Features | Diplomacy | East Asia

Beijing’s Public Diplomacy Challenge

China’s efforts at public diplomacy have produced mixed results on the world stage.

By Arthur Guschin for
Beijing’s Public Diplomacy Challenge

Members of the Confucius Institute

Credit: REUTERS/Eliseo Fernandez

Every two years China’s quest to boost the popularity of its brand is marked by a well- publicized media event: the Beijing Olympics 2008, EXPO 2010 in Shanghai, the Miss World contest 2012 in Ordos. Looking ahead, China plans to host the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing and a global tourist summit in 2014. Moreover every year, the People’s Republic plays hosts to somewhat lesser events, such as the Formula-1 Grand Prix, Beijing Auto Salon or WTA-China Open. No country in Asia has devoted more resources than China has over the last five years to promoting and improving its national image. But has the strategy been effective?

The fundamental message of Chinese public diplomacy in recent years is to tell the world (especially the Western component) about Chinese values, such as non-interference in domestic affairs, and to try to win acceptance for those values. To do that, Beijing founded the Confucius Institute in 2004, with 327 departments in 93 countries to promote Chinese language learning and the culture of China. China Central Television (CCTV) annually spends billions of dollars to support international broadcasting in English (CCTV-9), Spanish (CCTV-E), French (CCTV-F), Arabic (CCTV-العربية), and Russian (CCTV-Русский), highlighting a positive agenda. In 2010, the news agency Xinhua launched the 24-hour English channel China Network Corp (CNC), while print media China Daily (circulation 1 million), People’s Daily (3 million), Global Times (1 million) and Shanghai Daily try to compete with the Western press.

However, a large number of channels does not guarantee an audience that will listen, especially given that most of the reporting in these outlets offer only a uniformly positive view of Chinese policy. In the modern information age, the policy of the PRC mass media looks outdated and short-sighted, with any gap between declared principles and actual policy likely to buffet China’s image.

Herein lies the problem with Chinese public diplomacy: the incompatibility of the core audience in Western countries and the information product of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. This core audience consists of educated, urban people 16-35 years old who will play roles in government or business organizations. Beijing offers them programs about Chinese culture and language with ideologically driven news. However, this audience gets most of its information from the internet and social media. China, however, has strict controls over the web and blocks access to Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other outlets.

Moreover, the history and culture of ancient China or Confucius are unlikely to excite the interests of young people, who are more interested in what is happening in China today. Beijing is focusing solely on its culture or civilization, while overlooking current issues such as policymaking or pollution. This is an example of why it is so difficult to build a national brand using state institutions alone. Examples such as “Cool Britannia,” South Korea’s “Sparkling Korea” or Kosovo’s “Kosovo, the Young Europeans” demonstrate that high-budget advertising sponsored by a government but not connected to real people is not effective at expanding soft power. China has the financial resources to get its message out, but lacks freedom of speech, which could damage the existing vertical power structure. China’s strategy is compromised by the absence of partnerships between the government and society, businesses and individuals that could Chinese ideas in a way that is not propaganda.

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When it comes to coordinating among policy, economics and society the U.S. example is worth noting. The current conflict between Washington and the EU triggered by spy scandals has done considerable damage to the U.S. image, but the White House possesses one incomparable advantage that lets it smooth out governmental bloopers: Silicon Valley. No matter what international missteps the U.S. makes, IT giants are capable of neutralizing them over time. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Google and others have shown the world that the United States is a place where people are free to create and profit from their personal abilities and the market economy. Collaborative efforts like fwd.us only underscore this freedom. Every time a new iPhone or iPad is released, to much global excitement, Washington earns soft power points. As Lee Kuan Yew has said, China can be “the world’s largest economy, but will it become the most admired and the most influential society? Will it have the technology, the standard of living, the quality of life, the lifestyle that others want? Have they got songs, lyrics and ideas that engage people? That is going to take time.”

Unfortunately China does not have similar instruments of influence at the moment, and as such cannot offset the negative repercussions for its image of events such as bird flu, the awarding of the Confucius Peace Prize to Russian President Vladimir Putin, or the escalation of tensions in Tibet, Taiwan, the Spratly islands or the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Beijing’s monopolization of public diplomacy leaves no chance for enthusiasts to emerge in China who could create an effective equivalent to Japan’s manga diplomacy, which has the support of millions of Japanese and the local animation industry. If there is no space for creativity, can China have it’s own Psy (the popular South Korea singer whose hit “Gangnam Style” enjoyed more than one billion views on YouTube) who will then meet with UN Secretary-General, the U.S. President and perform at Times Square?

In fact, China tried for its own Times Square exposure in 2011, when it launched a promotional video “Experience China” featuring Chinese celebrities such as Jackie Chan, Yao Ming, taikonaut Yang Liwei, and pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi. The expensive video was not successful. One factor was American antagonism towards communist China, but another was the choice of celebrities. While Jackie Chan and Yao Ming are well-known in the U.S., the first taikonaut and the piano virtuosos are not, notwithstanding their very real talents and achievements.

China does have potential “leaders” in public diplomacy, but does not make full use of them and fails to provide opportunities to build a foreign audience around them. As a consequence, the promo video looked like propaganda. Despite such significant personalities as Zhang Yimou (The Road Home), Wong Kar-wai (My Blueberry Nights) and Mo Yan (winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature), the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China makes no effort to integrate them into a general strategy of soft power growth. Hao Jiang Tian, the Chinese opera singer who now lives in the U.S. has shown what is possible, with his I Sing Beijing initiative, in which he teaches Westerners to sing Chinese opera. Yet Beijing continues to count on exaggerated patriotic movies as The Founding of a Republic or Beginning of the Great Revival where every communist acts like a superhero. Both movies have predictably flopped with foreign audiences. Ironically, it is American features such as Kung Fu Panda or 2012 that have done more to stimulate interest in China.

