In Chinese politics, it pays to be a boring speaker

Know your audience.
Know your audience.
Image: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth
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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.

The history of the United States is also 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 election, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, were the most effective speakers. (While no one could accuse Trump of eloquence, there’s also no denying that his rhetoric roused Republican voters.)

In this respect at least, the contrast between Western politicians and Chinese politicians is stark. Droning and formulaic, filled with bulleted lists and recycled Communist slogans, Chinese political speeches are notoriously boring.

Why is such a fundamental tool for managing people so underutilized in China? To start, the country 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; as recently as 2014, the education ministry estimated that just 70% of the population spoke it, and only 10% fluently.

“Emperors and politicians could write to the people but not talk to them,” says Andy Kirkpatrick, a linguistics professor at Griffith University in Australia and author of the book Chinese Rhetoric and Writing. Persuasive political exposition, he explains, usually took the form of writing.

Another factor has to do with China’s political system. During the relatively chaotic Warring States period (475-221 BC), 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 in 221 BC, as it had been 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,” Tacitus 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.”

Autocrats, it seems, tend to neuter not only political speech critical of them, but all political speech. Great speech is bold, disdainful of convention, and subversive of expectations; therein lies its power.

The use of such power is discouraged in closed systems, where popular support doesn’t translate to public office, and where leaders aren’t accountable to the people. Worse, political oratory can be a liability, acting as a beacon to your enemies. When one man makes all the decisions—a man who is often paranoid and jealous of any threats to his authority—speechifying brings few benefits and many risks.

“What need there of long speeches in the senate, when the best men are soon of one mind,” asked Tacitus, 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 platitudes, and 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.

His successors never followed in his footsteps, though, and 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. They 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 real or imagined.

Still today, speeches are for Chinese politicians less opportunities to shine, and more necessary exercises, fraught with potential dangers. “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,’” explained (pdf) Gu Jiazu, the late professor of semiotics at Nanjing Normal University.

Indeed, since ultimate political power in China is determined by shadowy negotiations and power struggles, versus public support, Chinese politicians seem to view the art of rhetoric with disdain.

“Rousing, inspirational speeches just don’t fit with the Chinese style of political leadership,” says 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.”

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 and campaigned openly to be elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest political echelon (incidentally, he also promoted a revival of Maoist “Red Culture”).

“The way [Bo] spoke was so different from the usual Chinese politicians,” says 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 might 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 from government.

There seems to be a link, then, between oratory, freedom, and democracy. After all, Athens, not Sparta, was famed for its rhetoric. Liberal democracies, not dictatorships, produce the most stirring speeches.

And yet there’s no reason someone at the very top of the Chinese political hierarchy—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,” Tacitus wrote 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.”