Prevailing voice: how should China improve its intl communication capacity?
Published: Jul 27, 2021 12:58 AM
Global Times reporter Yang Sheng (right) interviews Professor Zhang Weiwei (left). Photo: Yang Ruoyu/GT

Global Times reporter Yang Sheng (right) interviews Professor Zhang Weiwei (left). Photo: Yang Ruoyu/GT

Editor's Note:

China has been put in an awkward situation. The more successful it becomes, the more it faces criticism from the West based on lies and ideological bias. How can China build an equally powerful voice to match its national strength and international status? How should people view China's "wolf-warrior diplomacy"? When and how should the West learn to respect China? The Global Times (GT) interviewed Professor Zhang Weiwei (Zhang), Director of the China Institute of Fudan University, over these issues. Zhang, who also served as an English interpreter for former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and is a scholar who has travelled to more than 100 countries for doing research, has been focusing on Chinese studies for a long time.

GT: Nowadays, we are in a strange situation: The more successful we become, the more criticisms based on bias, rumors and lies will come to China from the West. Why do you think is that?

Zhang: I think, yes, the more successful China is, the more critical the West has become. So this, from the Chinese point of view, is very strange. And from my point of view, and from my observation, it's a kind of, as you mentioned, jealousy, suspicion, hate - all of them mixed together. 

I feel there is a fear. No one can deny it now. Even the Western countries see China's rise in so-called hard power. It's so evident. So what they are afraid of is the rise of China's soft power. In other words, what has driven China's rise is hard power - the political system, the leadership of the Communist Party of China, the mobilization of the Chinese people for their country's modernization, as such - all these are perceived as a major threat to the Western political discourse. Because that means a complete change of people's outlook in the mind of many Westerners. Because they always think their system is the best - the end of history thesis. Now many see an alternative to the Western model. That's frightening. Rather than trying to understand how China has achieved today's success, they prefer to first deny it. And then they get angry. And then try to protest and try to express their anger with vicious attacks. But in the end they will come to see all these are useless. 

The hard facts are there. You have to come to your own senses and come to terms with China's hard power and also what's maybe called soft power or how Chinese society, the Chinese model has worked for many decades. So I'm not worried that much about their vicious attacks on China, sometimes they are very ridiculous, even laughable. In the end, they will come to their senses, I really think so.

GT: At present, the Chinese government is also aware of certain shortcomings in terms of international communication capacity, which you said is the part of soft power. Why doesn't a powerful country like China have an equally powerful voice to match its national strength and international status?

Zhang: To be honest from my point of view, China's rise is so fast. It's even faster than many, if not most Chinese have expected. The rise of the living standards has moved at a pace that most of you have never imagined. As a result, many Chinese are not ready for this kind of cross cultural communication. There is a cultural barrier. You have to know how to tell and share the Chinese success, and successful stories, to non-Chinese in the way understandable by non-Chinese. So this is a challenge. Of course, there is one major problem which is linguistic. Many Chinese expressions have difficulty being translated into English, et cetera. So I think you have the hard power that is high; and soft power not yet that high, and there is imbalance between the two. What we should do is try to balance the two, and especially overcome a lot of difficulties in cross cultural communication.

GT: When I communicate with some foreigners, especially those from foreign media, they say that China doesn't have the free press. All media outlets are controlled by the government. So they label us as the Chinese state affiliated account on Twitter. They say that Chinese media don't have credibility and neutrality. So this is your problem; you don't have soft power. What do you think of this kind of opinion?

Zhang: The Chinese media is not perfect, we have much room for improvement. For myself, I'm being critical of many practices in the Chinese media. I think you can do much better. But on the other hand, this whole idea of free press talked much about in the Western media is a sham. If the US media and British media are free, why do almost half of their populations consider the mainstream media fake news? If I watch Chinese television about the United States, or if I watch US television programs about China, I make a comparison between two. I think if you watch Chinese television or the Chinese media, you can have a better and more balanced story about the United States, far more objective than the US media coverage of China.

