Lost in translation: fundamental misunderstandings in the Australia-China relationship

By Dr Ye Xue, Research Associate, the Australian National University,
and Dr Zhengdao Ye, Senior Lecturer, School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics – the Australian National University

Communication between countries and across cultures is never easy. In the following two articles from the Australian Institute for International Affairs, two leading China scholars explore how differences of language and of conceptions of role and identity hamper understanding between China and the West.

Fundamental misunderstandings in the Australia-China relationship

The bilateral relationship between China and Australia has been in decline since 2017. The conventional perspective is that the tension is caused by a sharp clash of interests and values, but this is only partially true, writes Dr Ye Xue.

One profound cause of the current drifting of China-Australia relations is the mutual misunderstanding of each other’s conception of their own role and identity, which has led leaders and analysts in both countries to use faulty assumptions to understand one another’s motives and foreign policies. It is thus arguable that the tension between the two countries is a clash of emotions. The symbolic nature of the competition makes it more, rather than less, difficult to resolve.

How Australia Misunderstands China

A robust “China debate” has emerged in Australia, with the prevailing voice propagating the sense that China favours authoritarianism over its partnership with Australia. This perspective is a classic misunderstanding of Chinese foreign outreach, as it underestimates China’s relational sensitivity.

The concern of relationship with “the other” is deeply embedded in Chinese ritual, face culture, and group orientation. It is distinctive from Western understandings of relations between individuals, which typically start with units themselves that conceive of their relationship as secondary. Chinese understanding of relationships transcends purely individualist rationality, creating a societal norm in which both parties of a relationship are obligated to make decisions based on their relational intimacy and hierarchical distance, and makes unilateral action based on self-interest uncommon and unacceptable. The feeling of losing face arises from the failure of others to act in accordance with this shared norm.

With the guidance of this cultural tradition, China has tried to execute a strategy of relational security to coach its partners to manage and cultivate their bilateral relationship with China, specifically by enacting a continuing reciprocal role performance. The strategy is preoccupied with achieving positive reciprocity with the other. Also, it unambiguously attempts to stress nonapparent national interests rather than apparent ones, and it constitutes “the other” as part and parcel of long-term self-interest. It is thus evident that the strategy of relational security is not a transactional logic epitomised by supply and demand in microeconomics or the logic of the balance of power in IR realism.

Partnership diplomacy started in 1993 and is the core component of China’s relational strategy. China has developed its global partnership with other international actors ranging from a friendly, cooperative partnership at its base, to a comprehensive strategic partnership at the more high-level end – which is reflective of both the degree of intimacy and level of importance that Beijing attaches to that specific state.

China’s global partnership network has widened and deepened over the past seven years. By the end of 2019, it had established 112 bilateral partnerships with other states.

China and Australia established a formal “strategic partnership” in 2012 and upgraded this partnership to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2014. This implies that China has a higher expectation of Australia’s actions and performance in this relationship. However, this does not imply that China aims to interfere in Australian institutions or values, in order to improve their relationship for China’s benefit. What China does want is the leeway to determine its own specific values or institutions when interacting with Australia, provided that there is a reciprocal and stable relationship that inspires confidence on both sides.

In the eyes of the Chinese, Australia is the one that has undermined the partnership. The “fourteen grievances” identified by the Chinese Embassy in Australia reflect Canberra’s violation of the spirit of the comprehensive strategic partnership. Beijing believes it has demonstrated considerable tolerance to Australia’s deviant actions as it did not retaliate and has made concessions dramatic enough to compel Australia to stabilise this reciprocal relationship.

What intensified Beijing’s relational insecurity and feeling of losing face was Canberra’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in April 2020. The perception in Beijing was that Canberra had refused to reciprocate China’s tolerance. The economic sanctions that arrived in May 2020, therefore, aimed to restore the reciprocal relationship through more coercive means.

How China Misunderstands Australia

For China, Australia has less strategic importance than the United States and other neighbouring states. Most discussions relating to Australian foreign policy are viewed through the lens of the China-US great power competition, and Australia is perceived as an “anti-China vanguard” because of the pro-American force in its domestic politics. However, the deepest reason behind the pro-Americanism has been ignored.

The core of Australia’s foreign policy is the preservation of the liberal rules-based international order constructed by the US and its allies after WWII. The importance of the liberal order to Australia goes beyond providing security and prosperity, it tames the sense of insecurity Australia possesses as a country.

