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Representing China on the ground

Speech formalization and everyday diplomacy of Chinese migrant workers in Zambia
Di Wu
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In recent decades, more and more scholars and reporters have gone to Africa to unveil the “true nature” of Chinese involvement. Consequently, being interviewed has become one of Chinese migrants’ routine activities. While the Chinese authorities remind migrants that they are the representatives of China and demand that they keep politically vigilant when talking to “strangers,” hosting “ethnic others” (Western journalists, researchers, etc.) suddenly becomes problematic. Based on my fieldwork in a Chinese farm in Zambia, this paper is a study of how Chinese migrant workers engage with “ethnic others” diplomatically. I argue that speech formalization provides them with a space of communicative maneuver to exercise diplomacy on the ground.

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  • 1 The most famous politician to explicitly refer to China as a new colonial power is Hillary Clinton (...)
  • 2 The initiative was unveiled by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. It was proposed as a strategy (...)
  • 3 At the time of writing, the China-Africa Institute had just been established in Beijing with the s (...)

1The new political-economic phenomenon of “China in Africa” has attracted enormous attention from Western media and scholars for the last decade or so. While scholars have extracted statistics and conducted fieldwork to unveil the “true nature” and specificity of Chinese engagements in African countries (e.g. Alden 2007; Bodomo 2009; Lee 2018), journalists have attached the tags “neo-colonialism” and “debt-trap diplomacy” to Chinese activities in Africa.1 Since 2013, with the implementation by the Chinese government of the “Belt and Road Initiative,”2 “China in Africa” has also attracted increasing attention from Chinese academics and media. Several universities have established centers of African studies, and dozens of Chinese researchers have secured government research grants to carry out fieldwork across the African continent.3 No matter how one perceives this engagement, undoubtedly, Chinese enterprises and migrant workers on the ground find themselves surrounded by more and more researchers and journalists: giving interviews and hosting fieldworkers has gradually become one of their routine activities. To some extent, the discourse produced by the media and academics, either positive or negative, has become the implicit background of interactions between many Chinese migrant workers (especially those working for state projects) and their African counterparts.

  • 4 The first time I saw this kind of booklet was when I was with the Chinese construction team which (...)

2Representing China to the media is rather uncharted territory for these Chinese migrant workers, most of whom are from small towns and have never been interviewed before. Sudden exposure to an international spotlight—knowing that what they say could potentially be read or heard by worldwide audiences—brings a new kind of challenge and unease. Not only do they not know what to say, worrying about the consequences for themselves or others, but also their anxiety is intensified by the particular protocol (written in small pamphlets published by the Chinese embassies) which regulates how Chinese migrants should behave in Africa.4 The core theme of the booklets is to remind Chinese workers that they are the representatives of China in Africa and should act and speak with appropriate caution when talking with outsiders (wairen, i.e. non-Chinese in this case). Chinese workers must always remember that they represent their country abroad, and as part of a single entity (i.e. China), they are expected not to cause their motherland (zuguo) to lose face owing to reckless personal misconduct. Any worker found speaking “inappropriately” (i.e. against state policy or the Communist Party line) could face dismissal. Under such pressures, simple interviews with scholars or journalists, which can potentially be seen by the public (particularly, by the Chinese authorities), turn out to be very problematic politically. Consequently, how to represent China diplomatically is becoming an acute challenge facing Chinese migrant workers in Africa in their daily lives.

  • 5 The work-unit is an institutional system of employment and welfare distribution in China. Literall (...)

3This paper describes this process of practicing diplomacy on the ground. Descriptions are drawn from my fieldwork at the China–Zambia Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centre (ATDC) in 2011. ATDC is a Chinese state-sponsored agricultural education project, the main aim of which is to work with local farmers and agricultural students to improve their farming skills and increase local productivity. Like many other Chinese projects in Africa (e.g. Lee 2009; Yang 2016), ATDC is in practice directly managed by Chinese agricultural experts, despite being on paper a cooperative project in partnership with local organizations. As I have noted elsewhere (Wu 2020), ATDC is managed in the style of a work-unit (danwei) institution;5 subordinates depend heavily on Chinese superiors for job promotions and securing welfare, and thus tend to be compliant at work. Andrew Walder (1986) cogently characterizes this system as “organized dependency.” As I will show below, under this system of punishment and rewards, Chinese migrant workers internalize the political demands mentioned above and strategically reproduce politically correct statements.

