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Preventing strategic misinterpretation between China and the U.S.: a critical reflection on the semantics of


By Ma Xiaoye, Member of Academic Committee, GVI

President Xi Jinping said that there are a thousand reasons to improve China-U.S. relations, and not a single reason not to do so. This crucial assessment is made from a perspective with strategic consideration, rather than in response to incidents from time to time. To implement the spirit from the President, even at the time when fierce conflicts between China and the United States occurs, Chinese officials have left out any references to ideology, military rivalry, and leadership contests with the United States in official statements. After the Biden administration came to power, its official statement made no secret of its misgivings about China, but it also made it clear that it was willing to pursue national interests through diplomacy. Wherher the United States can effectively balance various stakeholders amidst its own historic political and social transformations, whether China’s diplomatic efforts can take advantage of the situation to achieve the goal of global power rise, and whether  countries worldwide display biases when assessing global affairs influenced by the China-U.S. relationship are questions which still require further observation, yet the trend does not appear to be reassuring.


Diplomacy indeed has its complex aspects. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo once openly said: "We lied, we cheated, we stole." However, this statement is an extreme exaggeration, as diplomacy also encompasses a more crucial facet, that is the relentless effort of communication and strive for solid mutual understandings. Misunderstanding is a risk that needs to be avoided. And perhaps it is even more crucial to engage in effective communication with adversarial states to prevent misinterpretations. Objectively, due to difference in history, culture and beliefs, countries have significantly divergent views of the world, and given the difficulties to correspond exact words between languages in translation, it is sometimes unavoidable when the message is misunderstood or misinterpreted. Moreover, the fact that China has been changing like a kaleidoscope since economic reform has undoubtedly added another layer of confusion for observers outside the country. Subjectively speaking, although China, like most countries in the world,  major foreign policy decisions are made by top leaders,  and due to state system, there is no multi-dimensional and cross-departmental public policy discussions or interactions as the West does. Apart from the information published by state media, there is only the bustling social media. Though the social media is very down to earth, it lacks professionalism. Moreover, some experts tend to sell China Story out of their own will, neglecting to clarify why China is different from others, sometimes even using cliche public promotion phrases instead of explaining China Story from social, cultural, and psychological perspective. This negligence outside "main narrative" increases the difficulties of understanding Chinese foreign policy and the risk of strategic misinterpretation.   


This article is not intended to comment on the practical implementation process of Sino-U.S. relation, nor does it attempt to comment on its bilateral engagement. Frankly speaking, diplomatic practice neither requires excessive public exposure, nor benefits from the enthusiasm of "backseat drivers". By taking the word "competition" as an example, which has been repeatedly mentioned in the United States' foreign policy towards China, I hope this article will be helpful to some technical issues that may give rise to misinterpretation and misunderstanding, along with the socio-cultural differences behind them.


I. Understanding of "competition" by different cultural subjects


The word "competition" in Chinese "竞争" (Jing Zheng) has the meanings of both "outplay" and "fight for".  In English, the word "competition" is more often used to mean "outplay" and is mainly used in business and commercial field (of course, there is no evidence that the word "competition" does not contain the meaning of "fight for"). From a cultural and historical perspective, societies which favours agriculture over commerce are more likely to connote  "competition" with both "outplay" and "fight for"; while commercial societies are more likely to connote "competition" with "outplay" alone. To some degree, due to historical and cultural differences, the translations between "competition" and "竞争" do not all fit neatly together.


For example, the Chinese Baidu Encyclopaedia explains "competition" in terms of what social psychology refers to as maximising one's own personal gain at the expense of others. It emphasizes the biological sense of "fight or strive for", rather than the sense of "outplay" in contests. This undertone is deeply imprinted in the minds of the masses, presumably, this may also be related to our rejection and criticism of the free market in the past.


