Global reset – Economic decoupling (Part 2: China’s global discourse for the 21st century)
Phuah Eng Chye (1 January 2022)
China’s rise and changing role
Andrei Lungu observes “for the first time in its history, China has transcended the limits of a regional power in Asia, becoming a global power, a status which it isn’t accustomed to…From the stock market value of US companies like Apple, Boeing or Caterpillar, and property prices in Sydney, to soybean production in Brazil, infrastructure in Africa and the European luxury-brand industry – all have come to depend on China. But Beijing has yet to adapt to this new reality. That’s why it’s time for China to start seeing itself in a global perspective. China has the most embassies. It is the world’s largest trading nation in goods. There are more Chinese companies in the Fortune Global 500 than American ones. And it ranks first based on the number of outbound students or tourists. No other state can equal China’s ability to be present all around the globe, whether in terms of diplomats or businesspeople. In any capital, China’s embassy could be the largest, promoting investment, scientific cooperation, academic exchanges or tourism. But to do this, China needs to further open up and begin to think globally”.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong argues China’s influence has grown so much that it has to take on a greater responsibility for providing global public goods, be it for security, trade, opening markets, or climate change. “China has to recalibrate its position, in order that its influence in the world is not only there because of its own power and energy, but also there because of the legitimacy and acceptance by other countries that this is something which is benefiting other countries and not at their expense.” “On the part of the US, it is a very difficult adjustment…If you see China as a threat, that is going to be a very big problem because then you are creating a threat…Because if you cannot work together, not only can you not solve the problems, but it becomes all round an adversarial relationship, you are in for a twilight struggle…It will not end, you will not have a quick win, and you’re not going to disappear either. So you’re in for a bad time, for a long time, and so are many other countries”.
Henry Gao argues there could be an even greater risk of conflict between the two great powers in trade and technology if China turned inward and self-sufficient. The problem “is the modus operandi of such domestic circulation…In practice, this means that the Chinese economy will continue to be driven by [the state’s] industrial policy, subsidies and state-owned enterprises – [these are] the troika that has been the staple of China’s state capitalism model and source of major trade conflicts with the West.”
On the other side, James Crabtree argues the US “must weigh carefully the risks that come from pushing China to step more decisively away” from its rules-based ecosystem. If China’s innovation drive succeeds, this would leave “Western nations unable to access potentially valuable Chinese technologies in the future”. In addition, “a Chinese leadership with less of a stake in the global technology ecosystem may become a more disruptive global actor in other areas”.
George Yeo notes “McKinsey produced a report with a simple but profound conclusion. It is that the world’s exposure to China is growing – because the Chinese economy is growing rapidly – but China’s exposure to the rest of the world is reducing. The reason is that the growth of the Chinese economy is increasingly driven by its internal economy, not by its external economy. Because of its size, because of the size of its market, in the years ahead, China will be a more important market than the US for many countries and companies. Even for US companies, China may become a more important market than the US market…Countries which welcome the China trade will get more of it. Countries which are opposed to the China trade will find it flowing around them. And after a while, they realize that they are missing out and find their neighbours benefiting more than them. And so they make adjustments…For countries which oppose the Belt and Road, the Chinese response is, Well, it’s up to you! But in the meantime, we will work with your neighbours. And then gradually they erode your position”.
China’s ascendancy to being almost an equal of US augurs the global reset. Its rise as a superpower is greeted by global apprehension; worsened by uncertainties from increasing confrontations across a widening front. China needs to address growing global insecurities about its ambitions and to communicate clearly what the world should expect from a global China in the 21st century.
China’s global discourse shortcomings
China seems surprised by the wide frosty reception to its rise and has mostly blamed the US and Western media for the negative perceptions. In this context, anti-China sentiments has surfaced in many theatres – in diplomacy, sports, commerce and technology. It wasn’t this bad early on but Western opinions against China have hardened considerably within a short space of time. For example, initially support for the US campaign against Huawei was lukewarm. Mark Scott observes the “Trump administration’s insistent prodding” turned the tide and “a growing number of European countries have banned – or significantly reduced – China’s involvement in domestic 5G mobile telecommunications networks…Starting with smaller, Eastern European and Baltic countries, governments signed agreements with Washington to cut Beijing out of their networks. Last year, bigger countries like France and Britain followed suit, announcing a phase-out that would eventually eliminate Chinese players from national 5G investments. Even Germany, which had pushed back hard against Trump’s heavy-handed approach, is expected to cut down at least partially on Chinese gear when it revamps its IT security laws in coming month…most EU countries…have now instituted some form of restriction on the role that Chinese telecoms equipment-makers can play in national 5G roll-outs…After a while, we could see it was creating a critical mass, a tipping point.”
