Slogan Politics: Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy Concepts (Book excerpt)
Professor Jinghan Zeng analyzes "Community of Shared Future for Mankind," "New Type of Great Power Relations," and above all "Belt and Road Initiative."
Trust me when I say I have read enough discussion of “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), “New Type of Great Power Relations,” and “Community of Shared Future for Mankind” in both Chinese and English. So also trust me when I say the book Slogan Politics: Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy Concepts by Professor 曾敬涵 Jinghan Zeng of Lancaster University of offers a drastically different and immensely interesting approach. And today Pekingnology offers an exclusive excerpt from the book (Amazon).
Hailing from the Chinese mainland, Zeng is now Chair in China and International Studies, Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion; Academic Director of China Engagement; and Director of Lancaster University Confucius Institute,
Before his academic career, he worked for the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York City. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK). He holds degrees from the University of Warwick (PhD, completed within 2 years, 2014) and the University of Pittsburgh (MA, 2011).
Professor Zeng’s research lies in the field of politics and international relations with a focus on China. He is the author of Artificial Intelligence with Chinese Characteristics: National Strategy, Security and Authoritarian Governance (2022), Slogan Politics: Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy Concepts (2020) and The Chinese Communist Party's Capacity to Rule: Ideology, Legitimacy and Party Cohesion (2015), available in Chinese translation (City University of Hong Kong Press, 2016). He is also the co-editor of One Belt, One Road, One Story? Towards an EU-China Strategic Narrative (2021). He has published over twenty refereed articles in leading journals of politics, international relations, and area studies including The Pacific Review, Journal of Contemporary China, International Affairs, JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, and Third World Quarterly.
He draws on his research to connect with audiences beyond academia. He frequently appears in TV and radio broadcasts including the BBC, ABC Australia, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation), Russia Today (RT), China Central Television (CCTV) and China Global Television Network (CGTN). He has been quoted in print/online publications including Financial Times, Forbes, South China Morning Post, PULSO and TODAY. He has written op-ed articles for The Diplomat, BBC(Chinese), The Conversation, Policy Forum among others.
Slogan Politics: Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy Concepts
by Professor 曾敬涵 Jinghan Zeng
China has put forward a series of foreign policy concepts—most notably “New Type of Great Power Relations”, “Belt and Road Initiative” and “Community of Shared Future for Mankind”. Generally speaking, they represent China’s visions for China– United States (US) relations, globalization, and a globalized world, respectively. This book studies these three concepts.
Many international analysts interpret these concepts as Beijing’s calculated strategic moves to build a Sino-centric world order. In the relevant analyses, these concepts are often considered as coherent, consistent strategic plans, reflecting Beijing’s or Xi Jinping’s concrete geopolitical visions. The relevant arguments assume that China’s highly centralized authoritarian system can be easily mobilized to achieve Beijing’s or Xi Jinping’s geopolitical goals. Interestingly, while not directly responding to their international counterparts, similar arguments are made within China.
Some Chinese academic and media analysts interpret those concepts as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) strategy to lead China’s national rejuvenation. They are “top-level designed” products of the central government or the top leader, so, the argument goes, those diplomatic concepts reflect the wisdom of Chinese leaders to make China great again.
This book, however, argues that the above views are mistaken. It develops a slogan politics approach to study Chinese foreign policy concepts. The main argument is that those Chinese foreign policy concepts should be understood as political slogans rather than concrete strategic plans. In this book, slogans refer to short and striking political phrases used “as a means of focusing attention and exhorting to action”.
The use of political slogans has a long history in China. This book argues that political slogans are not completely empty or rhetorical, but have several major functions in political communication: (1) declarations of intent, (2) power assertion and a test of domestic and international support, (3) state propaganda as a means of mass persuasion, and (4) a call for intellectual support. The primary function of a foreign policy concept is to serve as a slogan to declare intention in order to attract attention and urge to action.
Many international analyses focus on this part and tend to overinterpret the strategic rationale of those Chinese concepts, considering them as coherent, well-thought-out strategic plans. However, the nature of slogans decides that they are short political phrases and thus broad and vague ideas. As this book will show, when “New Type of Great Power Relations”, “Belt and Road Initiative” and “Community of Shared Future for Mankind” were put forward by Xi Jinping, they were very vague ideas that lacked clear definition or blueprint. The process of filling those ideas with meanings often occurred in a subsequent and incremental manner. Their introduction and subsequent development follow a “soft” opening approach.
As Ian Johnson describes, they are not “envisioned and planned thoroughly, then completed according to that design”, as many see in the West. Rather, they “are first announced to big fanfare, structures erected as declarations of intent, and only then filled with content”. When it comes to signature concepts, this declaration of intent signals two levels of power relations: (a) personal vision of the top leader and (b) China’s vision as a regional (if not global) leader.