For the past few years, with the development of the market economy, along with the social and legal norms that promotes healthy competition and curbing vicious competition, the connotation of "outplay" in the term of "competition/竞争" has been increasingly accepted in China. However, in Chinese, "competition/竞争" does not automatically denote "healthy rivalry" if not emphasized, it is still suspected of benefiting oneself at the expense of others. So the profound impact of culture can be clearly observed. Sport events invented by our ancestors are supposedly served as a well-intentioned arena where people could replace warfare and emphasize the pursuit of the "outplay" side of competition. However, even within the realm of sport events, people from different cultural backgrounds show different spirits.  


II. "Competition" under business and commercial context


In business and commercial practice, along with China’s increasing openness and international involvement, the interpretation of the same word in Chinese varies significantly at different times. It wasn't until 2015 that Chinese MBA encyclopedia quoted the definition of a German jurist in 1907, explaining "competition" as: the efforts of all parties to exert their abilities through activities and achieve a common goal. In the description made by this jurist, "competition" doesn’t mean to benefit oneself at the expense of others. This entry also specifically explains that competition is mainly about obtaining goals, not against other competitors.


To illustrate this point further, let's take a notable example from Ren Zhengfei, an internationally renowned Chinese business elite, who once vividly articulate Huawei’s philosophy on business competition, which aligns perfectly with the definition mentioned above. He said in an interview, In the technological and commercial competition, the other party climbed to the top of the mountain and knocked us down the slope. We attacked from the side and up again, and finally met on the top of the mountain, where we hugged each other. Some may feel this said by Ren Zhengfei is a bit pretentious, in fact, this statement is consistent with the explanation of business competition in the English dictionary: all parties strive to deliver superior products and services to the market using their best offerings and technologies to secure a larger market share. At this point, we can see that business competition is fundamentally different from biological and social Darwinian competition.


III. Philological attempt of semantical explanation and analysis


None of the "competition" in various English dictionaries published by English-speaking countries has the meaning of "harming others" to achieve "self-benefit".


The book "Modern Guide to Synonyms and Related Words", coauthored by Reader's Digest and Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary explains the word "compete" as "to get awarded or a larger share". It compares the meanings among the words such as  "contend", "vie", "oppose" and "rival". Relatively speaking, compete is a word with a lighter sense of confrontation. Whether "compete" is understood as "compete to win" or "compete for profit", there is no authentic answer, we cannot make value judgments on this matter. Nevertheless, the semantical differences evolved in different cultures, societies and economies still cannot be ignored.    


IV. The underlying connotation of "competition interests" varies greatly across different business cultures


In the field of business culture, attitudes and psychological feelings towards "competition interests" vary greatly at different stages of economic development. One is the competitor insists on its own expected income and does not care about its opponents. The underlining attitude is: it is mine, I must get. As for how much others can make outside of my sphere of interest is depends on their capability, and has nothing to do with me. The other attitude is that in the process of competition and cooperation, the party will adjust their income expectations upward accordingly according to the other party's expected income to achieve psychological balance. Its essence is the party’s dissatisfaction of the relative gain according to Pareto optimisation, in the hope of equalizing shares or even desire for absolute equity in the competition. The root of the psychological difference between these two business cultures is that the space for market to expand according to the level of economic development is different. Business competitors who "divide the cake" and compete for inventory in a limited market space are different from those who have the ability to "make the cake bigger". In situations where the market is limited, businesses focus on dividing the existing market share, engaging in competitive practices which aimed at securing a portion. In markets with the potential for growth, businesses have the capability to expand the market by innovation, thereby achieving incremental gains.


Business culture which emphasizes "dividing the cake" tends to perceive any increase in the opponent's gains as harmful to their own interests, and to "win" is to capture the other party's expected profits. This stand has been explicitly articulated in the classic literature of social science theorists analysing international trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, as it naturally reflected the economic realities of that era. It is more prevalent in nations with lower levels of socio-economic development and weaker industrial drives where innovative technology plays a limited role. It should be said that two different business cultures have objective understandings of competition, and it is difficult to say which one is more reasonable. For researchers on strategic misjudgments and misinterpretations, the key is to see the differences and see the potential cognitive differences caused by different backgrounds and conditions when discussing a seemingly identical concept, so as to avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments..


