Concordancing develop* at the interpreter-mediated press conferences: A corpus-based CDA on Reform and Opening-up (RoU) as an overarching metadiscourse justifying China’s recent development

Chonglong Gu

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University



Thanks to the pragmatist Reform and Opening-up (RoU) program initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China, the largest developing country, has witnessed decades of sustained development and is poised to overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world. RoU is a major watershed in China’s recent history, signaling the beginning of China’s rapid economic development and meteoric rise over the past few decades in the global arena. The broader RoU discourse represents an important overarching metadiscourse, legitimizing China’s miscellaneous developments and policies, economic system, style of governance, and stances for the entire post-1978 period. In particular, ‘development’ is an operative word for and a key component of the RoU, which also constitutes a central and recurring theme throughout the interpreter-mediated premier-meets-the-press conferences in China. Development studies represents a growing and interdisciplinary research area. However, it is rarely explored from a discursive perspective in political interpreting, despite the vital mediating role of interpreters. To bridge this gap, framed within the broader trends of interdisciplinary research and digital humanities, the pragmatist mixed-methods approach of corpus-based critical discourse analysis is applied to the premier-meets-the-press data (1998–2017) to explore the government-affiliated interpreters’ agency and (re)construction of China’s ‘development’ discourse over one-fifth of a century. The study reveals the interpreters’ institutional (over)alignment and frequent strengthening of Beijing’s development discourse in English at different levels using various discursive means. Discursively, this established the interpreters’ role and text ownership in (re)shaping reality, further facilitating China’s development, (re)constructing and disseminating sociopolitical knowledge, and possibly even effecting changes and transformations to the East–West power differentials as vital (re)tellers of the Chinese story. Looking beyond the traditional view of interpreting as a more static and mechanical process in a semi-closed and self-contained system, this article discusses the vital role interpreting plays from a historical, communication, geopolitical and development perspective.

Keywords: development discourse; knowledge (re)construction; corpus-based CDA; outward turn in interpreting studies; discursive ownership

1. Introduction

At the interface of development studies and interpreting studies, this corpus-based critical discourse analysis explores government-affiliated interpreters’ mediation and (re)construction of China’s development discourse as part of the broader Reform and Opening-up (RoU) program. Development studies has established itself as a relatively new and interdisciplinary area. It focuses, inter alia, on such topics as decision-making by national governments and international organizations (e.g. the United Nations) in supporting the development of the global South, the provision of aids and the distribution of funds to postcolonial societies, the sociopolitical, economic, educational, technological and infrastructure advancements in the developing world, and South–South cooperation. While development studies has so far focused largely on the organizational, institutional, political, financial, economic and historical aspects, there is a growing consensus in development studies that language possesses great power over the very conceptualization of development and that language use can lead to action and effect change on a broader scale (Crush, 1995; Escobar, 1995).

Recently, there has been a relatively small yet growing body of literature exploring development from the perspective of language in such countries, regions and organizations as Romania (Oprea, 2012), São Tomé and Príncipe (Soekoe, 2020), India (Backhaus, 2020), southern Africa (Ndhlovu, 2017), and Spanish NGO (Roca, 2015). However, despite the often-complex nature of the development process involving multilingual agents and actors, development studies is rarely explored from the perspective of bilingual communication, that is, translation and interpreting.

It was only within the past decade that attempts were made to engage with the role of (written) translation in development-related scholarship, as evidenced in a few pioneering studies (Footitt, 2017; Marais, 2013, 2014, 2018, 2019; Todorova, 2019; Todorova & Ahrens, 2021). These studies have focused on (written) translation in a number of contexts and geographical locales (e.g. southeast Europe and South Africa) from different perspectives (e.g. socio-semiotics, multilingual and intercultural communication, and political discourse). However, little, if any, attention has been focused on the potentially crucial role of interpreting and interpreters in facilitating the development of, for example, a developing country in the global South (e.g. India, Brazil, and China) from a discursive or an interlingual communication perspective. This is despite the fact that there is increasing recognition of the vital mediation role and agency of interpreters in various political, diplomatic and institutional settings (Bartłomiejczyk, 2022; Gao & Munday, in press; Gu, 2018a, 2022).


Similarly, in the relatively young field of translation and interpreting studies (TIS), attention traditionally has largely focused on such topics as the different levels of ‘equivalence’, the best translation and interpreting strategies to adopt, and the various aspects of the translation and interpreting processes. Moving beyond such traditional preoccupations, over the past couple of decades, a relatively limited yet surely growing number of studies (e.g. Almanna & Gu, 2021; Baker, 2006; Bassnett & Lefevere, 1990; Constantinou, 2020; Hatim & Mason, 1990; Li & Hu, 2021; Li & Pan, 2021; Munday, 2012) have begun to explore such previously neglected issues as power, mediation, ideology and discourse. Taking a descriptive, critical discourse analytical, narrative or sociological approach, this broader line of research has investigated written translation as a dynamic, socially engaged and mediated activity.

However, compared to its written counterpart, significantly fewer studies in interpreting have engaged with such topics as power, agency, ideology and discourse. Of the very limited number of studies focusing on ideological discourse in interpreting, attention has focused mainly on a few individual linguistic and discursive categories (e.g. lexical labelling, lexical choices, modality, personal pronouns, and the present-perfect structure) on an almost ad hoc, one-off basis by a few individual researchers (cf. Beaton-Thome, 2013; Gu, 2018b, 2019; Gu & Tipton, 2020; Li, 2018; Wang & Feng, 2018). As such, there has been a lack of due attention to the propositional content, that is, how one particular sustained discourse or broader narrative might be (re)constructed by interpreters. This is despite the fact that the interpreter-mediated (ideological) discourse often represents a vital source of meaning potential in (re)constructing truth, fact, and reality and in shaping global audiences’ perceptions of certain sociopolitical actors, entities, and countries discursively (cf. Gu, 2022; Gu & Wang, 2021). In particular, there is a glaring research gap regarding the role of interpreters in articulating and (re)constructing a (developing) country’s development discourse in the global South.

