The term most commonly translated as "discourse power" or "the right to speak" (话语权, huàyǔ quán) is closely associated with Chinese government and media discourse about efforts to “tell China’s story well” (讲好中国故事). The term seems to have appeared first in the late 1990s, and its use increased rapidly among Chinese academics from 2004–2010. In translation, the term comes up frequently in English analysis of Chinese grand strategy, as well as propaganda and censorship.
The term appears in writings by Lu Wei, a major figure in online propaganda and censorship work who was head of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) during its formative years. From 2013 onward, Xi Jinping has repeatedly invoked the term. He used it in a speech at the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference, where he said, “tell China’s story well, disseminate China’s voice well, and strengthen our discourse power internationally.” It came up again in subsequent speeches given by Xi, such as an address he gave at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2017. He has also explicitly linked the term with cybersecurity; at a 2016 Party Symposium on Public Opinion aimed at state sponsored media, he said, “At present, the cybersecurity game of major countries is not only a technical game, but also a game of ideas and a game of discourse power.”
Translation and Context
The term can be broken into two parts, each of which can be reasonably translated in different ways. First is the question of how to translate 权 quán which can suggest either “a right” (in the term 权利 quánlì) or “power” (in the homophonous term 权力 quánlì). The commonly used three-character term, however, does not specify which compound is intended, an ambiguity noted in multiple state media essays discussing the term. The second translation question centers around 话语 huàyǔ, which literally means “spoken language” but also refers to discourse, including in the Foucaultian sense, according to some sources.
Together, these two questions result in numerous reasonable translations, but the most common appear to be "discourse power" and "the right to speak." (Others have included "discursive power" or, more loosely, a "seat at the table.")
Some contexts may clearly suggest the sense of "power" is more active. For instance, a 2017 article by Beijing Foreign Studies University Professor Zhang Zhizhou, published in the Central Party School newspaper Study Times and reposted by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) discusses the ambiguity between "right" and "power" but argues that power is the more appropriate term given China’s contemporary development context. "In today's world, it is not that China lacks the free right and legitimate channels for international expression, but rather that it must strengthen its 'discourse power' [话语权力, specifying power, not right]." A 2021 article published in The People’s Daily summarizes Xi Jinping’s “Propaganda and Ideological Work” and characterizes the term as a form of “soft power” (软实力).
In other contexts, the "rights" sense may be a better fit, as the term is used in reference to a perceived imbalance of global discourse that favors the voice of “the West” at the expense of others. In the 2013 speech where Xi Jinping first mentions the term, he also said that, “Western major media control global public opinion” and that the current global discourse pattern is that “the West is strong and we (China) are weak” (西强我弱).
This rebalancing frame is referenced frequently by leaders in state media. For instance, Wang Shucheng, editor-in-chief of The People's Daily, including the overseas edition, argued in a 2016 article posted on the SCIO that, internationally, China is interpreted and judged through Western values and concepts and that it is the duty of Chinese media to grasp “the right to speak and explain China's development and progress.”
Yet, in many cases, neither “discourse power ” nor “the right to speak” fully captures the meaning; this is recognized in discussions of the term within China. One notable example of this is a 2010 article by Lu Wei, who at the time was Vice-Director of Xinhua News Agency but would go on to be Minister of the Beijing Propaganda Department and head the Cyberspace Administration of China during its first three years of existence. “National discourse power is the influence of a country’s ‘speech’ in the world,” he writes, adding that China’s role is to ensure “every country has equal discourse power.”
In the context of Chinese participation in international standards-setting around artificial intelligence, the term is also applied in ways that seem to address both the power of having a seat at the table and the right to speak in international forums.
Usage: Technology, the Internet, and Academia
While the term is broadly used and its meaning can be highly varied, it appears frequently in discussions surrounding technology, the internet, and academia. (Note: In the quotations below, an apparently better-fitting translation for huàyǔ quán is used, though all ambiguities in the above explanation of different senses of course remain present.)
For technology, the term often comes up when discussing breakthroughs or the ability to set standards. In these cases, being competitive in the market, solving problems that foreign companies have not been able to solve, and setting standards internationally are all framed as ways to gain “discourse power” or “the right to speak“ in particular industries.
- In a 2016 CAC white paper on Cloud Computing, technological innovation is listed as a way to improve China’s discourse power: “Technological innovation of core equipment for data centers will drive the innovation of the whole supply chain of China’s IT industry, enhancing China’s discourse power in the IT industry, and is of great significance to driving the development of localized technology.”0
- At a 2016 meeting at the National Information Security Standardization Technical Committee (TC260), Wang Xiujun, then Deputy Director of the CAC, said in her remarks,“whoever sets standards has discourse power.”
- In a 2020 Xinhua interview, Vice President of car manufacturing company Geely said, “In order for Chinese auto manufacturers to participate in global competition, we must form our own research and development, our own engineering, and our own design capabilities, mastering key technologies. Only then will we achieve discourse power.”
