Ex-govt spokesperson Zhao Qizheng on China's external messaging

"Only the truth is believable," and Int'l communication must be "result-oriented."

Today’s newsletter is a translation of an article on the 5th issue of the Chinese-language 国际传播 Global Communications journal in 2020. The Chinese original in a PDF file can be downloaded via Google Drive here.) It is titled 舆论斗争拼的就是讲故事 Key to struggle for public opinion is storytelling.

The article is the summary of a September 2020 speech by Zhao Qizheng, former Director of the State Council Information Office, usually described as the press office of the Chinese government.

Zhao, currently Dean of School of Journalism and Communication, Renmin University (ENG), made the speech at a seminar of experts and scholars on the preparation of authoring a 14th Five-Year Plan for China Media Group (ENG), the broadcasting platform made up of China Central Television (CCTV), China Radio International (CRI), and China National Radio (CNR).

In his earlier career, Zhao (CHN), a senior government official holding the rank of a full minister, was a veteran spokesperson for the Chinese government and four annual sessions of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. He has also been advocating for public diplomacy in China’s engagement with the outside world.

Again, this is a PERSONAL newsletter. Please check the usual disclaimers on the About page. This translation may contain mistakes, which will be the responsibility of this newsletter.


舆论斗争拼的就是讲故事 Key to struggle for public opinion is storytelling

by Zhao Qizheng

News and public opinion work has long been facing serious challenges. Recently, as the U.S. entered the presidential election period, both candidates slammed each other for not being tough enough on China, while declaring that they would adopt policies featured with more containment toward China after their election. What is their purpose in saying this? To get votes! We have to think deeply about the logic behind "attacking China can win more votes."

This did not start today. In September 2000, as the United Nations Millennium Summit was about to take place, there was a lot of interaction between China and the United States. Then U.S. Ambassador to China, Joseph Wilson Prueher, invited me to be his guest at the embassy. When I got there, I found that he had invited a number of American journalists, who had taken their positions and surrounded me to ask questions. One of the questions was how I evaluated the U.S.-China relationship. I said that the relationship was better than before, but still not good. They then asked, at what point do you think U.S.-China relations are good? I said that when a U.S. presidential campaign doesn't get votes by attacking China, the U.S.-China relationship is on good footing.

China-U.S. relations are not facing the current situation because of Trump's election; the fundamental reason is that the American public is too unfamiliar with China, with too many misunderstandings and even some hostilities. Against the backdrop of China's rise, it is precisely this public opinion that the anti-China forces in the United States have exploited to make anti-China sentiments in media soar!

We do not want to educate U.S. politicians or engage in "theoretical debates" with them, but to explain the real China to them and guide the American public to gradually develop a more objective understanding of China. On a larger scale, telling the Chinese story well is crucial to strengthening China’s capabilities in steering public opinions in the international arena.

I. Explaining a real China to the foreign public through public diplomacy

Over the years, I have said on various occasions that we should vigorously strengthen public diplomacy in addition to government diplomacy. The definition of public diplomacy is to explain to the foreign public the system, national conditions, and culture of a country so that the foreign public will have a clearer understanding of the country and thus understand and even like the culture and the country itself. In the West, public diplomacy is synonymous with 对外宣传 external propaganda.

(Your Pekingnologist hates to but feels obliged to add that the Mandarin word 宣传, usually translated as propaganda, does not carry similar negative undertones in the Chinese mainland context as it probably does in English.)

Public diplomacy is not quite the same as people-to-people diplomacy. The latter is initiated by the private sector, such as exhibitions, film festivals, and tours, to promote people-to-people exchanges and pave the way for friendship between two countries. Public diplomacy, on the other hand, is undertaken not only by private citizens but also by state institutions, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A leader of a country is an even more personal practitioner with great influence. The media, especially the mainstream media, such as Xinhua News Agency, People's Daily, and China Media Group, all bear the responsibilities of public diplomacy. Another category of practitioners in public diplomacy is the public or people’s groups, NGOs, and also people who have the opportunity to participate in international exchanges, such as professors, celebrities, and well-known figures. This is also true in the United States, where the Voice of America, for example, is one of the typical public diplomacy platforms undertaken by the government.

