– An Interview with Zhang Weiwei, Director of the China Institute of Fudan University
China’s rapid rise has riveted global attention to its development path, and to the back stories of the country’s incredible achievements, particularly over the past 10 years. However, when people outside of China try to figure out how a once downtrodden country was able to achieve these mighty development feats successively in such a short time span, they are generally baffled. This is largely because many are still trapped in the Western discourse that stops short of explaining our changing world, and China’s development. For example, many people are blinkered by the Western democratic paradigm that is solely constituted by the multiparty system and universal suffrage. Unaware, therefore, of the true essence of democracy, they summarily condemn China’s democratic practices. China has thus been labeled an autocracy, irrespective of its people’s proactive support for their political system, and become a target of defamation and blame for Western politicians and media. Blinded by such a Western-dominated discourse, few people outside China are able to fathom the country’s phenomenal development.
In efforts to present China more accurately to the world and give the international community a certain insight into the country, Chinese think tanks have mushroomed and flourished over the past 10 years, and some of them are working to construct a Chinese discourse and establish Chinese narratives. The China Institute of Fudan University is one of the country’s 25 national leading think tanks. Its director, Zhang Weiwei, best known for his “China Trilogy” (The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, The China Horizon: Glory and Dream of a Civilizational State, and The China Ripple: Reflections after Travelling over 100 Countries) and his debate with Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man, about the China model, has been both proactive and fruitful in constructing a Chinese discourse. China Today recently had an interview with Professor Zhang, hoping to give readers a glimpse of the workings of Chinese think tanks towards accomplishing their mission.
Professor Zhang Weiwei speaking on "China Now," a weekly political analysis program presented by Shanghai Dragon TV, in cooperation with the China Institute of Fudan University, Guan Video, and Guancha.cn.
China Today: What, since its establishment, has the China Institute of Fudan University been working on? And what has it done towards constructing a Chinese discourse?
Zhang Weiwei: As one of China’s leading think tanks and research institutions, we engage in both academic and policy-oriented research on the rise of China and the country’s development model, its ideas and narratives, as well as comparative studies in these areas. The China Institute’s core functions include research, policy advisory service, communications, training and postgraduate education, and public diplomacy. But constructing a Chinese discourse is one of our primary tasks.
Back in 2015, The New York Times reporter Didi Kirsten Tatlow asked me in an interview, “Why is this [Chinese discourse] important?” I replied, “Discourse is crucial for any country, especially for a super-large and fast-changing country like China, whose rise has global implications and provokes questions and suspicions. To my mind, the country should face them squarely and explain itself clearly and confidently to its own people, and to the outside world. This calls for new narratives, new in content as well as in style.”
Her next question was, “What is needed to create such a discourse?” I answered, “As far as China is concerned, social, economic, and political conditions are ripe for constructing such a new narrative. There is a clear and growing demand for such a discourse. China has risen to such a degree that it can’t evade any questioning from within or without. Both Chinese and foreigners want to make better sense of what China has done, is doing, and will do in the future. In economics jargon, when there is a demand, there will be a supply, which is coming naturally.”
What we’re trying to do is to establish a Chinese discourse and Chinese narratives that are easily understood by the general public both at home and abroad.
China Today: You once said, “To tell China’s political story well, it depends, to a great extent, on if one can deconstruct Western political discourse, especially its mainstream narratives on China, and establish China’s own discourse.” What efforts have you made so far to this end?
Zhang Weiwei: Yes, essentially there are two traditions in the West with regard to China studies: one is Sinology relating to Chinese history, literature, ancient philosophy, etc., as represented by Italy’s Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Britain’s Joseph Needham (1900-1995); the other is contemporary China studies, along with the Soviet studies, born out of the Cold War in the United States, strongly influenced by Euro-centrism, Western ideology and political discourse, and it is often full of biases towards the New China and has led to countless wrong forecasts about China over the past decades, yet it still predominates the current Western discourse on China. That’s why we should deconstruct such a discourse and establish China’s own narratives that correspond to China’s reality, and make such homegrown narratives known to the outside world.
In regard to our work in this field, I’d like to give you an example. Since 2019 we have, in cooperation with Shanghai Dragon TV, presented the weekly political analysis program “China Now.” It tries, through a Chinese discourse and Chinese standpoint, to put events in China and the rest of the world in perspective. A smash hit among young audiences, the program is widely broadcast on video streaming platforms. As of May 11, the episodes of “China Now” have been broadcast 70.29 million times, garnered 890,000 likes with 1.085 million subscribers at bilibili.com alone, a popular youth-oriented video streaming and sharing platform. During the same period, 140 episodes of “China Now” together with its 2,346 video clips had been put on overseas video platforms, covering 196 countries and regions, viewed 68.06 million times and won 11.16 million likes. Of the 160,000 comments they received on the international online platforms, more than 90 percent were positive. Many observers deem it the most influential political talk show in history.
Certain Western commentators observed that we tried to reshape Western thinking about China and the world by appealing to young urbanized Chinese and a global audience that grows increasingly disenchanted with the West.
We do indeed hope to reshape thinking about China and, as I’ve often said, the rise of China should be accompanied by the rise of China’s own discourse. The inherent defects of Western political systems have disappointed growing numbers of people, so I think we should present China objectively as a reference — a new model for international comparison — that people in other countries might find both helpful and inspiring.
The great improvement of people's livelihoods in Shangma Village, Xiji County, west China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in recent years owes to the local resettlement scheme to improve their living conditions while rehabilitating the ecological environment.