This is particularly the case for China’s reform and opening-up, which represents a watershed moment in the country’s recent history (cf. Gu, 2022). To date, this influential economic reform program has mostly been studied from the perspective of the economy (Ploberger, 2016; Shen, 2018) or within the political sciences (Coase & Wang, 2012; Gallagher, 2002) and development studies (Chang, 1994). That is, despite the potentially vital role that interpreters can play in communicating beyond national borders, there is a dearth of scholarly attention from an interpreting and/or bilingual discursive communication perspective in terms of how Beijing’s overarching RoU discourse is (re)constructed into English in front of the international community.

To bridge this gap, and framed within the broader trends of interdisciplinary research and digital humanities (DH), the pragmatist mixed-methods approach of corpus-based critical discourse analysis (CDA) is applied to 20 years of China’s premier-meets-the-press data (1998-2017) to explore the government-affiliated interpreters’ agency and (re)construction of China’s ‘development’ discourse as a major developing nation in the global South. As part of a broader project exploring the government-affiliated interpreters’ (re)construction of China’s Reform and Opening-up discourse at different levels, this empirical study contributes to scholarship in TIS, development studies, political sciences, geopolitics between the East and the West, intercultural communication, digital humanities, and media studies.

2. Reform and Opening-up as an overarching justificatory meta-discourse in post-1978 China

For a more in-depth understanding of the topic, it is worth beginning by contextualizing ‘development’ against a historical and sociopolitical backdrop of the reform and opening-up. For centuries, China had been a powerful civilizational state in east Asia. However, China’s contacts with the technologically superior and militarily more developed industrialized powers in the West (signaled by the Sino-British Opium War fought between China under the Qing dynasty and Britain in the 1840s) led to the signing of ‘unequal treaties’ and the nation’s gradual degeneration into what might be called a ‘semi-colonial and semi-feudal’ society. After a ‘century of humiliation’, ‘new China’ was born in 1949 under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), starting to pursue a path of socialism. In the aftermath of a few (somewhat eventful) decades of ‘close-door’ (socialist) exploration, the visionary and pragmatic leader Deng Xiaoping initiated the Reform and Opening-up program in 1978 to restore stability, embrace new ideas, and develop China’s economy. Since then, the country has embarked on a road of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. For all intents and purposes, the RoU policy arguably represents a pragmatic modus vivendi which entails injecting some elements of capitalism into China’s existing (socialist) structure. Now, about 40 years on, despite the occasional challenges and setbacks (e.g. the recent China-US trade war, geopolitical tensions with the West, and the COVID-19 pandemic), under the overarching RoU policy, China has registered years of world-beating economic growth. A major force to be reckoned with, the east Asian powerhouse is poised to overtake the United States as the largest economy in the globe in the foreseeable future. A superpower-in-waiting and the largest and arguably the most successful developing country in the global South, China and its rise are bound to change the dynamics between the global North and South. Notably, in contemporary China, corresponding to the two periods mentioned above, there are two major overarching discourse modes: the revolutionary discourse (1949–1977) and the reform and development discourse since 1978 (Gu, 1996). This noticeable change in discourse mode reflects a major ideological shift (Scollon & Pan, 1997) towards an arguably more pragmatist and flexible approach that focuses more on reform and economic development.

Meta-discourses or meta-narratives (or French grands récits) are grand and dominant big stories, which play an overarching role in structuring and legitimizing other smaller constitutive stories and related events (cf. Baker, 2006; Somers & Gibson, 1994). Throughout history, there have been various such meta-discourses or meta-narratives as the Enlightenment, Marxism, democracy, neoliberalism, capitalism, and, more recently, ‘the war on terror’, environmentalism, and ‘the clash of civilizations’. Without doubt, as with environmentalism, Black Lives Matter (BLM), postcolonialism, and multiculturalism, in the Chinese context, RoU itself constitutes an overarching meta-discourse at a macro-level in post-1978 China. This overarching meta-discourse consists of various constitutive discourses in the Chinese context, encompassing such core elements as the economy, development, market, reform, stability and openness (cf. Gu, 2022). Arguably, there are, under each constitutive discourse or theme, also numerous instances of and interplay between micro-level policies, decision-making and individual events (e.g. China’s entry into the WTO, the Belt and Road initiative, the management of exchange rates, market entry for foreign companies, and, more recently, the US–China trade war). The overarching formula of RoU and its associated discursive articulations have justified and legitimized China’s sociopolitical systems and miscellaneous policies, strategies, and decisions on the economic and sociopolitical fronts, both domestically and in front of the international community. This might also serve as a viable option and developmental path for other developing counties, whether this is the intention or not. At any rate, the RoU constitutes a major justificatory meta-discourse, one that permits China to have its voice heard discursively in the international community as the largest developing country in the world.

Understandably, ‘development’ is particularly central to the course of China’s reform efforts and it represents a recurrent theme in China’s discursive articulations across all of its recent administrations. The primacy of ‘development’, for example, is encapsulated vividly in Deng Xiaoping’s famous post-1978 guiding slogan that ‘development is the only hard truth’ (fazhan caishi yingdaoli). The focus on development is also evidenced in the incumbent Xi-Li administration’s repeated emphasis on people’s ‘right to development’ on various fronts. This makes it interesting to examine systematically Beijing’s discursive articulations on development at the high-profile premier-meets-the-press conferences and how they are interpreted into the global lingua franca, English.

