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China quietly and deftly shapes international discourse

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Shifts in China’s economic and military power continue to produce dramatic headlines, but few recognize the changing nature and impact of China’s internationally oriented discourse as a form of power.

Those that do tend to argue China still can’t do soft power and communicates poorly with the outside world. On closer inspection, however, 2021 seems to have charted a subtle increase in China’s “discourse power.”

COP26 is a prime example. Despite facing international criticism due to Xi Jinping’s physical absence and surging domestic coal consumption, China appears to have successfully employed discourse to set certain agendas at the conference. The concept of “Ecological Civilization,” a slogan closely linked to Xi’s leadership, found its way into many climate conversations. This followed the Kunming Declaration, signed by over 100 nations on Oct. 13, which enshrined Ecological Civilization as a “Shared Future for All Life on Earth.” And on Nov. 1, the first day of COP26, the U.K. launched the Clean Green Initiative (CGI), which has clearly been informed by China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI).

This is not to mention the Build Back Better World (B3W) announced at the Group of Seven summit in August. It is significant that that the CGI and B3W have adopted nomenclature that imitates the BRI — even though these projects are intended to counter or compete with China. In that sense, the CGI and B3W represent a shift in China’s ability to shape international discourse around development finance. Considering that the BRI is in reality just an umbrella term for China’s diverse global trade and investment relationships, it has been remarkably successful as a narrative capable of influencing foreign audiences and policymakers (its practical economic performance notwithstanding).

These events indicate that China is increasingly confident and capable in propagating terminology and vocabulary that carry normative impact. Simply put, China’s discourse power shows signs of growth.

Over the past two decades discourse power (huayu quan) has emerged as a buzzword used increasingly by Chinese political and economic commentators. As quan translates to both “right” and “power,” huayu quan can also be understood as the right to speak and be heard, or the right to speak with authority. In practice, discourse power entails creating shared vocabularies........

© The Japan Times

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