Published: 10:07, June 19, 2023 | Updated: 10:24, June 19, 2023
Competing with the US and the West for discourse power
By Lau Siu-kai

For a long time in the future, in the increasingly fierce and implacable competition between China on one side and the United States and the West on the other, the competition for global discourse power will be the decisive battlefield between them. And who can defeat the enemy on this battlefield will determine to a considerable extent which country will be the final winner in this strategic game related to the world’s future.

For a long time, because the US and the West have had substantial advantages in economics, military power, culture, religion, education, media, and the internet, they have enjoyed the well-nigh absolute right to speak on many international affairs and issues. It is no wonder that Western democracy and capitalism, the development path of the West, and the so-called “liberal international order” built by the US have gained much influence or soft power worldwide. What’s worse from China’s perspective is that the US and the West have deliberately and unrelentingly exploited their advantages in discourse power to slander, negate, and discredit China’s institutions, culture, values, and development model. Because the US and the West have achieved many results through these shenanigans, China’s magnificent achievements in modernization in the past few decades have yet to fully translate into relatively symmetrical global discourse powers and commensurate global influence.

However, over the past decade or so, some changes in the international situation have become more and more propitious for China to enhance its global discourse power. If China can use the opportunities engendered by those changes adroitly, it should considerably enhance China’s global discourse power on significant international and ideological issues. These changes are mainly embodied in historical trends such as the irreversible decline of the US and the West, the unstoppable rise of China, and many developing countries increasingly seeking to get rid of the shackles of the US and the West and enhance their strategic independence. The overall result is that as the military, diplomatic, cultural, and financial hegemony of the US continues to decline, the superiority of the institutions, values, development models, and lifestyles advertised by the US and the West are increasingly losing their luster and being questioned, denigrated and resisted by non-Western countries. Political instability, dysfunctional “democracy”, lackadaisical economic performance, poor governance, social and ideational polarization, financial hardship, vast wealth and income gaps, dearth of opportunities for upward mobility for the young, and the deplorable conditions of the shrinking middle class in the US and the West, etc, have starkly revealed the inherent flaws in the institutions and values of the US and the West, as well as the vast gap between their vaunted “ideals” and the cruel reality, thus severely weakening the soft power of the US and the West and leading more and more people to be alert to and suspicious of Western hypocrisy and double-dealing.

On the contrary, with the rise of China, the superiority of its political and economic system, development model, cultural heritage, values, and the mounting sense of its people’s international altruism and commitment is increasingly on display. China’s attributes are also increasingly recognized, valued, and affirmed by people worldwide, including some Westerners. As Australian scholar Colin Mackerras indicated, “Given continuing American dominance in the cultural sphere, as suggested by the 2022 Lowy Institute survey, China’s rise in soft power, not only in Southeast Asia but globally, is very striking. The 2022 Brand Finance Global Soft Power Index ranked China fourth after the US, Britain, and Germany, the first time it had been so high.” 

The rise of China has also led more and more people to reflect on the system and culture trumpeted by the US and the West. Because of this, American and Western politicians, media, scholars, and institutions increasingly feel their soft power is under erosion. In recent years, to stem the tide, the US and the West have launched relentless and malicious attacks, distortions, and slanders on China’s institutions and culture to counter China’s ever-rising quiet power threat.

In the increasingly fierce competition for global discourse power in the future, China cannot avoid the battle but can only fight back and enhance China’s global discourse power by following the dictum of “the best defense is a good offense”. On the one hand, China must comprehensively and profoundly expose the flaws in the institutions and values of the US and the West, mainly focusing on castigating their most apparent shortcomings and proposing better “Chinese solutions” for reference or emulation by other non-Western countries.

First, the nature of the exploitation, oppression, and suffering brought to non-Western countries by the so-called “liberal international order” designed and led by the US, mainly serving the interests of the US and the West, must be exposed. This encompasses unfair trade and financial rules, abuse of the US dollar hegemony, the US willfully and selfishly violating and changing the “rules of the game” it has made, US contempt and attack on international organizations, US bullying and coercive actions against other countries, abuse of sanctions, unilateralism, generalization of the concept of “national security”, and military invasions of other countries without the authorization of the United Nations. The purpose is to demonstrate that the “liberal international order” of the US and the West is not conducive to world peace and development. At the same time, there is a need to vigorously publicize and explain the new international order proposed by China centered on the idea of a “community with a shared future for mankind” and implement the principles of fairness and justice, equality and mutual benefit, win-win cooperation, and broad inclusiveness in international relations, using the Belt and Road Initiative; Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS); the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and an abundance of strategic cooperation agreements signed between China and other countries as examples and demonstrations.