3. ‘The proper (re)telling of China’s story’: increasing relevance of China’s (interpreted) discourse on development against a backdrop of shifting power balance

Currently, China, the second largest economy globally, is a rising power and the largest developing country in the world. Out of step with China’s rising economic development and geopolitical and military prowess, there is general recognition in the country that its discursive power still lags far behind that of other more developed Western countries and their respective media outlets (e.g. BBC and CNN). For this reason, there has been a push in the recent administrations to have China’s voice heard internationally, hence the need for the ‘proper telling of China’s story’ (jianghao zhongguo gushi) to a global audience.

Against this backdrop, along with the establishment of the likes of CGTN (formerly CCTV News) and China Radio International (CRI), the televised and interpreter-mediated premier-meets-the-press conferences, as an annual discursive event, have made it possible for China to articulate its officially sanctioned ‘voice’ in English and to construct a desired version of truth, fact and international knowledge about its recent developments in front of the more dominant West (this high-profile discursive event is discussed in detail in section 4 below). As such, the interpreter-mediated discourse into the global lingua franca, English, is of particular relevance at a time when the rising and rapidly developing China and the more established West are sometimes on a collision course on the geopolitical and ideological fronts, and when both might increasingly feel the need to present to the rest of the world their respective systems and development paths discursively.

‘Development’ is a major topic at the interpreter-mediated political press conferences, given the fact that ‘development’ has been a recurring theme in China’s daily operations and people’s sociopolitical lives over the past few decades since the RoU began (Cai, 2015). The concept of ‘development’ also interacts with and internalizes other core concepts such as the economy, opening-up, market, and reform. The discursive articulation of China’s development discourse is far from being insignificant. As a matter of fact, the discursive articulation of China’s development discourse has both a domestic and an international dimension. Indeed, the (frequent) discursive articulation of the need to constantly develop itself can give rise to concrete and material changes domestically and externally and have far-reaching ramifications at a sociopolitical and an economic level (e.g. achieving unity and consensus domestically and attracting investment from abroad). This can also be of interest from the perspective of image construction for China as the largest developing country in the world.

Therefore, it is important to explore the ways in which China’s development discourse is mediated and potentially (re)constructed at the premiers’ press conferences and how this might potentially contribute to the shifting power differentials between the East and West and the North and South, at least discursively in a constantly changing world. Framed within the broader backdrop of properly telling the Chinese story (jianghao zhongguo gushi) and perceiving the RoU as a fundamental overarching meta-discourse justifying and pervading China’s development over the past few decades, this corpus-based CDA study adds fresh perspectives to translation and development studies and other disciplines.

4. Data, theoretical framework, and methodology

Precisely against the backdrop of the reform and opening-up, the interpreter-mediated and outward-facing premier’s press conferences were established as a televised annual discursive event. During this institutionalized event, the Chinese premiers answer domestic and international journalists’ questions and articulate China’s versions of fact, truth and reality on various topics and issues (China’s economic development and GDP growth, domestic reforms on various fronts, China-US trade frictions, the government’s financial and monetary policies, people’s livelihoods, agriculture, Beijing’s positions on Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong, and China-Japan and China-US relations, etc.). Despite the wide range of domestic and international topics covered, the recurring theme of RoU (including ‘development’) forms a mainstay of the premier’s press conferences and cuts across different facets of China’s politics, economy, growth, development, trade, finance and international diplomacy. Those conferences are mediated by the government-affiliated interpreters in China (who are usually Communist Party members and civil servants recruited into China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Given the apparently political and ideological nature of this discursive event and the aims of this study, critical discourse study (CDA) provides a suitable theoretical framework here. Viewing discourse as a form of social practice, the socially engaged and essentially interdisciplinary CDA is concerned with exposing and making more explicit the otherwise hidden ideologies and latent power asymmetries enacted, legitimized and reproduced in discourse. For CDA practitioners, discourse is both socially shaped and socially constitutive, possessing the ability to shape reality and effect change. Notably, there are various schools, trends and traditions in CDA. These include Fairclough’s (1989) three-dimensional model, van Dijk’s (2008) socio-cognitive approach, and Wodak’s (2001) Discourse-Historical Approach. Despite its multifarious nature, all CDA approaches are united by the shared take-nothing-at-face-value critical attitude and the ultimate agenda to shed light on issues of power and ideology enacted in language use often in an opaque and implicit way.

To date, CDA has mostly been applied to monolingual texts (e.g. newspapers, political manifestos, and public speeches). Given the essentially bilingual and mediated nature of the premier’s press conferences, interpreting is conceptualized as a (re)contextualization process at a macro-level (Gu & Wang, 2021), with the interpreter serving as the vital intertextual and interlingual connecting point between the source text (Chinese) and the target text (English). The fact that information is inevitably rendered into the sociopolitical, cultural and linguistic contexts of the TT highlights the micro-level decision-making, stance-taking and the possibly ideological mediation that occur in the interpreting process. Such a macro-level conceptualization permits a critical comparative analysis between the Chinese ST and the English TT, focusing on ideologically salient shifts at different levels.

