20 February 2019
President Xi Jinping is willing to challenge the United States over the right of discourse in the international arena. Photo: AFP
President Xi Jinping is willing to challenge the United States over the right of discourse in the international arena. Photo: AFP

How Xi’s bluntness contrasts with Hu’s risk aversion

In the era of Hu Jintao, complacent words and phrases were subjected to self-censorship to avoid creating misunderstanding and suspicion in the international arena or challenging the international discourse dominated by the United States. For example, “peaceful rise” was toned down to “peaceful development”.

However, everything has been changed in the era of Xi Jinping. Though he understands China cannot completely violate the world’s international discourse, he is not willing to follow the lead of the United States either.

As a result, Xi wants to give new meanings to international words or phrases in order to compete for the right of discourse with the United States, and even relate them to Chinese nationalism.

In upholding “national dignity”, Foreign Ministry spokespersons now appear to be bolder and more confident.

The new generation of Chinese leaders is ready to actively challenge the Western world led by the United States and Japan. This was rare in Hu’s era.

In the eyes of Chinese officials, intellectuals and the public, they may more or less regard that as “lifting the national pride”.

There are more cases demonstrating Xi’s confidence. Before Xi became president, he visited Mexico as China’s vice-president in 2009. At the time, he said: “There are some foreigners who had their stomachs filled and had nothing better to do than point their fingers at our affairs. China does not export revolution and poverty, nor cause unnecessary troubles for you. What else is there to say?”

In 2013, Xi attended the Boao Forum for Asia and said: “The international community should advocate the vision of comprehensive security, common security and cooperative security so as to turn our global village into a big stage for common development, rather than an arena where gladiators fight each other. And no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains”.

Though some speculated that the speech was targeted at North Korea, but since North Korea clearly does not possess the power to “throw the whole world into chaos”, the “selfish gains” part obviously referred to the United States. This is something the risk-averse Hu would never do.

Xi’s criticism of Japan is more straightforward.

He openly mentioned the term “rikou” (Japanese invader) in describing the Japanese army in the Second World War. That violated the unspoken rule of political correctness in the international community.

In response to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s request for a visit to China, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson replied with the name of a Chinese movie “Feicheng Wurao” (if not sincere, do not disturb). This was not in line with the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s traditional “play safe” approach.

More dramatic discourses targeting the United States and Japan look set to come.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe