Intercultural Communication for Effective International Relations in the ‘New Era’

President Xi Jinping has communicated China’s transformation by explaining it has moved from tao guang yang hui (hide brightness, nourish obscurity)1 to fen fa you wei (striving for achievement) – ushering in a ‘New Era.’ These Sino-centric terms are deeply embedded in Chinese culture and represent a kind of communication that is difficult for the West to interpret and understand. In fact, culture plays a critical role in shaping and defining each nation’s communication. 

While China expresses a commitment to ‘peaceful coexistence,’ its swift rise and increased assertiveness have invoked ambivalence amongst members of the international community. Its newfound great power status implies a transformation that could have widespread implications for a nation that has the economic resources to build a competitive military to back its interest in reshaping global governance. In recent years the so-called ‘Thucydides Trap’ -which holds that when a rising power challenges an existing hegemon, conflict is inevitable- has become ubiquitous in western media. In 2012, Xi Jinping proposed an alternative to this narrative; ‘a new type of great power relations.’ The framework consists of three central ideas: no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect for one another’s core interests, and a shift from ‘zero-sum’ thinking to ‘win-win’ cooperation.2 While the concept has aided in altering old mindsets; challenging realist thinking, and breaking away from the traditional cold war mentality, America has been reluctant to embrace this new geopolitical framework. 

From Beijing’s perspective, it not only aspires to but is taking active steps to make positive contributions to the global community. Yet America interprets China’s actions as a threat. The US sees China as a growing peer-competitor. In some cases, the US sees China’s military advancements and its establishment of naval bases as justification for acquiring greater amounts of military materiel. Meanwhile, America’s pivot towards Asia and the maritime manoeuvres that have accompanied it are viewed by China as an attack on its sovereignty based on a strategy designed to contain its rise and maintain American hegemony.3 The deterioration of mutual trust between China and America has exacerbated strategic suspicions, resulting in a divergence of policy postures between both nations on many contentious issues.4

While China and the US disagree on issues such as trade, cyber, Taiwan, and human rights, neither wish for tensions to escalate to the point of confrontation. Following China’s Cultural Revolution, its reform and opening up led to American and Chinese economic, financial, and trade interdependence. As such, direct conflict is in neither’s interest, nor that of the international community. Henry Kissinger explains that China “is a dynamic factor in the world economy. It is a principal trading partner of all its neighbours and most of the Western industrial powers, including the United States. A prolonged confrontation between China and the United States would alter the world economy with unsettling consequences for all.”  5

The global community today faces grave challenges. If not tackled, climate change, global terror, food and water insecurity, poverty, health pandemics, and international crime will have devastating consequences for humanity. Neither China nor America can solve these problems alone. If they wish to create a prosperous ‘community with a shared future for all mankind,’ they need to find ways to traverse their differences and work together with other nations to achieve this aim. The first step to true cooperation rests in identifying the factors that catalyse and augment the mistrust and suspicion which foster hostility. One such factor, often overlooked, is the role culture plays in shaping and defining each nation’s communication. 

Communication systems evolve through culture.6Therefore people from different cultures have developed a wide variety of ways to communicate. China and America convey as well as interpret communications through their own unique prisms, shaped by their distinctive historical-cultural contexts. For instance, it is commonly known that the American communication style is relatively direct; it is born of a culture in which “no” as an answer to a question is standard. Chinese culture and communicative style is more indirect, lending itself to symbolic speech and implicit explanation. 7 How often does one actually receive a direct “no” in Chinese communication?

There are fundamental differences in the function and context of ways individuals and nations communicate;8 the result being that their intended meaning is often lost or worse, misunderstood and misinterpreted. Words said with the best of intentions that are misread or misconstrued can rarely lead to constructive conclusions. Therefore, in spite of President Xi’s intentions, the fact is that whether or not his ambitions for China result in new opportunities for cooperation or an escalation of conflicts, hinges on communicating China’s interests, intentions, and aspirations to both America and the world in ways they will accurately hear and interpret. If China’s leaders and spokespeople wish to disseminate their messages, ideas, and intentions such that the American audience will grasp the intended meaning, they first need to develop an understanding of what shapes each countries respective prisms and adjust their communication accordingly. 

Do You Speak My Culture?
Communication styles are culturally bound. So where there is a grand divide in culture, it can be expected that the functions of communication often diverge. In the case of China and the USA, it is abundantly apparent that not only is communication carried out differently, it serves fundamentally different purposes for the societies of each.

The evolution of communication can be traced back to the interdependence characteristic of collectivist societies that evolved out of necessity. Early humans, being smaller and weaker than other animals had to rely on social cooperation in order to survive.9 Agricultural societies, particularly those that farmed rice,10 also had incentive to collaborate. It was from these tightly knit communities of agriculturalists that Chinese philosophies such as Taoism and Confucianism emerged. Xiào (filial piety), Hùhuì hùlì (reciprocity), and Miànzi (face) became ingrained in people’s way of life. Many Western cultures took a different turn with the introduction of Judeo-Christian thought and liberalism. The theologian Thomas Aquinas proposed, “Everyone is bound to examine his own actions in light of the knowledge which he has from God.” 11 This implied a direct line to God, empowering the individual and promoting a personal, individualistic perspective. Ideas that lead the west to value liberty, freedom, and keeping the fruits of one’s labor, emerged later in the 17th century- inspired by British philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.12 Whereas China’s cultural history led to a communal focus, the West gradually evolved into an individualistic society. Unlike the West which views the individual as the pinnacle of civilization, the Chinese, influenced by Confucian thought, consider the community to be the basic element of society.13 While Westerners tend to view communication as a tool to reach a conclusion, the Chinese regard communication as a fundamental component of building long-term relationships. 

Developments in cultural neuroscience have provided considerable support for the notions that cultural scripts learned during childhood, and cultural practices observed as adults shape the brains functional architecture.14 As such, Americans and Chinese develop different biases for processing information which results in having contrasting values and beliefs. Westerner’s processing-bias leads them to focus on the object and organize information via rules and categories. By contrast, interdependent cultures process information holistically and, therefore, the object and its context are inseparable.15 As Chinese people process information relationally, they are particularly sensitive to context. Americans, being more object-oriented, tend to lack contextual awareness.

When Westerners listen to Chinese speak, few realize or understand that in the high-contextcultures of East Asia, communication is indirect, requiring the receiving party to read between the lines. Westerners are not programmed to be sensitive to elements such as tone, background information, and hierarchy which are fundamental to accurately interpreting information conveyed in the Chinese way. They have little experience in focusing on the non-verbal aspects of communication that often override what is being explicitly stated. Westerners are generally unfamiliar with the Chinese tendency to communicate indirectly and resulting use of metaphor. While English is far from devoid of metaphor, it is not frequently used in common communication.16 Furthermore, the source domains of metaphor differ vastly due to cultural variations- which notably also influence their connotations.17 In Low-context countries like America and Germany, the spoken message is the primary source of information, and the context, delivery, and implications bear little influence in understanding the intended meaning.18 Interactions are therefore expected to be forthright and direct. Where metaphor prevails in China, Westerners often view indirect communication as indicative of a devious and in some cases dishonest character. 

In his speech addressing China-US relations in Seattle in 2015 President Xi offered the idiom “peaches and plums do not talk, yet a path is formed beneath them.”19 This is not how people speak in the west. There are many possible interpretations for the meaning of this phrase from the view of an American audience. If President Xi wanted to appear inscrutable and opaque, the peach/plum idiom was well placed. However, if the goal was to convey an idea, this phrasing prevented success. The ambiguity of this idiom -from a Western perspective- created confusion and perhaps engendered a modicum of distrust. ‘Why not say what he means?’ would be a common Western response. Metaphors, rooted in culture, are subject to different interpretations and therefore can easily cause miscommunication. Addressing Western countries more directly might bring sweeter fruit to China by minimizing the possibility of misinterpreting the intended meaning. Directly presented ideas could disarm Western interlocutors as they would more likely resonate with the innate Western tendency to appreciate forthrightness over indirectness. 

Face vs. Veracity
China appreciates the importance of building trust. It puts time and human resources into cultivating trust on an international scale, yet its communication sometimes undermines its own good efforts.

When China formulates messages within a framework of Strategic Communication, it would be beneficial to consider the degree to which the content is adjusted to suit its own need for ‘Face.’ As one of China’s oldest cultural constructs, the tradition of protecting China’s image is not only a habit of the government but also of the Chinese people. For example, when data released in 2015 implied that China’s economy was in trouble, Chinese news agencies defended China’s image. Guanming Daily published an article titled, “China’s Economic Development Prospects Are Entirely Bright,” and Legal Daily quoted Wang Guoqing in their article, “Full of Confidence in the Chinese Economy.”20 The communication was perceived by China as healthy for the nation because it conveyed a positive image. Yet when viewed through the Western prism, it is interpreted as dishonest. It tells the American reader that China has something to hide. Not only do Western governments and societies know that there is an economic difficulty, they are given the impression from this face-saving communication (because they do not understand it is about face-saving) that the situation is more dire than it probably is. While this type of communication may be effective with a domestic Chinese audience, it has the counter effect with Westerners who are not aware of the cultural causes behind the approach.

While many governments are in some ways secretive, particularly regarding matters of national security, the secrecy of the Chinese government appears to stretch21 -to the point of limited or no transparency. Chinas lack of transparency regarding policies and military activity has not been well received by Western observers. The tight control of information in China may be understood by the West as partly due to Face – the CCP not wanting to appear divided on issues.22 Additionally, as Yin Chu points out, “With the Soviet Union to the north, India to the south, and the U.S.-backed Japan, Taiwan, and ASEAN countries to the east, the P.R.C. has always been surrounded by powerful rivals. After a century of invasion and encroachment beginning in the late Qing dynasty, it is understandable why, when subjected to such pressures, China leans toward secrecy, not openness.” While Yin Chu’s assessment might be fair, this lack of transparency invokes mistrust by other nations whose people are traditionally socialized to view secrecy as sinister and deceptive. 