Traditionally, CDA has been predominantly qualitative in nature, featuring in-depth manual analysis of a relatively small sample of text. However, despite its apparent advantages, the conventionally qualitative CDA is subject to criticism that the analysis is often not systematic and objective enough and that practitioners might sometimes cherry-pick information (Widdowson, 1995) and conduct analysis in a way that suits the researchers’ own opinions and agendas. This challenges the representativeness of the analysis and the validity of the findings. Therefore, methods of corpus linguistics (CL) have increasingly been incorporated (Baker, 2012; Mautner, 2009; Partington, 2004) as a ‘useful methodological synergy’ (Baker et al., 2008). While as Haider (2019) has correctly recognized that a combination of CDA and CL cannot remove bias completely, this mixed-methods approach promises to deliver more systematic and objective analysis and significantly reduce researcher bias. Framed within the broader trends of digital humanities (DH) and interdisciplinary research, the pragmatist mixed-methods approach of corpus-based CDA (cf. Gu, in press) is employed in this study in T&I, thus triangulating between the typically qualitative (CDA) and the typically quantitative (CL). Given the more data-driven nature of the corpus-based approach, CDA is used here as a source of theoretical insight overall, without following any particular school. Detailed CDA analysis will also be presented in the form of bilingual examples taken from the premiers’ conferences.

The corpus-based CDA analysis draws on the Chinese–English Political Discourses Corpus (CE-PolitDisCorp) established by the author for investigating various aspects of China’s political interpreting and discourses in Chinese and English. The CE-PolitDisCorp consists of 20 years of China’s premier-meets-the-press conference data (1998–2017). The bilingual corpus contains 310,924 tokens in total (170,260 tokens in Chinese and 140,664 tokens in English). A more detailed breakdown of the corpus data is presented in Table 1. On average, one press conference lasts for approximately two hours. Since there is one press conference each year, there are, in total, twenty press conferences in the CE-PolitDisCorp data, spanning three of the most recent administrations so far: Jiang-Zhu (1998–2002), Hu-Wen (2003–2012) and Xi-Li (2013–2017). The very nature of the corpus data invoked makes it possible to, if relevant, identify and trace certain patternings and/or discursive features diachronically over one-fifth of a century. Since the main body of the data involves (1) the Chinese premier’s utterances in Chinese (sub-corpus A) and (2) their corresponding interpretations into English (sub-corpus B), these two components will form the focus of this current corpus-based CDA study (refer to Gu (2018b, 2019, 2022) for more in-depth discussion of the datasets employed).

Table 1

Breakdown of the various subcorpora of the CE-PolitDisCorp

CE-PolitDisCorp (1998–2017)

Sub-corpus A

Sub-corpus B

Sub-corpus C

Sub-corpus D

China’s official discourse in Chinese

China’s interpreted discourse in English

China’s official discourses in Chinese and English (sum of sub-corpus A and B)

Journalists’ questions and their respective interpretations

127,696 tokens

105,495 tokens

233,191 tokens

77,733 tokens


Transcripts of the premiers’ press conferences are partially available on China’s government websites. However, oftentimes, the official transcripts have undergone significant editing/rewording and, as a result, they do not reflect the Chinese premiers’ and the government-affiliated interpreters’ precise utterances. The corpus data, therefore, were meticulously transcribed verbatim by the researcher from video footages available on China’s official websites or on video-sharing sites such as Youku and YouTube in what understandably was a labor-intensive and time-consuming process, bearing the intrinsically “evanescent” nature of spoken utterances (Shlesinger, 1998, p. 4) in mind. The fully prepared data were analyzed using the AntConc software (3.4.4 windows) developed by Laurence Anthony affiliated with the Waseda University. This specific corpus linguistics software contains a wide range of functions, including concordancing, wordlist generation (lexical frequency), keyword identification, Kwic sorting (to the left and right) and other useful tools for studying clusters/N-grams, and collocations in the data. In addition, the Antconc software is Unicode compliant, making it possible for researchers to work with a vast majority of modern languages smoothly. Various tools of AntConc were used in this empirical study to explore interpreters’ mediation at different levels. See section 5 below for detailed discussion of the way various major concepts belonging to the RoU meta-discourse are identified and for the step-by-step procedures of the corpus-based study.

5. Data analysis

Attention is first focused on the interpreters’ rendering of China’s broader RoU meta-discourse at an overall lexical level across various relevant concepts, before the ‘development’ discourse is explored in more detail, drawing on corpus-based CDA.

5.1 Interpreters’ overall level of mediation on constitutive concepts and themes

As discussed previously, the overarching RoU meta-discourse is inevitably realized in the form of various major concepts and broader themes. These include development, economy, reform, international engagement and global involvement, market, stability, openness, modernization, socialism, and harmony. These concepts can be seen as more concrete thematic realizations and different constitutive facets of the RoU meta-discourse. The broader concepts and themes chosen are both based on the researcher’s general knowledge and expertise in China-related matters and, more importantly, based on the fact that these are some of the most prominent items in the frequency list of the interpreted English discourse. Figure 1 is simply a snapshot, which illustrates that the lexical items ‘development’, ‘reform’, and ‘economic’ are among the most frequently articulated words by the interpreters in English (ranked 35th, 40th, and 48th respectively). The prominence of these relevant concepts is also to some extent visible in the word cloud generated (cf. Figure 2). Given the need to cover the various lexical realizations of a particular broader concept or discourse in the sub-corpus, the wildcard function (*) is used in order to establish the overall statistics. The overall instances of various broader concepts in both Chinese and English are provided in Table 2.



Figure 1

Concepts such as develop*, reform* and econom* feature prominently in the frequency list

Figure 2

Frequent lexical items shown on word cloud

Such a focus on lexical items is important. That is, the premier’s frequent (or infrequent) articulation of certain important items (reform, economy, and Taiwan, etc.) is believed to reflect the government’s level of attention, which is also often widely used by the media and China observers both from within China and without as a major barometer of Beijing’s changes in policy and shifts in its priorities. This crude overall analysis shows that important concepts central to the RoU meta-discourse are made more prominent in English vis-à-vis the Chinese original at a lexical level as a result of interpreting (a 17.75% increase overall and noticeable increases in most categories). The overall trend is realized in numerous cases at a micro-level. Bilingual examples 1 and 2 below, for instance, clearly show the interpreters’ tendency to either add or gravitate towards using core lexical items part and parcel of the RoU meta-discourse (e.g. ‘development’).