China should shoulder a large part of the blame for the negative perceptions. In contrast to the established Western discourse, China’s discourse power is lacking. Nadège Rolland points out “beyond its calls for a reform of the current system in a fairer and more reasonable direction, the Chinese leadership has not yet openly expressed a positive vision of what it wants the world to look like, nor has it publicly offered a clear set of ideas to support such a vision. Some leitmotifs and themes have appeared in the official diplomatic rhetoric, but they often ring hollow: amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness; good-neighbourly friendliness, joint contribution, shared benefits, and extensive consultation; and the now inescapable win-win cooperation. These all sound like they have been extracted from a thesaurus of synonyms for nice that have been randomly stitched together, and their exact applicability to the reform of the world order is unclear at best. It may be the case that the CCP elites themselves do not have a fully formed view of the world that they would like to see emerge in lieu of the Western-centered world order dominated by the United States that is underpinned by liberal norms and values. It is equally possible that, shaped by China’s deep strategic culture, Beijing’s political leadership has not designed a detailed plan complete with concrete measures and steps, preferring instead to follow the propensity of things and to leave the possibility for adjustments and evolution along the way. It may be the case that there is, in fact, a clearly fleshed-out vision, but that the CCP elites prefer not to expose it in broad daylight because they are aware that it would not be easily accepted by the rest of the world. Whatever the exact reason, the leadership seems to have chosen to err on the side of caution for now. It prudently fine-tunes and experiments with new concepts and ideas that it hopes will be accepted eventually as replacements for the ones it dismisses as wrong and obsolete, while trying to persuade the international community that China’s intentions are totally benign and its actions justified”.
Nadège Rolland explains that in the absence of an explicit vision about how world affairs should be managed, “the only certainty that emerges is that, in this vision, the regnant power is China. Under the surface, the Chinese elites’ impatience is tangible: the East is rising, and the West is subsiding; the New is rising while the Old is declining; Western dominance is unsustainable, and the United States cannot afford to maintain its hegemony. Meanwhile, a “revolutionary change is brewing, profoundly reshaping the face of the world, but the adjustments of the world order will bring struggles and uncertainties. Western countries, accustomed to controlling the international discourse power will not only be unwilling to share with other countries but…also do their utmost to oppose and obstruct the changes. Evidently, the unprecedented changes that are coming will bring China to the top of the world. Yet ambitions of power and domination cannot be publicly avowed. If the Chinese leadership wants to rally international support, it cannot come out and straightforwardly acknowledge that its main priority is to erode and replace the liberal norms and democratic governance rules that the CCP considers as threatening to its unrelenting rule and legitimacy. The leadership cannot blatantly assert that it envisions a world in which Western influence, soft and hard power, military presence, and moral authority have been pushed away and reduced to the margins. It cannot publicly describe what a world in which China has moved closer to the center stage exactly means”.
China’s discourse has other shortcomings. One is its hyper-sensitivity to criticism or issues. The US has skilfully boxed in the China narrative by constantly pushing their buttons on a range of issues. Predictably, China reacts in an aggressive and inflexible manner which is counter-productive as it portrays them as being “authoritarian”, “coercive” and “insensitive”.