In this regard, the introduction of the concept is not only about communicating the vision but also about its attached power relations. In other words, it is much more than a declaration of intent. This brings in the second function of slogans: assert power and test support. When a critical slogan is put forward by a top leader, it does not only signal his vision but also expects to establish his personal authority. For example, in the first few years when a new leader takes power, he will introduce new slogans to signal his own leadership vision, representing a gesture of walking out from the shadow of his predecessors and thus asserting his power.
In this regard, domestic actors’ response to this slogan does not only represent their feedback to the vision but also political support to this leader. The leader expects domestic actors to echo his slogan in written and oral forms to demonstrate their loyalty. In other words, slogan politics sometimes contains a component of loyalty testing and thus is related to factional and elite politics. Despite foreign policy slogans being mainly external facing, signature ones including “New Type of Great Power Relations”, “Belt and Road Initiative” and “Community of Shared Future for Mankind” perform a similar function of loyalty testing in the domestic arena, in which political actors are expected to repeat those slogans in written and oral forms in order to signal loyalties to the “owner” of those slogans, i.e. Xi Jinping. This sloganization of policy concepts associates the outcome of the concepts with Xi and thus makes them Xi’s political legacy, defining his character and leadership for better or for worse.
In the global arena, Chinese slogans also function in similar ways. Key foreign policy concepts function as slogans to signal not only China’s new vision but also their implied power relations; in other words, the latter is a political gesture to assert China’s regional (if not global) leadership. Many in China believe that only when China becomes powerful enough will its ideas receive global attention. This is also about agenda-setting power that is usually owned by great powers on the global stage. Clearly, if China is insignificant, its ideas are less likely to draw global attention and hence there will be mild or no response to its slogans. Thus, the Chinese government highly welcomes international actors to repeat and adopt those concepts in their speeches and writings, and such actions are often perceived as not only support to the concepts per se but also acknowledgment of China’s rising global status if not leadership. In short, the introduction of those concepts is an assertion of China’s power and functions like a radar to discern international support to China. Thus, the concept and its declared intention are sometimes deliberately kept vague to accommodate the interests of the relevant stakeholders in order to maximize their support.
A positive global response to Chinese slogans would be translated into convincing materials for domestic propaganda, which links with the third function of slogans: state propaganda as a means of mass persuasion. In the Chinese domestic arena, enthusiastic global response can be easily interpreted as evidence of China’s rising global significance and leadership. It helps to enrich the propaganda narrative about the revival of China brought about by the CCP leadership. The message is quite powerful when linking it with China’s historical education of “century of humiliation” in which the weak Qing dynasty let China be invaded and humiliated by Western powers, and now the CCP has led China on the trajectory of national rejuvenation and back to its “rightful” position in the world.
In other words, the positive global response to Chinese slogans provides concrete examples to support the CCP’s narratives about China’s national rejuvenation and thus significantly enhances its domestic political legitimacy. Though performing differently, these three Chinese concepts that this book examines—“New Type of Great Power Relations”, “Belt and Road Initiative” and “Community of Shared Future for Mankind”— have attracted considerable attention on the global stage and thus helped the CCP to achieve a domestic propaganda win. This global attention also grants both the top leader and the Chinese government greater international legitimacy to consolidate their power domestically.
Despite the domestic propaganda win, their international impact is a different picture. This book argues that the international communication of those concepts is not very effective. The Chinese government has invested enormous intellectual and financial resources in promoting those concepts on the global stage. Despite the attention those concepts have attracted, their impact in mass persuasion towards a global, non-Chinese audience has not matched up with China’s promotion investment.
In this regard, for external-facing foreign policy concepts, their effectiveness of state propaganda as a means of mass persuasion mainly lies within the domestic instead of the international arena. This problem of international communication is not only a branding matter—such as those Chinesecoined concepts lacking key qualities of popular slogans, i.e. being catchy and simple. More importantly, it is also a result of the very shifting and vague nature of how those conceptual meanings are constructed within and without China, which brings in the fourth function of slogans: call for intellectual support. The development of Chinese foreign policy concepts often follows a “soft” opening approach, as previously mentioned. When they are put forward, they are often vague and undefined ideas that are subject to change.
This is to say, they are immature ideas that need to be developed and improved. Thus, their introduction is also a call for intellectual support. Vague foreign policy slogans require intellectual power to translate them into more thoughtful ideas. Chinese leaders expect China’s intellectual and policy community to develop those vague concepts into something more concrete after their “soft” opening. In other words, the introduction of a concept serves as a slogan to mobilize domestic actors for intellectual support. As such, the introduction of a key foreign policy concept often stimulates an (semi-)open academic and policy discussion within China. During this process, the Chinese academic and policy community gradually fill those concepts with concrete meanings.
