Studying Xi Jinping’s manipulation of language is a disorienting mental exercise. It is nonetheless crucial since Xi and the Chinese Communist Party routinely co-opt and redefine concepts the West generally agrees on in order to undermine U.S.-Western prestige, credibility, and predominance. In Beijing, the meaning of words is shamelessly subordinated to the political, geopolitical, and military goals of the regime.
Propaganda is a fundamental tool in China’s playbook, and the use of words as weapons is key to that effort.
CCP elites issue statements that sound pluralistic and internationalist, but they are actually subverting democracies, spreading authoritarianism, and orchestrating Maoist oppression and imperial aggression. Their rhetoric, full of verbal acrobatics, reverberates in mass media throughout the world. It behooves us to dissect and challenge that rhetoric, for China has powerful global internet, social media, TV, and radio platforms with which to communicate its message. A recent Freedom House report found more than half of the countries in a 30-nation analysis are experiencing a “very high” or “high” degree of Chinese media efforts and that the United States is a prime target. China’s web of information and disinformation, along with its campaign to silence and censor critics, extends from Asia to Africa to the Americas.
What, then, are the key concepts the CCP hierarchy conveys to foreign ears, and how do Chinese leaders manipulate language to manipulate the audience?
“Multilateralism” is an oft-expressed tenet of China’s foreign policy that has both reinforced and obscured China’s rising power. Although former Vice Minister Fu Ying defined multilateralism as “seeking consensus through consultation” and “cooperation for shared benefits,” Chinese leaders have used the word to China’s particular advantage. Multilateralism has been a way of “equalizing” stronger and weaker powers, thus giving ambitious China a place at the table, whether at the United Nations, the World Health Organization, or the World Trade Organization. Xi uses the concept less to secure leverage, which China now has in spades, than to curtail and replace U.S. influence. Touting multilateralism, he criticizes U.S. “unilateralism” and “hegemony.” At the 2021 World Economic Forum, Xi claimed multilateralist China, unlike the U.S., “will never seek hegemony, expansion, or a sphere of influence.” Xi and his echo chamber in state media and diplomatic circles say America is in “decline” and must transition “from a unipolar to a multipolar structure.” They say China-led “reform” of the “unworkable” U.S.-led international system will lead to “justice,” “social justice,” and “equality.” With characteristic deflection, they say China and Russia must work together to “safeguard” the world order the U.S. is “trying to break and reshape.”
China’s “multilateralism” includes some of the world’s worst regimes. The theme of this year’s Eastern Economic Forum was “on the way to multipolar world.” Toward that end, China’s Global Times reported, China would “strengthen cooperation with Russia and … other members of the international community.” At the forum, Putin derided U.S. “exceptionalism” and “dictates” while claiming to stand for “multipolarity.” Unblushingly, he asserted, “Western nations are hurting everyone, including their own people, in an attempt to preserve global dominance that is slipping from their hands. … We have to respect other countries’ interests and treat them as equal regardless of the size of their territory, their GDP, or whether their army has advanced weapons.” Never mind Russia’s hostilities and atrocities in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, war of conquest and genocide in Ukraine, and blatant disregard for arms treaties, peace agreements, and international norms.
The reality, which China’s friends as well as enemies must eventually face, is that multilateralism is a temporary construct in China’s drive for regional and global dominance. It is a tool toward a more powerful unilateralism.