Another weakness is that China’s messages lack spontaneity, genuineness and credibility and often comes across as scripted and hardline. This image is reinforced by heavy-handed state control of media. Requirements for journalists to pass tests on “Xi’s political philosophy” to renew their “press passes” reinforces the view that indoctrination and censorship are ingrained aspects of China’s discourse system. In Hong Kong, Simon Shen reports growing fears “the state machinery will intervene in the affairs of private corporations through different means, seeking to control the economic and political freedoms of the people by controlling the business community… In recent years, however, even when Hong Kongers go to the mainland just to run an e-business, they have no choice but to be defenders of the banner and propagate the ideas in Xi Jinping’s speeches, or else they would be snitched on. When economic activities and matters in the private domain can easily lead to trouble at every turn, the grey area of one country, two systems and the economic freedom thereof will only keep fading”. The private sector need “policy fences” that clarify the scope of “legitimate” government intervention to protect and assure local and foreign entrepreneurs and investors.
Christopher Woody notes a US official highlighted: “I see little yield and, if anything, a rising sense of nationalism and a sense of aggrievement and a determination to continue to prosecute a…case internationally across the board”. “Chinese officials appear tone deaf to how their tactics really are starting to turn off a lot of nations out there who don’t like the look of a more powerful China and how it’s acting…Wolf warrior diplomacy, conditions attached to COVID aid, and a general demand for gratefulness are just a taste of what it looks like when China is strong and confident…I think it’s starting to scare a number of different nations.”
China’s espousal of Wolf Warrior diplomacy is controversial. Han Yong Hong explains “Wolf Warrior and Wolf Warrior 2 are patriotic Chinese movies released in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Wolf Warrior 2 tells the story of Leng Feng, a maverick soldier who is expelled from the Chinese military but finds himself embroiled in a rebellion somewhere in Africa and single-handedly rescues his compatriots. At the end of the movie, a Chinese passport appears with the caption: “…if you are in danger overseas…remember a strong motherland is behind you!” Apparently, this scene drew tears and applause from many Chinese viewers, and elevated the idea of the wolf warrior to the level of China’s national image. However, there is a price to be paid for blurring the line between a movie scenario and reality”. “Wolf Warrior became linked to Chinese diplomacy. And when top Chinese officials stressed fighting spirit in 2019, coupled with the deterioration of China’s relations with the rest of the world given this year’s pandemic amid Chinese diplomats hitting back strongly on issues such as the origins of the coronavirus, the term wolf-warrior has become an increasingly popular catchphrase. Le Yucheng is right in saying that wolf-warrior diplomacy is a discourse trap and a convenient label for critics to attack China. It seems that whoever uses the term wolf-warrior diplomacy in their comments gains the moral high ground, simply because it conjures up China’s aggressive attitude”.
Han Yong Hong thinks “while China does need to address the problem of getting blamed, it can adopt a softer approach, because responding head-on would only mean falling into discourse traps set by others. What would be the good of that, other than boosting nationalistic sentiments at home? Besides, nationalistic sentiments have also been running high in Europe and the US, and provoking one another would only increase the risk of the situation spiralling out of control…I hope China will clearly reject wolf-warrior diplomacy in word and deed, and not use humiliation as a weapon – that does not befit the stature and image of a big power”.
Jon B. Alterman observes “China’s Wolf Warrior diplomacy is in clear view: China complains openly about U.S. behavior, it mocks U.S. decline, and it threatens the defiance of China will have consequences. The broad context for Sino-American cooperation is worsening”. This is reinforced by “a China that is increasingly focused on undermining demonstrations of U.S. power and influence becomes an accessory to providing implicit support to sanctioned countries, serving dual goals of winning special favor – which will pay economic benefits to China – and undercutting the U.S. global position”.
China understands it is walking on the tightrope of global opinion. A Global Times editorial argues “in the face of malicious and even hostile provocations, we must deliver tit-for-tat counterattacks, to safeguard our nation’s core interests. If we are too soft in our response to provocations, the world will not respect us, and there will be more adversarial forces to intimidate and bully us. Meanwhile, we also need to be clear that our biggest task in the coming future is to continue developing our country, instead of being belligerent or venting out anger when being provoked. The best strategy to deal with some provocations is to ignore them and keep going…China needs smart strategic wisdom to deal with the complex situation…We need to distinguish between our core interests and those that are not. At the same time, we have to master the art of struggle so that others fully recognize China’s core interests and be convinced of our determination and resolve that we will never retreat on those core interests. In a nutshell, China is now strong enough to defend our core interests from being damaged, but we have not been able to deter external forces from harassing us on some lesser issues. It is vital to remember that time is on China’s side, and the country’s strategic initiative to deal with those issues is mounting. China’s rise is never to be smooth. We need to make sure that other countries are aware of China’s red lines, and those lines should never be crossed…China’s national strategy cannot be achieved without the proactive and rational participation of the public, and public opinion is the dispensable support to enhance the strength of diplomacy”.
