President Ronald Reagan was famously known as "the great communicator." Because he was an actor for many years before going into politics, critics questioned whether he had the experience or ability to lead the country. But he used his acting skills to great effect, both to get elected and during his term of office. His appearances were brilliantly staged, his speeches powerfully delivered. He used simple language that average people could understand. He knew how to speak to the American people in ways that touched their hearts and appealed to their deepest beliefs.
I thought of Ronald Reagan recently when I watched Chinese President Xi Jinping make his successful visit to Europe. Xi’s tour culminated in a remarkable speech in Bruges, Belgium, at the College of Europe. Those of us who study effective communication techniques can learn a lot from this speech.
Seeing is believing
Because people are often affected more by what they see than what they hear, the setting of a speech is very important. Choosing Bruges as a location was a stroke of brilliance on the part of Xi. First, there is the name of the city itself, which he used as a theme for his remarks. "In the Flemish language, Bruges means ‘bridge,’" he told the audience. "A bridge not only makes life more convenient, it can also be a symbol of communication, understanding, and friendship. I have come to Europe to build, together with our European friends, a bridge of friendship and cooperation across the Eurasian continent."
Even more than this explicit connection to Bruges, there is the implicit message sent by setting this speech in one of Europe’s oldest cities: that audiences must understand China’s long history if they want to understand its current policies. Moreover, the speech was given at the College of Europe, emphasizing that the president’s message was meant for the entire continent, not just the local audience.
Timing is everything
The timing of a speech is critical and, whether through luck or planning, Xi’s speech was very well timed, indeed.
First, Europe is slowly emerging from the recent financial crisis, and still struggling economically. Like countries throughout the world, those in Europe are keen to attract Chinese investment. China’s enormous capital reserves allow Xi to tantalize European leaders with the prospect of investment critical to their future prosperity. They are therefore quite receptive to his message.
In addition, relations between some European countries and the US made the timing of this tour fortuitous for Xi. The relationship between China and the US is complicated. The two countries collaborate in many areas but compete in others; in some cases, the relationship borders on hostile. Nevertheless, both countries have strong interests in Europe. Over the past year, the US has seen relations with Europe harmed by revelations that its NSA has been listening to the phone calls of European leaders, specifically German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The relationship between the US and Europe is extraordinarily strong, and always will be. But the Europeans undoubtedly welcomed the opportunity to explore closer relations with China as a way of sending a message to the US; and it is strategically smart for China to take advantage of that attitude. The timing of this trip was helpful in achieving goals of both China and Europe – at America’s expense.
Content is king
Although setting and timing are important, in the end, it is the content of a speech that matters most. This is where Xi’s speech truly shines. His clear goal was to bridge the cultural divide and help Europeans understand China’s approach to international relations. He did this by clearly explaining China’s long history and its current challenges.
The heart of Xi’s speech can be found in two of the most efficient sentences I have read about China. In one, he combines the long history of China in a sequence designed to help his audience "understand China properly." He says, "The 5,000-year-long Chinese civilization, the 170-year struggle by the Chinese people since modern times, the 90-year-plus journey of the Communist Party of China, the 60-year-plus development of the People’s Republic, and the 30-year plus reform and opening-up should all be taken into account." He also put his audience slightly on the defensive when he said, "The memory of foreign invasion and bullying has never been erased from the minds of the Chinese people, and that explains why we cherish so dearly the life we lead today." (As a good diplomat, he does not explain to this audience of Europeans who did the bullying.)
Even more powerfully, Xi explained the challenges he faces as the leader of China – again, in one sentence. "In China," he said, "over 74 million people rely on basic living allowances; each year, more than 10 million urban people will join the job market, and several hundred million rural people need to be transferred to non-agricultural jobs and settle down in urban areas; more than 85 million people are living with disabilities; and more than 200 million people are still living under the poverty line set by the World Bank – roughly the population of France, Germany, and the UK combined."
The scale of these challenges is unimaginable to leaders in the West. It is understandable when Xi says that "economic development remains the top priority in China." Implicitly, he is saying to Western critics that, whatever thoughts you may have about China, consider these challenges before you judge us.
President Xi Jinping is in the first of what is likely to be a ten-year term leading China. In that short time, he is has quickly secured his leadership within China in ways that make him the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. His performance in Europe shows that he will also be a force to be reckoned with outside of China for many years to come.
Bill Black is chair of the global public affairs practice at FleishmanHillard.