So within China, Chinese official media, even today, has a good reputation in the sense that they provide authoritative information. In the Western media, I'm sorry, you don't have any authoritative media. So that's a problem in the West. Everyone has suspicion about everything. Nothing reliable, fake news, post-truth, that's the reality to them. You cannot reach consensus whether in society or in politics. And also, if the Chinese media is in affiliation with the state, the Western media is controlled by the power of capital. If you examine major Western and media outlets, in most cases, they represent neo-liberalism. They support Wall Street. They support the Afghan war. They supported the Iraqi war. All these are shameless. And this rubbish coverage of Xinjiang is ridiculous, laughable; turning themselves into a laughingstock. In the eyes of most Chinese, you lose basic standard for journalism. So in the end, they will suffer. So, get rid of this arrogance! We should learn from each other and we have done something much better than you. You also have your certain points which we can learn from.

GT: So you mentioned the Western media when they were reporting about China we found this ridiculous. I remember the last time when we had a conversation, you said that you can't even remember when was the last time The Economist predicted China correctly. They make mistakes again and again. But they are still very influential. Why?

Zhang: If the money carries weight and influence, then the Western media can still have influence. When they are controlled by the power of capital, it's called the corporate media. So they always have certain followings in certain sectors of Western society and non-Western society. It's always the case. In addition, BBC or other institutions have a long history of more than 100 years. So this kind of whatever influence established can still last. But the point you can see, even BBC, indeed, its influence is going down. You get all kinds of opinions of this. 

GT: They make a lot of mistakes and they have many logical errors. And how can we use their mistakes to launch effective counterstrikes? 

Zhang: Basically, what we can do is the whole philosophy of China's success in the past decades. It is based on this thesis called seeking truth from facts. If you seek truth from facts, you find their problems with their logics, with their analysis, with their basic facts, then eventually you can, of course, see where you're making huge mistakes. I always say we try to find out your mistakes. For instance, I remember once BBC broadcast quite a dozen people died in a car. And then it thought they were Chinese, yet it found out instead that they were Vietnamese. 

That's a smuggling case in a truck. They even did not make any apology. That's the habit of what I call arrogance of the Western media represented by BBC. And if you make a mistake, you should make an apology to China. But on the other hand, we can choose to ignore. China is the world's largest media market, world's largest consumer market. And China is the cutting edge of the new technological revolution. And China is the de facto world largest economy by Purchasing Power Parity at least. So we become more and more confident if the British media, American media, Western media still think they don't need to understand China as it is. They will regret, and they misread China again, again, and again. So The Economist, if you prefer, you can stay with your course, make wrong forecasts again, again, again, increasingly become irrelevant, just like these Xinjiang stories. Whatever, nonsense. They make laughable, laughingstock mistakes. For example, once I talked to a Swiss professor. I said if you talk about Xinjiang in this kind of way, it is as if you are describing Switzerland as the most backward country in Europe. Eventually, it's internet world, people will tell the truth. Last year, 200 million visitors went to Xinjiang. They shared their photos, their videos. This lie will become laid bare very soon. Then your reputation will go away. 

GT: I remember the last time when we spoke, you said that we can just leave those biased people in the darkness. And we won't wait for them. We will keep marching on. So what's the price they will pay for the arrogance and ignorance? 

Zhang: The first price I think is this: they will pay this high price for misunderstanding China - they will lose a lot of opportunities which that China can offer. Second, their reputation will go way down. It's already the case in China. Say, even 3 or 4 years ago, if we talked about BBC, many people had decent respect for it. But today is very different. Today if you mention BBC, people often think of a "Bias Broadcasting Corporation." 

GT: When we show the facts, the hard evidence to explain, to clarify those bias, lies, and rumors in the international social media, we found very few people will pay attention to us, to the Chinese media, or people like you. We found it a proof of Western hegemony in the field of international public opinion. They can use their advantages to marginalize, to dilute the efforts we made. So, how can we overcome this kind of challenges?

Zhang: We often see the truth is in the hand of the minority. So in the end, the truth will prove to be not the truth itself, but represents the future. So the Chinese approach or China model which I studied a lot has this feature. We always try to size up the times, the macro picture. The macro picture is China is doing right and China's approach is right. So you could have all the negative coverage, rumors, nonsense, rubbish. In the end, you find out that you will suffer from misinformation about China. Your companies will suffer. Your cooperation will suffer. Your political, whatever, your whole fight against COVID-19 will suffer, because you don't understand China.

For example, when we say this year should be the year of peace and development, which is fundamental, it's not a just political genre. It means if we do that in the Chinese way, you have modernization, development, first-rate technology, first-rate infrastructure, and peace with the world. If you don't do that, you have color revolutions, Arab spring and Arab winter, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the Americans have Donald Trump.

So basically, you got the times wrong. You got the whole year wrong. As a result, you missed the point that this is very much Chinese philosophy - always trying to size up, first of all, the big picture or something we called Dao, the overall trend, which is far more important than the specific whatever. So I think Westerners should learn this from this age-old Chinese wisdom. We are patient. And as you mentioned, we can explain to you what the advice is three times - and then we leave you in darkness as you don't believe. The other day I was giving an interview. The host asked me, how do you think of this G7 communiqué critical of China. I said we take note of it, and then we dismiss it. Full stop. 

GT: President Xi Jinping said that we need to shape an image of China which is reliable, admirable, and respectable. How can we convince foreigners who have never come to China, who read a lot of negative news about China living in a country with very serious Sinophobia , that China is admirable?

Zhang: In the first place, you know, as this English saying goes, to see is to believe. And as soon as a typical person, as you mentioned, comes to visit China, he will see China is so much different from what he has read and watched, whatever, in his own country. In other words, this negative comment about China is nonsense. We are so confident. So maybe many Chinese cannot conduct powerful cross cultural communications. Yet foreigners come to China, come to Beijing, Shanghai or any place in China. If they are realistic and they have good senses of reality, they will find a China which is different. China is rising fast, most people are happy living their lives. People are very confident about their future. As for this particular quote, you mentioned General Secretary Xi Jinping. I think Xi hopes that at least through cultural communications, foreigners will be able to see how most Chinese view their own country. It's a peaceful country. It's a respectable country. It's a livable country. It's on the whole a very confident country.

So I think it's also a minimum requirement for Western journalists who cover China to at least try. As you have the courage, you should tell your audience in other parts of the world, in your own country, how most Chinese view their own country. It's not that difficult. This is basic sense. This is just like when we discuss how to cover the United States in China, at least we should have Chinese audience known of how most Americans think of their country, think of what's have happened in the United States. The point of view in Western media has become so arrogant, you know. Go to talk to people in the streets. You will have a sense of China and how China is. And furthermore, I strongly suggest Western media to closely study many opinion surveys conducted by PEW, by IPSOS, by Dalia Research, or by the Ash Center of Harvard University.

All these opinions point to one simple fact: most Chinese, around 90% more or less think China is on the right track. They are confident about their country. If you look at the same survey for the United States, the UK or France, this kind of positive rate is much lower. It's around 30%, 20%, or sometimes like 11-12%.

China is doing much better than these countries. It's very simple, just like this particular fight against COVID-19. If you look at these figures, you calculate the size of the population and the infected numbers, and death tolls. China has been doing 100, 200, 300 times better than country like the United States, the UK. In other words, if you live in China today, at least 300-400 times safer from this disease than in these so-called Western countries.

GT: When I watch some Western media, including BBC, they did go to streets to talk to ordinary people about what they think about China's efforts in fighting against COVID-19. But it seems that they don't like the answers. They get answers, but they don't like it. And they manipulated or did something else to make it look bad, or make some extra comments.

