Speaking as Barometer: How Chinese Diplomats‘ Words Reflect the Sino-American Relationship

From trade to human rights, the superpowers are battling on almost all topics since Trump. As the Cold War ended 30 years ago, Francis Fukuyama saw the end of permanent conflicts and a more liberal future. How does the relationship between the superpowers get so terrible today?

The human language contains personal attitudes and sentiments. However, in the diplomatic field, strict editing and proofreading often suppress emotions. Fortunately, there is a unique platform for diplomats‘ attitudes and emotions – the monthly press conferences of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Monthly press conferences allow journalists to ask questions of interest to the spokesperson on the spot. Precisely at these moments, diplomatic representatives are more likely to reveal their genuine emotions and attitudes due to the on-the-spot reactions. Through sentimental analysis of Foreign Ministry spokespersons‘ responses on U.S. topics from 2002 to 2022, We can observe the changing dynamics of the most important bilateral relations in the world.

Constructively cooperating

Back twenty years ago, the current tense relationship between China and the United States may seem inexplicable to many. At the beginning of this century, America suffered the deadliest terrorist attack in human history. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, China’s President Jiang Zemin called President George W. Bush the same night to express his sympathy to the United States and the victims‘ families and to condemn “all acts of terrorist violence. ” Positive stances on fighting terrorism led President Bush to stop calling China a strategic competitor and instead a constructive partner. This reduces the tension between China and the U.S. since the South China Sea collision and led to cooperation in various areas. The Secretary of State Robert Zoellick urged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in 2005. At the beginning of the line chart, we can see that the diplomats‘ words tend to be positive, and this trend maintains in the following years.

The first major decrease came in 2006. Many reasons contributed to the decline, such as the U.S.-China textile trade friction, President Bush’s allegations of exchange rate manipulation by China, the Taiwan independence problem, and the nuclear crises in North Korea and Iran. The US-China trade surplus dispute and their different approaches to the nuclear crises have decreased positive diplomatic language.

We believe that the draft resolution submitted by Japan and other countries is an overreaction. If passed, it will intensify the problem, escalate tension, undermine the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, compromise the efforts to resume the Six-Party Talks and split the Security Council. Substantial revision has to be made on the draft.

Jiang Yu, July 11, 2006

Figure 2: Peace and Six-party Talk: most discussed words in the First Korean Nuclear Crisis

The turning point happened in October 2006 when North Korea detonated its first nuclear bomb. The Chinese government believed North Korea’s nuclear test endangered China’s security interests. Because once North Korea has nuclear weapons, China has no reason to prevent South Korea and Japan from having nuclear weapons. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement strongly condemning North Korea and voted in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 1718 with Western countries, which would impose economic and commercial sanctions on North Korea. Collaboration on sanctions against North Korea promoted senior dialogue between the U.S. and China on trade affairs and mitigated the Sino-American conflict over the trade deficit.

During Hu Jintao’s presidency, the Sino-American relationship in June 2008 is higher than ever. The successful organization of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing showcased China’s growing economic and infrastructural prowess. Leaders from over 100 countries, including American President Bush, joined the grand event. The spokesperson’s words were at the highest level of positive.

In the following years, diplomats’ words remain primarily positive. The July 2009 Ürümqi riots caused a discursive clash between China and the U.S. on human rights and religious freedom. From July 2009 to October 2009, the Chinese diplomats rebutted Western accusations about China’s human rights and decreased the positive expressions in their language. With the U.S. trapped in the 2008 financial crisis, China and the U.S. deepened their economic cooperation, and positive expressions quickly returned to previous levels.

Xi Jinping assumed the leadership of China in March 2013. After three months in office, Xi Jinping visited the U.S. and joined President Obama for a summit. During this period, Chinese diplomats tended to express a more positive attitude.

The first challenge during Xi Jinping’s presidency occurred in October 2014. From September 2014 to December 2014, some Hong Kong citizens and students took to the streets to oppose the pre-selection process of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. The Chinese government suspected that the U.S. was behind the manipulation of the civic movement in Hong Kong and asked the United States, without naming, not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.

„Since the morning of September 28, some people in the Hong Kong special administrative Region (SAR) illegally rally and carry out the protest of „Occupy Central“. The spokesperson of the Hong Kong and Macao affair Office of the State Council have state we principle and position, which be that the central government firmly oppose all kind of illegal act in Hong Kong that undermine the rule of law and sabotage social security and fully believe and strongly support the lawful handling of the case by the Hong Kong SAR government. We have notice remark make by certain country. I would like to reiterate that Hong Kong be China’s Hong Kong, which be a special administrative region of China. Hong Kong affair fully fall within China’s domestic affair. We hope that relevant country can be prudent in they word and deed, refrain from interfere in the internal affair of Hong Kong in any way, stay away from support the illegal act such as „Occupy Central“ , and do not send out wrong signal.“

Hua Chunying, September 28, 2009

As before, the diplomats’ language did not remain sharp for long. After China and the United States published U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change in November 2014, Positive expressions in diplomatic discourse soared thereafter. In the last year of Obama’s presidency, the deployment of the THAAD missile system in South Korea sparked a diplomatic dispute between the United States and China.

