China Power

China Invests in Image Boost

China is increasingly interested in boosting its image overseas. The Times Square campaign is just part of it.

As Jason mentioned earlier this week, a Chinese ‘national image’ promotional video was launched to coincide with the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to the United States.

The video, which since January 18 has been shown on huge electronic screens in New York’s Times Square about 300 times a day, is funded by the Chinese government and is aimed at helping the West better understand China.It has been estimated that this video will appear a total of 8,400 times in Times Square before its run ends, giving Americans the chance to see perhaps familiar faces like NBA star Yao Ming alongside China's first astronaut Yang Liwei and several ordinary Chinese. 

The video is part of China's efforts at strengthening its image in the foreign media and is just one element of the government’s significant investment over the past year in trying to improve China's image abroad. I’ve seen figures suggesting that China spent tens of billions of dollars from 2009 to 2010 on overseas ‘publicity’, a large portion of which was allocated to official media, including China Daily, Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television and China Radio International.

A good example of the media drive is the the recent ‘China Series’ published in the New York Times, which was actually a full-page ad run by the official English-language China Daily newspaper. Xinhua News Agency, meanwhile, has put itself in the thick of things by reportedly moving its North America bureau from a residential district to the top floor of a 44-storey building in Times Square. 

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Of course, China should have learnt a thing or two from the United States’ past slick image promotion efforts. But it’s also important to remember that China is different from the United States in that it won’t allow privately run public relations agencies to get involved in national image promotion. Such work is instead usually planned by universities, research institutes and government agencies, all organizations that aren’t typically profit-driven and which use only funds provided by the government. As a result, efficiency tends to be low, and the promotional campaigns are usually relatively unsophisticated.

But the government has realized that China's overseas image is increasingly important, and that with a rapidly growing economy, improving the country’s image abroad will benefit Chinese firms as they try to access new markets overseas. 

Meanwhile, as global attention over China's economic development has also risen, there has been growing criticism over China's human rights record, its military development and environmental policies. China's leaders will no doubt be hoping that promotional videos like the one screened in Times Square will give it more of a voice as it becomes a bigger global power.