Webinar on “Tell China’s Story Well”: How China Projects Its Discourse Power in Southeast Asia

In this webinar, Mr Wang Zheng shared on the efforts adopted by China for its discourse outreach in Southeast Asia.


Friday, 19 August 2022 – This webinar examines how China has actively projected its discourse power in Southeast Asia to promote a positive national image and to shape favourable regional public opinion sympathetic to its foreign policy goals. The speaker, Mr Wang Zheng, is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at University at Albany, State University of New York. He studies ethnic politics in Southeast Asia and China’s engagement strategies in the region. His dissertation, supported by the Southeast Asian Research Group (SEAREG), examines how framings of ideology shape state policies towards the ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. He was previously Wang Gungwu Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Speaker Mr Wang Zheng with moderator Ms Hoang Thi Ha. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar was organised around two main questions: (1) how China utilised engagements with mass media, political parties and think tanks to project its discourse power in Southeast Asia and (2) whether such engagement efforts have positively influenced China’s reputation in the region.

Mr Wang began the presentation by giving an overview of what discourse power, or huayuquan (话语权), means in the context of China’s foreign policy agenda. The term connotes simultaneously the “right” of China to project its own narratives, ideas and concepts on the international stage and the “power” to influence the way people should think about the world. China’s desire to project its discourse power stems from a concern that although the balance of power in the current international system has undergone substantial changes with its rise to the world’s second-largest economy, Western countries still dominate the creation and distribution of international discourse power, which is viewed by Beijing as biased and ideology-driven, posing major barriers to China’s peaceful development.

Mr Wang’s research highlights three key conduits – media, party-to-party and think tank diplomacy – through which China has projected its discourse power in Southeast Asia. This undertaking was described as a systematic project orchestrated by the entire party-state apparatus and involving many institutions and stakeholders such as universities, think tanks, the media, and private sector organisations.

On media engagement efforts, Mr Wang highlighted efforts to establish local branches of Chinese media organisations in the region, enhance China’s presence on social media platforms and strengthen partnerships between Chinese state media and their regional counterparts. Analysing textual data based on the speeches, interviews and opinion pieces by Chinese leaders and diplomats, he concluded that there were three main themes behind China’s media outreach in the region, namely promoting China’s achievements, denouncing Western narratives, and playing up the positive aspects of China’s engagement with ASEAN and Southeast Asian countries while downplaying tension and conflict. For instance, these texts reveal the ubiquitous usage of terms such as “community”, “win-win”, “cooperation” or “family” to describe China’s relationship with Southeast Asia, which can be seen as Beijing’s push to frame Southeast Asian countries as empathetic and supportive of China’s regional/global agenda.

The Chinese Communist Party has also ramped up efforts to engage with political parties of all stripes in Southeast Asia. The blurred party-state lines in China have meant that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) engagements with political parties form a core part of China’s overall diplomatic strategy. According to Mr Wang, the CCP conducted 57 engagement sessions with various broad-based political parties in Southeast Asia between January 2020 and May 2022. In these party exchanges, China has focused on extolling its governance record and regional economic agenda, and portraying China’s presence in the region as benign and in the spirit of “win-win cooperation”. These party engagement sessions have served as a crucial platform to rebut Western criticisms and rally support for China’s approach to sensitive issues such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Covid-19 origin tracing.

China also sees think tanks as an important channel through which international public opinion favourable to China can be shaped. Hence, in recent years, Beijing has ramped up efforts to build “new think tanks with Chinese characteristics” and enhance its think-tank diplomacy abroad. One of the key strategies in China’s think tank diplomacy efforts is to build regional think-tank networks and partnerships that promote its regional foreign policy initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and Hainan Free Trade Port. These partnerships have enabled China to sponsor and organise events, conduct collaborative research projects and release co-publications. Some of these events feature high-level state and party officials from China, along with Chinese media organisations, private sector organisations, and embassy officials. On the whole, these think-tank diplomacy efforts tend to be orchestrated in a top-down manner, with the tendency to portray an overwhelmingly positive narrative about China’s influence and presence in the region.

China’s discourse power push has been primarily focused on promoting its self-selected narratives rather than facilitating the free and open exchange of ideas. Contentious issues such as the South China Sea disputes, China’s use of economic tools for political purposes, and its growing influence over Chinese diasporas in Southeast Asia have been ignored in its discourse. This has raised doubts as to whether China’s efforts at discursively engaging with the region has yielded the intended result of boosting its reputation in the region. Hence, Mr Wang concluded that winning the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians requires far more than imposing an overly positive image of China and a one-sided ‘exchange’. Whether Beijing truly respects Southeast Asian voices and is open-minded enough to receive critical views and different perspectives remains to be seen.

In the Q&A session, Mr Wang answered questions on the differences between China’s engagement with Southeast Asia compared to the rest of the world, the specific segments in the society of Southeast Asian countries that China have targeted with its messaging, especially the Chinese diaspora, and the limitations and impact of China’s international communication which tends to be state-centric, avoid frank debates, suppress different viewpoints. A total of 147 participants attended the webinar.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)