Understanding China’s Diplomatic Discourse

By Zhao Chu, published: August 20, 2014


Photo from the White House website.

Jiang Zemin and wife visiting President Bush’s family ranch in 2002. Photo from the White House website.

In 2013, China’s newly-appointed top leader, following the footsteps of Jiang Zemin, one of his predecessors, achieved the goal of having a working meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. During the past twenty years, China’s ruling party realized that, in the wake of the demise of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the U.S. had become the world’s only super power, and that it was enthusiastic to use its unipolar hegemony to advance the U.S.-designed global order. For these reasons, stabilizing China’s relationship with the U.S. became the external condition that was not only necessary but fundamental to China’s ability to uphold its system of government. For the Chinese, one of the indicators of furthering this relationship was for the Chinese head of state to establish private interactions with the U.S. President like the diplomacy between the leaders of Europe and the Americas. This was the reason why China spared no effort and no cost to gain the Chinese leader’s entry to the U.S. president’s ranch (Jiang Zemin visited George W. Bush’s ranch in Texas in 2002 – the editor) or to places where the U.S. President vacationed and spent private time.

Apart from the political reasons mentioned above, there are economic reasons why China wants to stabilize and advance the Sino-U.S. relationship. According to World Trade Organization data, in 2013, China surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s largest trading country. Data from China’s Ministry of Commerce shows that the trade in goods between China, as the U.S.’s second largest trading partner (the first is Mexico), and the U.S. in 2013 was a record setting 521 billion U.S. dollars. Apart from this, at the end of 2013, cumulative investment between the U.S. and China had surpassed 100 billion U.S. dollars. Meanwhile, China was the U.S.’s largest source of imported goods. According to the Chinese communist party’s political outlook over the last 30 years, this flourishing economic link itself is charged with fundamental political values because economic embedding and binding between the two countries means that the U.S., from a strategic point of view, cannot use the same kind of national policies against China that it used to subvert the former Soviet Union. At the same time, close economic ties with the U.S. act as an anchor when China’s economic development encounters rough seas, not to mention that economic achievement is the main source of political legitimacy inside China.

Given these political and economic considerations, the Sino-U.S. relationship over the past few years has shown excellent strategic momentum. In the past, the two countries held defense dialogue and economic/diplomatic dialogue separately, but since 2011, sino-U.S. strategic dialogue has been consolidated into a strategic dialogue mechanism which institutionalized the exchanges between the senior leaders of the two countries’ political, economic, and military spheres. As a result, the two countries have not gotten into direct quarrels over many major international hotspot issues as they did over Kosovo. Both China and the U.S. have repeatedly affirmed this type of positive development, and it is also why Chinese policy observers throughout the world give optimistic assessments of China’s foreign policies.

Xi Jinping and president Obama in  an official working meeting June 2013 at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California. Photo from VOA website.

Xi Jinping and president Obama in an official working meeting June 2013 at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California. Photo from VOA website.

All of these are clearly real, not a fiction. At the same time, however, another phenomenon has appeared that has largely escaped notice abroad. That is, since the rise of social media, language redolent of the Cultural Revolution vitriol against the U.S. has resurfaced in China’s discourse about the U.S. that represents the viewpoints of the government’s domestic propaganda and official media. This discourse is increasingly becoming the mainstream language used toward the U.S., and is quickly creating public opinion hostile and vigilant toward the U.S.. Given the government’s tight control over media and public opinion in China, it is very clear that the Chinese authorities deliberately promote such anti-U.S. diplomatic language. It is diametrically opposed to the policy of promoting exchange between China and the U.S..

In the past few years, factions that hold extreme leftist views, often posing online as staunch guardians of the regime, have been attacking the concepts of reform and opening up of the past 30 years as a revival of capitalism, and have recently initiated boycotts against those they consider traitors and scholars selling out the country.  They have in their manner completely revived the Cultural Revolution’s hatred of intellectuals.  The party’s top-tier theoretical and policy promulgation platforms — such as “Seeking Truth”(《求是》),“The People’s Daily”(《人民日报》), not to mention the “Global Times”(《环球时报》), a newspaper that continuously takes a pugnacious attitude toward external affairs–not unlike the late nineteenth century Boxer Rebels —  are already thick with the gun smoke reminiscent of ideological battles over “advancing the proletarian class and exterminating the capitalist class” during the Cultural Revolution. A recent report states that the Central Discipline Inspection Committee’s representatives to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) have already charged that CASS has been penetrated by external hostile forces. These new, extreme left voices calling for “international class struggle,”along with the ongoing social suppression measures, make people feel that, from an internal perspective, China’s new political line has returned to the demarcations of the Cold War.