The task of Chinese public diplomacy is to explain the real China to the foreign public. Why is it necessary to explain the real China? Because only the truth is believable. Assuming that our country is "70% brightness and 30% backwardness," if we use the “70%” to tell the “100%” foreign audiences will not believe it, and even the "70%" part will be lost. On the contrary, if we talk about both the 70% and the 30%, foreign audiences will believe it. Dr. Kissinger once said bluntly: you actually do a good job, but you tell it in an excessively perfect way, who will believe that there is a country in the world with no shortcomings?


II Telling the vivid story of today's China with confidence

There is a popular saying in German publishing circles that stories drive/carry nations, meaning that the more widely a nation's story is told, the more the world learns about it. American stories are widely told in China, from singers to basketball teams, from Steve Jobs to U.S. Presidents, and so on. But if a random country is mentioned, such as a small country in Latin America, we may not know anything about it because it doesn't have many stories circulating in China. So it is important to be able to tell stories that carry the country touring around the world. For people who have never visited China, whether the country appears to them as "beautiful China," "peaceful China," "ugly China," "hegemonic China," or "vague China" depends to a large extent on what stories they heard about China.

(Your Pekingnologist does not speak German and is unable to find what Zhao quoted here.)

John Naisbitt, futurist and author of Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives, said: you have a big country but few stories. He said he wanted to be involved in "telling the Chinese story," so he, his wife, and I co-authored a book called The China Model: A Dialogue Between East and West. In the book, I started right away by saying that there are many successful "Chinese examples/cases" in China's reform and opening up, but we shall not easily use the ambiguous concept of the "China model". We should have a deep understanding of what General Secretary Xi Jinping said: 我们有本事做好中国的事情,还没有本事讲好中国的故事?我们应该有这个信心!"We are capable of doing good things in China, but not capable of telling the Chinese story well? We should have this confidence!" Why are we not telling the Chinese story well enough? Because we have not sufficiently 知己知彼 known both ourselves and others, and we do not even deeply understand the comparative advantages of socialism with Chinese characteristics, so we are not confident enough.

A great country certainly has rich stories. What Chinese stories should we tell? Telling a story is never like writing a novel or making a movie, but telling the real story of China, its system, national conditions, internal and external policies, history, and culture. Most importantly, telling today's China and its vivid story. When there are more stories, they form people's talking points, opinions, impressions, and public opinion. The part of public opinion that remains is an image. The image is more durable than public opinion. National image is one of the important components of national "soft power" and is a matter of national interests, including long-term interests and strategic interests. In the past few years, stories about the United States' "bullying, selfishness, and hypocrisy" have given us a deeper understanding of the true face of the United States. General Secretary Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized that telling the Chinese story is fundamentally for safeguarding national interests and promoting the building of a community with a shared future for mankind. How to tell a good story? First of all, we need to understand what foreigners are interested in, curious about, and have questions about China. Only if we know ourselves and others, the stories we tell can be heard and inspiring.

Take my personal experience as an example. I was the first Director and Party Secretary of Shanghai's Pudong New Area. In April 1990, the Pudong development plan was announced, just as Eastern Europe was undergoing dramatic changes. The western public opinion said that your proposal of Pudong development at this time was certainly not an action, but a political slogan. How to deal with such negativity in the Western media? Shall we ignore them, let them talk their talk and we stick to what we do? No way! There were joint venture negotiations that had been interrupted and multiple sanctions that have taken place. So this kind of public opinion concerns our interests. How can we steer international public opinion about Pudong development in the right direction?

We take every opportunity to speak to foreign journalists, entrepreneurs, political figures, experts, and scholars about the significance of the Pudong development - to revitalize Shanghai and make it an international central city capable of economic exchanges with London, New York, etc. It is relatively easy for foreigners to understand and accept the specific plan of Pudong development when we talk about it from the perspective of economics.

