China in recent years has made great efforts to promote international communication, expounding its policy stances and key initiatives on various occasions and sending forceful messages to the world that it stands behind economic globalization and multilateralism. Its academic and media communities have contributed their share, reaching out to audiences overseas to explain positions and respond to concerns.
The ability to communicate is an important determinant of international influence, and mastery of discourse is the defining factor. Effective discourse includes a set of symbols about ways of thinking and provides vehicles of communication with which the communicator and listener can have meaningful interaction, imparting ideas and values. International discourse is not just about a country’s right to speak but, more important, to getting its message across.
Persuasive discourse first involves content. To be influential it must be backed up by quality substance.
Second, it involves the ability to set the agenda of international discussions. In the practice of international relations, countries that are more capable of setting international agendas invariably have more power over steering public opinion and shaping the discourse.
Third, it requires facts and empirical evidence. Successful discourse is supported. Anything short of that will ring hollow and will not elevate a country’s ability to communicate with the world.
Fourth, a virtuous loop of communication is needed. Only when the audience becomes sympathetic toward an idea and develops a virtuous feedback loop will the influence of China’s discourse rise.
As China approaches the center of the world stage, there is increasing interest by others in knowing about it, developing objective views about it and getting a better sense of its recipe for success and where it’s heading. Yet the West still retains discourse dominance over China, whose influence in the realm of public opinion is not up to what is expected. This needs to be further improved.
The realm of public opinion around the world is highly diverse, with views developed from multiple angles. People with different backgrounds receive information through different channels. Therefore, official and diplomatic channels of communication will not be sufficient to meet all needs and cover all audiences. There is a need for more players to get involved.
More than ever, the world is keen to have access to firsthand information and in-depth analysis about China to better understand its policy propositions and proposals on various matters. But there is limited firsthand information originating from China in the international information pool — not enough to reflect the rich fabric of Chinese society and culture or to quench the craving for knowledge about China. In this new reality, China must take the initiative to make its voice heard and its stories understood to nudge international public opinion its way and present world trends in a realistic and balanced manner.
China stands ready to engage in communication and dialogue with other countries on a friendly and equal footing. To be successful, participants must be good at speaking with their own microphones as well as those of others. That means a participant must actively take part in discussions and win understanding, respect and recognition.
China must tap into its rich historical and cultural heritage, continue to communicate and learn with an open mind in the spirit of modesty and inclusiveness. It must learn to use plain and approachable language and narratives to inform the world about what’s happening inside the country and to describe world affairs objectively.
The world is watching China — not only its achievements but also how it will shape the world we live in. As China moves to center stage, there are some who, out of ideological bias or the bigotry of power politics, remain bent on smearing and misrepresenting it. They tend to interpret China’s development through the lens of Western development and logic. But human civilization is a long, winding journey, and the proposition that a strong country will seek hegemony is a fallacy. Those who see the world in an anachronistic, narrow or parochial way fail to see the progressive nature of history, the trends of the times and the future of mankind.
It takes more than rebuttal and debate to change others’ opinions. We need to give a realistic, all-dimensional and comprehensive account of China, explain China’s intentions and goals with convincing arguments and focus the narrative on China’s vision and actions in building a community with a shared future for mankind.
We in China should apply Chinese theory and vision to make sense of international affairs and world development trends. We should foster understanding of China and support for its development whenever possible. When the world comes to see China as it truly is — a country driven by innovation, reform and opening, and one that helps ensure a happy life for its people and contributes to world peace and development in a significant way — then its international reputation will take care of itself.
It is imperative not only to present a narrative of how our system works, but to tell stories of the Chinese people, their joys and pains, their happiness and grief. More often than not, a simple personal story can make clear a lot of puzzles. With unvarnished accounts of people’s ups and downs in life, our stories will more easily strike a chord with audiences, and communication based on Chinese culture will be more approachable and better appreciated.