China uses and misuses numerous other words to significant geopolitical advantage, including democracy, peace, sovereignty, noninterference, justice, and cooperation. In a conversation with murderous Iranian dictator Ebrahim Raisi in July, Xi expressed appreciation for Iran’s support of his new “Global Security Initiative,” which he said would lead to a more “just and reasonable” world. (It actually prioritizes defending and globally projecting CCP power.) Raisi vowed to expand close ties while “preserving justice in international affairs.” At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in September, in which Xi and Putin met for the first time since declaring a “no limit partnership” in February, member states “reaffirmed commitment to a more representative, democratic, just, and multipolar world based on the universally recognized principles of international law.” Xi urged “cooperation” to prevent foreign powers from “meddling in internal affairs” and instigating “color revolutions,” thereby preposterously turning China’s designs on Taiwan and brutal crackdown in Xinjiang, Tibet, and elsewhere, and Russia’s war on Ukraine and hostile acts in Eastern Europe, Syria, and elsewhere, into cases where “noninterference” applies only to those opposing Chinese and Russian aggression. Xi and Putin even pledged to “inject stability into a turbulent world.”
In this upside-down world, where words are repurposed with cynical abandon, attempts to defend Taiwan’s right to independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are positioned by Xi as an affront to China’s “independence,” “sovereignty,” and “territorial integrity.” In the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) summertime visit to Taiwan, Xi warned, “Nobody should miscalculate the Chinese people’s strong determination, firm will, and massive power to safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Regarding a follow-up U.S. legislative trip, China’s Defense Ministry said it “infringes on China’s territorial integrity and sovereignty” and “exposes the true face of the United States as a spoiler of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.” In spite of unapologetic threats to invade the country and relentless pressure via sabotage, cyber war, and hostile military maneuvers that now include encircling Taiwan with live fire drills and buzzing Taiwan with drones, Xi argues, “reunification through a peaceful manner” is in Taiwan’s “overall interest.”
At his opening speech at the October 2022 Communist Party Congress, Xi melded a domestic rallying cry for the eventual subjugation of Taiwan with talking points tailored to a foreign audience: “In the face of serious provocations from separatist activities by Taiwan independence forces and interference in Taiwan affairs by external forces, we have resolutely waged a major struggle against separatism and interference, demonstrating our strong determination and ability to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity and oppose Taiwan independence. … We persist in striving for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity. However, there is no commitment to renounce the use of force and the option to take all necessary measures is retained.”
Echoing China’s cruel distortion regarding “reeducation centers” in Xinjiang, the Chinese ambassador to France recently referenced plans to “reeducate” the population after taking over Taiwan. Thus, education becomes “reeducation,” which is doublespeak for coercive indoctrination in “Xi Jinping thought” and CCP ideology.
Upon visiting Kazakhstan in September, Xi promised China would “continue to resolutely support Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” In reality, China pressures Kazakhstan toward China-centric priorities and policies. Kazakhstan is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which Xi said will create “a community of a shared future for mankind.” But the Belt and Road Initiative could more accurately be termed a sphere of influence initiative. Although it provides loans and supports infrastructure projects in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and even Europe and South America, it also creates debt traps, economic and political dependency, and human rights abuses in the form of forced adult and child labor. Moreover, the Belt and Road Initiative provides the ever more powerful Chinese military with new ports and bases. China is constructing a “Digital Silk Road” in tandem with the Belt and Road Initiative and is working with Russia to make the internet government-controlled, all in the name of “cyber sovereignty.”
China capitalizes on the West’s belief in openness and tolerance and fervent self-criticism. While China was forcing Uyghurs into camps, Muslim and Buddhist children into “boarding schools,” and Tibetans into forced labor and was subjugating Hong Kong, persecuting Christians, jailing dissidents, and enforcing draconian COVID-19 lockdowns, Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi said this: “We hope the United States will do better on human rights. … China has made steady progress in human rights.” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian and other officials decried “racial discrimination against minorities” and “violent law enforcement by police,” so as to insist America is in no position to “interfere” in China’s domestic affairs, “domestic affairs” of course including China’s extreme human rights violations. They say China has its own form of “democracy” that is simply “different” from ours and that the U.S. must learn to “coexist.” “Democracy [shouldn’t] be defined or dictated by Western countries,” asserted Jiang Jinquan, the director of policy research for the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
In another appropriation of the word democracy, China insists on the “democratization of international relations.” By this, it actually means a morally relativistic world, where rights or lack thereof are mere matters of cultural difference. Challenging that difference, even when that means challenging something so immoral as genocide, thereby becomes “intolerance” and “interference” and “discrimination.” There is nothing more threatening to Chinese Communism than the idea inherent in the U.S. founding that rights are God-given, innate, and universal — that it is no government’s place to grant them nor take them away.