Indeed, pandas have been better received in the Western world than Chinese celebrities have. “Panda diplomacy” is the only ambitious and successful example of China’s soft power that is universal – it works with every country. In 2008, two pandas were sent to Taiwan. In 2009, Adelaide Zoo hosted Wang Wang and Funi, easing the malign impact of the arrest of Australian national Stern Hu (an executive of British-Australian mining corporation Rio Tinto). In January 2011, Hu Jintao extended the lease of animals for five years to Smithsonian’s National Zoo in the U.S.. At the same time, the signing of trade agreements between the PRC and Scotland totaling 4 billion dollars was marked by the transfer of two pandas to Edinburgh Zoo.

Moreover, the death of nine-year-old Mao Mao in the Wolong National Nature Reserve during the 2008 earthquake was broadcast worldwide. Beijing even changed its national symbol from the dragon to the panda. The dragon was associated in the Western world with the Chinese threat, even though a dragon in Chinese culture represents a wise, positive character.

With the new Chinese leadership, the door has been opened for a potentially strong actor who could highlight a brand-new emphasis in Chinese public diplomacy: First Lady Peng Liyuan. Peng has attracted the attention of Western media whenever she has made a public appearance together with her husband, President Xi Jinping. By virtue of a sense of style and impeccable look maintained by local designers, Peng suggests creativity and dynamism. In addition, her activity as a goodwill ambassador demonstrates an opportunity for women to be engaged in politics in China, as well as an awareness of HIV/AIDS. Some analysts have introduced the name “Liyuan style” (with its connection to the “Chinese Dream”), and placed it in contrast to the corruption of other elements of the Chinese power elite.

This human dimension in public diplomacy makes a critical contribution to the national image. In this respect, it seems natural that the current U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke charmed the Chinese blogosphere when a photo was taken of him with a backpack buying a cup of coffee in Starbucks. The photo quickly spread across the Chinese microblog network Sina Weibo, where thousands viewed the image as showing a lack of arrogance and a link with ordinary people. This helped Locke achieve positive image and guaranteed the new ambassador media interest. What a contrast with China Daily’s paid advertising in the form of news stories from China in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

According to Pew Research Center polls in the first half of 2013, only 37 percent of respondent in the U.S. have a favorable view of China (in 2007, the figure was 42 percent). In Great Britain, the figure is 48 percent (47 percent in 2007), in France, 42 percent (47 percent), and in Germany, 28 percent (34 percent). This is a problem for China, since the media of these countries – the BBC, CNN, Deutsche Welle – help shape the international agenda. Beijing can currently compete internationally with these giants, and so world perceptions of China will remain negative, since the BBC and CNN give more attention to issues of human rights and PLA military spending than it does to culture news. The New York Times reports about ecological accidents or labor conditions in Chinese factories, and cannot be outshined by People’s Daily or Global Times materials.

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Despite its shortcomings in the West, China can boast impressive results in the developing continents of Latin America and Africa. A critical economic difference lets China use the easy way of “buying” the loyalty of Latin American and African countries by investing in infrastructure development. Justifying it as fraternal help, since China was also once a victim of Western imperialism, Beijing looks like a fair partner. As a result, the PRC has won contracts to build roads, railways, stadiums, schools, hospitals and even a new headquarters for the African Union in Addis Ababa (worth 200 million dollars). Moreover Chinese money paid for the construction of the African pavilion at EXPO 2010. It is obvious that beneath this foreign strategy lies Beijing’s desire to secure natural resources, and not necessarily the loyalty of local people. As such, China’s activity in Africa and Latin America cannot be seen as part of its public diplomacy, because it does not include an attractive national idea. Nevertheless, the Pew Research Center polls (2013) show that the popularity of China in Argentina is 54 percent (32 percent in 2007), in Chile, 62 percent, in Venezuela, 71 percent, in Brazil, 65 percent, in Bolivia, 58 percent, in Uganda, 59 percent (45 percent in 2007), in Kenya, 78 percent (81 percent), in Ghana, 67 percent (75 percent), in Senegal, 77 percent, in Nigeria, 76 percent, and in South Africa, 48 percent (37 percent in 2008).

A second significant achievement of China’s efforts in the public diplomacy sphere is the positive impact it has on China’s domestic audience. Grand projects such as the Olympic Games or EXPO showcase China’s power in comparison with previous decades of economic and foreign policy weakness, and also suggest the first steps towards achieving the dream (the “Chinese Dream” by analogy with the “American Dream”). These events inspire ordinary Chinese, and boost national spirit and patriotism. In addition, every Chinese is flattered by the giant billboards advertising China in the heart of the main antagonist.

So while China’s public diplomacy is too bureaucratized and controlled to succeed on much of the world stage, it has produced impressive results on the domestic level. Given China’s ability to absorb Western practices, we can be sure that current Beijing’s current tentative efforts to persuade an international audience of China’s peaceful rise as a potential leader is only the start of a journey of a thousand li.

Arthur Guschin holds an MA degree in China studies from Saint-Petersburg State University. His current research focuses on the PRC’s economic integration within Asia-Pacific and Sino-Russian cooperation in the Arctic.