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China’s Quest for Huayu Quan
Can Xi Jinping Change the Terms of International Discourse?

Tags: China , Xi Jinping , Values , Nationalism , Leadership

Eto, Naoko

October 03, 2017


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Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China are calling for a great leap forward in Chinese philosophy and social sciences. China watcher Naoko Eto analyzes the initiative in the context of Beijing’s drive to secure a seat at the “grownups’ table” and shape international norms.

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On May 17, Renmin Ribao carried a front-page story on a new “opinion” issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on the subject of “developing philosophy and social sciences with Chinese characteristics.” That the article passed under the radar of most China watchers here in Japan is not entirely surprising, given its brevity. But the document that it describes deserves a closer look as an important component of Xi Jinping’s campaign to expand China’s international influence, particularly in the realm of “soft power.”

According to state-run Xinhua News, the Central Committee’s “Opinion on Accelerating the Construction of Philosophy and Social Sciences with Chinese Characteristics” (hereafter referred to as the “Opinion”) stresses the need to provide strong ideological and theoretical support for efforts to reach the goals of the Two Centenaries and achieve the Chinese Dream of national revitalization. On the one hand, it affirms the need for philosophy and the social sciences to adhere to the core principles of Marxism as China stands on the threshold of a new historical era. At the same time, it stresses the importance of building new academic, scholarly, and discourse systems with Chinese characteristics and calls on party organs at each level to exercise strong political and policy leadership to this end.[1]

On one level, the Opinion clearly reflects the current regime’s preoccupation with maintaining ideological control over scholarship and discourse inside of China. In my view, however, the guideline also has important implications for China’s foreign policy and international strategy. When we analyze its content in the light of prior statements, discussions, and initiatives, as I do below, it becomes clear that the government seeks to develop theoretical and rhetorical weapons to legitimize China’s system globally as well as domestically, and ultimately reshape international discourse to China’s advantage.

How China Recognizes “Discourse Power”

China has been working hard for years to sway international opinion. With the rise of Chinese economic and military power, Beijing has waxed increasingly adamant in its defense of behavior that defies the rules and norms of international society (such as those governing territorial sovereignty). Fueling this defiance is a deep-seated perception inside China that the country’s voice in international affairs is not commensurate with its emerging hard power. It is in the context of this dilemma that the term huayu quan, or “discourse power,” emerged as a buzzword in the first decade of this century.

In the international context, “discourse power,” as explained by Zhang Zhizhou (of the Beijing Foreign Studies University School of International Relations and Diplomacy), refers to “the influence generated by the logic, values, and ideologies contained in a nation’s discussions and public discourse.”[2] In fact, huayu quan can carry connotations of international power and influence as well as the right to speak. Yang Jiemian (former president of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies) defines “diplomatic discourse” (waijiao huayu) as the original way in which “a government communicates its nation’s cultural traditions, ideology, and basic stance on strategic directions and policy measures to achieve its key interests,” and he notes that it also contains derivative meanings of the “right” and “power” of discourse, as in huayu quan.[3]

Huayu quan is also used in a domestic context, in which case it usually signifies the power to lead public discourse so as to maintain ideological control. A good example is this statement by Xi Jinping on August 19, 2013, at the National Publicity and Ideological Work Conference: “In ideological work, we must grasp leadership, control, and discourse power [huayu quan] firmly in our hands.”

But the term comes up more frequently in the context of the need to enhance China’s impact on international opinion. Discussions of this sort are rooted in simmering discontent over China’s failure to secure a degree of influence and prestige commensurate with its hard power amid international concerns over the “Chinese threat” and criticism of China’s human rights record. The fundamental explanation embraced by the Chinese in recent years is that the current international order places China at an unfair disadvantage because it operates under the dominion of Western ideology, or “Western discourse hegemony.”