V. Brief summary


Over the past two centuries, human society has experienced the influence of industrialization and market-based economies. Over the last fifty years, there has been a transition from a more law-of-the-jungle approach to one dominated by international orders. The approach of "making the cake bigger" and adding value in market production has become the mainstream strategy for countries seeking peace and development. In alignment with this, the culture of "making the cake bigger" in business competitions has also solidified and spread across various aspects of society. It has become a fundamental principle of international economic and trade rules.

It has only been more than 40 years since China implemented reform and opening-up policy. It is still in the process of trying and exploring in promoting economic and social development. The areas that are infiltrated by the "cake-making" business market culture are few and shallow. The dictionary's interpretation of "competition" will be gradually adjusted with the improvement of the ability of economic entities to "make cakes" and the complete establishment of the market economic system. There is no need to sugarcoat it, this is the reality today.


By extension, can the impartial and non-harmful principle of competition within market mechanisms be applied to the realm of international politics and diplomacy? People’s perspectives diverge due to the societal conditions, therefore it is highly important to be aware of the differences of the word "competition" among various parties and sectors to avoid semantic confusion. Effective communication cannot achieve through lack of clarity in mind. Allowing "speaking different languages" in handling major diplomatic relations can make the situations siding to directions that no party wants to see.


I have been engaged in cross-cultural public affairs and business negotiations for an extended amount of time and has encountered numerous instances where cultural differences lead individuals to project their own understanding onto the thoughts and actions of others. This often results in a situation where they "coming face to face but passing by each other", delaying the opportunity to resolve issues due to a mutual lack of understanding. In the field of diplomacy, I cannot help wondering, is there a proper explanation of "competition" that differs from the business community? If so, to what extent do leaders, scholars, diplomats, and media in across countries share this interpretation? If not, it is a significant issue that needs to be further explored.


VI. Can competition be the underlying logic of international norms?


In an era of "war and revolution", the "competition" between industrialized countries and non-industrialized countries can be accused of "absolute advantage for absolute gain", where one side benefits at the expense of the other side. After more than 70 years of adjustments to business and competition rules under the framework of the United Nations after World War II, today's world has undergone tremendous changes compared with the early days of industrialization. The concept of business competition and the formulation of international regulations have also evolved rapidly on this basis. How to define competition has become a basic element that eveloped countries must consider when dealing with international relations and formulating foreign policies. Correspondingly, we should also perceive world affairs comprehensively, historically, and keep pace with the times.


In this era of globalization, the competition among great powers can, to some extent, be seen as a race to provide better public goods for global governance. From this perspective, all countries are stakeholders. Therefore, becoming a major power imposes more and heavier responsibilities on us and requires us to think more carefully. The actions of the two global economic powers and the philosophies they each adhere to will inevitably attract the attention of smaller economies. They will weigh the pros and cons based on their own interests. Today, phrases like "Chinese people don't buy into this" and "we are not afraid of big powers" has become a strong message of the times. It indeed reflects the strength and self-confidence of a rising power, and it is also what must be adhered to. But if the public goods we provide to the world based on our concept of competition require great efforts to promote them in all directions, then we should weigh the pros and cons. 


On major issues, mobilize diplomatic abilities to persuade the other side is nearly impossible. Nevertheless, diplomacy involve the day-to-day task of providing various detailed explanations and engaging in communications. Failure to do so in a meticulous and comprehensive way will increase the difficulties in crossing communication barriers. It is true that we need to tell the China story well. Yet, from a diplomatic standpoint, it means being able to thoroughly articulate Chinese affairs. Noted, explaining the nuance of term "competition" clearly alone is not an easy task.


Preventing strategic misinterpretation between China and the U.S.: a critical reflection on the semantics of

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