Dr. (Henry) Kissinger visited Pudong several times and used it as an observation point to understand China's reform and opening-up policy. He was commissioned by some multinational corporations to conduct research and make strategic recommendations on whether China would stick to the reform and opening up. He said that if I wanted to understand Chinese politics, I would go to Beijing; if I wanted to understand the Chinese economy, I would go to Shanghai, because the development of Pudong indicates the process of China's reform and opening up. When he first came, I pointed to the east bank of the Huangpu River on the map and told him that would be the "Pudong New Area". When he visited again, the planning model of Pudong was completed. I said that this area, when it is completed, would look exactly like the model. At that time, foreigners were still skeptical about Pudong's development prospects. But a lot of infrastructures were started and a first bridge was opened to traffic. Projects were started in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shandong provinces, and construction cranes were erected one after another. Seeing the scene of construction in Pudong, Dr. Kissinger said that Pudong development was not a slogan, it was action.

In early 1994, President George H.W. Bush visited, I used a laser pointer to introduce him to the planning model of the Pudong Lujiazui financial district. Bush Sr. said, I've seen this thing before, General (Colin) Powell used this to demonstrate to me when he commanded the (Persian) Gulf War. I said, this is a little different: the building that I hit with my laser point will grow; the building that Powell hit with his laser pointer got blown up. Bush’s response was that high technology can be used for war and also for peace. He concluded by saying that if he were still young, he would come and invest too.

In this way, we kept telling the real story of Pudong to the foreign audience, and the Pudong New Area stood up. That the "Pudong development is just a slogan" disappeared from the Western media.

In 1996, the Boston Globe, an influential U.S. newspaper, published an article "Should we fear China?" That was one of the first "China threat" articles I've seen. The article carried an illustration of a pair of long chopsticks picking pieces of paper bearing the US flag. In its introduction, the article mentions Zhao Qizheng, deputy mayor of Shanghai, has an ambitious plan that could be fulfilled in his lifetime and that China would not only be a political power and military power but also an economic one - should we fear it? In 1996, we were still very backward, with a tenth of the GDP of the United States, yet the United States felt we posed a threat to them. It is a common practice for the U.S. press to set the agenda, and this article actually aims to steer the public in the direction of the "China threat". I felt that such an argument would have a very negative impact on us, so I tried to write a letter to the newspaper. I wrote that last year was the 50th anniversary of the victory in World War II when China and the United States were allies in the war. This year you are talking about being afraid of your then ally, and it’s not appropriate. We have never taken eaten a foreign country in pieces; actually, we have a painful experience of being eaten by foreign countries in pieces. As a result, the newspaper soon published the letter, adding the title that《中国不喜欢弱肉强食》China does not like the weak being preyed on by the strong/law of the jungle.

(The Boston Globe archives are behind a paywall. And it’s difficult to find the original language.)

Today, the world recognizes that the Pudong development is a success. Last year, the World Bank held a conference in Bangladesh, using Pudong development as a case study to introduce urban development experience to developing countries.

III Key to Public Opinion Struggle is to tell the Chinese story well

Although the "Cold War" has long ended, the "Cold War" thinking is not over; it not only remains alive but also has a large market. In particular, Western forces artificially maintain ideological opposition, and this conflict of ideological differences and interests has led to malicious distortions and even attacks by Western media when reporting on China. In response, of course, a targeted struggle of public opinion is needed. Public opinion struggle requires reasoning through editorials and commentators' articles, but more importantly, storytelling.

In international communication, persuasion by theory is a major difficulty. On the one hand, in the past, many of China's social science terms were translated from Western political economy, and it is easy to express Western values in these languages, but difficult to express Chinese values. It is very difficult for China to construct its own theoretical “skyscrapers;” and to use this theory to convince foreigners is even more so. On the other hand, Chinese people have been educated on Marxism since childhood, but foreigners are not familiar with 实事求是 "seeking truth from facts," "dialectical materialism," "historical materialism," or 一分为二 "divided into two and observed from both parts” because they have not been educated in this area since childhood. It is difficult to win the international public opinion struggle by theory, which can only be done by telling our story well. Stories are more vivid than theories and easier to disseminate, and their connotation is the truth we want to express. The Chinese society is already colorful and rich in substance, so we only need to tell the real stories of ourselves by our own side with appropriate words and actions in interactions with the world. These stories are natural, vivid, full, lively, and easy to understand, without the need for grand words or magnificent rhetoric, and the image of China and Chinese people are in it.