China Today: Could you please tell us more about your own efforts and those of the China Institute of Fudan University towards constructing a Chinese discourse?
Zhang Weiwei: We advocate original, hands-on research, whose academic value should be reflected in accurate assessments and forecasts about world events. Based on our studies, we have correctly predicted several important domestic and global events. After the eruption of the Arab Spring, I warned that it would soon become the “Arab Winter.” I think I was the first in the world to make that prediction. The term “Arab Winter” has since been widely used internationally. Upon the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, Western media called it “China's Chernobyl.” I disagreed, saying, “No way. It will turn out to be the West’s own Chernobyl.” Now, as of early May, the U.S.’s accumulated COVID-19 death toll has surpassed one million. Even The New York Times Op-Ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman admitted, “Covid-19 was supposed to be China's Chernobyl. It's ended up looking more like the West's Waterloo.”
China Today: The current intensity of global focus on China is unprecedented. But at the same time, Western defamation of China has reached new heights. Faced with suspicion and doubts about China, in particular regarding China’s democracy, how do you respond?
Zhang Weiwei: We must first of all acknowledge that the West continues to dominate the international discourse on democracy although the discourse has appeared flimsy. For the majority in the West, democracy is solely constituted by the multiparty system and universal suffrage. The Western discourse has, moreover, created the scenario of a democratic paradigm in opposition to one of autocracy. In other words, any system that differs from that of West is an autocracy. Although its inability to keep abreast of the world’s changes has long since rendered it obsolete, this paradigm has in fact become an ideological tool for the West to subvert other countries. I remember one tweet that went viral during the U.S. Capitol Hill riot, “If the United States saw what the United States is doing in the United States, the United States would invade the United States to liberate the United States from the tyranny of the United States.”
I believe that, rather than distinguishing countries as either Western-defined democracies or autocracies, we can use the paradigm of good or bad governance to assess a country. Of course, the world is complicated, and many countries fall in-between the two opposites. According to this paradigm, therefore, both Western and non-Western countries can qualify for the good governance category. Stable economic, political, and social development, as well as significant improvements to people’s livelihood stand testament to China’s able governance. It is a paradigm that is gradually being accepted by ever more people in the world.
So how does it relate to democracy? I think good governance is, in essence, substantive democracy, which is both what a democracy seeks and its paramount aim. China has over the past several decades pursued substantive democracy through crafting new democratic forms and procedures based on its specific conditions. The facts speak volumes about our success. By contrast, in following procedural democracy, the West has experienced many crises.
China Today: In the past 10 years, China has put forward many plans specifically to address global challenges and international governance conundrums, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the concept of building a community with a shared future for humankind, and targeted poverty alleviation. What do you think about the traditional cultural elements and China’s practices behind the plans and such plans’ global significance?
Zhang Weiwei: Chinese cultural elements are discernible in all these plans. Putting people’s livelihood first has been a tradition of China’s political culture since ancient times — one we regard as the ultimate goal of all our reforms, measures, and policies, most notably in our poverty alleviation efforts. Since the beginning of reform and opening-up, China has lifted 770 million people out of poverty, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the global total, and thus eradicated abject poverty across this vast country, a remarkable achievement in human history. I think an important lesson to be learned from China’s successful practice is the need to focus on people’s foremost concerns and to blaze a trail that accords with a country’s specific conditions.
The Belt and Road Initiative also stems from China’s successful domestic practices. We Chinese often say, “To prosper, first build roads.” China has indeed built the world’s largest-scale expressway and rail networks and mobile communications network. Every village in the country now has both electricity and access to a highway and 4G/5G networks. Inadequate infrastructure is in fact the development bottleneck for most developing countries. Therefore, the Belt and Road Initiative, with its focus on infrastructure construction, has been warmly received by many countries. In a sense, the initiative is an international extension of China’s “people first” governance concept which stands in contrast to the lopsided Western version of “human rights” that values citizens’ political rights over their economic and social rights.
The concept of building a community with a shared future for humankind embodies the holistic view of traditional Chinese culture, which attaches importance to the assessment of the overarching trend of the times, and advocates going with the flow of the times. It thus reflects China’s assessment of the current global development trend. Guided by this concept, China advances the joint building of the Belt and Road with related countries through joint discussions geared to shared growth.
A fully-loaded freight train pulls out of Manzhouli, a land port city in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China, on July 24, 2021.
China Today: Despite attracting growing numbers of developing countries’ interest in its success, China has, by virtue of its incredible development, also triggered strategic fear on the part of certain Western countries. Such unease has driven these countries’ utmost efforts to contain China. What is your view on the situation?
Zhang Weiwei: The immense success of the Chinese development model has undoubtedly inspired the world. The fundamental advice other countries might take from China’s development practice is to blaze their own trail based on their own conditions, rather than blindly copy the model of other countries. Of course, many of China’s development concepts and practices, for example, the people-centered principle, advancing reform in an incremental fashion, the practice of first piloting and then promoting a new policy, and the high value placed on political and social stability, among many others, would be of benefit to many countries.
The Western world, led by the United States, has been encouraging color revolution worldwide and promoting democratic fundamentalism and market fundamentalism over the past several decades. However, these attempts have flopped, which gives rise to worries that the success of the China model will lead to a political paradigm shift. I think the China model is the country’s contribution to humanity as a whole. The current world is facing a raft of challenges — poverty, climate change, terrorism, COVID-19, regional conflicts, and more, and the West appears to be at wits’ end. So the world needs a dose of Chinese wisdom.