When the U.N. finally issued a report on extreme human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China’s U.N. spokesperson called the document a “perverse product of the U.S. and some other Western forces’ coercive diplomacy” and insisted that “the rights of people of all ethnic groups have been protected” in “anti-terrorism” measures. China’s U.N. ambassador accused the U.N. of “closing the door to ‘cooperation’” and declared the report “illegal and invalid.”
Yes, we can add “legality” and “international law” to the list of concepts China distorts. As Robert Schuman observed in Multilateralism Chinese Style, China presents itself as “a reliable partner respectful of international law” and claims “sovereignty” over South China Sea islands based on “historical rights.” However, he noted, “This view is not shared by any other claimant country, nor by the International Court.” In practice, China “rejects” cooperation with countries bordering the South China Sea and “resorts to intimidation or even blackmail.” Schuman further noted that although China has long advocated the Marxist theory of “class struggle,” China has never ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, nor the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention or the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention. Add to these examples Hong Kong’s repressive “national security law.” China accepts only its own “international law,” which eschews universal rights and equal justice.
While China threatens war on Taiwan, claims more territory and waters through “island building” and military expansionism, exploits weaker nations, works to destabilize and indoctrinate the West, and cultivates brutal anti-American dictators, among them Kim Jong Un in North Korea, Bashar Assad in Syria, and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Xi regales the U.S. with lectures such as this: “The strong should not bully the weak. … Difference itself is no cause for alarm. What does ring the alarm is arrogance, prejudice, and hatred. It is the attempt to impose hierarchy on human civilization or to force one’s own history, culture, and social system upon others.”
Yet any China watcher knows this is precisely what China is attempting. From dominating and/or corrupting international institutions such as the U.N., the WHO, and the World Bank to infiltrating regional institutions such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, to attempting to turn BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) into an anti-U.S. coalition, to aggressive global propaganda, surveillance, and even policing, China seeks to “force [its] history, culture, and social system upon others.” As the Council on Foreign Relations report “China’s Approach to Global Governance” explained, China has a “Sino-Centrist” worldview and is “determined to transform global institutions and norms in ways that reflect Beijing’s values and priorities.” When human rights organizations get in the way, China “seeks to undermine those values and create alternative institutions and models,” which Xi ironically insists will lead to “fairness” and “justice.” China’s redefinition of the world order goes hand in hand with China’s redefinition of words.
The free world should respond to Xi’s purported enthusiasm for principles such as peaceful coexistence, territorial integrity, noninterference, and multilateral cooperation with truth-telling. The truth, for example, is that when Chinese elites say Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet are “internal affairs,” they mean China must be free to crush them. When China’s ambassador to Australia warned in August that Taiwanese people seeking “independence” would be “punished,” that was honest. When Westerners such as former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet fail to identify genocide, downplay human rights abuses, and refer believingly to China’s “multilateralism,” they play into CCP hands. With silence, gullibility, and apathy, we abandon those whom China represses or threatens and who need our voice.
We must confront the Orwellian distortions with which China disguises and/or rationalizes oppression and aggression. We must admit that as China has become energetic and exhaustive in spreading its worldview, democracies have become lethargic and dispassionate. Although the West is, finally, more skeptical of China’s words and savvier about China’s intentions, much of the world now favors China over the U.S., and the free world has lost ground.
Anne R. Pierce is the author of books and articles on American presidents, American foreign policy, and American society. Follow her @AnneRPierce.
This article was originally published in The Washington Examiner on November 8, 2022. Read the full article here.