Both policy trends, one internal and the other external,  are real. To understand the apparent contradiction, one must understand the supra pragmatic policy philosophy of Leninism: the proletarian revolution itself indubitably represents the supreme historical justice, therefore it has the right to utilize as policy any policy, even if that policy goes beyond basic political ethics. In other words, in order to realize the goal of revolution, the Bolsheviks can, without the slightest hesitation, utilize policy language that differs between, and has separate applications for, internal and external affairs.

In the case of the CCP, and especially from 1989 onward when regime safety became the number one concern, the party promotes economic fusion with the U.S. externally to maintain stable relations with the U.S., while internally it accelerates measures to oppose and limit the U.S.. These are exactly the policies needed to attain one and the same goal, and they are two sides of an integrated policy, equally indispensable. This policy is similar to the Communist Party’s policy toward the Nationalist Government in Chongqing during the Second World War: externally the party stressed the righteousness of the cause of resisting Japan and the need for unity and common ground between Communists and Nationalists, while internally utilizing blatant means to consolidate the party organization and accelerate the purge of dissent. The policies of Leninism are a conscious doctrine of absolute pragmatism to begin with; since the U.S. is currently being seen as an external factor that threatens the very survival [of  the regime], it is then absolutely necessary to adopt two sets of languages toward the U.S. that are complete opposites.

It is said that when China’s newest top leadership team took office, internally it raised a grave question lamenting the downfall of the former Soviet Union: “Wasn’t there anyone man enough among the Soviet Communists who would stand up for the Party?” In reviewing history though, people should not forget that, for most of the time during the global drama of opposing the expansion of the former Soviet Union’s global hegemony, Communist China was not an ally of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communists. On the contrary, China eventually chose to become an important partner of the U.S., the Cold War rival of the Soviet Union, thus becoming an important member of the winning camp of the Cold War. Therefore, China’s Communist Party’s present lament should not be understood as real regret for the collapse of the former Soviet Union, but rather as a kind of self-vigilance against a similar fate. China considers itself the successor to the former Soviet Union’s global hegemony, and this self-vigilance explains the rise of hostility towards the U.S. in recent years among China’s ruling party and its social base. It is not the result of historical reflection but a projection of fear of the future.

Historically, the Chinese Communists have always pursued diverging external and internal policies, and they have been largely successful in isolating external topics and internal ones. The fact that they are still following this policy path, to a great extent, is due to its historical success. But the problem is, in the past, policies were manipulated  within a relatively closed sphere of struggle, and today they are carried out in the new era of globalization and informatization. The Chinese rulers have yet to come to full awareness of the challenges of implementing such contradictory policies in changed environments, both internally and externally.

In other words, in our era of social media where information is disseminated worldwide almost simultaneously, and in the diplomatic contention of today’s unipolar hegemonic nations, the CCP faces the greatest risk when it manipulates the double-sided policies with seeming deftness: a hostile policy meant for internal use quickly becomes widely known and works to shape the country’s international image. What in the past could be controlled as internal policy now quickly shapes the perception of the outside world, thus becoming a negative self-fulfilling policy. A hostile policy meant for self-defense could quite possibly cause a real, external strategic mistrust, or even real confrontation, which is precisely what the double-sided policy strives to avoid.

Even domestically, due to information dissemination and society’s own awareness, the regime has all but lost its bases of soft power as it has lost both credibility and institutional legitimacy. For this reason, repeating old historical tactics has no positive effect other than escalating the already roiling internal division. With today’s dissemination of historical knowledge and social consciousness, the communist ideological language is without doubt a negative historical product that the party should have discarded. But no, China’s rulers, who have a monopoly over both power and capital,  are instead flaunting the banners of absolute equality and populism of the proletarian revolution. Needless to say, the danger of burning themselves while playing with fire is quite high.


Zhao Chu (赵楚)

Zhao Chu (赵楚)

Zhao Chu (赵楚) is a Shanghai-based independent commentator and a long time researcher on international strategy, global military and social issues in China.



Why Is Constitutionalism Impossible Under the CCP?, by Xiaokai Xiang, July 8, 2013


Other translations of Zhao Chu on China Change:

The War between the Government and the People over PX Projects in China, June 18, 2013


(Translated by Ai Ru)

Original Chinese

2 responses to “Understanding China’s Diplomatic Discourse”

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