Linguistic tools of empowerment and alienation in the Chinese official press: Accounts about the April 2001 Sino-American diplomatic standoff

Lutgard Lams


Attempts at reinvigorating mythical sensations of shared values and cultural identities happen particularly at times of dislocatory events in a community’s history, when ‘the national Self’ is perceived to be threatened by external forces. Such a critical moment for China was the collision between a US surveillance plane and a Chinese F-8 jet fighter on April 1, 2001, and the ensuing diplomatic standoff between the US and China. As the Chinese authorities and the state media viewed this incident in a series of ambiguous incidents involving the US, it was concluded that the collision had been the inevitable outcome of US hegemonism intended to provoke China. It is this concurrence of events, triggering feelings of disempowerment of the Self that causes recurrent flurries of heated anti-Other rhetoric. Boundaries of exclusion/inclusion along cultural, historical and political lines set up the Other as the negative mirror of the Self, which as a consequence is positively reasserted. Informed by insights from Language Pragmatics and Critical Discourse Analysis, this paper sets out to examine linguistic tools of alienation and empowerment in the Chinese official press narratives about the collision, comprising the Chinese-language Renmin Ribao, its English equivalent The People’s Daily and the English-language China Daily. It aims to trace processes of meaning generation, in particular discursive practices of an ideological nature, such as antagonistic portrayals of in- and outgroups, hegemonic exercise of power, as well as naturalized conceptualizations of contingent processes, structures and relations.

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