Since the continent’s settlement by British colonists in the late eighteenth century, Australian society has experienced profound bouts of fear. Noticeably, the fall of the British base in Singapore during WWII convinced Australian leaders that having a powerful ally for the defense of Australia’s region was a necessity. Allan Gyngell argues that the fear of abandonment is fundamental to Australia’s strategic imagination, largely because of this collective memory of the origin of the state.

China’s assertive policy towards territorial disputes and lack of political liberalisation, coupled with its economic leverage over Australia, have inevitably exacerbated the fear of China’s rise in Canberra. The cardinal mistake of China’s policy towards Australia is the lack of a designated strategy to tame the anxiety of its comprehensive strategic partner. Consequently, it led Australian political elites to perceive the differences in terms of values, interests, and political institutions.

Therefore, the prevailing perspective in Australia is that the strategic partnership is chiefly undermined by China’s interference with Australia’s domestic politics and its threat to the rules-based order.

Australia has embraced a deterrence-focused China policy to balance against China’s growing regional and global ambitions. This policy has included tightening up domestic institutions — with notable examples including the revised Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme in 2018, and the new foreign veto laws — and engaging in security cooperation that aims to contain China with the aid of other regional powers (e.g., the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and AUKUS).

The Future

The current China-Australia tension is largely driven by negative emotions held by both sides. Chinese and Australian leaders do not want to appear weak in the eyes of their counterpart, other states, or their domestic audience by giving in to threats.

However, Beijing and Canberra’s efforts at coercion and deterrence have thus far had effects that are contrary to their intention.

A good sign is that politicians on both sides have expressed their willingness to fix the bilateral relationship. The vice chair of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, Fu Yin, declared China’s willingness to “increase mutual understanding and trust.” Similarly, Scott Morrison expressed his demand for “happy coexistence.” But how can this rhetoric become a reality?

A good strategy for conflict management should build on the nature and causes of conflict. So, the use of coercion and deterrence should not be the only approach for both sides.

Diplomacy and reassurance will alleviate these emotional-driven tensions. Accommodation and cooperation can be achieved by reducing fear, anxiety, mistrust, and misunderstanding.

Given that the political divergence between the two governments remains large, diplomacy could start from a Track II level, for example through collaboration between non-state actors, such as think tanks, business sectors, universities. The reopening of both countries’ borders will allow public diplomacy to resume. These efforts could alter the political climate in both countries and lay a social foundation for future Track I diplomacy.

In terms of reassurance, Australian should attempt to be more open and humbler in its foreign policy and relations with China and allow China to hold on to the distinctive aspects of its state-society model and foreign policy orientation. Meanwhile, China should restrain itself when dealing with its territorial dispute and establish a security-focused channel to communicate with Australia, in order to alleviate its fear. By doing that, both countries can become more compatible, and — in different ways — be part of a capitalist and globally interlinked world economy.

Dr Ye Xue is a research associate at the Australian National University. He specialises in non-Western international relations theory, Chinese foreign policy, Australia-China relations, and sports politics.

Lost in translation – a more "loveable" China?

Communicating ideas across languages and cultures poses challenges for translators. And, as Dr Zhengdao Ye argues, the choices translators make have the power to shape how information is perceived, which can have a significant impact on international relations discourse.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech this year at the Politburo’s 30th collective study session on strengthening Chinese capacity-building in international communications generated much interest in the English-language media. Western media outlets were quick to flag that China intended to soften its image. The BBC, for example, ran the headline “Xi Jinping calls for more ‘loveable’ image for Chinese in bid to make friends.” The story about China’s intention to change its diplomatic style was undoubtedly news-worthy in itself, but the word “loveable” is of particular interest in this context.

The word “loveable” has a cute and cuddly connotation in English, but did Xi genuinely want the rest of the world to see China in a cuddly and huggable light? If we look closely at the meaning of the original Chinese word, ke’ai, spoken by Xi, we may find an answer. It is true that ke expresses a meaning similar to the suffix “-able” in English, but the meaning of ai is not straightforward, although it is often considered an equivalent of “to love.” If we use a large language database, such as the one constructed by the Beijing Language and Culture University we can observe that, in more formal contexts, words that are typically paired with ke’ai include “motherland” (zuguo), “the people” (renmin), and “land” (tudi), while ke’ai and kejing (respectable, admirable), another word used in Xi’s articulation of the image of China, often go hand in hand. In fact, there isn’t really one English word that translates ke’ai. Its meaning overlaps with a range of English words, such as “likeable,” “admirable,” “appealing,” “approachable,” and “inspiring.” In a formal context, “beloved” is probably closer in meaning to ke’ai. There certainly isn’t a “cuddly” interpretation in Chinese when the word ke’ai is employed by Xi.

Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping's use of "ke'ai" has led to misreporting amongst Western journalists. Image credit: Frederic Legrand, Shutterstock.

This linguistic contrast is further demonstrated through the way in which Chinese journalists understand and use the term ke’ai. On 8 November, National Journalists’ Day in China, the Chinese Association of Journalists asked ten journalists to recount the stories they wrote in response to Xi’s call. Under the heading Ke’ai de Zhongguo — “a likeable China” — two stories were included. One is about a herd of elephants wandering through China, as a way to show the Chinese people’s care for nature and the environment. The story was also picked up by the English media. For example, ABC News published “China’s wandering elephants are on their way home after a year-long journey.” The other story references a likeable, humorous, and devoted scientist who works on hybrid rice. By using ke’ai, Xi wants to showcase the “human side” of China which people can relate to and admire.

The “loveable” story exemplifies the type of difficulties involved in translation. Most words don’t have direct counterparts in another language, and a literal translation is unlikely to be accurate. Xi’s speech was mainly targeted at a Chinese audience, particularly the Chinese media. There are many words in the speech that are difficult to render into English without changing the original stance that is either implied or expressed by Xi.

The phrase “lost in translation” is not merely a cliché, but a reality translators and readers have to live with. In a political context, the word choices made by translators commit readers to a particular view which may not be intended in the original. The China Xi wants the rest of the world to see is captured through in the powerful yet easy-to-remember parallelism of ke’xin, ke’ai, and kejin (“trustworthy, likeable, respectable”). These three terms evoke intrinsic qualities that aim to inspire human feelings, and deeply relate to important human values. By using the literal translation of “loveable,” the BBC misrepresented and oversimplified Xi’s message, contributing to an ever-widening gulf between China and the West. When readers are unable to access information in its original language, translation becomes the sole means by which they form opinions of others. Translation can break or bridge relations between people. It consequently has an important stake in international relations.

On the other hand, one expression in Xi’s speech, now known in English as the “community of common destiny (for humankind)” (renlei mingyun gongtongti), is surprisingly easy to translate. Considered one of the defining concepts of Xi’s vision for global governance, the idea actually builds on the English word “community.” It requires no translation and is readily grasped by an English-speaking audience, but resonates little with the Chinese domestic audience.

However, the word gongtongti is not an indigenous Chinese concept. It is seldom used in everyday Chinese, unlike community in English. The Chinese language database mentioned earlier shows that gongtongti, which literally means “common entity,” was first used in the 1950s, mostly appearing as a translation of the English word “community” in academic writing. Between 1972 and 1992, the term appeared mostly in Chinese translations of the European Economic Community, before the latter became the European Union. But it was not until 2012, when Xi became the president of China, that the Chinese term for, “the community of common destiny for humankind” was first recorded in the database, with six occurrences that year. By 2017, the term had been voted one of the buzzwords of the year.

But the concept of “community” is still largely absent in contemporary Chinese, owing to the way Chinese society is structured. Community in English suggests that individuals come together as a group with shared interests and goals and lend mutual support to each other. It is a societal model based on a society of strangers. By contrast, Chinese society is grounded in relationships between individuals with pre-defined roles and mutual obligations.

Languages are closely intertwined with their cultures. Moving ideas across language barriers is difficult, and is made even harder when large cultural distances are involved. When it comes to external publicity and promotion — waixuan, often translated into English as “propaganda,” — the Chinese government chooses its words carefully and deliberately. While most Chinese leaders are not proficient in English, they understand the critical role language plays in diplomacy and are supported by a system that promotes this. There are think tanks that carefully consider how words are translated into foreign languages, and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a Department of Translation and Interpretation. Chinese diplomats are first and foremost language specialists who can navigate the twists and turns of translation. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case in the English-speaking world. The day of the sinologist-cum-diplomat is fading. At a time when its role is ascending internationally, understanding China and its people is needed more than ever.

Dr Zhengdao Ye is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, The Australian National University.

Banner image: Colourful Chinese lanterns on display in Brisbane's Southbank precinct for Lunar New Year. Credit: Jacqui Martin, Shutterstock.

These articles originally appeared on the Australian Institute of International Affairs' Outlook on November 26, 2021.