Decrypting China’s Narratives to the World

| Dalton Lin
Dalton Lin
Assistant Professor at Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology

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Dalton Lin is assistant professor at Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology. His most recent work is “The Political Economy of China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’,” in Lowell Dittmer (ed.), China’s Political Economy in the Xi Jinping Epoch: Domestic and Global Dimensions (World Scientific Publishing, in print).

ACADEMIC INCUBATOR — The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) defines the security environment facing the United States today as one characterizes cross-domain competition from adversaries and the decline of U.S.-led order. Specifically, the NDS identifies China as a revisionist strategic competitor to the United States. The NDS recognizes that China has been modernizing its military to achieve regional hegemony in the short-term and displace the United States as the preeminent power in the world in the long-term.

China’s fast ascending and expanding military capabilities have posed explicit and increasing challenges to U.S. operations. However, except in its near seas, China’s challenges to the broader U.S.-led order have been more nuanced. Reflecting on China’s approach’s cross-domain and all-of-nation nature, the NDS has pointed out that China’s strategy combines military buildup, influence operations, and economic engagements. More importantly, though, to legitimize and reduce the political and material costs of its push to alter the U.S.-led order, China has engaged in a campaign to establish its “discourse power” in the world. Through exerting the discourse power, China consistently provides a narrative about its global assertion of influence, and the narrative centers around the idea of “development.”

Casting China’s global engagements in tones of development, Chinese leaders have argued that China’s international activities create win-win cooperation with the rest of the international community. Furthermore, Beijing contends that development deals with the root causes of some most pressing security issues in the contemporary world, such as extremism and terrorism. In what has been called a “developmental peace” idea, China tries to link its agenda of development to global stability. The narrative that centers around development, win-win cooperation, and peace enables China to alleviate the outside world’s perceived threat from its growing power. The narrative also helps attract supporters to its global agenda, witnessed in the international embrace of China’s initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road project.

With the help of text-mining and text-analysis tools, one can decrypt China’s narrative to the world by extracting information from a large set of Chinese official documents. The research here uses the most authoritative source of China’s messages—the speeches, interviews, and signed articles of the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. These documents are selected and published by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on its English-version official website, signaling their salience and the intended audience. This research divides these documents into two subsets for separate analyses and comparisons. The first subset includes ninety-three documents that span from September 2012 to November 2019 and contains one speech delivered on September 21, 2012, when Xi remained China’s vice president. The second subset comprises six documents from March to September 2020 and reveals China’s narratives in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak. Many commentators have argued that China’s initial handling of the pandemic has tarnished its image and driven the Chinese government to a frenzy of public relations and propaganda work to salvage its reputation from the fallout. Comparing the documents before and after the outbreak helps identify whether the external shock of COVID-19 has impacted China’s narratives in any way.

The term “development” is front and center in Xi Jinping’s external messages, both before and after the COVID-19 outbreak, if one uses word clouds to visualize the top key terms used in these documents (figures are not shown due to space limitations but can be requested from the author). Figure 1a shows that, in the ninety-three pre-pandemic diplomatic documents, the term “development” appears second only to the word “China,” with a frequency of 1,791 times. In comparison, “China” appears 2,568 times. In a separate analysis, Figure 1b shows that the term “development” remains critical in Xi’s messages in the six salient speeches, articles, and interviews delivered after the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020. “Development” ranks again second only to the term “China” (66 times versus 80 times). Unsurprisingly, words related to the current pandemic, such as “COVID,” “health,” “global,” “response,” “public,” and “outbreak” have become prominent, as one would expect Xi to defend China’s handling of the pandemic. However, Xi has not retreated from using the development narratives to propagate China’s image as a benign power. China’s messages have remained consistent before and after the outbreak.