This general tendency is salient ideologically and rhetorically and constitutes a case of discursive repetition (Beaton, 2007; Fairclough, 2000; Gu, 2022). If the (under)production of important lexical items pertaining to China’s RoU meta-discourse were to lead to the meta-discourse becoming diluted and weakened, then the interpreters’ statistical (over)production of those lexical items would point towards increased interpreter alignment vis-à-vis the government and a further strengthening of Beijing’s RoU discourse at a general level (Gu, 2022). That is, from the perspective of discursive effect, the interpreters have served to facilitate and reinforce the conveyance of the government’s RoU meta-discourse and, by extension, the Chinese story (zhongguo gushi) to the global audiences.

Given the importance of the RoU as an overarching meta-discourse permeating different aspects of China’s developments, policies and positions since 1978, the interpreter-mediated discourse works to counterbalance the often naturalized and seemingly commonsense narratives of the West (Said, 1978; Shi-xu, 2014). In this way, it would contribute to the constantly shifting power differentials between geopolitical actors in the world, at least discursively (Gu, 2022). From the perspective of image (re)construction, the interpreters have also (re)constructed a more favorable image of Beijing as being more market and development-focused, keen on reform and modernization, increasingly open internationally, and more globally oriented in its RoU endeavor. Interestingly, the slight increase in the production of items relating to socialism also seems to (re)affirm the fact that such RoU efforts are essentially socialist in nature (cf. later sections for more details).


Table 2

Instances of lexical items relating to RoU in Chinese and English subcorpora


Broader concept/discourse

Chinese subcorpus (freq)

English subcorpus (freq)

Change (%)


发展* (451)

develop* (539)



经济* (450)

econom* (526)



改革* (323)

reform*/restructur* (392)


International engagement/involvement

全球*/ 世界*/ 国际* (302)

glob* (including global, globalise, globalised, globalisation)/world*/international* (including international and internationally) (362)



市场* (172)

market (227)



* (稳定,稳定性,稳健,稳固,平稳 etc.) (157)

steady, stable and stabili* (including stability, stabilise, stabilised, stabilising, stabilisation) (156)



开放/放开/敞开/公开 (121)

open* (136)



现代* (44)

modern* (45)



社会主义* (42)

socialis* (43)



和谐* (11)

harmon* (including harmony and harmonious) (15)


Overall (freq)





Considering the limited space and the extensive nature of corpus-based analysis and other practical considerations, it would not be practicable to present robust and detailed discussions on all of those broader concepts in this paper-length article (cf. Gu, 2022 for a detailed discussion of interpreters’ mediation of China’s discourses on Economy and Reform respectively). Using this statistical information as a point of departure overall, more in-depth, robust and fine-tuned analysis is provided on one of the top categories, that is, development (451 and 539 instances in the ST and TT respectively). This serves as an entry point or ‘way-in’ into the interpreters’ rendering of the RoU meta-discourse.

Given that discourse is inevitably constructed at many levels, the corpus-based analysis approaches the development discourse both at a lexical level overall and in the form of collocations and patterned constructions. At a lexical level, the various forms of certain lexical items are explored and compared in both sub-corpora from an overall perspective and diachronically. This constitutes the most straightforward and targeted way of investigating interpreter mediation. Statistically, the more times certain item(s) are (re)articulated in interpreting, the more prominence they are given in the TT (hence a higher level of interpreter alignment vis-à-vis the government’s policies and a strengthening of its ideological discourse).

In addition, discourse is (re)constructed through collocations or the “company” (Firth, 1957, p. 179) certain items keep. A word’s collocations are “statements of the habitual and customary places of that word” (Firth, 1957, p. 181). Collocations can be of significance either because they are frequently repeated or they are unexpected (Sinclair, 1991). Additionally, certain collocational patterns can be ideologically salient. This is because collocational patterns do not simply report a state of affairs. They can also express a communicative purpose which is of pragmatic importance (Stubbs, 2009).

The collocate lists of certain items are generated for both sub-corpora and placed into different semantic groups, which makes it possible to shed light on the actual propositional content and to identify what items or concepts have been made more closely related to the search items and have been given more prominence in the interpreted discourse. To do this, T-score is selected as the collocate measure and the default window span of five words to the left and right of the node word is employed for both sub-corpora. Although the optimal window span for investigating collocates remains a matter of dispute, a span of –5 and +5 is commonly adopted and is considered sufficient to retrieve more than 95% of all relevant information (Thomas, 1993). Therefore, an initial window span of five words to the left and right is set as a useful starting point. If necessary, the span can be widened. Throughout the process, attention is placed on interesting patterns discerned in the concordance lines. More focused discussions of interpreters’ mediation of Beijing’s development discourse are provided below.

5.2 Overall level of mediation on development

For a general idea of the interpreters’ mediation, 发展* and develop* (develop, developing, developed, development) were searched for in both subcorpora. Statistically, development-related items are rendered significantly more visible in English both in aggregate (19.5% increase) and in all three administrations (see Table 3). This points to strong and increased interpreter alignment in (re)articulating China’s development discourse in English. It makes ‘development’ appear more prominent on the government’s agenda and (re)creates a more favorable image in English that China is highly development-driven as a developing country. This general tendency for the interpreters to add development-related items is illustrated in Example 1.