Zhang: Because they have what I call preconceived ideas that China has human rights problems. So they try to raise the question and give you a hint to talk about China human rights. The United States is doing very poor, very badly, in protecting human rights. The same with the UK. If they prefer that approach, what can you do? Just leave them in darkness. 

GT: Let's talk about a very hot word, it's "wolf warrior" diplomacy. This is a concept that is frequently used by the Western media and politicians to complain about China's increasingly straight and tough expression style. In China, we also have some debates about this concept. Some people believe we should be straight. We should be tough to retaliate, to hit back those provocations from outside. But some others are concerned that this kind of style will bring negative impacts to our country. They worry it will make China look very unfriendly and aggressive. What do you think of this?

Zhang: In November last year, I joined the Monk dialogue. The host of this dialogue put forward the same question concerning so-called wolf warrior diplomacy. My answer, I think, has a lot of resounding reactions, which is very interesting. Basically, I said, as Chinese, we are used to being lectured by the West and by the Western media. I think now it's time for the West to get a bit used to Chinese lecturing back. This lecturing-back is now described as wolf whatever-like diplomacy. I think it's time for you too, to experience what we experienced in the past. As I said in another interview with you in Chinese, this kind of so-called aggressive diplomacy, which I disagree with this term, started more or less with Donald Trump and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, whose style is so aggressive. This is almost bordering on hooliganism, which most Chinese cannot accept. 

It's really below the line of civilization. If you can attack us in such a vicious way, why can't Chinese diplomats and Chinese counter your arguments with their own forceful arguments? This kind of lecturing-back is very normal. Some Western media try to portray this in a negative light or call it "wolf warrior" diplomacy. It's a pity. They just label something, but do not try to look at the hard issues. The hard issue is, if you want to lecture us, we can lecture you back. It is as simple as that. Of course, I agree with you. Maybe a particular diplomat could have become more sophisticated in presentation, that's possible. One can improve his style. But on the whole, it's another issue: if you can lecture us, we can lecture you back.

GT: So we don't need to be a little bit more restrained to balance the negative impacts, do we?

Zhang: We don't need to have any misgivings by our own approach. I feel it's so natural. Some people like to talk very cautiously in a nice way. Some people like to call a spade a spade - many foreigners like this kind of style. And I also like this kind of style, calling a spade what it is. Let's have confrontation or let's have friendly conversations. I'm never bothered by this. We simply discuss the truth and if necessary debate. If it is necessary to have a dialogue then do a dialogue. If it is necessary to have a small talk then let's do small talk. Let's be straight. It's very natural. We don't need to have any particular concern or worries.

GT: Some people call this kind of thinking nationalism. Both within and outside China, some people they are saying that China's at the stage with the highest nationalist sentiments. They are worried that this kind of the patriotism or nationalism could one day be transformed into something that would hijack China's national interest even making China become a fascist country. Do you think this kind of concern is reasonable?

Zhang: In the Western political discourse, this term "nationalism" and the term "patriotism" are clearly different. The patriotism is more or less neutral or even positive, and nationalism is more or less negative. This is related to European history. They used to have a lot of conflicts, even wars between states. For the people of China from my point of view, in most cases, it is expression of patriotism. But the Western media prefer to label it as nationalism so as to belittle it, and try to nullify its importance for Chinese discourse. So that's the Western preferences: they always prefer to label something and fear doing a serious study. Actually, what's going on in the West, United States, is a rise of nationalism. It is sometimes called populism. If you look Donald Trump when he makes a public speech, his audience will chant "USA! USA! USA!" That's nationalism. That's really worrisome. And furthermore, there is one level on the internet: you have all kinds of voices, which is the case with most countries, including China. So don't exaggerate this kind of conversation in the media, in the web. What's more important between the Chinese political system and Western political system is, in the Chinese political system, our decision-making process is much more sophisticated and reasonable than the Western system, especially in this stage. If you compare say, the government work report by Chinese Premier to the National People's Congress, to the United States' what's called the Union Speech at the very beginning of a year. 