Figure 1a also shows that the term “cooperation” is the third most used word before the COVID outbreak. Figures 1a reveals the image that China has tried to construct in the world. Beijing has emphasized “development” and “cooperation” in its diplomatic work to mitigate other countries’ worries about how China will use its growing national strength. The terms “countries,” “world,” and “international” frequently appear, reflecting that the primary audience of these documents has been the international community. “Economic,” “growth,” and “security” appear with high frequencies because they are related to two primary themes of China’s narratives to the world. The first is that China’s economic activities bring the so-called “China opportunity” to the world by promoting economic growth and development for all. The second is the “developmental peace” concept mentioned above. To abate the perception of a “China threat” and attract supporters to China’s agenda, Beijing emphasizes that China’s economic relations with other countries are in pursuit of “common” interests and “mutual” “need” and contribute to “peace.” As a result, all sides “win” in relations with China (or in Xi’s terms, the relations lead to “win-win” outcomes).

After the COVID outbreak, China has continued to emphasize its cooperative relations with the rest of the world. In Figure 1b, the term “cooperation” is “crowded out” by the pandemic-related terms, such as “COVID,” “global,” and “world.” However, “cooperation” ranks right after them with the eighth highest frequencies in Xi’s diplomatic documents.

 

Collocate graphs help reveal the messages more clearly. Figures 2a and 2b show the networks of terms in the two subsets of documents, using “development” as the primary keyword and including nine words on each side of it. Blue nodes in the graphs represent high-corpus-frequency keywords, while maroon nodes represent high-frequency collocates in the context of the linked keywords. The window of words (eighteen, that is, nine words on each side of the keyword) plus the key term “development” and functional words, such as determiners and prepositions that do not carry much meaning and are excluded from the graphs, approximates the average length of a complete sentence in these Xi documents. Therefore, arguably, such a window of words provides a practical and comprehensive term collocation in the corpus.

 

Figure 2a conceptualizes the pre-COVID documents. The two above-identified primary themes of China’s external narratives are visualized vividly. In the first theme, “development” is linked to China’s preferred image of a benign power, which promotes a “new” type of “relations” between “countries” that emphasizes “win”-“win” “cooperation.” In the second, the developmental peace concept is fleshed out. The word “development” is in close proximity to the term “peace,” which in turn often cooccurs with the narratives of “stability” in the “world” and “prosperity” in the “region.”

In the post-COVID documents (Figure 2b), the collocation graph is messier due to the inclusion of pandemic-related topics (such as “World” “Health” “Organization”) and occasion-specific topics (such as the “73rd” “General” “Assembly” and “Global” “governance” and “AIIB”). These idiosyncratic terms are highlighted unavoidably due to the small number of documents in this subset of the corpus (six documents). However, the two themes in the pre-COVID documents remain clear. The first theme links “China’s” agenda of “development” to the pursuit of “win”-“win” “cooperation” and Xi’s idea of a “community” of “shared” “future” for “mankind.” The second theme links “development” to “peace,” that is, China’s developmental peace idea, and the narrative connects “development” to the solutions of “economic” and “social” “issues” facing “globalization.”

Overall, one can find that “China,” “development,” and “cooperation” are three primary keywords in the corpus that provide the backbone of Xi’s messages to the world. Even in Figure 2b, where COVID-related discourses have overshadowed the prominence of “cooperation” (in terms of its relative frequency in the corpus), the narrative structure around “China,” “development,” and “cooperation” is intact. It is noteworthy that the frequent collocation of “peace” and “development” (to be specific, 129 times) in the pre-pandemic documents remains significant in Xi’s post-outbreak messages. Therefore, the outbreak of COVID-19 and the criticism that China faces in its handling of the pandemic has not dented Beijing’s developmental peace discourse.

 

 

 

Interestingly, countries in “Africa” have been the focus of China’s diplomatic discourses before and after the COVID-19 outbreak. The continent’s importance likely reflects the West’s prolonged negligence that has given China a rare occasion of first-mover advantage. Moreover, African countries’ votes have played a critical role in securing and promoting China’s international status. African votes brought the People’s Republic into the United Nations and now help Beijing secure leadership positions in international institutions to propagate its global discourses and agenda.

