China dialogue: perils of parallel

There is more talk than ever about China and the world - but also less listening. A serious upgrade of language and ideas is needed.

Kerry Brown
7 October 2015

Liu Yunshan, the current ideological and propaganda chief of the Communist Party of China, gave a speech at the party school in Beijing in 2008 in which he complained about the international press that China was receiving as it built up to hosting the Olympic games. Far from being a global celebration of the good and fine things that had been achieved in his country since 1978 when reforms started, the outside world had chosen to carp: over the role of Chinese investment in Africa, the situation in Tibet, even the fractious journey of the "flame" as it made its way across the world.

Liu drew a stark conclusion. For years, leaders and officials in the outside world had complained that their Chinese counterparts were unwilling to spell out a vision for the country and its global role. They had urged further reforms and changes upon China. They had wanted to see a country more like their own, with capitalism, openness and variety. Well, Liu said, isn’t this what they have now? Today's China has sent over a million of its young to study abroad, accepted vast amounts of foreign investment, and opened up almost the whole of its country to visitors and business. In fact, the country is so plugged into the outside world that it was now hosting an event like the Olympics. What, therefore, was the problem now: why the chorus of criticisms and moans?

Liu then delivered the punchline of his diagnosis. The problem was not in China. Nor was it about China’s message. The simple fact was that a sizeable part of the outside world, particularly in the United States, would reject China no matter what it did. There was no point carrying on pretending these people’s minds could be changed. The key thing was to remorselessly promote China’s self-image, whether the world beyond its borders cared to listen or not. The message needed no change. The problem was the minds of the people outside.

A near-decade later, the results have become clearer by the day. The official message from China has been categorical - from its current president, Xi Jinping, downwards. Either the world accepts China on its own terms, or it can live in darkness. On a host of matters - Hong Kong, Taiwan, multiparty democracy, China’s legal system, media freedom - official China gives short shrift to even the lightest indications by outsiders that these are issues of concern which might benefit from a broader, more imaginative debate.

A control error

Now, it can't be denied that Chinese officials in the past had a point when they felt boxed in and misunderstood. Those abroad should have put more effort into understanding conditions within China, and where its sense of grievances arose from.

Yet the response has exacerbated a situation where China and much of the outside world seem to spend all the time talking past, but never listening to, each other. Instead there are two massive, but parallel conversations going on - China about itself, and much of the rest of the world about China. China doesn’t feel understood, and the many in the world beyond don’t feel like they are being listened to. The net result is that everyone feels frustrated.

Things are not quite as straightforward as this, of course. China's government may like to give the impression that it doesn't care what the outside world says or thinks about the country - but it is still remarkably quick in becoming inflamed and irritated at any perceived slight. So on some level, Chinese official outlets are in fact still listening - just not liking much what they hear.

The visit by Xi Jinping to the US on 22-28 September 2015 is an illustration. Clearly, China’s government wanted Xi to be portrayed as a global leader: it placed adverts on television aimed at both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences which extolled Xi’s virtues, and orchestrated the trip carefully to make his authority and power visible at almost every turn.

Yet the harsh fact is that such dense control by Chinese officials is precisely the sort of image-and-information management that impede - not promote - greater mutual understanding. It is not that Americans on the whole occupy an antagonistic position towards China by default. It is more that (generalising here to make the point) audiences in the US, Europe and elsewhere are deeply wary of presentation that looks to be tightly managed, particularly by the state. For these audiences, a lot of the "messaging" backed by China's government tends to be dead on arrival, even more because it proves so poor at covering its heavy-handed traces.

A step change

The Chinese government and the outside world desperately need a better-quality dialogue. This is not an issue of volume. Never have there been more people-to-people interactions, or government meetings, at almost every conceivable level. Inside and outside China, endless varieties of conversation, conference and symposium are convened, including events hosted by such bodies as the Boao Forum and the China Forum, with Chinese participants and partners, on the subject of China and its relations with the rest of the world.

But despite all this talking, there is still no shared conceptual language of a good-quality, dispassionate kind in which issues of political and ethical values, rights and justice - the more complex, challenging things - can be discussed between China and the outside world without breaking down into defensiveness, frustration or, in the worst case, communication meltdown and anger, often on both sides.

China - as a country, a society, a phenomenon - does deserve better service than it currently gets in intellectual debate and exchange, both from its own government and the outside world. Everyone has to take responsibility for changing this parlous situation. The worst thing would be to prolong the current reality of two enormous parallel conversations with precious little attempt to link them.

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