At a press conference held in Canada during Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to meet with Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, China’s FM reportedly berated a journalist who questioned China’s human rights violations.23 Wang, who was apparently visibly angered, affirmed, “I have to say that your question is full of prejudice against China and arrogance … I don’t know where that comes from. This is totally unacceptable,” he went on to say “Other people don’t know better than the Chinese people about the human rights condition in China and it is the Chinese people who are in the best situation, in the best position to have a say about China’s human rights situation.” While Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s sentiments may be valid, his response does not effectively convey the Chinese perspective in a manner that causes Westerners to appreciate its position. 

For any public speaker to extemporaneously produce a strategically communicated response to such an attack or accusation requires internalizing an understanding of the viewpoint of the listener. To fully appreciate the foreigner’s viewpoint, one must understand the cultural history that informs the meaning in his mind of the term ‘human rights’ – a term pregnant with Western culture. This would entail having a full picture of how powerfully such concepts as individualism and liberalism, for example, are embedded in the journalist’s understanding of this term. Since China is a communal society run by a one Party communist system with Chinese characteristics, its definition of Human Rights must necessarily be different.

China’s re-emergence as a great power has intensified conflict with America. China and the United States, while rivals, are also interdependent. Their economies are intertwined and have been for a long time. Conflict between these two great nations would be a catastrophe, not only for them but the global community. Mollifying these tensions necessarily requires having a conversation; bringing concerns to the fore of bilateral discourse and working through their differences. However, at present, their communication might be likened to hitting perfectly timed shots from opposite ends of different ping pong tables. Given the diverse styles of communication informed by their vastly different cultures and histories, it is incumbent upon these great powers to make every effort to communicate with consideration for each other’s prisms of understanding. Failure to do so will result in China and America basically speaking to themselves- each conveying and receiving messages through their own very different prisms. China has been afforded the opportunity to lead the way and prove to the world that a great power can rise peacefully. To achieve this, when striving to forge open lines of communication, China may be more sensitive to how Western culture hears its messages, adapting to prevent the misunderstandings that emerge from the vast political, cultural, and historical contexts that shaped their collective psyche. 

  1. 阎学通. “从韬光养晦到奋发有为.” 国际政治科学 4 (2014): 1-35. (Yan Xuetong, “From taoguang yanghui to fenfa you wei”, Journal of International Political Science) 
  2. Ferguson, R. James, and Rosita Dellios. The Politics and Philosophy of Chinese Power: The Timeless and the Timely. Lexington Books, 2016. 
  3. Huang, Yukon. Cracking the China Conundrum: Why Conventional Economic Wisdom is Often Wrong. Oxford University Press, 2017. 
  4. Feinstein, David., Tran, Euhwa., Leung, Zoe., Val Teresa., Prezer-Lin, Natalie. “Alternative” Strategic Perceptions in U.S.-China Relations. 2017. East-West institute. Retrieved from 
  5. Kissinger, Henry A. “The future of US-Chinese relations: conflict is a choice, not a necessity.” Foreign Affairs (2012): 44-55. 
  6. Fay, Nicolas, and T. Mark Ellison. “The cultural evolution of human communication systems in different sized populations: usability trumps learnability.” PloS one 8.8 (2013): e71781. 
  7. Chen, Ming-Jer., (2015). The Nuances of Cross-Cultural Communication. University of Virginia. Retrieved from: 
  8. Ibid. 7 
  9. Harari, Yuval N., and Derek Perkins. Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. London: Harvill Secker, 2014. 
  10. Ibid 9 
  11. Mattern, Mark. Putting ideas to work: a practical introduction to political thought. Rowman & littlefield publishers, 2006. 
  12. Russell, Bertrand. History of western philosophy: Collectors edition. Routledge, 2013. 
  13. Scarborough, Jack. The origins of cultural differences and their impact on management. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000. 
  14. Park, Denise C., and Chih-Mao Huang. “Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 5.4 (2010): 391-400. 
  15. Park, Denise C., and Chih-Mao Huang. “Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 5.4 (2010): 391-400. 
  16. Boroditsky, Lera. “Do English and Mandarin speakers think differently about time?.” Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society. Vol. 30. No. 30. 2008. 
  18. Chen, Ming-Jer., (2015). The Nuances of Cross-Cultural Communication. University of Virginia. Retrieved from: 
  20. Allen-Erahimian, Bethany. How China Won The War Against Western Media. March 2016. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from 
  21. Shirk, Susan., What China’s Lack of Transparency Means for U.S. Policy. China File. (May 28, 2015) Retrieved from: 
  22. Yin, Chu., A Response to ‘China’s Foreign Policy Isn’t Transparent? You’ve Got to Be Kidding’. (August 01, 2015) China File. 
  23. Kassim, Ashifa., Phillips, Tom., Chinese minister vents anger when Canadian reporter asks about human rights. (2 June 2016). The Guardian. Retrieved from