Why Are Chinese Politicians’ Speeches so Boring?

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer

19/4/2020

Oratory plays a central role in Western politics. A young Justin Trudeau’s moving eulogy for his father catapulted him to national prominence. Nicolas Sarkozy’s muscular flamboyance charmed France – until it didn’t. Without his rhetorical flair, Hitler would likely have been just an exceptionally angsty artist, instead of the man who nearly conquered Europe. In Britain, parliamentary debates lie at the hub of political life, and its leaders, from Lloyd George to Churchill, Blair to Cameron, have been verbal duelists, their weapons barbed words and stiletto wit.

 

In the United States, the presidential debates are the highlight of every campaign season. The history of America is in many ways a history of speech: Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, JFK’s inaugural, Reagan’s challenge at the Brandenburg Gate. It’s no coincidence that the two most surprisingly successful candidates in the last presidential election, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, were the most effective speakers, and though none could accuse The Donald of eloquence, there’s no denying how his rhetoric roused Republican voters. His words explode; they start fires.

 

The contrast, then, with Chinese politicians, is stark. Droning and formulaic, filled with bullet-point lists and tired old Communist slogans, Chinese political speeches are notoriously boring. Why? Why is such a fundamental tool for managing people so poorly utilized?

Droning and formulaic, filled with bullet-point lists and tired old Communist slogans, Chinese political speeches are notoriously boring.

For a start, China has a much stronger written tradition than an oral one. Since at least the Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC), people in different parts of China have spoken different dialects (there are at least seven), but since the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), they’ve shared a common writing system. Mandarin was only made China’s national language in the 20th century and as recently as 2014, the education ministry estimated that just 70% of the population spoke it, and only 10% fluently.

 

Another reason, however, has to do with China’s political system. During the relatively chaotic Warring States period, in which power was split between seven contending states, rhetoric in China flourished, and “wandering persuaders” (the Chinese equivalent of ancient Greek sophists) roamed the land, seeking employment as advisers at different courts. When China became a consolidated empire, though, as it was for most of its history, oratory waned as power coalesced around the emperor, who tolerated no political rivals.

 

Parallels can be seen with ancient Rome. The Roman historian Tacitus lamented the decline of oratory as Republican Rome, in which power was separated between various bodies, gave way to Imperial Rome, in which power was concentrated in the absolute rule of a Caesar.

 

“How is it,” he asked in his Dialogue on Oratory, “that while the genius and the fame of so many distinguished orators have shed a luster on the past, our age is so forlorn and so destitute of the glory of eloquence that it scarce retains the very name of orator? That title indeed we apply only to the ancients, and the clever speakers of this day we call pleaders, advocates, counselors, anything rather than orators.”

Tacitus

Autocrats, it seems, tend to neuter political speech, not just political speech critical of them but all political speech. They tame oratory, drawing out its fire, leaving it bland and innocuous. For great speech is bold, edgy, disdainful of convention and subversive of expectations – and therein lies its power, power to inspire, power to mobilize, power to shape events.

 

But the use of this power is discouraged in a closed system, where popular support doesn’t translate to public office, and where leaders aren’t answerable to the people. Worse, it can even be a liability, acting as a beacon to your enemies as well as your supporters. Where one man makes all the decisions – a man who is often paranoid and jealous of any threats to his authority – great political oratory brings few benefits and many risks.

Where one man makes all the decisions – a man who is often paranoid and jealous of any threats to his authority – great political oratory brings few benefits and many risks.

“What need there of long speeches in the senate, when the best men are soon of one mind,” Tacitus asked, somewhat ironically, “or of endless harangues to the people, when political questions are decided not by an ignorant multitude, but by one man of pre-eminent wisdom?”

 

Political oratory in an autocracy degenerates into panegyrics, into restatements of orthodoxy and the repetition of safe slogans.

 

The history of modern China reflects this. Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, was a fiery speaker. From his declaration that “the Chinese people have stood up,” to his assertion that “a revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao is immensely quotable, even if his heavily Hunan-accented Mandarin made him virtually incomprehensible to most Chinese.

Mao

His successors never followed in his footsteps, though. It’s not difficult to see why. As a revolutionary, Mao needed to be able to use rhetoric to inspire and mobilize, and continued to do so after he attained power. Subsequent leaders, however, were bureaucrats, who climbed the political ladder largely by following the party line, and who were wary of looking like a threat to mercurial leaders like Mao, and later Deng Xiaoping, both of whom had a penchant for purging their protégés for disloyalty, whether real or imagined.

 

“Lingering in one’s mind is always the Chinese traditional saying, ‘Illness finds its way in by the mouth and disaster finds its way out through the mouth,’ whenever a Chinese is invited to speak in public,” explained Gu Jiazu, the late Professor of Semiotics at Nanjing Normal University. Speeches for Chinese politicians are not opportunities to shine, but unfortunately necessary exercises, fraught with potential dangers – stray from the path, and you might walk into a minefield.

 

Indeed, since ultimate political power in China is determined by shadowy negotiations and power struggles instead of public support, Chinese politicians, perversely enough, seem to view the art of rhetoric with disdain. “Rousing, inspirational speeches just don’t fit with the Chinese style of political leadership,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, former Beijing Bureau Chief for CNN. “In Chinese culture, if you’re already powerful you don’t want to act as if there’s a need to win anybody over. If you act as if you care what people think of your speeches, you’re admitting weakness.”

Chinese politicians, perversely enough, seem to view the art of rhetoric with disdain.

The only prominent Chinese political orator in recent years was the ill-fated Bo Xilai. Charismatic and popular, he had a reputation as an unusually good speaker (incidentally, he also promoted a revival of Maoist “Red Culture”), and campaigned openly to be elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest political echelon. “The way he spoke was so different from the usual Chinese politicians,” recalled Michael Forsythe, a China correspondent for the New York Times. “Listening to him speak was like listening to Bill Clinton. He was very eloquent.”

 

As may perhaps have been expected, Bo’s popularity (and perhaps his presumption in open campaigning and in emulating Mao) earned him the ire of powerful men. He lost an internal power struggle in 2012 and was purged. Thus passed China’s last political orator.

Bo Xilai, the last Chinese political orator

There seems to be a link, then, between oratory and freedom and democracy. It was democratic Athens, not oligarchic Sparta, which was famed for its rhetoric. It’s liberal democracies, not dictatorships, which today produce the most stirring speeches.

 

And yet there’s no reason someone at the very top of the Chinese political hierarchy with no superiors to fear, a president, say, could not use rhetoric to great effect. In fact, now that most Chinese understand Mandarin to some degree, persuasive speech could prove a major asset for a ruler. Or for a rebellion.

 

“[T]he great and famous eloquence of old is the nursling of the license which fools called freedom,” wrote Tacitus all those millennia ago. “[I]t is the companion of sedition, the stimulant of an unruly people, a stranger to obedience and subjection, a defiant, reckless, presumptuous thing.”

 

© (2017) (Shaun Tan), as first published in Quartz.