A self-confident Xi Jinping 习近平 is no longer ‘hiding and biding’, pronounced a 15 August 2015 news report. This ‘remoulding’ of Deng Xiaoping’s 邓小平 famous maxim was rapidly echoed across the media, reinforced by the military parade on 3 September. Featuring prominently in the report was ‘new-type great power relations’, a rhetorical gambit initially floated in 2012 and made official in 2013 on Xi becoming General Secretary. Xi framed his first visit to the US in 2014 as such ‘new-type’ relations in action. The world, not least the US, was hard put to interpret, let alone accept it. How Xi’s advisors will package his September 2015 state visit to Washington becomes a puzzle.

Clues are offered in the ‘remoulding’ article. Reassuring domestic audiences of the effectiveness of Xi’s foreign policy agenda, between the lines it addresses the growing concerns in China’s foreign policy circles about how the message is framed.

How significant are these concerns? Many in China approve the Xi administration’s foreign policies, including its rhetoric, even while fretting over the economy. Recently, however, members of the foreign policy community have been fretting equally over the rhetoric, finding it unhelpful, even counterproductive, to the national interest. Its external rather than domestic impact, is the focus of their unease. A foreign policy narrative is, after all, expected at some point to convince people outside one’s own territory.

The debate started with pragmatist Zhang Feng 张锋, a scholar now working in Australia. Discussed online, his writings drew both criticism and support, bringing the debate into the domestic arena. Some of those taking part, Xu Jin 徐进 and Su Changhe 苏长和, favour an interpretation of China’s value system as self-sufficient. Hence the world must come up to China’s standards and not vice-versa. Others including Da Wei 达巍, Yan Xuetong 阎学通 and Shi Yinhong 时殷弘 fear that bland rhetoric may leave room for accidents, and favour frank tabling of national interest. They let Zhang Feng’s fundamental point stand: diplomatic rhetoric may help establish justice, right wrongs, and so on, but must in the first place convince.

The debate places Xi’s diplomatic rhetoric in the cross-hairs. The consensus is that the three years of his venture into international dialogue have not delivered the anticipated results. If the Leading Group on Foreign Affairs is not politically tone-deaf, ‘more matter, less art’ can be expected from Xi in Washington.

Why is China’s diplomatic language so incomprehensible? | 15 may 2015

ZHANG Feng 张锋 | Australian National University

Some Chinese ideas and expressions are abstract: ‘community of shared destiny’, ‘win-win cooperation’. With plenty of smart people abroad, the language used is in itself no obstacle to understanding. But used unthinkingly, it becomes vacuous. Better to express interests in terms locally meaningful in particular contexts—the US, the South China Sea, Australia, and so on.

Why is it grumbling about incomprehensibility of China’s diplomacy always from Westerners? | 21 may 2015

XU Jin 徐进 | CASS Institute of World Economics and Politics

Zhang Feng’s proposal to use foreign discourse to convince the world is ‘mission impossible’. No country in history has done it, nor will in future. Foreigners are disingenuous; some understand us quite well. Postmodernists like Foucault teach that power is in discourse. A rise in real strength conveys the ‘right to be heard’.

Doesn’t China’s diplomacy need to be persuasive? | 22 may 2015

ZHANG Feng 张锋 | Australian National University

On social media, Chinese join foreigners in complaining that the nation’s diplospeak is disingenuous. ‘Might is right’ is the opposite of Foucault’s message, but sums up conventional realism. Unless we adapt our message we risk being seen as crude realists.

Let’s get practical about raising the level of diplomatic rhetoric | 25 may 2015

SU Changhe 苏长和 | Fudan University School of International and Diplomatic Affairs

Gaining persuasion in English means giving up some of our identity. We need to learn to change what it is they like. Put it the other way round: China’s holistic thinking is actually an advantage; to build harmonious coexistence, don’t we need holistic rather than individualistic thinking?

Why it’s always the leaders who explain China’s foreign policy language | 1 jul 2015

DA Wei 达巍 | China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Improving our diplospeak is an important task for our Party and country. It is not in order to cater to anyone, nor a matter of whether or not others can or want to understand it. But links between leaders’ announcements and the research community are lacking. The latter should be in the loop as soon as new diplospeak has formed; still better, do internal research beforehand.

Misused diplomatic ideas harm the world’s understanding of China | 14 jul 2015

YAN Xuetong 阎学通 | Tsinghua University Institute of International Relations

Over-inflated concepts are robbed of meaning. The term ‘new-type major power relations’ once described the Sino-US case: no longer a state of ‘proxy war’ as in the Cold War. Soon the label was applied to all manner of relations, despite there being no possibility of war between, say, China and Brazil. What then was special in Sino-US relations?

Predicament and pathway in devising a system of international narrative | 4 aug 2015

WANG Yiwei 王义桅 | China Renmin University Institute of International Affairs

After 500 years of Western hegemony in diplospeak, an international one is needed. Neither ‘restoration of the past’, still less ‘joining tracks [with today’s world]’ will achieve this. The solution is a trinity of revival, inclusiveness and innovation, which will be the role of ‘think tanks with Chinese characteristics’.

Promoting Belt and road: cool reception of China’s wishful thinking? | 25 aug 2015

SHI Yinhong 时殷弘 | China Renmin University Institute of International Affairs

Xi has put forward contradictory sets of messages in words and deeds. One suggests China is becoming more assertive. Since summer 2013, the ‘peaceful development’ orientation has been revisited, part of a decision in favour of use of ‘strategic economy’ at the expense of ‘strategic military’ tools. Strategic rivalry with the US will become cooler but more profound.

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