A Cold War of Language in the International System


Thursday, March 30, the College of William and Mary’s Global Research Institute and the interdisciplinary research lab AidData hosted Dr. Marina Rudyak’s lecture “Unpacking Global China: Beijing’s View on Development, Modernization, and the World,” in James Blair Hall. 

That same day, the United States co-hosted the Summit for Democracy 2023, bringing together world leaders to discuss the challenges currently facing democratic systems and human rights around the globe. China was not invited to the Summit, even though Chinese President Xi Jinping argued China was the world’s “broadest, most genuine and most effective democracy” and a protector of human rights in a speech in 2017. This highlights the discrepancies that China and the United States have in their definitions of democracy and human rights.

“We have a cold war of language in the international system,” Rudyak, an assistant professor at the Institute of Chinese Studies at Heidelberg University, said

Rudyak explained the Chinese government’s use of alternative definitions of key terms. The Chinese government recently became the largest provider of international development assistance in the world.

“We’ve seen a discourse change since Xi came to power,” Rudyak said. “This is part of an effort to create an international discourse system that is capable of shifting definitions. Not in the way that terms like democracy and human rights are replaced with Chinese understandings and definitions, but rather normalizing a plurality of definitions for terms the West has considered universal.”

After living and working in China for the German development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, Rudyak co-created the Decoding China Dictionary, a guide to understanding the Chinese meanings of redefined terms regarding international relations and development cooperation. Rudyak compared the utilization of these words by the West with official Chinese discourse.

“What this event is all about is to try to understand how China looks at the world from the perspective of foreign development assistance,” AidData senior research scientist Dr. Ammar Malik said. “I think it’s critically important for us to step back and revisit this as a more foundational issue.”

Despite not holding national elections and engaging in centralized decision-making under the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government portrays itself as a consultative democracy. It argues that its “broad participation in consultation” for laws and party roots are democratic, Rudyak said.

The Chinese government has been critical of the United States’s judgement and has argued in a white paper that “whether a country is democratic should be judged by its people, not dictated by a handful of outsiders,” according to a CNN analysis.

The Chinese government also heralds itself as a champion of human rights and international development, despite intense criticism of its human rights record in recent years, particularly regarding the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong. According to Rudyak, Chinese government has downplayed and sought to justify its actions as protecting what it deems to be the paramount human rights consideration: the right to development.

“[Development] is seen as something that leads to social progress, which is the basis for improving people’s livelihood,” Rudyak said. “Development requires social stability, which is spelled out in [China’s] Global Security Initiative. Social stability means the absence of dissent. So if you really think that’s true, then you can explain every suppression of folks, including in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang policy, as a protection of human rights.”

China also thinks about aid differently than the West, which stems from a different understanding of modernization. Both nations are competing for development projects in the Global South.

“There is a very long history [of the idea] for China that modernization does not have to and should not equal Westernization,” Rudyak said. “[According to Xi], it has shown an alternative modernization path for developing countries and offers a Chinese solution to humanity’s search for a better social system.”

While both models herald visions for a technologically and socioeconomically modern society, the two see different ways of achieving this vision. While the West sees secularization, democratization and the advancement of human rights as necessary precursors to modernization, the Chinese model works towards similar aims without the same degree of political and social liberalization.

Rudyak explained how the West has fallen short in global development projects in recent years, which has led developing countries to increasingly accept aid from China.

“In the West, we see development problems of the Global South as their problem. China frames it as a common problem,” Rudyak said. “Until we start seeing challenges in the Global South as our problem, which they are, we are not going to win a lot in terms of sympathy.”

Malik explained another Chinese strength to consider.

“A lot of [developing] countries feel their values or norms about human rights are at odds with Western standards,” Malik said. “They think of the West as trying to judge them by Western standards of human rights and freedoms. We take them as a given in the West. Many countries don’t. Those leaders are more inclined to go toward a model where these things are not used as conditions for them to get more assistance.”

Rudyak also contextualized China’s transnational position in terms of aid. China has boosted its relations with developing countries by touting its experience as a developing country itself. However, building relationships comes with expectations of reciprocity.

“Aid that China gives is understood as South-South cooperation and it is framed in terms of equality, benefit, friendship and mutual benefit,” Rudyak said. “In modern times, reciprocity can be either direct in goods and services, such as concessional loans, or it can be indirect in terms of political support.” 

There is a correlation between countries’ receiving aid, investment and trade from China and voting favorably on issues that are important to China at the United Nations, such as human rights or Taiwanese independence.

Though Xi’s proactive foreign policy is a contrast from his predecessors, his usage of these terms is not new to China. The definitions of democracy and modernization trace back to CCP leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, while the Chinese notion of development traces back to Chinese Nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen.

Conrad Warner ’26 shared his thoughts on the lecture.

“I think taking a step back and looking at it through a different perspective is helpful,” Warner said. “It doesn’t mean you have to agree with their aims or anything, but it’s very valuable and a window into a different culture and language.”

Dr. Malik described these developments as an attempt to redefine the international system.

“I think this is really a new phase in trying to establish Chinese domination in the world that we haven’t seen before,” Malik said. 

Rudyak argues the West has failed to truly listen and attempt to understand official Chinese discourse.

“Why do we have to engage with how the CCP thinks?” she asked rhetorically. “Because it matters.”

CORRECTION (04/05/23): Article was updated by Sarah Devendorf, the Standards and Practices Editor to take out Dr. Marina Rudyak’s full name in the third paragraph and replace it with “Rudyak.” This correction was made to keep the writing style consisted throughout the article.  



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