Communication is about image. The image of a country, similar with those of a corporation or individual, generally includes three dimensions: first, who you are, and what kind of a person you are; second, what you say you are and are like; third, what others say you are and are like. When images of the three dimensions coincide, they would basically result in a complete and objective image. If they are partly missing or diverge too much from one another, the subsequent image may easily be distorted, or unconvincing.
The rest of the world is taking China as one of the key variables affecting the international situation and the direction of the world, and is therefore eager to know what is the state of affairs in China, the thinking of Chinese decision-makers, as well as the orientation of China's development. They also want to know what a country China will be when it becomes strong, what is its strategic intent, and what impacts it will have on the world.
Ten years ago I was serving as the Chinese ambassador to the UK, the most frequent questions I came across when speaking at college campus or at various forums were: What does China want from the world? What it can offer to the world? Last month when I received a member of the British Parliament, the first question she asked me was: How do you think China will influence the world? Obviously, this may be the question from the international community that we, as a rising major country, need respond to in a convincing manner not only in the past but also in the coming decade.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic. China has turned from a poor and backward country into the world's second largest economy under the leadership of the Communist Party and with the hardworking of the Chinese people. China’s influence in the world has risen correspondingly, and the country is playing an increasing role in international affairs. China's achievements are obvious to all, who, no matter whether they agree with us or not, have to acknowledge that the Chinese political system and governance have been successful. China's success suffices for rewriting the textbooks of international political economics that have long been western-dominated, and providing reference for humanity's pursuit of civilization and progress.
The outside world wants to know not only what we have achieved, but, more importantly, how China would affect the world as it continues to make progresses. Because this concerns all other parties and would affect their future strategic choices. These years, the international media's demands for information about China has been rising fast. We can even say there is a thirst for knowledge about China. There are growing positive comments on China by the international media. However, there are also negative and critical views.
In recent years, China has often been seen as "strategic competitor" in American strategic circle. From economy and trade to science and technology, military and security, the US side has demonstrated a posture to counter the perceived Chinese challenges in an all-round manner. They didn’t even hesitate to disrupt normal economic and trade as well as scientific and technological cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges. Appearantly the "political correctness" of dealing with China's rise in a tough and effective manner is gaining traction in the US, and there is little question that the US is going to shift its China strategy. However, contacts between Chinese and American intellectual circles remain active. Some scholars who are deeply concerned of the prospect of our relationship are still taking pains in exploring such important questions as what exactly China wants, and what its real strategic purpose is.
There should be no denying that, with the rise of China and the weakening of American hegemony, there can be conflict of interest and the two countries need to properly handle their differences. If some in the US leadership and strategic circles attempt to usher the bilateral relations onto the old path of major power rivalry, then at the level of the general public, how do we hedge such dangerous logic and do away with prevalent misunderstandings and prejudices? How do we enable the international community, including the US public, hear and read more from the Chinese directly about their concerns and ideas? In my own experience of international contact, I often have the feeling that some people's impressions about China are based on incomplete information, and their knowledge about China is highly dependent on second hand information from the media and politicians.
In my recent meetings with visiting Americans, they came with various doubts and questions. But after listening to the Chinese side, they showed keen interest to know more though they did not fully accept what they were told. For instance, I introduced to them the legislative procedure at the National People's Congress and its Standing Committee, from choosing legislative topics from among the suggestions of NPC delegates and the general public, to conducting specialized and society-wide consultations, coming up with a legislative draft and solicit public opinions, and then submitting it for adoption by voting after two or three rounds of readings and revisions at the NPC Standing Committee. Such common knowledge in China sounded new to them. Some of the visitors wanted to invite Chinese to go and talk in their country. They have realized that the Chinese system, politics and way of governance must have something to do with its success and they hoped that the Chinese can be more proactive in telling their own stories to the world. One American former official told me that, if the Chinese can’t tell the world in a convincing manner what was their true strategic intent, others would tell it for them.
At this moment, China-US relationship is at a turning point. Will it drift into a “cold war” and the two countries become enemies to each other? Or will they establish a new-type of relationship via effective communications? The leaders of the two countries have agreed on the goal of building a relationship based on coordination, cooperation and stability. Yet how can we make sure that the bilateral ties be geared onto such a track? It depends on both countries to make the right choices at each key move and on every subject of interest. It also depends on whether the two countries and their peoples can correctly and objectively understand and judge each other. And the future direction of China-US relations will inevitably affect the world's future.
In this process, our ability to communicate and to promote understanding is all the more important. With his rich experience, Henry Kissinger in his book World Order, also talked about the crucial ability to communicate quickly and publicize events and policies reliably, in a crisis situation, in order to prevent conflict through misunderstanding.
Today, as China finds itself on the forefront of confronting international issues, we can't neglect the role of public opinions in the international changes, especially since we are in an age of highly advanced media technologies. The traditional and new media as well as the social-media are playing such important roles that, the public opinions can not only positively influence policy choices, but also hijack public judgments. The growing difficulties we face in international relations give us no excuse to forsake communication, instead, we should pay greater attention to the public opinion and try harder to communicate with the outside world.
Sometimes we may want to complain that China's opportunity to be heard is limited in the present-day world. My experience is that, we can’t expect people to come to listen us just like that. We need to earn people’s attention. If we can make the best of the opportunities of communication which is already available to us, we may be able to attract more attention of the international community and more people would want to hear us.
Communication is about dialogue and exchanges among people. My experience told me, when speaking to the public, the focus should be on human dialogue and sharing of information and ideas.
Communication with the world doesn't mean self-praising all the time. As a developing country that is industrializing at fast pace, it’s natural that there are shortcomings and weakness in China. Actually the advantage of our system lies exactly in the fact that the Party and government have not only the courage to face problems, but also the capacity for solving them. When trying to communicate with the outside world, we need not to shy away from our weakness nor to dodge from criticism. What is important for us is to be able to explain what the intentions and purposes of our policies are, what challenges we face, and what efforts we are making to solve problems.
Just as it is said, the politics of a major country has no boundaries. Developments in China inevitably attract international attention, and they now also form part of the international politics. China’s central leadership has acknowledged that the world is undergoing major changes of the century. China, which is at the center of changes, is not only one of the key forces behind the change, but at the same time is also affected by the changes. At such a time of prevailing uncertainty, we need to not only manage our own affairs well at home but also improve communication with the outside world.