Legitimizing China’s Path

The year 2013 marked a turning point in the government’s campaign to boost China’s “discourse power.” The reform resolution adopted in November that year at the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee included (under the heading of “heighten cultural openness”) the admonition to “expand foreign cultural exchange; strengthen efforts to build international communication skills and a system of discourse [huayu tixi] with the outside world and promote the advance of Chinese culture throughout the world.”[4]

What exactly does the Central Committee mean by a “system of discourse”? Based on the context and the meaning of the term’s semantic constituents, one can deduce that it signifies some overarching structural framework for the interpretation of various phenomena in a manner consistent with Chinese political ideology. Indeed, according to a commentary in Renmin Ribao, “a Chinese system of discourse [huayu tixi] is basically a theoretical, discursive articulation of China’s path, which is needed to explain to the world why the Chinese path has succeeded and its significance for the rest of the world.”[5] On the basis of this definition, we can surmise that the envisioned system would provide a theoretical explanation of the Chinese model of development.

The year 2013 also saw the establishment of a “coordinating conference for the development of a system of discourse in philosophy and the social sciences” under the auspices of the CPC Publicity Department, the party’s central propaganda organ. The coordinating conference has since held four “theoretical seminars”: at the Central Party School (October 17, 2014), at the Renmin University of China (November 14, 2015), at the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (October 14, 2016), and most recently in Qingdao (May 4–5, 2017). It has striven to nurture a common sense of purpose by working with key state and party information and research organs, including the CPC’s Publicity Department and Party History Research Office, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), the Chinese Academy of Governance, the State Council Information Office, and the China International Publishing Group (Foreign Languages Publishing Administration). At the same time, the state and the CPC have allocated large sums to support policy research in the field. This includes projects oriented to the development of a new system of “think tanks with Chinese characteristics,” a concept first floated by Xi Jinping in late 2012.

It is difficult to separate the call for a new “system of discourse” from China’s increasingly vocal rejection of “universal values” (such as democracy and human rights). For example, in an October 2016 statement on the “core meaning and intrinsic logic of building a system of discourse,” the State Council Information Office argues, “Any system of discourse expresses a particular ideology and has a political viewpoint. The confrontation between plural discourse systems is essentially the intersection of various currents of social thought and the collision of political viewpoints. The political viewpoint underlying the West’s ‘universal values’ is the rejection of Marxism, socialism, and the leadership of the Communist Party.”[6] Such statements illuminate a driving force behind the initiative to develop a new system of discourse: the desire for an intellectual paradigm capable of challenging the hegemony of “universal values” (under which China is denied the respect it deserves) and reshaping international opinion to reflect Chinese values.

Xi Jinping’s Blueprint

Let us now return to the Opinion issued by the CPC Central Committee.

In a late May interview in Renmin Ribao, Wang Weiguang, president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, characterized the Opinion’s function as follows: “General Secretary Xi Jinping’s major ‘May 17 Speech’ provided a top-down blueprint for advancing the development of philosophy and social science with Chinese characteristics and laid out strategic targets and tasks. The Opinion sets forth clear requirements for accelerating the comprehensive development of philosophy and social science with Chinese characteristics and provides important guidelines.”[7] The major speech to which Wang refers is a lengthy address delivered by Xi Jinping a year earlier, on May 17, 2016, to a symposium on the development of philosophy and social sciences in China. Government and party insiders refer to those remarks as the May 17 Speech.

The 2016 symposium was held in Beijing and chaired by Xi Jinping himself. Taking part in the event were top information and propaganda officials at both the national and provincial levels, members of the advisory council for the Marxist Theory Research and Construction Project, and some of the nation’s leading researchers in philosophy and the social sciences.

In his May 17 Speech, Xi began by making a case for the vital role of philosophy and the social sciences in today’s China. “A country in which the natural sciences are undeveloped cannot be a leading nation, and neither can a country in which philosophy and social science do not flourish,” he said.[8] Xi noted that progress in the realm of philosophy and social science has invariably paved the way for major advances in society and civilization. He referred to the cultural and philosophical achievements that had attended periods of outstanding progress in the West, from ancient Greece and Rome to the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the American and French revolutions. China, he said, is currently in the midst of such a period of change, and for that reason philosophy and social sciences have a more important role to play than ever before.