4My main interlocutors in this paper are temporary Chinese migrant workers. Most of them in Zambia are working for Chinese state- or province-owned enterprises. They are employed in China and come to Zambia with a short-term contract (usually three years) for special projects. Upon completion of the project, migrant workers will return to China and continue their job with the company. While in Zambia, their salaries are still paid into their Chinese bank accounts and almost all welfare (accommodation, food, medical services, etc.) is provided by the company. Usually, their interactions with the local community are limited. It is very common for migrant workers only to socialize within the walled company compound (see Yang 2016). Their status (i.e. being transient migrants) heavily influences their daily choices of action. On the one hand, they are reluctant to be assimilated into local communities. On the other hand, they are inclined to employ their enculturated skills (acquired in China) not only to tackle challenges in unfamiliar social settings, but also to demonstrate attachments to their orginal society. As James Ferguson (1999) cogently argues in his study of urban migration in Zambia, the cultural performance of one’s origin is intentionally carried out by rural migrants in the city to keep their options open when their settlements are uncertain, so that migrants can quickly be accepted by their home communities again if return becomes inevitable.

5Within this context, this paper focuses on Chinese migrant workers’ perceptions and practices of ritualized speech. To them, ritualized speech is an effective way to mediate pressure from scholars and journalists’ requests for interviews, on the one hand, and the Chinese authorities’ demand for political vigilance, on the other. It is employed intentionally as a rhetorical instrument to solve practical diplomatic dilemmas—showing hospitality to interviewers as well as avoiding potential political accusations from the Chinese authorities. As I will analyze below, the efficacy of ritualized speech lies in the disjunction between conversational situations and communicative content. When writing on Chinese college students’ perceptions of Chinese guanhua (official talk), Anders Hansen suggests that the content of ritualized speech is “empty, predictable and lacking in authentic expressivity” (2017: 47). Its emptiness and repetitiveness often result in students’ disinterest. Notwithstanding this, when utilized by the Chinese government, ritualized speech demonstrates the power of the Communist Party (CCP) and demands political compliance from the population. I support Hansen’s characterization of Chinese speech formalization; however, his argument leaves me wondering how ritualized speech could be actively reproduced without political coercion and enforcement. In this paper, I attempt to answer this question by exploring Hansen’s hypothesis in the context of my field site. In brief, I contend that, in Hansen’s case, parties in communication (i.e. the CCP and the Chinese population) are formulated as an oppositional dyadic pair and the population takes a rather passive role. By contrast, in my field site, the interaction is tripartite: researchers/journalists, Chinese migrant workers, and the Chinese authorities. When being interviewed, not only are my Chinese informants in direct communication with researchers/journalists but also, owing to the potential public exposure, every utterance is indirectly aimed at the Chinese authorities in a demonstration of loyalty. Because of their awareness of this communicative complexity, namely addressing two parties (often with opposite political interests) at the same time, my informants actively employ ritualized speech as an efficient tool to engage with others diplomatically. More specifically, ritualized speech functions as a boundary-drawing device that leaves a practical space for Chinese migrants on the ground to exercise diplomacy. While the emptiness of formalized speech satisfies the need for interviews without committing to any political responsibility, the formulation of ritualized speech by migrants manifests the loyalty demanded by the Chinese authorities.

6In what follows, I will first introduce an ethnographic vignette to demonstrate the acute awareness that Chinese migrants hold of providing politically correct statements when being interviewed. Primarily, I will discuss the case with reference to a term which my informants frequently used: jiangzhengzhi (“speak with political correctness”). Next, I will unpack how ritualized speech is detected and reproduced in everyday conversations. Drawing on Speech Act Theory (Austin 1962; Searle 1969), I analyze the function of ritualized speech in the process of ordinary diplomatic communications. In conclusion, I would like to remark briefly on the relationships between ritualized speech, political correctness, and everyday diplomacy.

7Before describing my ethnographic vignette, I must clarify what I understand by “ritualized speech.” In practice, as I will elaborate below, it may be specified differently according to various contexts. In everyday social interactions, my Chinese informants usually use taohua (literally “set speech”). When it is employed by Chinese officials or in similar hierarchical social relationships, ritualized speech can be termed guanhua (literally “official talk”). As stated in the conclusion, “ritualization,” following Bloch’s general argument (1974), designates formalization: in other words, in this paper ritualized speech refers to formalized speech.

