In 2014, a particular meeting took place in the Facebook offices in the United States: Mark Zuckerberg answered – in Mandarin – a series of questions from Chinese students. In the photos published in the national media in Beijing, a detail was immediately noticed: on his desk was beautifully displayed “The governance of China”, the book of quotations and speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping. “I have given several copies to my colleagues, it is important that they know what socialism with Chinese characteristics is,” Zuckerberg later explained to the Washington Post.
Saying 2014 means saying an era ago now, but Zuckerberg’s move, in addition to trying to probe the mood of the time about the umpteenth attempt by Facebook to enter the Chinese market, cleared customs Xi Jinping like the storyteller, the singer of contemporary China. A role, moreover, in which the Chinese leader has always identified himself, frankly asking the whole Communist Party to start telling everyone what China is and what its new place in the world is: “Telling stories”, Xi specified, “it is the best form of international diffusion”. And he was the first to contribute not a little to the sensational Chinese effort to speak to the Western world, in an attempt to give his own version of the facts, or that of the Chinese Communist Party, both as regards the reading of history, the choice of “classics” and political and cultural references, both to depict a country struggling with the attempt to become the “responsible guide” of world globalization.
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Xi Jinping started this “epic process” from himself, from his history, from his adolescence. The mechanism is typical of the narrative: a mythical past, which immediately became the cornerstone of the story of his rise, the adolescence spent in the countryside, due to the purge suffered by his father who was also a relevant official in the Maoist era, closeness to the people, ability, for this past, to understand the people.
It is about a big departure from the even more recent past, when Chinese leaders appeared closed in their bureaucratic world. Xi Jinping brought back the epic story and politics, placing not only “technical” but ideological personalities within the central commission of the Politburo, such as Wang Huning who already in 1993 stressed the need for a soft power capable of intercepting Western understanding of China. Xi Jinping presented himself to the Chinese and the world as a person who has struggled to get to the top, through a long career that has gone through many phases. As in all epic tales, some details are omitted: the friendships, especially with the military, which he inherited from his father, and his ten attempts to enter the Communist Party. But the epic tale links different times and eras, it is myth, therefore timeless. Xi Jinping brings out his career to represent to the Chinese and the world a truth that many believe in, that is China as the land of meritocracy, opportunity and fundamentally as a peaceful country and sincerely devoted to collective well-being.
As the business magazine Caixin (often the protagonist of reports and investigations not frowned upon by the CCP) wrote, “from the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, in more than 10 public speeches during visits abroad, Xi Jinping has told many moving stories, reducing the psychological distance between Chinese and foreigners and redefining the new temperature of official diplomatic language ».
In a speech at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, during which Xi Jinping first announced the new Silk Road project, the Chinese president told the story of Ruslan, a Kazakh student who donated blood for free while studying in China. On that occasion he also told the story of a mother and son in China and Kazakhstan who were finally able to reunite after half a century of research. In Germany he told the story of a viticulture expert who gave lessons to farmers in Shandong for free. In Australia he dwelt on the life of a professor dedicated to friendship between China and Australia: “Professor Maclin has visited China more than 60 times”. Chen Lidan, professor at the School of Journalism at Renmin University of China, regarding the art of storytelling said that «it is necessary to focus on exploring new concepts, new categories and new expressions in external communication. Chinese stories should be told in a simple way and have simple people as protagonists: stories, not general empty words and propaganda ». And Xi Jinping seems to be able to do it perfectly, according to the dean of the Institute of Public Diplomacy of the Renmin University of China: “In his speeches, Xi Jinping told the story of friendship between peoples from the point of view of ordinary people, strengthening cultural and spiritual communication between peoples and giving people a sense of closeness “.
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In Xi Jinping’s rhetorical art there is the will to describe to the world a China different from the past, no longer hermetically sealed to the outside and above all able to position itself as a “responsible” country and a promoter of a “win win” future, in which everyone can gain something.
To do this Xi Jinping has brought Chinese history into line with the wishes of the Communist Party, placing the theme as central also within the country. Walter Benjiamin argued that history is the winner’s inventory, and never as in China is this true. Think of the New Silk Road: when President Xi Jinping presented his “One Belt One Road” project, he described the ancient caravan route as something essentially Chinese.
In fact the term was created by a Westerner (the German geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen) and for a long time the language spoken along the trade routes was Persian. History, therefore, today more than ever serves the Communist Party to legitimize a line of continuity, in some cases with clear accents of an ethnic nature, with the past and thus prepare a basis for communicating this history to the outside world. And as always happens in these cases, the CCP does not allow discussions, even with regard to recent history.
In 2018, Xi Jinping had a law approved by the National Assembly (the closest thing exists in China to our parliaments, although it only has the function of ratifying what was decided by the Council of State, the executive body, which in turn is fully controlled by the Communist Party) which requires “the whole of society” to honor Party-approved revolutionary heroes and martyrs, making defamation a potential crime punishable by law.
Chun Han Wong, commentator on Chinese facts on the Wall Street Journal, wrote in this regard that “strengthening control over Chinese history is a priority for President Xi Jinping, who has claimed the legitimacy of the Communist government by stating that he and his party the government are guiding China’s return to the greatness of the past ”. For this reason, heroes and martyrs have a prominent place in the propaganda campaigns that often go back to the revolutionary roots of the party. “Officials said strong legislation is needed to promote patriotism and suppress historical nihilism, the official term for skepticism about the party’s contributions to China’s progress.” Along with the law came the censorship of books, articles, essays.
If Xi Jinping has taken for himself the part of the storyteller and the politician aimed at “reassuring” the world about the intentions of the Chinese, his diplomats have instead taken on the role of “agitators”. Like in a Chinese swashbuckling novel, Chinese officials scattered in ministries or embassies around the world have been beating like blacksmiths for some time, using aggressive and muscular tones to respond to criticism leveled at China. They have been called “Wolf Warriors”, from the title of a Chinese blockbuster and have repeatedly shaken diplomatic relations between China and other countries.
The latest case was that of the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Australia: relations between the two countries have been rather tense recently due to diatribes concerning both 5G networks and Beijing’s decision to kick some Australian journalists out of the Country. On the occasion of the discovery of the massacre by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, Zhao Lijian posted on Twitter (banned in China) the shocking image of an Australian soldier cutting the throat of an Afghan child. Beijing later refused to remove the image. It is the double track chosen by Xi Jinping in the new Chinese epic: the president reassures, the diplomats attack. According to recently published research and polls, however, the image of China in Europe would not have benefited from this narrative, because Europeans would seem rather skeptical of Beijing’s real intentions. Despite the efforts, in fact, China lacks a real soft power such as the one that the United States showed in the period following the Second World War: Beijing fails to introduce itself into Western political discourses, it cannot find the tone of voice necessary to be truly understood.
And where it does not come with sentiment, China tries to make up for it with money, so much so that there is more talk of “smart power” than of “soft power”: recently Beijing launched a massive cooperation campaign with international media ( the latest agreement signed is with Reuters) to try to “pierce” information systems that, according to the Chinese, would be unfavorable to the Chinese narrative.
For now, these efforts do not seem to pay off on the outside. Inside the country, on the other hand, Xi Jinping’s epic has been successful, making a clean sweep of alternative views of China and the world to his own.
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