Second, the injustice and disadvantages of Western-style modernization must be revealed, primarily pointing out that the so-called “success” of Western-style modernization is achieved to a considerable extent by the West’s domination, aggression, oppression, and exploitation of the non-Western world. It is necessary to condemn in the strongest terms colonialism, slavery, the spheres of influence established by the West, plunder, exploitation, and the world and regional wars the West instigated, thus underscoring the notion that non-Western countries can’t repeat or imitate the development model of the West. Lately, even the US and the West have begun to deviate from and deny their development models, such as adopting various trade and technological protectionism, unilateralism, economic coercion, promoting active industrial policies, and manipulating the market through politics. Historical experience proves that no non-Western country has developed because it has “accepted everything” in the Western development model. On the contrary, many developing countries have suffered bitter consequences because they voluntarily adopted or were forced to adopt the Western development model. “Chinese-style modernization” is rooted in China’s history and national conditions and is not the panacea for the ills of other countries. Accordingly, it cannot be replicated in other countries. However, some basic principles are still relevant and applicable worldwide, including diversified and balanced development, shared prosperity, strong and effective leadership, coordination of the material and spiritual civilizations, the symbiosis between man and nature, and peaceful development.

Third, the deficiencies of the Western democratic system must be spelled out. The experience of the past few decades has proved that the democratic regime and politics of the West are riddled with intractable problems and are practically unsustainable. Moreover, it is tough to break through the predicament. The most significant drawbacks of Western-style democracy are the political and social inequality of the people, the lack of effective channels to participate in politics other than the practically meaningless elections, money politics, irresolvable partisan rivalries, self-seeking and non-accountable political elites divorced from the masses, incessant acrimonious political struggles, political polarization, and the subordination of national interests, especially long-term interests, to parochial interests. Since World War II, especially in the past three decades, the US has continuously forced some non-Western countries to implement “Western-style democracy” through political coercion, military action, ideological cajolery, and economic rewards and punishments. As a result, most have descended into political turmoil, governance collapse, economic failures, and social division, bringing about enormous human misery. On the contrary, the essential principles and goals embedded in the “whole-process people’s democracy” under the leadership of the Communist Party of China advocated by China, as well as the Chinese nation’s achievements of national prosperity and people’s well-being, show that “Western-style democracy”, “beautiful in slogans” but “bad in substance”, is not superior to “Chinese-style democracy”. The latter should be more worthy of reference and learning from non-Western countries because “Chinese-style democracy” is more conducive to solid and wise political leadership, uniting the elites and the masses, national solidarity, providing diversified channels for political participation, building multiple political feedback mechanisms, maintaining political stability, achieving good governance, securing long-term peace and tranquility, mobilizing and concentrating “the resources of the whole country to do big things”, seeking happiness for the people, and promoting economic and social development. All these advantages of “Chinese-style democracy” are definitely more relevant to the development and aspirations of non-Western countries.

Finally, the flaws of the Western capitalist system must be disclosed. At present, Western capitalism, especially financial capitalism, is in an unprecedented or even “terminal” crisis and predicament, as shown by slow economic growth, a shrinking and shaky manufacturing base, excessive expansion of the financial industry, heavy debts of the government and the people, extreme concentration of wealth, the alarming disparity between rich and poor, low savings rates, a dearth of productive investment, the numerous outbreaks of financial crises originating in the US and the West and spreading worldwide, the unsustainability of the welfare state, diminishing upward mobility opportunities for young people, etc. This unregulated “free” capitalism of the West is now widely deplored. The so-called dogmas of “free economy” and “small government, big market,” the “golden rules” that the US and the West have long boasted and upheld in the past, are now being gradually eschewed by the US, the West, and other countries. Some people in the West have even observed that the US is now replicating China’s economic policies in some respects, such as the government actively intervening in the economic sphere and handpicking industries such as semiconductors, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence for exceptional support. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, centering on “reform and opening-up”, has significantly contributed to China’s brilliant achievements over the past 40 years. Its superiority is constantly being displayed globally, including China’s successful demonstration of integrating the advantages and powers of the State and the market under a strong government leadership to promote the country’s economic development, foster the growth of strategic industries critical to national security, push for the fair distribution of development benefits, eliminate poverty, and ensure that capital will not expand disorderly conduct, etc.

In short, to win the global war on discourse power in an increasingly favorable international environment, China must exude strong self-confidence in its path, theory, institutions, and culture and constantly take the initiative to compare and contrast itself with the US and the West to highlight China’s incomparable competitive advantages and the reference value of China’s experience to the non-Western and even the Western world.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant for the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.