The United States and its allies control the global media space, but Beijing has a plan to weaken its grip
By Ivan ZuenkoSenior Researcher at the Institute of International Studies and Associate Professor at the Department of Oriental Studies, MGIMO, Moscow.
Summarizing 2020 – a difficult year with the Covid-19 pandemic and an escalation in the confrontation between Beijing and Washington – the eminent Chinese political scientist Yuan Peng wrote: “It doesn’t matter what is true or false, what matters is who controls the speech.”
The expert was referring to media pressure to discredit China, but in fact he identified one of the main characteristics of our times – which could be called the “post-truth era”, when public opinion is shaped not by facts but by emotions.
Those who can guide these feelings in the right direction are those who shape the news agenda. The emotions generated became the “speech”. This concept, born among French poststructuralist philosophers (mainly Michel Foucault) in the middle of the 20th century, found itself at the heart of world politics at the beginning of the 21st century.
The year 2022, with all its tumultuous events – the escalation of the “Ukrainian crisis”, the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the expansion of “global NATO” – has is raising the temperature of information confrontation to record highs. We have no reason to expect it to be cooler next year. China is one of those countries that, although it missed the initial division of “discursive capital”, recognized the problem in time and is now constantly building what experts call “discursive power”.
Beijing became concerned about this issue a decade ago, when it became clear that its traditional “soft power” approaches were no longer working. Despite generous investments in promoting its image, China has not been treated better as a result.
Indeed, on the contrary, the degree of Sinophobia has increased in direct proportion to China’s growing economic power. The Confucius Institutes were seen exclusively as breeding grounds for Chinese propaganda. Even a public relations event as obviously successful as the 2008 Summer Olympics was accompanied by strong accusations of human rights abuses and rhetoric of support for Tibetan separatists.
That’s when it became clear to Beijing that what matters isn’t what actually happens, but how it’s reported on the internet. And online content in today’s world is mostly produced by Westerners and in English. As a result, not only the West itself, but also China’s neighbors are looking at it through Western eyes.
It has become necessary to analyze why attitudes towards the actions of a particular country are explained by the way it is presented in the public square – and such an explanation has been found in the concept of ‘discourse’. “He who controls the speech controls the powerChinese intellectuals began to write, creatively modifying Foucault’s ideas to meet political demand.
And soon these theoretical findings emerged from the desks of academics and became the informational basis of Beijing’s new foreign policy – centered on the “great rebirth of the Chinese nation”. The active position of Chinese diplomats and experts in social media (so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”), the promotion of their terminology in various international platforms – all this is part of the “discursive power” that Beijing is developing.
The phenomenon of “discursive power” in China has not gone unnoticed by specialists in the country. The Institute of International Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) has also published an analytical report titled “From Soft Power to Discursive Power: The New Ideology of Chinese Foreign Policy”, which provides an comprehensive assessment of this phenomenon and predictions for the future.
According to his conclusions, the struggles around the discourse are part of the hybrid confrontation that is already taking place on a global scale. China’s main objective is to counter the “discursive hegemony” of the West, without overthrowing it, because Beijing needs a structure to build constructive relations with other countries. As a result, an alternative discursive reality to the West will gradually be created and most countries in the world will find themselves faced with a dilemma as to which point of view to adopt. More importantly, the “discursive power” in Chinese interpretations is not limited to the written word: technological, financial and managerial standards are also part of it. Which, of course, means a new division awaits the planet.
This is the wonderful new world – the world of post-truth and “discursive multipolarity”.
This article was first published by Profile.ru
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