- In a 2020 Xinhua interview, a project manager at the Beijing Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Company said he had “earned the right to speak” when he created a method for cabin renovation. He added, “How does one gain the right to speak? Our technical know-how and know-why give us confidence.”
There are two main ways the term is used in reference to the internet. In the first, the internet is framed as a crucial space to establish global opinion in which nations compete for “discourse power." Lu Wei is a central figure in this line of thinking. The second, often appearing in academic articles, is used to describe online social dynamics, and more likely refers to individuals rather than countries or companies.
Examples of the first use in reference to the internet as a space for "discourse power" competition include:
- In 2013, the same year Lu Wei started to head the CAC, he wrote in The People’s Daily, “In the internet era, the push toward integrated media development is an inevitable trend. If we do not effectively occupy emerging public opinion spaces, others will occupy them and challenge our dominance (主导权) in public opinion work and our discourse power.”
- In a 2016 article published by a CAC magazine, Chen Jiancai, Executive Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Chinese Cadre Learning Network argued, “When it comes to society on the internet, whoever dominates (主导) the internet can dominate the world's discourse power; whoever guides netizens can also guide the world. Therefore, the internet is not only the best ecosystem for idea dissemination, but also the best place to compete for world discourse power and assert ideological positions.”
- In a 2019 article first published by CCP news outlet Guangming Daily, Chen Zhiyong, a professor at the School of Marxism at Fujian Normal University, argued,“to enhance international discourse power, we should be good at using online media and online discourse to tell Chinese stories, spread Chinese values, and establish a good international image.” He also noted that, “in the overall media context, the boundaries between international and domestic, online and offline, and virtual reality have become increasingly blurred.”
Examples of the second use in reference to the internet as a space for social dynamics include:
- In a 2015 article published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Huang Baoling, professor China University of Mining and Technology’s school of Marxism discussed the term as it relates to the internet at length: “By so called ‘discourse power,’ we mean people's ability to freely assert themselves around an issue and phenomenon in a given social context, and from this gain identity and status, speech norms, competitive conflicts, and the ability to control and disseminate influence.”
- One study, titled “Analysis of equality in the right to speak in an online chat room” (网络聊天室话语权的平等性分析) examines power dynamics between citizens in a chat room, particularly when they are unequal.
In the academic context, prestige and quality within academic publishing is also characterized as a way to improve China’s “academic discourse power” (学术话语权).
- In a 2015 article first published by Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of the Ministry of Science and Technology, and reposted by the SCIO, Professor Hu Jiewang, professor and director of the Institute of Educational Science at Jiaying University argued, “If Chinese academics want to stride forward with their heads held high into the realm of international academics and form strong academic discourse power, it is necessary to follow the ‘Chinese culture, self-improvement, and self-respect’ development path.”
- In a 2021 article published by Science and Technology Daily Cai Rong'gen, professor and director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that improving academic journals was important since it would be a way to improve China’s “academic discourse power.”
In recent years, the term has appeared often in discussions on technology, the internet, and academia, demonstrating how it can take on a variety of meanings and subtexts based on how and where it is used, incorporating elements of both the “power” and “rights” interpretations. It is worth noting, however, that among Chinese academics, especially in discussions of the term prior to 2008, the meaning of the term could be more divergent than the examples above show.
Origins and Timeline
The earliest appearance of the term in Chinese government documents uncovered by DigiChina research was in 2011 at the Sixth Plenum of the 17th CCP Central Committee, where it was listed as a way to “promote Chinese culture to the world.” But its intellectual origins are still debated; one study traces it back to Marxist ideology in 1921, and another study tracking the term in Chinese academic articles dates its first uses to the late 1990s.
In 2016's “China’s Rise and its Discursive Power Strategy,” international relations scholar Kejin Zhao argues that the cultural origins of “discursive power” date back to 1921 and the founding of the CCP. According to Zhao, this tradition was suppressed in the 1970s during China’s “reform and opening-up” period, but emerged again as a driving framework for CCP strategy as China rose in status on the global stage around 2009.
In 2015's “Contextualising China’s Call for Discourse Power in International Politics,” political scientist Wang Hung-jen traces the use of the term in Chinese academic papers in both general literature and international politics from 1978 to 2012. When the term began to increase in popularity from 2004–2005, many articles focussed on “discussing their country’s entry into international society,” but from 2007–2008 the articles became more about “soft power” and focused on ways to construct a “positive national image.” Wang interprets this shift as motivated by a desire to be seen as an equal to the United States.
While “discourse power” and “the right to speak” are the two most common translations of huàyǔ quán, in many cases they fall short in terms of capturing the full meaning of the term, which has a long history of being debated among Chinese academics and policymakers. The implications of the term can therefore best be understood in its specific context, and with recognition that readers may interpret different or multiple senses at the same time in a given context.