Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.06.15

Mr. Xi, policies are more important than narratives

the japan times on June 3, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A. China

Dear President Xi Jinping,

I hope this letter finds your excellency well. It has been a while since I last wrote you — where I humbly made recommendations on how to best address your then-trade war with President Donald Trump and the United States.

At the time, you described China as a “defender of free trade,” carefully trying to avoid being provocative in response to Trump’s “America First” policies.

Today allow me to send you another letter that may be of some help in dealing with your geopolitical differences with Washington and the international community at large.

You wisely said last Monday that “China needs to strengthen its capacity for international communication” to a study group session of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Politburo. I thought you hit the nail on the head with your comments.

According to Chinese national media, you sensibly stated that China needs “to develop a voice in international discourse that matches China’s comprehensive national strength and international status.” You are quite correct in stating that to your subordinates.

Still, does your excellency know how ineffective or even counter-productive your Foreign Ministry’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy has been? As CNN political commentator Fareed Zakaria put it, “(China) has produced a series of ‘own goals’ — leading countries to adopt the very policies Beijing has long tried to stop.”

No wise diplomats

I know you can’t be satisfied with the performance of your diplomats over the past several years. They are not winning the hearts and minds of the ordinary people in the countries they are trying to target. Do you know why they are failing?

It is because they dare not to tell you the truth and are more concerned about the power politics in Beijing than actually trying to feel the pulse of the people. No wonder you stressed the need to have a profound understanding of how important and necessary it is to improve the nation’s communication with the international community.

Your excellency also duly said, “It is necessary to give better play to the role of high-level experts and use platforms and channels such as important international conferences and forums and foreign mainstream media to speak out.” The question is where will you find such experts?

A favorable environment

Your excellency then stressed to the Politburo the need to “create a favorable external public opinion environment” and to “to make friends, unite and win over the majority and constantly expand the circle of friends (when it comes to) international public opinion.”

You also emphasized China’s capacity to “engage in international communication to present a true, multidimensional and panoramic view of China” by “using new concepts, domains and expressions to better tell China’s stories and the spiritual strength behind the stories.”

I can only imagine how frustrated you must be because you know it is much easier to say than to actually get your comrades to implement. Some myopic advisers of yours may even tell you, “We need to make the West get used to this” and “We need to set rules for Americans.”

Policies not narratives

Or, your advisers might even have told you, “Let Americans learn what will happen if they are not respectful” of Beijing or that when dealing with ignorant and arrogant Westerners, “We have to be straight,” otherwise they won’t understand. Well, your excellency, please tread lightly.

You yourself must surely know how wrong they are. They are just seeking your favor. Maintaining the legitimacy of the CCP should be your primary goal, which no one needs to tell you.

I must be honest with you because I truly wish to see your dream come true — and that China wins the international recognition and respect that a great and powerful nations deserves. To win such honor and dignity, what really matters are not cheap narratives but more sensible policies.

Culture is not enough

I was a little concerned when I read that you stressed efforts are needed to introduce “Chinese culture abroad and strive to shape a reliable, admirable and respectable image of China.” I know this has always been the case with China because I was an information and cultural affairs officer at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing in the early 2000s.

While Chinese culture is laudable and the world will be a better place for having had more exposure to it, culture does not equate to policy and will not guarantee that others will automatically respect your government and country’s policies on trade, territorial claims or its history on human rights. If you wish the international community to “jointly shape a more just and equitable international order,” only policies really matter.

Colliding with America

I wonder if your excellency read my first letter dated July 23, 2018. In it I shared with you my findings about my nation’s confrontations with the United States in the 1930s. I wrote “The biggest mistake Japan made in 1941 was to underestimate the resoluteness of the Americans.”

In my letter to you, I said, “In the late 1930s, Tokyo predicted that the U.S. would continue to be weak and divided. We thought that Washington was chaotic and would never be unified. And then we started treading on a lion’s tail.” The consequence of such miscalculations proved to be catastrophic for my nation in the end.

In retrospect, in the 1930s, top political leaders in Tokyo were also surrounded by groups of arrogant, reckless and ambitious military and civilian officials. They misled Japan by claiming that we had to be straight when talking to those arrogant and ignorant Westerners and confront them.

I sincerely hope Beijing is currently wiser than Tokyo was then. History may not always repeat itself, but it does rhyme sometimes. Will you continue to let your “Wolf Warriors” bark at international institutions, further discrediting your excellency’s People’s Republic of China?

Or can you bravely modify your policies and start pursuing an exit from this fruitless advancement of hollow narratives? If you start making deals with the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, his professional men and women will surely understand and not let China lose face.

As I told you three years ago, “The lesson Tokyo learned in 1945 is that you cannot always win by fighting, but you can win by avoiding a fight.” Ultimately, it is your choice.

Yours sincerely,

Kuni Miyake