“Speak with political correctness”

8The first time I noticed the vigilance of Chinese workers when engaging with journalists was towards the end of the construction of ATDC, which coincided with the arrival in Lusaka of Fan, a new translator, who was in his mid-twenties and had just graduated from a university of agricultural science in China. As the opening ceremony approached, more and more reporters visited the farm and requested interviews with the staff. At the busiest periods, the manager received two media teams a day. In normal circumstances, Chinese managers in Zambia, especially those in state enterprises, were reluctant to host reporters or researchers. Considering ATDC was a pioneering agricultural aid project which needed more promotion to the general public, however, the manager agreed to more interviews than usual. Owing to staff shortages, occasionally administrators and farming technicians would need to take on the task of hosting journalists.

9It was a busy afternoon when one of the ATDC security guards ran into the accommodation compound to inform the project administrator, Xiao Liu, that a Danish journalist wanted to interview the manager about the farm. As the manager was away, he reported this to Xiao Liu, the next in charge. When the guard walked in, Xiao Liu, the new translator Fan, and I were busy packing in preparation for our move into the new administrative building. Hearing what the guard said, Xiao Liu hesitated a while and said, “Ah, how annoying! [zhenmafan].” When Xiao Liu was just about to reply, Fan suddenly volunteered to host the journalist, then rushed to the farm gate with the guard. Shocked by Fan’s reaction, a few minutes later Xiao Liu told me, “My heart is unsettled [bufangxin]. I’d better go and have a look in case he says something wrong. He is new and does not know the situation [qingkuang].” Then he went out to find Fan and the journalist.

10The interview had already started when we found Fan. At first, the questions were mainly about the background to the ATDC project. Xiao Liu kept quiet and did not intervene in the interview until the journalist asked: “What do you think of the claim that China is a neocolonial power? Would you say that China is grabbing land from Zambians?” Before Fan could reply, Xiao Liu jumped in to answer: “China was semi-colonized before. We know the suffering under colonization. As the government says, China would never bully Africans! We are friends and brothers through suffering together.”

11That night, after we finished work, I went to Xiao Liu’s room to ask about his sudden urge to oversee Fan during the interview. Xiao Liu told me that:

“[I]t is for his good! He [i.e. Fan] has not been here long and still does not know the rules on speaking to outsiders. It is quite risky. If you are not careful about what to say or what not to say, there will be lots of trouble ahead. Even when you had taken extra caution, they [i.e. journalists] could still twist your words [duanzhangquyi]. As Bao [the manager] always says, we need to “speak with political correctness” [jiangzhengzhi] and “control our mouths” [guanhaozijidezui]. We ought not to say whatever we want [kouwuzhelan]. I did not want him to run into trouble. He seems like a nice guy”.

12Then Xiao Liu started to share with me his stories of “reckless speech” which almost got him fired from the job. He said that in the beginning, when he joined ADTC as a college graduate in his early twenties, he was not politically mature enough (zhengzhibuchengshu), often spoke his mind directly, and persisted in doing what he thought was the right thing. He despised his seniors as being slick (yuanhua) and unprincipled. His behavior had upset his leader and alienated many of his colleagues. Only after several incidents at work did he appreciate what “speaking with political correctness” meant and gradually learned to talk appropriately. Then, he further explained to me that:

13“It [jiangzhengzhi, “speaking with political correctness”] sounds difficult but, actually, it is quite easy to learn. You just need to remember to follow the party line and always use the official slogans when talking to strangers. Then, you will be fine. Even if someone wants to blame you in the future, they will not find fault as the Party cannot be wrong”.

14Analyzing Xiao Liu’s narrative, it is not difficult to spot that (1) there is a strong sense of vigilance against doing interviews with strangers, which is perceived as a risky business and may cause damage to one’s career; (2) the vigilance is internalized through a process of education and learning at work, where it is a form of practical wisdom passed on via socio-political rewards and punishment; and (3) performing the correct speech or employing political discourse is crucial evidence of one’s loyalty, which is evaluated by others at work and, in turn, enhances individual vigilance and self-censorship. To further understand this loop, we need to unpack the notion of jiangzhengzhi.