Shaping China’s global discourse for the 21st century
The clarity of China’s domestic discourse such as the Chinese dream for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation stands in stark contrast with the hollowness of its global discourse. China is aware of the need to enhance its global discourse for the 21st century. Nadège Rolland notes President Xi Jinping has “underlined on multiple occasions the necessity for China to enhance its discourse power internationally and build an external system of discourse. His repeated guidance conveys the idea that such power, rather than gradually emerging organically, can be manufactured…Xi has called on the party’s intellectual workers – historians, political scientists, philosophers, scientists, economists, propagandists, and journalists – to join the fray and contribute to the creation of new concepts, new categories, and a new language that international society can easily understand and accept so as to guide the direction of research and debate in the international academic community. China is putting in a lot of effort. It is publishing analysis to explain China’s achievements (in technology, in eliminating poverty). It is also disputing Western interpretations and detailing Western failures in democracy, human rights and the world.
Is this the right approach? This brings us back to the debate on Wolf Warrior diplomacy and several points are evident. First, it signals China has finally forsaken Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy dictate to “observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership.” China now openly claims its superpower status and appears prepared for a severe test of its legitimacy and red lines. As this decade turns into an era of provocation and confrontation, the benefits from acquiescence and building greater understanding are questionable. My view is that disputes among whales can only be resolved through a contest of strengths.
Second, Wolf Warrior diplomacy is China’s warning (of potential retaliation) to countries implementing actions or policies against China’s interests. Does the belligerent approach work towards isolating China further, as some has cautioned, or is counter-attack the best form of defence? It is still too early to assess the outcomes.
Third, discourse diplomacy is part of a broad strategy to mould alliances and expand space. Currently, the US seems to favour a campaign of relentless provocations to convince traditional “advanced and dependable” allies to be united in ostracising and reducing China’s access in the West and to draw in pivotal countries such as India and Vietnam to its side. The idea seems to be to paint China into a corner and to leave it only with options to partner with countries that are less developed or perceived as “unstable”. This increases the risk for China that if it expands its sphere of influence by partnering with “unstable” countries, this will increase its vulnerabilities.
Fourth, in a polarised environment, it is unlikely that arguments could change the minds of the committed. Therefore, Wolf Warrior diplomacy is a battle to win over the hearts and minds of the non-committed or the non-Western audience. China has framed this discourse as a battle between the “global south” against the “cliques of the north”.
Fifth, Wolf Warrior diplomacy can be considered as experimental and is part of China’s learning curve to develop its discourse. China never needed to reach out to a global audience before this. It is handicapped in that Western discourse originated from debates in the “public town square” while China’s discourse is built on its notions of “good government”. In addition, it is difficult to overcome the dominance of the English and Western media in influencing global discourse.
Near-term, China needs to withstand mounting attacks launched by Western media vilifying its actions and policies. Longer-term, China needs to directly address its discourse deficit in three areas.
- Global role. China current global discourse is not compatible with its status as a superpower nor can it continue to free-ride on the Western order. China needs to clarify ambiguity surrounding its global ambitions and detail its proposals for an alternative order to rally its allies. This would include clarifying its views on universal values – free speech and human rights – and providing its roadmap for global governance and public goods – on finance (IMF, World Bank), trade (WTO), information (technology, knowledge, data, legal and content), climate change, security arrangements and dispute resolution.
- Economic policies. There are legitimate concerns on China’s integration into the global economy. With decoupling, China seems headed in a direction that poses a threat to the Western economies. China needs to accept greater responsibility that comes with its dominant share of global production and trade, and technological prowess. China needs to respond to criticisms on its “unfair” economic and anti-competition practices. China therefore needs to state what it believes are fair economic rules that should be universally applied (including on itself). For example, if China believes state intervention and self-reliance objectives are legitimate, it should then propose global norms and practices to govern these practices. Other countries and firms should not be left to second-guess China’s intentions on future access to its large market. They should also possess reasonable reassurances they would not be unfairly targeted. China thus needs to spell out more clearly its principles for multilateral and bilateral economic relationships.
