About the author:
Ong Tee Keat, Senior Fellow of Taihe Institute, President of the Belt and Road Initiative Caucus for Asia Pacific.
As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it is profoundly meaningful to assess China’s cultural confidence and international discourse power.
Over the past 10 years, the misconception that the BRI is simply a collective term for all infrastructure projects undertaken by Chinese companies has been prevalent overseas. One may wonder if China’s narratives on the BRI are sufficient in volume. The answer is yes. Having been to the Chinese mainland on several occasions, I consistently found my experiences rewarding. It is noteworthy that the dissemination of BRI narratives is somewhat limited beyond the shores, notably in the English-speaking neighbouring countries. Relevant information on the BRI is scarce, much less the publications in English language. Those available are mostly translation works from Chinese language narratives, primarily confined to niche research and think tanks studies that are strait-jacketed by narrow perspective.
More often than not, we are less mindful of the varying level of social cognizance in diverse cultures. While acknowledging the inadequacy of English translations is, in itself, a handicap, the varying level of cognizance in one's culture is simply too tall an order for mere literary translation to overcome. In the case of BRI, China has been pushing for global connectivity premised on the principles of extensive consultation, mutual participation and symbiotic sharing of benefits. The underlying Chinese wisdom is inseparable from the moral high ground of pursuing a global community of shared destiny and intertwined interests for humanity. I believe such a high benchmark of moral standard rooted in the Chinese civilization could hardly be made comprehensible even with the top notch language interpreters at work. It eludes the understanding of those nation states which are obsessed with self-interest.
In this context, the gap of cognitive understanding can only be hopefully addressed through a deeper appreciation of fundamental cultural values.
It is crucial to highlight the pressing need for a concise BRI narrative, complemented by comprehensible visuals for international audiences. A narrative that is too intricate risks becoming impenetrable to the broader public, limiting its reach to a selected few. Furthermore, this narrative should align with the local sentiments, aspirations and circumstances of the host country. For China to exercise its discourse power more effectively, sharing of BRI stories that resonate with the local community is imperative. While disseminating information to promote the vitality of the BRI, the focus lies not in showcasing the national prowess of China. More importantly, the narrative must focus on the well being of the people.
Despite that the rich Chinese cultural heritage stays attractive to the international audience, its pull alone is insufficient. Winning the hearts and minds of the people in the partnering countries remains central to the ball game of Chinese communication outreach.
When it comes to the methods of communication, I noticed the marked differences between scenarios in China and abroad. Internationally, a single press release often lacks the desired impact. It is imperative to forge robust ties with local think tanks, media outlets, and NGOs that are both receptive to and well-informed about China abroad. Consistent and concerted efforts in voicing support for just causes will help explore the media visibility in the local social fabric. This is termed “public diplomacy” in China. Its pillar of "Track 2 Diplomacy" remains a must in propelling the BRI ahead.
Alongside this, the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), at both the national and provincial levels alike , which are undertaking engineering projects overseas, are virtually playing the forefront 'ambassadorial' roles. They are the custodians of the nation's image. Hence, it is vital for them to interact and engage with the local communities. The camaraderie displayed would endear China to the local folks.
Pop culture, often dismissed as mere entertainment, can also be a potent tool for international communication. Three decades ago, TV dramas from the Chinese mainland barely made a blip in Malaysia’s entertainment scene. Sichuan and Hunan cuisines remained largely alien to the Malaysians. Fast forward to today, the spillover effects of Chinese social media have been growing robust in Malaysia. China’s digital exports, ranging from videos and memes to TV dramas, are now gaining traction.
Parallel to this, the culinary landscape has been evolving, with younger Malaysians develop a craving for the Chinese provincial cuisines. In other words, pop culture is powerful enough to reshape our daily habits. Isn’t it time we harness this cultural dynamism for international communication? When such cultural elements begin to take root in the local communities, their influence becomes far-reaching and unimpeded by any political or administrative interventions. This is worth pondering.
From a macro perspective, China’s cultural confidence in the global arena has become increasingly prominent in recent years. The BRI’s proposal a decade ago, followed by the Global Development Initiative (2021), the Global Security Initiative (2022), and the Global Civilization Initiative (2023), bear out China’s unwavering commitment to providing public goods for global governance and solutions to universal challenges. These initiatives demonstrate not only China’s stature as a leading global player but also its cultural confidence.
Clearly, on matters held sway by the West traditionally, such as democracy and human rights, China has been evolving in recent years from a passive follower to a more proactive one. It has not hesitated to question the human rights record of the global superpower, the U.S. Through the international forum events it hosted, China sought to interpret the multifaceted nature of values associated with democracy, human rights, and modernization from its own perspective, thus defying the conventional interpretation propagated by the West thus far. This audacity manifests the rise of China’s cultural confidence.
The reality unfolding before us is that China managed to break the West's monopoly of global discourse power. Its interpretation of such values as democracy, human rights and modernization comes as a wake-up call to the cultural confidence in slumber across the Global South.
Amid the waning hegemony of the West, China's model of Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) provides the world with an alternative civilizational architecture. Its notion of calling for "mutual appreciation of others' cultural values while treasuring one's own virtues " lands an unprecedented blow to the prevailing Western hegemonic dominance of discourse power.
This represents a key milestone in reshaping the post-pandemic international order. The successive emergence of China’s three global initiatives is not coincidental. China’s ambition to boost the sagging global governance is beyond the comprehension of nations solely fixated on global supremacy. Its vision extends way beyond the narrow confines of domestic interests of individual nation states.
Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.
This is a speech at Sub-Session on People-to-People Exchange of 2023 TCF.
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