15Talking with Xiao Liu did remind me that, on various occasions previously, I heard people use the term jiangzhengzhi; however, I never paid much attention to it. After the incident, I started to ask my informants to explain its meaning. Historically, jiangzhengzhi was formalized as a guiding principle of political education and discipline by the CCP during the mid-1990s. It was part of the “Three Emphases” (sanjiang) package which was first proposed by President Jiang Zemin, then written as a party principle into the policy regarding political and moral education of CCP members at the Sixth Plenary Session of the Fourteenth Central Committee of the CCP in 1996. Jiangzhengzhi literally means “to speak politics”; however, “speak” here also connotes an attitude of diligence and attentiveness. “Politics” refers to the orientations, opinions, and disciplines of the CCP. The aim of jiangzhengzhi, as a principle, is to educate party members to enhance individual political sensitivity (zhengzhimingandu) and to maintain political vigilance (zhengzhijingtixing), which often relates to attention to one’s speech. As the People’s Daily6 states in an article entitled “Jiangzhengzhi is the Foundation of Being a Communist” (2017): “without jiangzhengzhi, one would lose one’s value and become unprincipled. … One would lose control of one’s mouth and say whatever one wanted. … In the long run, one would lose political faith and become corrupted.”7

16In practice, when my Chinese informants used it, the term jiangzhengzhi seemed rather flexible, somehow ambiguous, and was frequently applied with an ironic twist. In its original definition, jiangzhengzhi requires party members to engage with the principles of the Party sincerely and believe in its political doctrines; however, in its actual usage, the condition of sincerity drops out. For most of my informants, jiangzhengzhi is mainly rhetorical—a form of paying lip-service—and instrumental for political survival. It means following the party line without faith: that is, behaving and speaking according to the correct political formulations set up by the CCP, in order to avoid accusations. In accordance with my informants’ daily usage of the term, I prefer to translate jiangzhengzhi as “speaking with political correctness.” Here “political correctness” not only refers to correct political discourse but more importantly includes correct formulation and tone of speech. In his fascinating book Doing Things with Words in Chinese Politics, Michael Schoenhals argues that “the CCP achieves far more with far less by manipulating the form rather the content of discourse” (1992: 21). In order to gain access to politics, “PRC citizens must employ as their means of expression what in the eyes of the state count as ‘appropriate’ formulations” (1992: 14). Only thus would the speaker avoid accusations of heterodoxy. Schoenhals further points out that, in international diplomacy, using the preferred formulations at the right time seems to be essential for junior Chinese diplomats.

17Strict fixation with applying politically correct formulations may generate cynicism (Latham 2009; Steinmüller & Brandtstädter 2016) and an inclination to disengage from everyday politics (Hansen 2017). The univocal tendency to “speak with political correctness” can potentially also lead to the “emptiness” of official discourse. In his brilliant study of Chinese university students’ perception of guanhua (“official talk” in his case; “ritualized speech” as I call it in this paper), Anders Hansen shows how slogans, political posters, and official talk have estranged students, and that many have turned cynical or even hostile towards political discourse. As one of his informants reports, “everybody knows it is meant to impart ideology, and most teachers stick to orthodoxy, empty talk and dogma” (2017: 41). Nevertheless, Hansen argues that

“guanhua ritual can reinforce political compliance even when it fails to convince its audience of the sincerity of the ritual participants. … If nothing else, each instance of guanhua reaffirms the practical political reality of party authority by claiming discursive and physical space for the voice of the party-state. … What is important is not so much whether the explicit message of a certain choreography of social reality is persuasive, but rather the very fact that this choreography was achieved”. (2017: 46–48)

18Although I admire his acute observations, the pervasive dissatisfaction and reluctance to engage in ritualized speech among Hansen’s informants do make me wonder how guanhua is reproduced in everyday situations besides being imposed by the authoritarian system of the one-party state. As shown in Xiao Liu’s statements above, invoking guanhua for communication (for example, “China and Africa are friends and brothers through suffering together”) and employing appropriate political formulations in speech are acquired and applied as a set of diplomatic skills. Guanhua ritual, as I will elaborate in the next section, is regarded as a useful tool to deal with problematic situations in everyday politics. Owing to its instrumental value, ritualized speech, specified as guanhua, is actively and strategically reproduced in my field site when Chinese migrant workers encounter unfamiliar others.