Every line of Chinese report is more or less about every day's concern within the Chinese society. They tried to solve problems. While the presidential speech of the US, it's essentially very empty. It's about slogan. It's about humiliating each other. Essentially, the Chinese system, the knowledge of nationalism or populism, will lead to very reasonable, rational decisions. This is very different. 

It's a pity, at least at this particular moment, I don't see in the US decision-making circles someone who can be called a strategist. It is not the case before. You have George Kennan, you have Henry Kissinger. Now, there isn't this kind of strategists. As a result, I always think the US needs a bit strategic thinking, and sure, you need some wise men who can pause and think in medium or long term, rather than making stupid decision, like withdrawing from Afghanistan in order to focus on China. You spend 20 years at Afghanistan, which is a complete failure. And you think that failure can lead to successful approach of dealing with China? Or withdrawing your troops in Afghanistan and that you can make a success of offensive against China? That doesn't make any sense.

GT: Sometimes when we talk about nationalism with foreigners, I say to them that the so-called nationalism they invoke is actually a very reasonable reaction from Chinese society, especially when they receive disrespect or provocation from outside. So if you urge China to control nationalism, why can't you respect China? 

Zhang: I think it's a process that they should get used to. For instance, you have already seen some kind of reaction from the Chinese public. I call it patriotism. Many Western brands are not very cautious of their behavior in China. Like this Xinjiang cotton initiative, whatever it is called, the Better Cotton Initiative. This is ridiculous. Most Chinese get very angry. Obviously, you try to use whatever standards, try to limit the development of China's textile industry. So, many Chinese have begun to boycott these brands which are against Xinjiang's cotton. I think this is a very positive reaction from the Chinese public. Many of these companies realize they cannot offend the fundamental feelings of Chinese. You have to respect us. Or ordinary Chinese will teach you a lesson: if you don't learn to respect China, you will have to stay away from China's market.

GT: The name of our show is Z-Talk which means the Z generation. The Chinese Z generation, which we call "90后", is very confident. They're totally different from their parents' generation. How can these people contribute their wisdom and their effort to make China have a better voice in the international society?

Zhang: I have a very high regard for these young people in China, the Z generation, because they are, indeed, as you said, more confident. Because they are a mobile-phone generation, and smartphone generation. And, obviously, they know the outside world better than their parents in most cases. So with this kind of international comparison, they find that China is better than many other countries, including Western nations. That gives them a lot of confidence, especially through this particular fight against COVID-19. They find China performing so much better. They see China's political, economic, social systems performing much better than the Western model. 

This gives them a lot of confidence. I think this is great. And I also feel from new generation a sense that they are getting used to social media. That's a lifestyle. In other words, they have less difficulty communicating their feelings with others in their same age groups in other countries. From opinion surveys I've read, even from the United States in fact, those who are more or less positive on China, in most cases are from the young generation. They are also the internet generation. With the internet, they see a more realistic picture of China. But eventually, these young generations between China and Western countries will share the same language of ideas and viewpoints. This is a possibility. In other words, they are more open-minded, more open to new ideas, more objective about outside world. They also have a lot of comment interests in technologies, gadgets, and games. All this may draw them somehow together, although there will be differences and various arguments between them.  

But their approach to life is similar. They belong to the internet generation. If we can remove those vicious forces in the West they want to deliberately sow discord between the young people of these countries, then I think they can have a far better communication with each other. 

GT: Professor Zhang, do you think you are one of the "wolf warriors"? 

Zhang: No, I think I'm being very reasonable. I always said, if I met with the guy who was arrogant, I would also answer his questions in an arrogant way. If he has been very nice and polite, I will also be very nice and polite. It's just normal to be a human being and for the sake of cross-cultural communication. I think most non-Chinese I have encountered also like this kind of style. You can call a spade a spade, and strike a meaningful conversation. If they need debate and arguments, let's do it. If they need small talk, a good conversation, nice talks, we also do it. I do not personally care much about the style. I think this: just behave as you are.