Table 3

Develop* in both subcorpora and across the administrations



Chinese subcorpus

(freq/freq per year)

English subcorpus

(freq/freq per year)

Increase (%)

Zhu (1998–2002)


(7082.6 tokens/year)


(6101.6 tokens/year)


Wen (2003–2012)


(8614.5 tokens/year)


(7166.3 tokens/year)


Li (2013–2017)


(9740.4 tokens/year)


(7698.6 tokens/year)







Example 1 (2011)

ST: 在今后五年以至中国经济发展的相当长时期,我们要把转变经济增长方式作为



Gloss: In the coming five years and even for a fairly long time in China’s economic

development, we will take the transformation of economic growth pattern as the main

focus to really make China’s economy shift towards one that mostly relies on

technological progress and improvement of labor force quality, emphasizing on raising

the quality and efficiency of economic growth.

TT: In the next five years and even for a much longer period of time to come in the

course of China’s economic development, we will take the transformation of China’s

economic development pattern as our priority task so that we will be able to refocus

China’s economic development to scientific and technological advances and to higher

educational level of the labor force. And we will be able to in that way raise the quality

and efficiency of China’s economic development.


Clearly, there is an increased production of the lexical item development in the interpreted discourse (the item is used to replace the plainer, unmarked and more technical-sounding term ‘growth’ in Chinese). This makes the concept more prominent in English, therefore contributing to a more compelling broader development discourse (cf. Marais, 2018) for a non-Western nation in the global South. This (re)constructs a more positive image for the international audience that Beijing is highly keen on development (the interpreters’ additions of items relating to development are also evidenced in Example 2 below). Without doubt, such additions of relevant items can strike home the intended message in English better and they are conducive to the ‘proper’ (re)telling of China’s story relating to its development.


5.3 Collocational patterns relating to development

Moving beyond an overall and diachronic perspective, the top collocates were established through searching 发展* and develop* in both sub-corpora for more detailed analysis. The top collocates established were further placed into the following semantic categories (see Table 4). A comparison shows that, while the action (verbs) and the propositional content are generally well maintained in the TT, China and the Chinese government are rendered more prominent as the vital chief social actors through the interpreters’ increased employment of self-referential items such as ‘China’, ‘government’, ‘we’ and ‘our’ (95.6% increase). In this way, in English, the Chinese government has been given greater prominence as being ultimately responsible for China’s development efforts and economic success over the years. This more positive image (re)created by the interpreters is interesting, which discursively adds further legitimacy to the government’s continuous governance in front of the global audience. Furthermore, developments in various areas are rendered more modalized or given higher modality value in the interpreted discourse. Modality (cf. Fairclough, 1989) represents an ideologically salient category in CDA in the making of statements. Discursively, this indicates a stronger sense of willingness, commitment, obligation and determination in the interpreted English discourse.

Most of these trends are illustrated in Examples 1 and 2, and also in Example 3. Interestingly, in Example 2, the interpreter has not only repeatedly (re)produced the word ‘development’ but also added the word ‘successfully’. These serve to further augment and intensify Beijing’s development discourse in English. In Example 3, the more emphatic modal verb ‘must’ is used in interpreting, conveying a more favorable image that the government is highly resolute in China’s development efforts as a developing nation.


Table 4

Collocates of develop* in both subcorpora

Example 2 (2006)

ST: 中国通过建设的实践摸索到了一条科学发展的道路。

Gloss: China, through the practice of construction, explored a road of scientific development.

TT: Through China’s own development and practice in this regard, we have successfully explored a road towards scientific development.


Example 3 (2012)

ST: 房地产的发展毫无疑问要充分发挥市场配置资源的基础性作用。

Gloss: The development of the real estate market without doubt needs to fully exploit the fundamental role of the market in resource allocation.

TT: In developing the housing market, we must fully bring out the fundamental role of the market in allocating resources.


Given that ‘development’ as an abstract noun (385 instances) accounts for 71.4% of all mentions of develop* (539 instances) in the TT, attention was focused on ‘development’ as a search word for more refined analysis. Some of the concordance lines featuring ‘development’ include “if China could have another 20 to 50 years of development, our country will surely emerge stronger than ever before” (2004), “China’s development and stability in itself constitutes a biggest contribution to peace and prosperity of the world” (2006), and “development will remain the top priority for China and we need a peaceful international environment” (2015).

‘Collocational patterns’ is of interest here. Recurrent phrases in the form of patterns are likely to serve various attitudinal or evaluative functions (cf. Buts et al., 2021) and these collocational patterns can be ideological in nature or at least project certain versions of reality and truth discursively.

By sorting to the left and right of ‘development’, the following collocational patterns are identified.

5.3.1 Development in specific areas

The word ‘development’ is found in various developments (the patterns and their frequencies are detailed in Table 5).


Table 5

Various specific developments


These patterns illustrate that Beijing is committed to a range of developments, yet development on the economic front remains a predominant focus (approximately 82.6% of all developments mentioned). Such attention to the economy points to the crucial importance of economic development to China’s overall progress as a developing country.

The repeated articulations of ‘economy’ in China’s development discourse are in line with the observation that economic performance constitutes a major source of legitimacy for the Chinese government (Pan, 2009). Such performance-based legitimacy is of particular relevance in the recent administrations covered by the press conference data, as the recent leaderships are unable to claim the same revolutionary credentials as their predecessors did (Marinelli, 2013). These collocational patterns are accurate reflections of the Chinese ST.

5.3.2 General outlook on development

The concordance lines also suggest that the discursive articulation on development in English is not restricted to certain specific areas but is closely linked to other abstract concepts. This sheds light cognitively and conceptually on China’s official outlook and thinking patterns on development (see Figure 3 as an example). The patterns and their occurrences are detailed below in Table 6.


