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International communication is becoming multipolar

ZHAO YONGHUA and MENG LINSHAN | 2021-01-27
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Hubei Chime Bells National Chinese Orchestra performs at the fifth annual Chinese New Year concert held by the Symphony Center Presents of Chicago. Cultural exchange will advance the multi-polarization of international communication. Photo: CONSULATE-GENERAL OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA IN CHICAGO


The development of the international communication landscape is inseparable from the evolution of the international order. Since WWII, international communication has passed through the rough stage of the US-Soviet bipolar rivalry and into the phase of "one superpower and many powers." Now, signs of multi-polarization have emerged. As the contemporary world is facing a period of major change that has not been seen in a century, the global communication structure is also evolving. 
 
Indications of multi-polarization 
Some scholars note that the multi-polarization of the world order stemmed from the 2008 global financial crisis, triggered by the US subprime mortgage crisis. Although international communication generally develops in the same direction as international politics, the former lags a little behind in terms of specific process. 
 
Currently, with economic globalization and thriving digital technologies, the transmission and circulation of information faces no spatial barriers in the spheres of trade and geopolitics. While developing countries keep calling for a new, equitable order of international information dissemination, developed nations still dominate global communication by virtue of their comprehensive strength. 
 
The booming of the digital economy and digital media (such as the internet) has taken international communication to a brand-new development stage and generated multi-polarization features. 
 
This is manifested on domestic and global levels. Inside each country, the media industry is becoming multi-polarized against the backdrop of flourishing new media. Internationally, countries all over the world are striving to expand their own clout and communication capabilities by developing indigenous media industries amidst the waves of globalization, commercialization, and digitalization. 
 
The superimposition of internal and external multi-polarization gives the government, media, and the general public of each country more open and diverse channels for expression in the international internet space. 
 
It is worth noting that despite the multi-polarization trend in international communication, this is the primary stage, transitioning from the "one superpower and many powers" dynamic to a multipolar pattern. The United States, together with its media industry, still occupies the superpower position in global communication. Meanwhile, Asian and European countries, which top the list regarding the number of internet users, are gradually driving international communication to shift from "many powers" to multi-polarization. 
 
Influencing factors
There are five major factors influencing international communication at present. The first factor is digital technology. As the productive force of social information, communication technologies determine the international communication structure, which represents productive relations of social information. The internet and its associated digital technologies are reshaping the global environment for information dissemination, playing a decisive role in the current international communication pattern. 
 
The one-way communication model of the traditional mass media age naturally fit the bipolar and "one superpower and many powers" political order and international communication structure. This is because the superpower acts as the communicator. Through one-way communication, it transmits its ideology to developing nations who passively receive information. The traditional communication model is in itself unequal, making it difficult to build a fair global communication order. 
 
On the contrary, the internet carries the technical quality of decentralization and is likely to help establish equal communication relations, thus providing technological support for the multi-polarization of international communication. 
 
Second, state security and sovereignty matter. Decentralization on the technical level doesn't mean freedom and equality in the global internet information space. The United States led research and development, application, promotion, and a series of basic protocols for the global internet, a product of the Cold War, and as such, it has kept a tenacious hold on the power to allocate internet resources. 
 
PRISM, a massive surveillance program launched in 2007, posed severe threats to information sovereignty and the security of other countries. This has also made cyber security the fifth global space security issue following land, maritime, airspace and outer space security.
 
In order to cope with the threat to cyber security, countries around the world have actively cooperated in global internet governance. Inevitably, these countries will begin to break away from superpower dominance and cyber space start to develop in a multipolar and balanced manner. 
Inter-civilizational interaction also affects global communication. Communication media has significant impacts on the construction, development, communication, and inheritance of human civilizations. 
 
Harold Innis, a Canadian political economist and pioneer of communication studies, pointed out that the media bias in spatial and temporal communication will impact the shaping and development of empires and civilizations in different media environments. The internet is a communication medium with a temporal bias under spatial limits. 
 