Strategic Competing

Donald Trump remodeled the Sino-American relationship when he became the 45th president of the United States in 2017. Early in the campaign, Trump blamed China for stealing jobs from Americans, devaluing its currency, and engaging in state-sponsored cyber hacking.1 Trump views China as being most responsible for the U.S. trade imbalance. In his December 2017 published National security strategy, China was considered a rival and revisionist power. Trump also views China as destabilizing the Indo-Pacific region and signed the Taiwan Travel Act. All of the above led to a sharp decline in U.S.-China relations during Trump’s first year in office. In September 2017, there was a short uptick in positive diplomats’ language. As North Korea tested a hydrogen bomb in September 2017, China enforced the UN sanctions against North Korea.

However, the good time doesn’t last long. On March 22, 2018, Trump proposed new tariffs of up to $50 billion to However, the good time doesn’t last long. On March 22, 2018, Trump proposed new tariffs of up to $50 billion to $60 billion on Chinese imports and restrictions on Chinese investment in the U.S. in response to what he called “unfair Chinese trade practices.”

„Recently, the financial and economic officials from the Chinese and US sides have not conducted any negotiation on trade issues. Under the current circumstances, it is even more impossible for the two sides to do so. This trade conflict was initiated by the US alone and it is entirely the one to blame. The US is wielding the big stick of trade sanctions while keeping saying they are willing to talk. I am not sure who the US is putting on such acts for.“

Geng Shuang, April 09, 2018
Figure 3: Not only trade but also debated other issues during the first year of the trade war 

In the first year of the trade war, Chinese diplomats appeared to exercise restraint. Sentiment analysis showed no significant change in words. Each shift in the line during this year is related to the trade war process. The positive expressions increased when both sides agreed to put the trade war on hold. When Trump announced a new round of taxation, the line dropped. In Figure 3, we can see many words linked to the trade war. For example, side and unilateral, China always accused the American one-side/unilateral sanctions.

After the third round of taxation, the Chinese government lost its patience. Chinese diplomats no longer maintained verbal restraint. The sharp decline indicated a decline in positive expressions and a rise in negative words. With the outbreak of Covid-19 and the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, diplomats of both sides accused each other and spread conspiracy theories about the virus’s origin. One of the harshest words came from Zhao Lijian, who directly blamed U.S. Secretary of State, Pompeo.

„Mike Pompeo’s shameless boast „We lied, we cheated, we stole“ is a true description and a black signboard of the US intelligence community. Using a test tube of what was suspected to be laundry powder as evidence, they accused Iraq of hiding weapons of mass destruction. They sent out spies disguised as staff for a fake UN hepatitis-B vaccination program to collect Pakistani people’s DNA samples. They conducted massive tapping and theft of secrets, not even sparing European allies. Under „Operation Mockingbird“, they recruited media and institutions and forced foreign journalists to spy for them through various means including bribery, manipulation and exploitation.“

Zhao Lijian, June 21, 2020

Chinese diplomats stopped using harsh words when the U.S. presidential election began in August 2020. Because the Chinese government believed continued tensions between China and the United States would help Trump win the election. If Biden wins the presidency, Sino-American relations are likely to return to the Obama era. Until the first high-level meeting with Biden’s government in March 2021, Chinese diplomats softened their tone. However, the high-level meeting failed to resolve any issues, with sharp disputes running through almost the entire meeting. Since the meeting, the Biden government announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics and added more Chinese companies to its list of trade restrictions. At the same time, Congress passed a bill to crack down on Chinese forced labor abuses in Xinjiang.2 The outbreak of the Ukraine war and Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan further exacerbated the rhetorical confrontation in the diplomatic field. Figure 1 shows that Chinese diplomats‘ answers to U.S.-related issues become more negative after the meeting. From June 2021 to October 2022, diplomats‘ words remained primarily negative on American topics.

The prospect of a timeless future has given way to visions of no future at all.3 We are living in an uncertain age. Since Trump took office, Sino-American relations have been descending even during Biden’s presidency. While the United States and China have historically had differences in areas such as human rights and trade, they had previously found common ground and opportunities for cooperation in economic and international affairs. Unfortunately, these possibilities for collaboration are now being overshadowed by mutual suspicion. The United States doubts China’s ambition to subvert the liberal international order, while China believes that the U.S. goal is to suppress China’s development.4 In the Ukraine war and climate change era, where is the possibility of the next cooperation? Moving beyond differences and finding a way for superpowers to work together is essential to address pressing global issues effectively and risk management.

