sees the achievement of the “dream of a great revival of the Chinese nation” as inextricably linked with the rise of millennia-old Chinese culture and the recognition of its greatness in the world. In China, there is a deeply-rooted notion that the rise of Chinese civilisation in the imperial period of China’s development was based on its cultural superiority over the surrounding barbarians and the greatness of Chinese culture.

Second, in Chinese this report is called guoji huayuquan, which translates as “the right to vote in the international arena.” In Russian expert literature, this term is correlated with the concept of “international discursive power”. Thus, it is appropriate to assume that discursive power in China is understood as the right to vote on the world stage, the right to create global narratives, the right to set the international agenda, the right to promote its values in the world, the right to formulate and implement standards, norms and rules into world practice, etc. The possession of discursive power opens up wide opportunities to form an external environment, conducive to the development and implementation of the national interests of the state-bearer of discursive power, as well as to strengthen the position of this state in the world. As the authors of the IIS MGIMO report note, a typical Chinese interpretation of “discursive power” is the following: “In a certain sense, he who owns the discursive power has the ‘right to organize’ the world order, he has the key power.”

A preliminary analysis of China’s foreign policy activities allowed the authors of the report to single out four main areas of increasing discursive power used by Beijing: political, moral, institutional and technological. The political direction is to develop new concepts and categories intended for foreign audiences, as well as to influence global narratives. The moral direction involves the creation of a new theory of morality with Chinese characteristics which would become attractive and fully recognized by the world community. The institutional area requires the strengthening of “activity in international organisations and the introduction of norms and rules corresponding to the Chinese national interest into the work of supranational institutions and into the documents adopted by them.” And, finally, the technological aspect lies in the internationalisation of China’s technical standards as creating opportunities for Beijing to influence the emerging new technological order.

According to the final conclusions of the report, the difference between the strategy of China’s “discursive power” and “soft cultural power” lies in its offensive nature, confrontational — albeit in response to the actions of the West — orientation and focus on overcoming “Western discursive hegemony”. The authors of the report call the destruction of the “hegemony of Western discourse” a long-term priority of the Chinese leadership. Without making predictions about how the war of discourses will unfold, the authors of the report nevertheless write about the possibilities for the formation of “discursive alliances” and even “discursive bipolarity” in the future, and also indicate the factors that limit the effectiveness of Chinese “discursive power” on the modern world stage.

We can agree with the conclusions of the authors of the report, and generally welcome the appearance of such special studies devoted to the analysis of modern Chinese foreign policy theory and practice, especially those carried out at a high professional level. Some allege that Beijing, against the backdrop of the developing US-Chinese conflict, intends to reduce its foreign policy activity, return to Deng Xiaoping’s guidelines for pursuing a “passive” foreign policy and move towards direction of “closing” China from the world. On the contrary, one should expect — and this indirectly follows from the IIS MGIMO report — an intensification of China’s efforts to strengthen its positions in the world, including by building up “discursive power”.

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The People's Republic of China has appointed a new foreign minister. Qin Gang, a career diplomat who went through all the key stages of the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has become the head of the Foreign Ministry. His predecessor Wang Yi was appointed head of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.