When telling stories, we must tell the real story. In the world, we tell true stories, while the West tells fake stories, such as our theft of intellectual property rights, our cyber attacks, and so on. Fake stories run fast. If we do not take the initiative to tell the true story, we may not be able to catch up with the fake story, and the West will have to have right and wrong twisted.

In 1999, two weeks after bombing our embassy in Belgrade, the United States suddenly released the Cox Report. This House Select Committee report, led by then-Congressman Christopher Cox, falsely claimed that China had stolen U.S. military technology and jeopardized U.S. national security. The report said that China's nuclear weapons and missiles were all stolen from the U.S., and listed the missile models, making it appear that there was sufficient evidence, which caused an uproar in the world. Cox's choice of timing to release the report was, of course, carefully planned. By that time I was already the Director of the State Council Information Office, and we decided to refute it with facts. By checking the official websites of the three U.S. weapons laboratories, we found that the report's catalog of atomic bombs was there, and the technical information on the relevant models of atomic bombs that were falsely accused of being stolen by the Chinese side was also visible there. So we immediately held a press conference, invited American and other foreign journalists to be there. We went online on the spot and showed the technical information openly on the American website to the American journalists. They were astonished, (and asked) shouldn't this be top secret information? Why is it still publicly available on the Internet? I said you had too many nuclear weapons and you wanted to show them off to scare people, just like a gangster lifting his shirt to show his muscles. We held a total of two press conferences to refute the Cox Report, which was named one of the Top Ten U.S. International Scandals that year. Our rebuttal was so successful because we were well prepared and had solid data and evidence so that the revelations were powerful and could be widely disseminated.

However, not everything is worthy of being refuted with significant effort. The governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, used to curse China when he was in office so often that it almost became a "fetish". My Japanese friends told me that he said things to provoke China in order to provoke a backlash from the Chinese side and then can appear to be influential. We ignored him, and he appeared lost. So, my conclusion is that for some people, there is no need to take their remarks too seriously and refute every word.

IV. To tell the Chinese story well, we must cross cultural barriers with efforts

Israel Epstein made a great contribution to China's external propaganda. He died in 2005 after a lifetime of service to China. Epstein once told me and some comrades that speaking on the same thing to the Chinese and to foreigners requires different expressions. For example, when communicating with foreigners, one has to talk about some background, and external expressions are not just about translating Chinese into foreign languages but must also cross cultural barriers with efforts. This is especially true when it comes to political and economic discourses that originated, evolved, and widely known in China.

First, there is the language barrier. There is often no accurate correspondence of words and concepts between Chinese and foreign languages. Some Chinese political vocabulary, such as the 科学发展观 “Scientific Concept of Development” and 韬光养晦 Tao Guang Yang Hui/keep a low profile, is sometimes misunderstood by others after translation. The translation of political vocabulary is a major problem, and we need to produce an online dictionary of political vocabulary in Chinese and English (and other languages) that is always up-to-date and gives an authoritative interpretation of the exact connotation of Chinese political vocabulary, with the goal that foreigners can understand and not misunderstand. Of course, this is not an easy task.

Secondly, there is the barrier of living habits. During the COVID times, we emphasized the need to wear masks, while Americans are not used to wearing masks, which is a cultural difference. Another example is that Chinese people drink alcohol without hesitation and are sometimes overly enthusiastic in persuading foreigners to drink, which foreigners may not like.

The third is the barrier of religious beliefs. Most Chinese people are atheists, some may believe in Buddhism, but they are not Buddhists per se. A majority of foreigners have religious beliefs. So we should be very careful when talking about religious topics with foreigners, not to emphasize our atheism too much and debate with them - there is no need to create arguments about it. We can say that we also have beliefs, which are called cultural beliefs. For example, Confucius said "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," which is similar to the teachings of Christianity and Islam.

Finally, there is the ideological barrier. Today, there is a big ideological barrier between China and the United States, and we should try to reduce the misunderstanding of China by the American public due to the ideological barrier.

In summary, international communication must still be result-oriented, and we must think about our communication methods in a result-oriented fashion. (End)