19As I suggested in the introduction, this difference also lies in the fact that, in Hansen’s case, the CCP (as the speaker) and Chinese university students (as the audience) are portrayed as a pair of dyadic oppositional others; however, in my case, the speaker is a Chinese migrant worker but there are two audiences: the interviewer (a journalist or researcher, etc.) and the Chinese state. Every utterance may be heard by various groups of people and is aimed at two, at least. In this communicative triangle, the choice of speech style and formulation is closely tied with the speaker’s self-identification of his/her group membership. Performing ritualized speech intentionally draws a boundary between speaker and interviewer; meanwhile, employing appropriate speech formulations for speech shows one’s loyalty to the CCP. Furthermore, the “political correctness” demanded by the authorities is gradually internalized, through a process of learning, under the system of punishment and reward at Chinese workplaces.

20This process could be demonstrated by the way young Chinese migrant workers at my field site receive interviewers. As the ethnographic vignette above shows, young Chinese workers not only became cautious when approached by journalists, fieldworkers, and outsiders, but, more importantly, after being warned by their seniors, they actively reproduced ritualized speech as a communicative tool to deal with everyday diplomatic dilemmas. The case of Xiao Liu well demonstrates that, by invoking state official discourses, such as “China will never bully Africans” and “China and Africa are friends and brothers,” to reply to the journalist, Xiao Liu not only answered the question but also deflected the potential accusation of him defaming the Chinese state.

21It is within this tripartite communication that ritualized speech functions as a boundary-drawing mechanism, which is strategically employed by Chinese migrant workers in Zambia when engaging with “outsiders.” In the next section, I will describe the performance of ritualized speech. Borrowing ideas from Speech Act Theory, I will analyze how ritualized speech may be effective as a “polite refusal” to interviewers as well as a declaration of political conformity to the Chinese authorities.

On ritualized speech

22I have shown that my Chinese informants were acutely aware of “speaking with political correctness” when hosting interviews with outsiders. As I have explained, “speaking with political correctness” is to follow appropriate formulations of presentation assigned by the Chinese authorities, the major part of which is guanhua (official talk). Owing to its style, the action of invoking “official talk” in actual conversations is called daguanqiang (using the bureaucratic tone). Since “official talk” is prescriptive and usually formulated into sets corresponding to variable situations, my Chinese informants also use the term shuotaohua (literally, speaking set speeches) for this style of communication. To some extent, one could say that daguangqiang and shuotaohua are the designators of “ritualized speech” in the vernacular, with the former stressing the tone and the latter the formulation.

23Taohua (set speech/canned speech), however applied, shares similar characteristics. First, it is prescriptive: answers in dialogue are conventional and highly predictable. The utterance is usually perceived as cliché and does not aim to convey textual information; therefore, it is characterized as “empty” (kong) or “vain” (xu). Second, it tends to be used in formal encounters as phatic communication, often in the manner of politeness. It can be read as a marker to identify the relationship between addresser and addressee. As a result, when applied tactically among acquaintances, taohua has the effect of alienation and estrangement. Owing to its traits of being prescriptive, routinized, performative, and formal, I classify taohua within the general category of “ritualized speech.”

  • 8 Issues relating to China–Africa relations are usually considered “politically sensitive topics” by (...)

24The first time I witnessed the application of taohua in the field was while visiting a Chinese commercial farm near Lusaka with the manager of ATDC. The farm was initially established during the 1990s as a state-owned enterprise; then, through the reforms of the early 2000s, it was transformed into a part-private, part-collective enterprise. Although the ownership changed, the managerial team remained the same. Its farm manager used to work as a local cadre at a provincial ministry of agriculture before taking charge of the commercial farm. Because both ATDC and the commercial farm were connected with the Chinese state, their managers became acquainted at events organized by the Chinese embassy, then kept in contact and socialized privately on various occasions. The reason for our visit was, first of all, to get some insight into the kinds of crops to grow efficiently in the Zambian climate. Also, as I was interested in comparing different types of Chinese state enterprises in Zambia, the manager of ATDC was helping me to seek permission to do some fieldwork at the commercial farm.8

