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French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo by Jacques Paquier, available at under Creative Commons license. 

03:50 pm | 18. July 2019

Community and “Discourse Power”

How has the Chinese notion of a “community of common destiny for humankind” been received in France? The short answer is that is hasn’t been. But the language isn’t exactly unfamiliar either.

By Sebastian Veg and Mathieu Duchâtel

In French, the Chinese expression “community of common destiny for humankind,” or renlei mingyun gongtongti (人类命运共同体), has been translated as “communauté de destin pour l’humanité” — the phrase appearing, for example, in a report from China’s official Xinhua News Agency published shortly after French President Emmanuel Macron’s first trip to China in January 2018.

The Xinhua report asserted in its headline that the Chinese concept had “found an echo” in France. But generally speaking, the formulation “communauté de destin” — the first half of the French translation of the Chinese phrase — is not necessarily a very positive one in French, suggesting as it does a common predicament that is not necessarily shared by choice, but rather imposed by circumstances. To some, the formulation echoes Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” originating in the 1930s in that it proposes to the world an economic development project revolving around a Chinese center.

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The formulation can, however, also be more positive, and it seems to be used regularly by proponents of France’s closer integration into Europe. For example, a speech given to the French National Assembly on January 24, 2006, by José Manuel Barroso, then the president of the European Commission, was titled “La France et l’Europe: une commuanuté de destins.” One might facetiously note that in this case, despite the asserted commonality, “destiny” is in fact in the plural “destins,” suggesting one destiny for each European partner. Chinese does not mark the plural, so renlei mingyun gongtongti could just as well be translated “community of destinies,” although this is not the official translation.

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Photo used with the permission of the Columbia University Press.

The notion of “communauté de destin” also echoes more distantly with the definitions of the nation introduced by the French philologist and historian Ernest Renan. Rephrasing Renan’s idea of the nation as a “daily referendum,” the historical sociologist Jean Baechler defines the nation by a shared past, a shared present and a “community of destiny” (La Pensée politique, 1995).

Diplomatically, France has refused to endorse China’s language, which does not appear in joint communiqués. This is in line with the French reluctance to provide political support to China’s current attempt to reshape international relations with new language, reflecting Beijing’s quest for “discourse power,”’ or huayuquan (话语权).

Instead of an economic growth project centered on “win-win cooperation” (another favored phrase in recent Chinese foreign policy) and connectivity, there is a tendency in Paris to view China’s insistence on renlei mingyun gongtongti as part of a political project promoting China’s rise to the status of global leader in terms of “composite national strength and international influence,” to quote directly from Xi Jinping’s political report to the Party’s 19th National Congress in November 2017. This perception explains, for example, why France has so far refused to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative framework.

Such a political reading of China’s terms for engagement with the world is less present in Africa’s relations with China, which may explain why the formulation appears more frequently in the context of exchanges between China and francophone African countries.

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What does China mean when it talks about common destiny?

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Community and “Discourse Power”

18. July 2019
Sebastian Veg and Mathieu Duchâtel

Dr. Mathieu Duchâtel is Director of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne since January 2019. Before joining the Institute he was Senior Policy Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia and China Program at the European Council of Foreign Relations (2015-2018. He holds a Ph.D in political science from the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po, Paris).

Sebastian Veg is a Professor (directeur d’études) of intellectual history of 20th century China at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), Paris and an Honorary Professor at the University of Hong Kong. He was director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Hong Kong from 2011 to 2015.