In an op-ed widely disseminated on China’s state-controlled media, Zhang Yanling (张燕玲), former Vice President of the Bank of China, argued that “the future of mankind depends on China, not on the United States.” Her views sum up the official narrative of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regarding relations between China and the West.
“China comprises one-fifth of humanity, this alone destines this country to be exceptional and hard to ignore,” Zhang writes. Quoting John Ross, a British academic living in China and a notorious supporter of the CCP, she argues that mankind can choose between China, which focuses on “economic development and peaceful rise”, or the United States, whose “preemptive strikes put the world in danger.” This is the reason, she adds, why “the good of mankind and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation are deeply interconnected.”
Echoing a common theme of Chinese state ideology, Zhang slams the West for trying to impose its own economic model on China like it did with Russia in the late 1980s, causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the same time, she praises China’s astounding economic development and asserts her country’s right to choose its own economic model.
China’s rise is not only a reality, it is an experiment in economic development. During China’s economic reform era, the consensus in Western institutions was that China should copy Western policies, including privatization – such policies were adopted by the Soviet Union and eastern European countries after 1989, and this led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.
According to Zhang, when China began its reform policies at the end of 1978, it learnt from its own experience that the best way to succeed was to carry out a “gradual and dual-track” strategy, while rejecting the so-called “shock therapy“, i.e. the sudden shift from a centrally planned economy to a free market economy. Zhang argues that China achieved an economic miracle despite “relentless criticism from the academic world” of Western countries. Russian leaders, by contrast, followed the advice of Western experts and presided over the most catastrophic economic collapse “of any world power in peace times.”
Zhang Yanling regards the 2008 financial crisis as a turning point that reveals China’s success and the failure of Western countries.
[N]o Western country has been able to overcome the crisis as smoothly as China. Yet they persist in their view that the Chinese authorities should adopt the same principles and methods that brought about the fall of the Soviet Union! As a result of clinging to its own path, China has quickly solved the crisis and achieved rapid economic development, so that in the seven years following the financial crisis its economy has grown by 79.9%, while in the same period the economies of the United States, Germany and Japan have grown, respectively, by 8.2%, 5.0%, and 0.7%.
Zhang argues that Western countries have implemented policies that they believed to be effective, but the result was that they had to “swallow down the bitter fruits [of measures that] hindered economic growth.” By doing so, the West has accelerated China’s march towards catching up and surpassing the US as the world’s largest economy.
Zhang believes that the main difference between Western and Chinese approaches to economic policy lies in the role of the state. Whereas the US only focuses on financial and monetary policy, China can influence the level of investment as share of GDP through government direct investment, the private sector and large state-owned enterprises.
Zhang Yanling lists off China’s outstanding economic achievements to prove her point. When Deng Xiaoping proposed his economic reforms in the 1970s, he predicted that between 1981 and 2050 China’s economy would grow 1,600%. This appeared like an extremely ambitious goal at the time. Yet between 1981 and 2014 alone, the Chinese economy already grew 2,200%. Moreover, China reduced the number of people living in poverty (living on less than US$1.25 per day) from 835 millions in 1981, to 157 millions in 2009.
Zhang writes that the West is not only wrong in trying to impose on China its own, but that it is also spreading falsehoods regarding China’s rise, talking about the “threat of China” and comparing it with pre-WWI Germany. Without providing any sources, Zhang argues that Germany started the Great War because its economic and military power was already declining, so that it had to strike first against the countries that encircled it. China, by contrast, has a vital and growing economy, and its military prowess, too, is growing year by year. Therefore, Zhang concludes, China doesn’t need to start a war. It is not China who causes tensions in the world, but the “hegemonic thinking that aims at strengthening the so-called ‘leadership position’ of the United States.”
An Insight into Chinese Communist Propaganda
Despite containing some valid arguments, Zhang Yanling’s article must be described as a propaganda piece. According to Christine Loh, a former member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, propaganda “is about influencing language, thought and emotions.” Chinese propaganda is “overwhelming” because it is “applied constantly through the media that the party controls and are repeated by its supporters.” Propaganda makes clear to people what is politically correct. Patriotic education targeting young people and repetition make sure that the message of the Party is strong enough to offset doubts about the government’s official line (Loh 2010, p. 38).
Why can Zhang Yanling’s article be considered propaganda?
First of all, she constructs a narrative by using biased sources and ignoring facts that could contradict this narrative. For instance, at the beginning of the article she mentions John Ross, a China-based scholar known for his pro-Beijing, anti-democratic views. Furthermore, while China’s economic growth is higher than Western countries’, the article doesn’t mention that many Western countries, such as Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Canada, only to name a few examples, have a very high standard of living and low unemployment. Germany has actually succeeded in reducing unemployment since 2008 (from 9% to 4%).
The main reason why Zhang’s piece has to be classified as propaganda, however, is the media environment in which it operates. Chinese media are controlled by the state. While many media outlets in Western countries may be biased or may propagate a certain ideology, there is pluralism. Thus no ideology is entirely unchallenged. There are things that can be improved, such as the concentration of media outlets in the hands of few individuals. But, in general, the media are not controlled by one party, as is the case in China. Therefore, Zhang Yanling’s article functions as propaganda because the Chinese public has limited access to alternative points of view. The purpose of the Chinese media is not to allow debate or present different perspectives, but to propagate and rationalize the official narrative of the CCP.
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