- Global brand. China needs to reinforce its global discourse with effective brand management. Towards this end, China has been highlighting its achievements in technology (to overcome the negative image for cheap, low-quality, pirated products and for intellectual property theft), poverty eradication (south), infrastructure (BRI) and for quality (environment, Chinese brands). Nonetheless, the brand of the country and Chinese Communist Party remains under-developed because it is held back by negative perceptions on authoritarianism, and the lack of transparency and due process. This needs to be addressed.
The brand of Western society remains overwhelmingly superior. This can be attested to by the fact most people prefer to work, study and live in the West. Will China ever be in a position to provide a comparable sense of values underpinned by individual freedoms and rights, and respect for religions and other cultures? Generally, the successful East Asian countries lack racial and cultural diversity and have not been welcoming of foreign participation and cultures in their societies. Hence, China’s difficulty in globalising its brand is associated with it notion of being the “Middle Kingdom”. Its discourse is hampered by substantial “communication” gaps with non-Chinese communities. Domestically, China draws inspiration from its own history and culture. Overseas, the Chinese tend to retain their identity (e.g. many foreign cities have Chinatowns) distinct from the local populace. Overseas Chinese prominence in business, education, property and wealth created fertile ground for anti-Chinese sentiment in many parts of the world. Global China needs to demonstrate how it intends to handle these diversity challenges.
Ironically, the Western media anti-China campaign has strengthened China’s brand standing among local and overseas Chinese. To an extent, China’s discourse deficit is starting to be reduced due to social media and generational change. For example, China is at a disadvantage in foreign language forums with Wu Guo noting the “English-dominated environment has made it difficult” for those “more proficient in Chinese to express their views, social commentaries, cultural critiques”. The emergence of social media channels such as WeChat has helped ethnic Chinese academics around the world to “fully, freely, and quickly share their viewpoints and set agendas with one’s own people in their native language”. This has led to the formation of “transnational Chinese-language cyber intellectual enclaves” where “they are no longer subject to the usual mode of academic exchange and consultation in English groups, and neither do they have to adhere to the unspoken rules of self-censorship, or be confined to overly formal academic seminars”. China’s young generation also have a powerful global internet presence. While this can be a major force in changing brand perceptions, the powerful youth culture is equally a source of concern for the Chinese authorities.
Overall, China’s brand strategy appears to be effective in overseas Chinese communities. However, to win defections among the on-the-fence countries, particularly those in the Western sphere, China would need to improve its discourse by e.g., outlining the “benefits” of closer technological and economic integration with China and by finding arguments to address doubts about its ambitions.
The global landscape is being scarred by the duelling narratives. The West currently hold a massive advantage in global discourse, nonetheless there are signs of diminishing efficacy due to the growing divergence between its messaging and realities. The traditional forums for Western discourse are losing their aura and clout and is being diluted by the mushrooming of forums such as the Quad and other coalition-building events.
This global policy conversation is thus at a standstill. If China (and its allies) stop accepting the Western discourse, will the West ever accept China’s discourse? At the moment, most neutrals figure it is better to side with the US rather than China because it would improve their bargaining power with both superpowers. But this advantage is only temporary. Longer-term, China can tilt the balance by crafting a global discourse that reassures other countries on China’s future behaviour. On the other hand, the West, and the US in particular, needs to review their narratives which is in danger of becoming stale and in need of a refresh.