25When we arrived at the farm compound, we were greeted warmly. One staff member served us tea and the managers began to chat. The atmosphere was casual and relaxed, as if close friends had come for a home visit. They gossiped about the change of Chinese ambassador to Zambia and exchanged opinions on the maize market in China. Then, the manager of the commercial farm told us his recent experience of being interviewed by a Harvard professor. He said that he was reluctant to do the interview when the professor contacted him. However, considering that his daughter was applying to study in America, he finally agreed to the meeting, hoping that the Harvard professor would help her. The manager told us, “I even googled him before the interview to make sure that he is who he claims to be. These days you never know. So many fakes! He did not ask any sensitive questions [minganwenti] but just where I am from and what my family is like, etc.”

26Following this theme, the ATDC manager seized the opportunity to introduce me (as a British-trained Chinese researcher) and my intention to carry out six months of intensive fieldwork at the commercial farm. After hearing of my research interest, the farm manager hesitated a while, then sat up straight while pouring more tea into our cups. He then replied with a more serious and formal tone:

“Studying is good. We should all encourage and support it. Especially, research on China–Africa is urgent—it is a crucial matter which will influence the future development of our nation. We need to support it! Nevertheless, I am not sure that the case of my farm would add much to your research. Like ATDC, we are here to help the agricultural development of Zambia. We are friends and brothers of the African people. Nothing special! It would be the same with ATDC. After all, this farm belongs to the state. We are all employees here. As you know, the state has its policy. Regarding your research project, it is the upper level that has the final say. But, of course, you are always welcome to visit for tea whenever you are free”!

27Hearing this, ATDC manager appeared a bit annoyed. He did not say much but merely thanked his friend for the hospitality and made his farewells. Driving back to ATDC, the manager said critically: “What a thing he is [shenmedongxi]! Performing the tone of bureaucratic talk in front of me! We shall not socialize with him in future!”

28To comprehend the ATDC manager’s anger, we first need to unpack the narrative of the commercial farm manager. As we can see from what the ATDC claimed, the farm manager was performing “the tone of bureaucratic talk” (daguanqiang), the vernacular term for the communicative skill of set speech (taohua). But how was the tone detected? First, the manager was employing the grandeur of official slogans. Discourse such as “development of the nation,” “Africans and Chinese are friends and brothers,” and “the state has its policy” are standard formulations in official communications. Furthermore, such discourse apparently satisfies the intention to communicate, that is, to keep the conversation going, but provides neither a clear answer to the request nor any new information. Finally, by stating the obvious and non-informative along the line of official slogans, the manager did not leave any space for further dispute; at the same time he shifted attention to the implicature of his narrative—an indirect refusal. Note that the affirmation of his employment relationship with the state (as a third party to the conversation) seemingly discharged his responsibility for refusing to help a friend—because it was not his decision—however, his statement still upset the manager of ATDC.

29The manager’s response was short, but revealed that it was the tone of bureaucratic talk and the style of communication that upset him, not the refusal. As I explained previously, ritualized speech has a social boundary-drawing function. Once employed, it estranges the addressee and impersonalizes the relationship between interlocutors. In this particular scenario, owing to their prior close connections, the ATDC manager presupposed that the request would be informal, and the deal would be done as a favor between friends. Nevertheless, when the commercial farm manager started to use set speech, suddenly a formal and hierarchical atmosphere was created. Employing the tone of bureaucratic talk, together with his body language, the manager aimed at a specific perlocutionary effect: that is, he objectified the informal conversation from a warm, friendly chat into a cold, bureaucratic announcement so that the ATDC manager would feel alienated and then withdraw the request. Redefining their relationship by ritualized speech, the commercial farm manager diplomatically refused us without denouncement, hostility, or anyone losing face in public.

30In his groundbreaking work How to Do Things with Words, Austin (1962) classifies speech into three categories: locutionary act, illocutionary act, and perlocutionary act. On the latter, he explains that “saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them” (1962: 101). Following his definition, I regard perlocutionary effect, in the case of my Chinese informants’ practices on ritualized speech, as achieved by the speaker’s intentional switch between official and unofficial communicative styles, and via the formalization and boundary-drawing function of ritualized speech. The use of ritualized speech in ordinary conversations would generate a cold, bureaucratic, hierarchical, and detached affective space. Situating further conversations within this affective space indirectly informs addressees of the speaker’s intention to redraw the social distance between them. It is this indirectness, as an effect of code-switching, that enables the practice of ordinary diplomacy.