Figure 3

Screenshot of concordance lines featuring ‘development’ and other concepts (sorted to the left)



Table 6

Various specific developments

The table illustrates Beijing’s development philosophy. For example, China’s development is essentially socialist in nature (evidenced in the pattern ‘socialist development’ featuring the modifier ‘socialist’) and Beijing is committed to own development, scientific development, common development, and innovation-driven development. More noticeably, such concepts as reform, peace and stability are closely associated with China’s development discourse. These collocational patterns indicate the often-interconnected nature of development with other major concepts (e.g. reform, peace, stability) in China’s discursive articulation. This suggests cognitively that, to Beijing, development, reform, stability and peace go hand in hand, and that a stable and peaceful environment is the conditio sine qua non for reform and development. Without such an environment, development is not possible. Discursively, the close associations with these concepts with positive connotations together serve to constitute a positive representation (van Dijk, 1984).

Notably, the repeated mentions of peace and development (7 instances) and peaceful development (17 instances) can be seen as a response to the ongoing ‘China threat’ rhetoric emanating from the West (Huntington, 1996; Munro, 1992). These discursively reassure the world that China is committed to peace in its development. That is, China seeks to avoid the Thucydides trap of confrontation with the status quo power (the United States) and will not challenge the international system in its (re)emergence as a major global power. Such a development philosophy, by extension, also explains China’s non-interventionist foreign policy in handling international relations, emphasizing peace and stability in other (developing) countries and their pursuit of own development paths commensurate with their unique national conditions. This is discursively different from the interventionist policy of other major Western powers such as the United States.

Notably, peaceful development has been a frequent pattern in the English subcorpus since 2006. Its Chinese equivalent appeared initially in 2004 during Hu Jintao’s presidency in the form of 和平崛起 (peaceful rise). However, given the potentially ambitious and aggressive connotation of ‘rise’, the formulation was officially revised to the “more anodyne and diplomatic” (Buzan, 2010, p. 5) 和平发展 (peaceful development) in 2005 to avoid skepticism and misinterpretation internationally. Clearly, the interpreters have aligned with the official change responsively and interpreted it as peaceful development in all press conferences since 2005 (cf. Figure 4). In this way, the nuanced and desired image of China is well maintained by the interpreters in their (re)telling of the Chinese story in English.

Figure 4

Screenshot of concordance lines featuring ‘peaceful development’ (by year)


Interestingly, a detailed comparison of the ST and the TT shows that China’s discursive articulation on development is often strengthened further in English by the interpreters through their employment of intensifiers and adverbs with strong and positive semantic meanings (e.g. always, very, highly, firmly, quite, and fully). These devices can be viewed as some of the ‘critical points’ (Munday, 2012) that are indicative of interpreters’ stance and ideological alignment. Cognitively and discursively, these salient additions also constitute cases of positive self-representation (van Dijk, 1984, 2008) on the part of the government-affiliated interpreters in (re)constructing a firmer, more confident and decisive image of Beijing in its development push, rather than one that is weak, hesitant or equivocal.


Example 2 above (e.g. the addition of ‘successfully’) is a good example of this. Similarly, Examples 4 and 5 below illustrate the interpreters’ additions of ‘firmly’ and ‘fully’.

Example 4 (2010)

ST: 第二,中国坚持走和平发展的道路。中国的发展不会影响任何国家,中国不发达


Gloss: Second, China sticks to the road of peaceful development. China’s development

will not affect any country. When China was not developed, it didn’t seek hegemony. Even

if China becomes developed, it again will not seek hegemony. It will never seek hegemony.

TT: Second, China is firmly committed to peaceful development. China’s development will not affect any country. China has not sought hegemonism when it is not a developed

country and China will not seek hegemony even when it becomes a developed country. In a

word, China will never seek hegemony.


Example 5 (2003)

ST: 我也深知中国的稳定和发展来之不易。80年代末90年代初...在中国也发生了一场政治风波。党和政府紧紧依靠人民,采取果断措施,稳定了国内局势...中国所取得的巨大成就说明稳定是至关重要的。

Gloss: I too deeply know that China’s stability and development didn’t come easy. At the end of the 1980s and in the beginning of the 1990s ... in China too occurred a political turbulence. The party and government firmly relied on the people, took decisive measures and stabilized the domestic situation ... China’s massive achievements indicate that stability is vital.

TT: I know so well the stability and development of this country have not come by easily. The end of the 1980s and beginning of 1990 ... political turbulences also occurred in China. The Party and government relied firmly on the people, took resolute measures and stabilized the domestic situation ... The tremendous achievements we have scored ... have fully proven that stability is of vital importance.


Interestingly, in Example 5, the interpreter-mediated discourse featuring the addition ‘fully’ was later picked up and quoted verbatim on various websites and platforms. Figure 5 illustrates how the interpreter’s rendition has appeared on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Zimbabwe as an official record detailing Beijing’s official stances and positions on various issues ( This highlights the crucial importance of interpreter-mediated discourse as a vital source of meaning potential and a shaping force of new discourses to come. That is, in our increasingly globalized and mediat(iz)ed world, interpreters serve as the crucial agents and subjective actors, and the interpreter-mediated discourse (in English) is often the starting point of a whole host of new ideological discourses to come in the form of a discursive chain across different platforms and modes (e.g. when the interpreted discourse is recontextualized on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and also on traditional media outlets such as BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, RT, and New York Times). This shows how ideological discourse, once mediated by interpreters, can be further (re)mediated and (re)contextualized and can have a potentially far-reaching impact globally beyond the press conference hall itself.