Andrei Lungu (27 September 2019) “Whether fighting climate change, promoting scientific discovery or pursuing economic stability, China should act like a transparent global power”. SCMP. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3030281/whether-fighting-climate-change-promoting-scientific-discovery-or
Christopher Woody (8 September 2021) “China is irritating more countries in Asia, but the US is struggling to come up with a better offer”. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/despite-china-tensions-countries-dont-see-better-offer-from-us-2021-9
Edwin Ong, Chen Jing (8 December 2021) “War of words: China and the US tussle for speaking rights on democracy”. ThinkChina. https://www.thinkchina.sg/war-words-china-and-us-tussle-speaking-rights-democracy
George Yeo (8 October 2019) “Rise of China and the future of small nations”. ThinkChina. https://www.thinkchina.sg/rise-china-and-future-small-nations
Global Times (10 July 2021) “Keeping calm and leveraging wisdom to blunt outside provocations”. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202107/1228304.shtml
Grace Ho (29 January 2021) “Not too late for US and China to reset ties and avert great power clash: PM Lee at WEF event”. Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/not-too-late-for-us-and-china-to-reset-tone-of-interactions-and-avert-great-power
Han Yong Hong (15 December 2020) “Yes, there is a problem with being a wolf warrior”. ThinkChina. https://www.thinkchina.sg/yes-there-problem-being-wolf-warrior
Huang Youyi (15 June 2011) “Context, not history, matters for Deng’s famous phrase”. Global Times. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/661734.shtml
James Crabtree (10 December 2020) “China’s radical new vision of globalization”. Noema Magazine. https://www.noemamag.com/chinas-radical-new-vision-of-globalization/
James Leibold (1 December 2021) “The not-so model minority: Xi Jinping’s Mongolian crackdown”. China Leadership Monitor. https://www.prcleader.org/leibold-1
Jon B. Alterman (22 September 2021) “China headaches for Iran deal”. Originally published in Arab Digest. https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-headaches-iran-deal
Karen Yeung (1 November 2020) “Will China’s self-sufficiency drive raise the risk of a US conflict?” SCMP. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3107975/will-chinas-self-sufficiency-drive-raise-risk-us-conflict
Kat Tenbarge (22 September 2019) “Chinese journalists will have to pass a government test on Marxism and President Xi Jinping to be granted press passes”. Business Insider US. https://www.businessinsider.my/chinese-journalists-must-pass-test-china-president-xi-jinping-2019-9/?r=US&IR=T
Mark Scott (4 February 2021) “How Trump won over Europe on 5G, cutting China out”. Politico. https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/3120622/how-trump-won-over-europe-5g-cutting-china-out
Nadège Rolland (27 January 2020) “China’s vision for a new world order”. National Bureau of Asian Research. https://www.nbr.org/publication/chinas-vision-for-a-new-world-order/
Phuah Eng Chye (2015) Policy paradigms for the anorexic and financialised economy: Managing the transition to an information society. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01AWRAKJG
Phuah Eng Chye (5 June 2021) “Global reset – Two whales in a pond”. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/global-reset-two-whales-in-a-pond/
Phuah Eng Chye (18 December 2021) “Global reset – Economic decoupling (Part 1: China’s socialism big bang)”. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/global-reset-economic-decoupling-part-1-chinas-socialism-big-bang/
Qiao Collective (19 August 2021) “Can the Chinese diaspora speak?” https://www.qiaocollective.com/en/articles/can-the-chinese-diaspora-speak
Simon Shen (5 December 2019) “Hong Kong: The perils of state corporatism”. ThinkChina. https://www.thinkchina.sg/hong-kong-perils-state-corporatism
Wu Guo (5 January 2021) “Transnational Chinese-language cyber intellectual enclaves: An emerging phenomenon”. ThinkChina. https://www.thinkchina.sg/transnational-chinese-language-cyber-intellectual-enclaves-emerging-phenomenon
 See Grace Ho.
 See Karen Yeung.
 Nadège Rolland defines discourse power as the ability to exert influence over the ideas and rules underpinning the international order.
 See Kat Tenbarge.
 China’s foreign vice minister.
 Chinese Foreign Vice-Minister Le Yucheng explains the labelling of China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy is a rehashing of the China threat theory, and a discourse trap which “aims to make China give up and never fight back”. See Han Yong Hong.
 See Edwin Ong and Chen Jing for China’s discourse counter-offensive on the US “Summit for Democracy”.
 See Huang Youyi.
 See “Global reset – Two whales in a pond”.
 See James Leibold for an account of China’s Mongolian crackdown.
 The Qiao Collective provides a Chinese perspective on the challenges of ideological discourse for the Chinese diaspora.