With such motivational rhetoric, Xi Jinping in essence called for a renaissance in Chinese philosophy and social science. At the same time, he reminded his audience that “to fully leverage the efficacy of Chinese philosophy and social science, we must give our attention to the development of a system of discourse.” He explained the aim of this undertaking as follows. “It is in the interpretation of Chinese practices and the construction of Chinese theory that we should have the most say. In fact, however, our voice in the international philosophical and social science communities is relatively weak. . . .  We must create 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.”

In other words, beyond the immediate objective of influencing discourse on China is the long-term ambition of generating new theoretical concepts that can play a leading role in global scholarship. And given what we know of the implications of “discourse power” and “systems of discourse” under Chinese concepts of international relations, it seems clear that this ambition is linked to the strategic goal of marshaling a distinctly Chinese brand of thinking to challenge and eventually topple the “discourse hegemony” of the West.


It is evident that the new “system of discourse” proposed in Xi Jinping’s May 17 Speech and again in the CPC’s Opinion has a purpose beyond that of reinvigorating Chinese scholarship in philosophy and the social sciences. The fact that Xi Jinping adduces the contributions of ancient Rome in calling for advances in disciplines like political science strongly suggests that the ultimate goal of a new discourse system is to develop alternatives to time-honored Western principles and values and patiently present them to the rest of the international community. And it seems reasonable to assume that the ultimate goal is for these new norms and values to spread and eventually displace the “universal values” advocated by the West.

To be sure, there is something paradoxical about this top-down initiative for transforming global opinion through the development of a new system of discourse. As we have seen, the domestic face of “discourse power” is the enforcement of ideological conformity. The government’s methods of controlling public opinion through “discourse power” must inevitably tarnish the process of building a new system of free and open discourse. Does China’s leadership actually believe that the nation’s scholars, working under the political and ideological constraints of a top-down government initiative, are likely to generate the sort of discourse that can transform the norms and values of international society? Or that international society would be receptive to such an effort?

That said, the truth is that we live in uncertain times, in an era in which scholars of international relations and political science are acutely aware of the need for new theoretical tools to explain the rapidly changing world around us. Moreover, while China’s scholarly theories may have a limited impact, we should not dismiss the possibility that Chinese behavior and rhetoric could gradually influence the way the rest of the world thinks.

Still, insofar as discourse power is a form of soft power, the development of a new system of rhetoric need not be seen as preparation for ideological warfare. After all, the Chinese seem to realize that they can only expand their discourse power if they can offer the sort of discourse that the international community can embrace. That being the case, the new discourse may turn out to be little more than a reiteration of existing ideas (such as liberalism), interpreted and framed in Chinese terms (as in anti-protectionism).

In either case, Xi Jinping himself has called on China’s academic community to develop new systems of thought and discourse “with Chinese characteristics,” and that call will not go unheeded. As these theoretical frameworks emerge, our task will be to distinguish between repackaged Communist Party propaganda and norms, values, and ideas that can stand the test of time, as well as to engage constructively in order to identify and build on those values that we can truly share.


[1] http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2017-05/16/c_1120982602.htm.

[2] Zhang Zhizhou, “Zhongguo guoji huayu quan de kunju yuchu” (Solving the Dilemma of China’s International Discourse Power), Luye (Green Leaf), May 2009, p. 81. See http://theory.people.com.cn/GB/9878818.html.

[3] Yang Jiemian, “Zhongguo tese daguo waijiao huayu quah de shiming” (Chinese-Style Discourse Power in Major-Power Diplomacy: Mission and Challenges), Guoji Wenti Yanjiu (International Studies), May 2016, p. 24.

[4] https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/ccp-central-committee-resolution-concerning-some-major-issues-in-comprehensively-deepening-reform.

[5] http://opinion.people.com.cn/BIG5/n1/2016/1118/c1003-28877400.html.

[6] http://www.scio.gov.cn/zhzc/10/Document/1514428/1514428.htm.

[7] http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2017-05/31/nw.D110000renmrb_20170531_2-09.htm.

[8] http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2016-05/18/c_1118891128.htm.

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