Figure 5

Screenshot of interpreter’s addition of ‘fully’ appearing on Chinese Embassy’s website

6. Conclusion and discussion

To conclude, the reform and opening-up meta-discourse has been an overarching narrative justifying and legitimizing China’s sociopolitical systems and various policies and decisions in post-1978 China as a developing country. Approaching the topic of development from a unique discursive perspective in the Chinese context, this article has explored the interpreter-mediated RoU meta-discourse, focusing on the government-affiliated interpreters’ mediation and (re)construction of China’s development discourse at different levels. It finds that the interpreters tend to show increased alignment by (over)producing various lexical items relating to such key themes and concepts as development, economy, reform, market, modernization, stability, openness, harmony, socialism that constitute the broader RoU meta-discourse overall (a noticeable 17.75% increase overall and noticeable increases in most categories). More specifically, the interpreters tend to (re)construct China’s development discourse by significantly (over)articulating lexical items relating to development in English both overall and also diachronically in each administration.

The interpreters’ proliferated mentions of such lexical items constitute a case of repetition (Beaton, 2007; Fairclough, 2000; Gu, 2022). Admittedly, the interpreters’ repeated production of these items might be explained by a variety of factors. From a product-oriented perspective, this strengthens the government’s institutional hegemony and presence and leads to the interpreters’ maintenance and often further reinforcement of China’s development discourse against a broader historical backdrop of RoU. Such (increased) interpreter alignment and (re)construction of Beijing’s discourse could be viewed as cumulative and imperceptible in nature to the general global audiences were it not systematically explored using a corpus-based CDA approach. This is in line with Fairclough’s observation that ideological discourse is not always apparent and obvious and that the articulation of discourse may be most effective when its workings are least visible (1989).

Further investigation of the interpreters’ rendering of China’s development discourse at the level of collocational patterns illustrates that China and the government are often given more prominence as the chief social actor and agent in the interpreted discourse in English. This helps to render more explicit and emphatic the indispensable role of the government as a vital actor in China’s development effort and in RoU in general as a developing country. In addition, the TT is rendered more modalized, therefore exhibiting a stronger level of commitment, willingness, and certitude. Discursively and rhetorically, this strengthens the Chinese original and (re)constructs a more favorable image of the government as being present, active, committed and determined in various aspects of China’s development push to an international audience.

Interestingly, China’s development discourse is often successfully (re)presented in English in an intertwined web, appearing in the form of seemingly axiomatic dyads, triads and longer patterns (‘economic development’, ‘peace and development’, ‘reform, development and stability’ and ‘socialist development’, etc.). These collocations indicate the government’s priorities and reveal the discursive and underlying thinking patterns that reform, economic development, stability, socialism, etc. are inextricably connected. Cognitively and discursively, the juxtaposition and entanglement of these core concepts lead to the internalizing and mutual enhancement of the various elements central to China’s RoU discourse. Facilitated by the interpreters, this renders China’s (socialist) development and the pragmatist market-oriented RoU more justified, naturalized and convincing in English. In rendering China’s development discourse, the interpreters also tend to add various intensifiers and adverbs with positive semantic meaning (e.g. always, very, highly, firmly, quite, successfully, fully), thus reinforcing Beijing’s discursive articulations further (cf. Examples 2, 4 and 5).

To echo and expand the idea of ‘text ownership’ (Angelelli, 2004) so far mostly discussed in community or public service interpreting in a medical setting (Zhan & Zeng, 2017; Zhang & Xu, 2021), the different degrees of agency and visibility exercised by these government interpreters in China point towards their (partial) discursive ownership in (re)organizing and (re)articulating China’s discourse in a (geo)political context at different levels. If the aim of the televised press conferences is to project Beijing’s version of fact and reality and have China’s voice heard as the world’s largest developing country, then the fact that Beijing’s development discourse (as part of the broader RoU meta-discourse) is rendered more emphatic, forceful and convincing in the English interpretation leads to a stronger voice being evinced for Beijing on a global scale, with far-reaching global ramifications beyond the confines of the press conference room. This is particularly true, given the outward-facing and high-profile nature of the discursive event and the fact that the interpreted product is often quoted verbatim, further (re)mediated and taken for granted by default as a reliable source of official information by international media outlets. Beyond a merely mechanical transference of content between languages, the press conference interpreters’ strengthening of Beijing’s development discourse points to their key role in (re)telling China’s story and (re)disseminating sociopolitical truth and knowledge globally. This, in turn, also has the potentiality of further contributing to the delicate and constantly shifting balance of power between China and the more dominant and vociferous West and counterbalancing the often naturalized and taken-for-granted Western narratives (Gu, 2022; Said, 1978; Shi-xu, 2014), at least from the perspective of discursive power. Such interpreter mediation seems particularly interesting, considering that those same interpreters tend to further progress in their careers later on as government officials, ambassadors, and even China’s foreign ministers.

At the intersection of interpreting studies, development studies, CDA, corpus linguistics, the social and political sciences, media and communication studies, this study contributes to scholarship through illustrating the crucial role of interpreters and interpreting in (re)articulating a major developing country’s overarching justificatory discourse and in (re)presenting a unique sociopolitical system and developmental path in front of the international community against a historical background of constantly shifting power balance between China and the West. Fundamentally, this interdisciplinary study helps to move interpreting studies forward by contributing to an ‘outward’ turn in the area, where interpreting is conceptualized as a major sociopolitical and historical shaping force rather than a self-interested and inward-looking practice that can be explored only from within. Given the nature of the corpus-based CDA study, it is not possible to explicate the exact reasons behind the interpreters’ mediation. For example, the interpreters’ repeated additions of key lexical items might have been because of various cognitive constraints or the need to maintain cohesion (cf. Straniero Sergio, 2012) or they might have been the result of self-correction (Wang, 2012). Similarly, the interpreters’ exhibited tendency to add intensifiers also raises questions about the reasons behind this discursive strategy and whether this is something unique to the Chinese–English pair. These seem to be beyond the scope of this current study. However, they promise to be interesting topics to explore as avenues of future research going forward.


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