While this process allows the state to make use of intellectual power, it invites the participation of a large number of actors who often bring complexity. The vague nature of Chinese foreign policy concepts means that they are open to interpretation. This allows Chinese academics and policy actors to load those concepts with meanings in their preferred ways. This often produces a variety of narratives that sometimes conflict with each other. In some cases, this phenomenon will be intensified when a foreign policy concept involves substantial economic interests, in which various political and economic actors will actively participate in this process to seek influence.
Those powerful actors will employ their political and intellectual resources to interpret the policy concept in their preferred ways in order to maximize their interests. This often invites a difficult coordination problem that the Chinese central government is struggling to deal with. When it comes to international communication, this makes it impossible for the Chinese central government to forge coherent foreign policy narratives or unify the use of its concepts. It also means that Chinese leaders do not have full control of their concepts even in the domestic arena. In some cases, the academic and policy discussions about the concept may even depart from the leaders’ original intentions. When mixed with factional politics, this further muddies the water of slogan politics and makes it difficult to discern the actual intention of slogan manipulation.
In this regard, the slogan politics approach argues that, during this slogan communication process, it is not only about how top leaders or the central government use the slogan to signal messages to domestic and international actors, but also how those actors react to it. This two-way communication process shapes its conceptual meanings and the level of attention that the concept can focus and the action that it can exhort.
……(Just to show this is not the end of the Introduction)
4.6 Concluding Remarks
Instead of a “well-thought-out” and “clearly defined” grand strategy that is envisioned and planned thoroughly, this chapter shows that the “Belt and Road Initiative” was put forward as a broad, vague slogan without a specific blueprint at its inception. The relatively concrete policy content was subsequently added in order to accommodate the needs of domestic and international actors. This has resulted in a “Belt and Road Initiative” that is constantly evolving from a peripheral strategy targeting China’s neighbouring countries to its current form as an extremely inclusive global initiative. While this move helps China to fend off critics over the “Belt and Road Initiative” as being an exclusive bloc, it has made the “Belt and Road Initiative” lose its geographic focus. On the domestic stage, in order to advance their own interests, powerful Chinese domestic actors have taken advantage of the “Belt and Road Initiative’s” conceptual vagueness to actively produce and disseminate their preferred “Belt and Road Initiative” narratives. As a result, the “Belt and Road Initiative” has been overloaded as an all-encompassing slogan to justify almost all relevant planned projects and economic plans put forward by various domestic actors. This has made it difficult for Beijing to coordinate a coherent Chinese approach. Contrary to the grand strategy analysis that focuses on Beijing’s central agencies, all of these point to the critical role played by China’s academic and local actors in shaping the development of the “Belt and Road Initiative”. It shows how domestic and international actors respond to the “Belt and Road Initiative” slogan is equally (if not more) important to how Xi and the central government use this slogan. It is important to note the point in time. After all, the “Belt and Road Initiative” means different things at different times. The answers are different to the questions of “what the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ was”, “what the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is”, “what the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ should be” and “what the “Belt and Road Initiative’ will be”. The rapidly evolving meaning of the “Belt and Road Initiative” also means that it might be a different slogan at the time of reading this book from that at the time of my writing. At the time of writing, the book endorses the study of Jones and Zeng (2019: 1419) that the “Belt and Road Initiative” in its current form is not the grand strategy as it does not fit the definition of a grand strategy that implies a “long-term vision, the holistic devotion of state resources, and the prioritisation of key interests and goals”.
It is possible that China may adjust its plans for the “Belt and Road Initiative” in the future including centralization and institutionalization of the “Belt and Road Initiative” operation, the introduction of clearly defined strategic priorities for the “Belt and Road Initiative”…At the time of writing, this does not seem to be the direction that China aims to go or at least what its rhetoric is suggesting. In the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April 2019, much of the focus was to further highlight the “Belt and Road Initiative” as an open multilateral platform for cooperation and downplay the unilateral and geopolitical nature of the “Belt and Road Initiative”... In this regard, the next phase of the “Belt and Road Initiative” seems to be to strengthen multilateralism, and its outcomes are likely to define the fate of the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Ultimately, the future of the “Belt and Road Initiative” is decided by not only China but also how the world responds to it. As a political slogan, its use for political communication goes both ways.
It has been agreed that 2,000 plus words can be shared in this excerpt. For more, get the book Slogan Politics: Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy Concepts by Professor 曾敬涵 Jinghan Zeng from Amazon!
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