 

 

Figures 3a and 3b put the above collocate graphs in concrete numbers and list the top collocate dyads in the corpus. The context is set at five words on each side of a keyword, so these terms are juxtaposed closely with each other with a frequency higher than random chance might predict. Figures 3a shows that, in the pre-COVID documents, “China,” “cooperation,” and “development” are among the top collocates. Together with other top collocate dyads such as “people,” “countries,” “relations,” and “win,” Beijing is highlighting China’s positive agenda in the world that emphasizes “development,” “cooperation,” and “win”-“win” “relations” between “peoples” and “countries.” “Development” is also singularly juxtaposed with “peace” to stress China’s developmental peace idea. In the post-COVID documents in Figure 3b, pandemic-related dyads permeate, but “development” is still juxtaposed with “peace” frequently, and “China,” “cooperation,” “development,” and “world” are consistently put together to hammer in China’s image as a benign power.

Text-analysis of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s major diplomatic documents reveals that China has constructed its narratives to the world around the concept of “development.” Preaching an international agenda of development, China has shrewdly delegitimized U.S. opposition to its assertion of power on the world stage, witnessed in Washington’s futile attempts to abort the AIIB. Moreover, China’s narratives implicitly contrast Chinese approaches to those Beijing contends as characterizing the U.S.-led order. By emphasizing “cooperation” instead of intervention, “win”-“win” instead of hegemony, and “development” instead of exploitation, the narratives legitimize China’s push to alter the existing order. As Neal G. Jesse et al. succinctly put, leaders cannot lead when followers won’t follow. China’s narratives to the world aim to attract followers to its agenda by emphasizing the benign nature of its power while raising questions about the authority of the U.S.-led order. To compete with China effectively, Washington needs to be aware of and deal with such non-kinetic challenges.

 

1 Jessica Chen Weiss, “A World Safe for Autocracy? China’s Rise and the Future of Global Politics,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 4 (July/August 2019), pp. 92-102.
2 Wang Xuejun, “Developmental Peace: Understanding China’s Africa Policy in Peace and Security,” in Chris Alden, Abiodun Alao, Zhang Chun, and Laura Barber (eds.), China and Africa: Building Peace and Security Cooperation on the Continent (Palgrave Macmillian, 2017), pp. 67-82.
3 The range of the average words per sentence in the pre-COVID Xi documents is between 17.5 and 35.4, and 17.9 and 23.7 in the post-COVID documents.
4 The conception is especially identifiable when the window of words is reduced to ten. “China,” “development,” and “cooperation” are the three primary keywords in the corpus that collocate with each other within such a context. “Development” and “cooperation” are frequently in close proximity to “China” in Xi’s documents to highlight the idea of “China’s” mutually beneficial relations with other countries. The relevant figures are not shown due to space limitations but can be requested from the author.
5 Yaroslav Trofimov, Drew Hinshaw, and Kate O’Keeffe, “How China Is Taking Over International Organizations, One Vote at a Time,” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-china-is-taking-over-international-organizations-one-vote-at-a-time-11601397208, accessed November 6, 2020.
6 Neal G. Jesse et al., “The Leader Can’t Lead When the Followers Won’t Follow: The Limitations of Hegemony”,
in Kristen P. Williams, Steven E. Lobell, and Neal G. Jesse (eds.) Beyond Great Powers and Hegemons: Why Secondary States Support, Follow, or Challenge (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), pp. 1–30.
7 G. John Ikenberry, “The Future of Liberal World Order,” Japanese Journal of Political Science Vol. 16, No. 3 (2015), pp. 450-455.

The Author is Dalton Lin

Dalton Lin is assistant professor at Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology. His most recent work is "The Political Economy of China's 'Belt and Road Initiative'," in Lowell Dittmer (ed.), China's Political Economy in the Xi Jinping Epoch: Domestic and Global Dimensions (World Scientific Publishing, in print).

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