The used Dataset is from: 
Mochtak, Michal and Richard Q. Turcsanyi (2021): "Studying Chinese Foreign Policy Narratives: Introducing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Conferences Corpus". Journal of Chinese Political Science, 26 (4): 743-761. doi: 10.1007/s11366-021-09762-3

For quoted sentences, I use half-angle numbers for marking. 
1. Beech, H. (2016). Donald Trump Talked a Lot About China at the Debate. Here’s What China Thought About That. Time Magazine.
2. Haenle, P., & Bresnick, S. (2022). Why US-China Relations Are Locked in a Stalemate.
3. Macaskill, W. (2022). The beginning of history: surviving the era of catastrophic risk. Foreign Affairs, 101, 10.

For information sources, I use hyperlinks.
Related Links:
1. Bush reassures China. BBC news: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1236923.stm
2. Dismantled U.S. Spy Plane Flown Out of China. ABC news: https://abcnews.go.com/International/story?id=80826&page=1
3. “Whither China? From Membership to Responsibility”. Robert Zoellick: https://www.ncuscr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/migration_Zoellick_remarks_notes06_winter_spring.pdf
4. U.S. and China Agree on Import Quotas for Textiles. The New York Time: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/08/business/us-and-china-agree-on-import-quotas-for-textiles.html
5. Security Council Condemns Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Nuclear Test, Unanimously Adopts Resolution 1718 (2006): https://press.un.org/en/2006/sc8853.doc.htm
6. U.S. To Hold Senior Dialogue With China and Strategic Consultation for Allied Partnership Talks With Republic of Korea. Department of State: https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2006/75551.htm
7. China's War in the West. Times magazin: https://web.archive.org/web/20090717075647/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1909460-1,00.html
8. Chinese leader Xi Jinping joins Obama for summit. BBC news: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-22798572
9. Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution - the Guardian briefing: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/30/-sp-hong-kong-umbrella-revolution-pro-democracy-protests
10. U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. The White House: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/11/us-china-joint-announcement-climate-change
11. U.S. Helps Deploy Anti-Missile System In South Korea Riling China. Huffpost: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/us-south-korea-missile-defense_n_577fa868e4b01edea78d6cec
12. Donald Trump Talked a Lot About China at the Debate. Here's What China Thought About That. Time magazin: https://time.com/4509121/china-presidential-debate-hillary-clinton-donald-trump/
13. National Security Strategy 2017. The White House: https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf
14. China to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/23/china-to-enforce-un-sanctions-against-north-korea
15. Why U.S.-China Relations Are Locked in a Stalemate. Carnegie Insitut: https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/02/21/why-u.s.-china-relations-are-locked-in-stalemate-pub-86478
16. The Beginning of History
Surviving the Era of Catastrophic Risk. Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/world/william-macaskill-beginning-history
17. China’s Leader, With Rare Bluntness, Blames U.S. Containment for Troubles. The New York Time: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/07/world/asia/china-us-xi-jinping.html

The featured image from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is open copyright.

I use Bing dictionary(Liu & Hu, 2004) for sentiment analysis in R. 
The dataset has been pre-processed by the authors. The contents related to America are marked. Before running the analysis, stop words, numbers, and punctuation were filtered through quanteta package. 
I use the formula: sentiment = log((positive + 0.5)/(negative + 0.5) to caculate score for each text. And then I caculate the monthly mean score.
To better display the trend, I calculated the moving average by using the rollmean() of the zoo package. I calculate on a three-month cycle because the impact of an event on diplomatic relations is often not limited to that month, but continues over a period. 
I generated the interactive html document through Plotly package. The fixed document is uploaded below. The red line shows the moving average and the light blue line shows the orginal monthly mean sentiment score.
I generated the wordclouds by using function text_plot from quanteta package. The words were cropped through dfm function.
Since WordPress does not support html plots, Figure 1 is embedded in the page via an iframe tag. The watch window is added via Chart Studio. 
I think it's important for sentiment analysis to give the readers an impression of what's happened, rather than tell them the numerical change in the sentiment dimension. so I've inserted some selected sentences from key timepoints into the text.
Using different sentiment dictionaries leads to different results. Meaningful is the movement on the timeline. The turning points on the timeline perfectly match the important events between the US and China, so the sentiment analysis is valid. 
This blog only performs sentiment analysis for the Chinese side. The initial idea was also to conduct the same sentiment analysis on U.S. State Department's press briefings. It makes a comparison on both sides. Since the U.S. Department of State website has an anti-crawl mechanism, this idea must be abandoned. Thus, sentiment analysis is not so sufficient in the explanation of Sino-American relations - We don't know the situation on the American side.
Name: Linying Li
Email: linying.li@uzh.ch
Enrollment number: 22-738-702
Supervisors: Alexandra Kohler, Valeria Vuk, Bruno Wüest, Jennifer Roberts
Words: 1424(Without lead and quotes)
Datum: 18.06.2023
Code: https://github.com/LinyingL/Datenjournalismus/blob/main/DDJ2.R

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