31In this paper, I have used several ethnographic vignettes to show how Chinese migrants in Africa consciously apply the appropriate formulation when interviewed by unfamiliar outsiders. I pointed out that this vigilance is due to their political education at work. “Speaking with political correctness” (jiangzhengzhi) is used not only to satisfy the requests of interviewers but also to fulfill the political demands of the Chinese authorities. Furthermore, I argued that, under this regime of political censorship, my informants are not merely defensive actors, but actively and strategically employ ritualized speech (i.e. set speech, official talk) to solve diplomatic dilemmas in everyday situations. In other words, as a communicative tool, ritualized speech provides them with a space to practice diplomacy on the ground; in turn, “political correctness” is instrumentally reproduced.

32While my material is entirely drawn from Chinese migrant workers in Lusaka, I do not claim that speaking with appropriate political formulations is a phenomenon unique to my field site. The complex political relations may have dramatized it; however, as various scholars have shown (e.g. Cao 1992; Link 2013; Salzman 1986), speech formalization is pervasive in China as a result of communism. Indeed, any authoritarian regime leads to self-censorship and political formalization of communication (see Haraszti 1987; Miłosz, 2001 [1953]). Notwithstanding this, I suggest that, beyond authoritarianism, the politically correct way of speaking may also be reproduced in everyday life because formalization creates an alternative set of codes for communication (besides daily informal speech), which bring choice and practical value to the speaker. The meaning of speech entails two potentials. As Maurice Bloch (1974) points out, in informal communication speech is used primarily to represent reality, convey perceptions, or report inner feelings. When formalized (e.g. in ritual speech), speech becomes a performance, the truth or falsity of which is no longer the concern. Formalized speech, upon performance, diminishes the individuality of the speaker and turns the self into a representative of the authorities. It is due to this effect that politically correct speaking has its practical value in everyday life, as ritualized speech can be an effective instrument to displace one’s political responsibility in communication.


33I would like to thank Dr. Chloe Nahum-Claudel, Professor James Laidlaw, Dr. Andrea Pia, Dr. Hans Steimüller, Dr. Emmanuel de Vienne, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. My doctoral fieldwork was supported by the Newby Trust.

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1 The most famous politician to explicitly refer to China as a new colonial power is Hillary Clinton. See Reuters (world news), June 11, 2011 : The discourse on “debt-trap diplomacy” was used in relation to the gradual implementation of Xi Jiping’s “One Belt, One Road.” For some examples of media reports, see;

2 The initiative was unveiled by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. It was proposed as a strategy of global development by the Chinese governnment to “improve connectivity and cooperation on a transcontinental scale” (World Bank Brief, March 29, 2018), which would involve infrastructure development and investments across Asia, Africa, Middle East, and Europe.

3 At the time of writing, the China-Africa Institute had just been established in Beijing with the support of the Chinese government. For details, see

4 The first time I saw this kind of booklet was when I was with the Chinese construction team which built the educational farm described below. The booklets are prepared by the Chinese embassy in Zambia, then distributed to Chinese organizations in the country. Every Chinese migrant worker is given a copy upon arrival in Zambia.

5 The work-unit is an institutional system of employment and welfare distribution in China. Literally, danwei means “place of employment.” It is closely tied with Chinese state-owned enterprises. One crucial impact of danwei is that employees are bound to the work-unit for life because they are heavily reliant on it to access welfare. Some scholars claim that the work-unit is the principal method of implementing party policy. For more, see Perry & Lu 1997.

6 People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao in Chinese) is an official newspaper of the Central Committee of the CCP and widely regarded by the public as the authoritative statement of Chinese govenmental policies.

7 This is my translation. For original Chinese texts, please see

8 Issues relating to China–Africa relations are usually considered “politically sensitive topics” by Chinese enterprises in Zambia. In order to carry out fieldwork, researchers usually have to use informal social networks on the ground to bypass gatekeepers. The social network functions as a type of reassurance.

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Référence électronique

Di Wu, « Representing China on the ground », Terrain [En ligne], 73 | avril 2020, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2020, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Di Wu

Sun Yat-sen University

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