In the internet era, civilizations from different regions not only break spatial limitations to realize the most profound and extensive communication and integration in human history, but also strengthen their own abilities to construct and inherit civilization, consolidating their own core values. The open yet conservative characteristics have made inter-civilizational conflicts much deeper and broader than any previous ages. Bolstered by the internet, the diversity of human civilizations will advance the multi-polarization of international communication. 
 
Moreover, Western values marked by binary opposition have aggravated divisions and conflict inside most Western countries and between international societies. Although a range of politically right social thoughts, including identity, attempt to deconstruct leftover problems of modernity, they essentially emphasize difference, rather than agreement, carrying on the binary values. 
 
The philosophy of subjectivity is indeed helping people discover themselves and free their minds, while playing a positive role in global modernization, but it unavoidably leads to Western centrism and a confrontational mentality towards international relations when applied to handling inter-civilizational and international ties. This binary opposition urges countries around the world to enhance their own global communication strength and international discourse power, hindering multi-polarization in international communication. 
 
On the economic front, growing economies will necessarily seek more visibility in the international communication landscape. According to data released by the World Bank in January 2020, the global GDP totaled $87.75 trillion in 2019, and the top three regions were the East Asia and Pacific (EAP) region, North America, and Europe and Central Asia.
 
In spite of their growing economic presence, the EAP doesn't match the status and economic clout in terms of international communication. Take the film industry as an example. Hollywood remains the absolute leader in the global film market, while China, South Korea, India, and the EU are still catching up. Statistics from IMDb show that American studios participated in the production of all 20 movies that topped the gross global box office as of July 2020. The imbalance between economic influence and international communication strength certainly will cause a new round of global competition for status in international communication. This will be an internal impetus for the multi-polarization of the global communication pattern. 
 
Path for China 
In the changing international communication environment, China should take a path that is mutually beneficial for international cooperation. 
 
First, the implementation of the "community with a shared future" philosophy should continue. Different from the stance of binary opposition in the traditional international political order, intersubjectivity is fundamental to the community with a shared future. It is a global value to unite mankind to jointly tackle challenges. The Belt and Road initiative, as its practical form, focuses on building a new mechanism for international cooperation suited to bilateral and multilateral systems, which will facilitate the international order to develop in a more autonomous, balanced and peaceful direction and contribute to the multi-polarization of global communication. 
 
Efforts should be made to intensify collaboration in cultural and media industries. Exchange in the cultural field is a deep reflection of international cooperation. Cultural exchange can not only deepen bilateral ties and dispel cultural misunderstandings and conflicts, but also offer a peaceful and effective channel for two-way communication, thereby improving international relations. An array of communication activities like the Media Communication Year and Cultural Exchange Year have provided effective platforms for international media cooperation. 
 
In addition, the internet should be utilized to tell Chinese stories well. In a society filled with information on the internet, everyone constructs, inherits, or disseminates culture, and is a storyteller. To tell Chinese stories well, and promote the inheritance of the Chinese culture, national-level advocacy and policy support are surely needed, but social forces at home and abroad should also be mobilized to take part in the dissemination of the Chinese culture by fully developing new media and leveraging its technological advantage.   
 
All in all, the multi-polarization of international communication has been an irresistible trend. Although international politics is also becoming multipolar, the "one superpower and many powers" pattern is still influential. It will take a long period of history to decentralize and delegate power. The multi-polarization, even flattening, of international communication necessitates a chain of synergic effects from science and technology, politics, economy and culture. 
 
As an important advocate for the new pattern, China should formulate plans in international cooperation as well as the construction and inheritance of its own culture, in order to adapt to changes in media technologies and the international environment, to gradually enhance its international communication abilities and impacts, and to improve its initiative in the multipolar international communication structure. 
 
Zhao Yonghua and Meng Linshan are from the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China. 
 
Edited by CHEN MIRONG