China’s Poor Global Image Is Undermining Its Strategic Goals

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China’s Poor Global Image Is Undermining Its Strategic Goals

From Europe and North America to the Global South, trust in Beijing has rapidly deteriorated over the past few years.

China’s Poor Global Image Is Undermining Its Strategic Goals

In this April 13, 2020, photo, a woman wearing a face mask drives her car by a Chinese flag placed on a street prior to a curfew imposed to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Belgrade, Serbia.

Credit: AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

In the past four years, China’s global image, which had been positive or at least neutral in many parts of the globe for the prior two decades, has deteriorated extensively. This deterioration has occurred not only among leading democracies such as the United States and Japan, with whom China already had prickly relations, but also among developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. China enjoyed positive relations with states in these regions between the 1990s and late 2010s. In some parts of the world, China now has its worst public image in many decades.

From more favorable perceptions between the 1990s and mid-2010s, Beijing’s public image and overall soft power now have bottomed out, even as it has boosted its foreign assistance through the Belt and Road Initiative; billions spent on state television, radio, and other mass communication; and a wide range of efforts to expand its cultural diplomacy, visitor programs for foreigners, and scholarships for students to attend university in China.

The scale of China’s negative public image today is staggering. A 2021 Pew study of public in seventeen different countries, including the United States, found that “unfavorable views of China are … at or near historic highs. Large majorities in most of the advanced economies surveyed have broadly negative views of China.”

Rise of the Wolf Warriors

There is no one reason for China’s plummeting global image. It stems from a combination of poor diplomacy, the increasing use of economic coercion, its failing soft power efforts, and its growing ties to Russia, among other factors.

In recent years, China has shifted from more modest diplomacy rooted in Deng Xiaoping’s post-Tiananmen maxim for China to seem humble and bide its time, to its current form of aggressive, often belligerent, diplomacy. This new diplomatic approach, combined with the growing use of state economic coercion against countries and foreign and domestic Chinese multinationals, certainly plays a central role in rising negative sentiments.

There were some signs of China’s growing belligerence before the Xi era began in 2012–13, but overtly aggressive diplomacy has blossomed under his leadership. In 2010, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi unleashed a diatribe at Southeast Asian leaders at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Hanoi, providing a preview of the new approach Beijing intended to take. As Xi has consolidated power domestically, eliminating potential opponents and ending consensus authoritarianism for what is now essentially one-man rule, he demonstrated, via speeches and actions, that he wanted China to reclaim its status as a dominant regional and global power and to promote its model to the world. He openly voiced nationalist sentiments and, unlike leaders since the early Mao period, promoted a Chinese model of development. With Xi leading the way, Chinese diplomacy shifted dramatically toward the types of statements that Yang had made back in 2010; under Xi, some of the most vitriolic diplomats have moved up quickly through the foreign ministry, showing other Chinese diplomats that acting this way is an avenue to promotion. Other ministers and ambassadors, inculcated in China’s increasingly nationalistic domestic politics and following Xi’s example, began regularly venting prickly, nationalist, bombastic rhetoric at foreign states.

In 2018, for instance, as the journalist Peter Martin chronicled in his book “China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy,” at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea, four Chinese diplomats reportedly tried to physically push their way past guards and into the house of Papua New Guinea’s foreign minister. They were apparently trying to enlist help in changing the joint communique that usually results from the summit, which contained a line about unfair trading practices. Eventually, no joint communique was released, but the incident showed the aggression of some Chinese diplomats.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic and now the war in Ukraine, China’s increasingly bold diplomats have verbally attacked foreign countries and spread disinformation about the origins of COVID-19, the U.S. response to the pandemic, and numerous other topics. In recent months, they also have spread Russian disinformation about the Ukraine war, while domestic Chinese media outlets suggest that Russia is the real victim. This signifies a further step in Chinese diplomats’ use of disinformation, one in which Beijing acts to amplify the falsehoods of another major authoritarian power – one with whom it has become extremely close. China’s role in pushing Russian disinformation online is critical to the spreading of these falsehoods: many Russian outlets are being censored or banned by governments and tech platforms, but China’s outlets are not.

At the same time, China has become increasingly blatant about its use of economic coercion against countries that criticize its foreign and domestic policies. Beijing has used coercion against dozens of states and multinational companies that take critical stances on issues Beijing views as essential, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, or that critique Xi’s leadership or demand investigations into the origins of COVID-19 or push China to change its disastrous zero-COVID approach.

Australia provides an important example of China’s attempted economic coercion. Following Australia’s stated desire for a more transparent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, as well as the prior Morrison government’s critiques of China’s rights abuses, China retaliated with tariffs on a range of Australian exports, including barley. It also created non-tariff barriers to other products such as timber and coal, as the Lowy Institute has noted. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, so Beijing could have assumed that this economic coercion would force Canberra to return to a more accommodating approach.

Beijing’s rising authoritarianism, its current isolation from the world, and its increasingly monomaniacal focus on Xi Jinping’s campaign to restructure China’s economy, pursue zero-COVID, solidify his third term, and entrench his rule, are also hurting China’s image. China’s authoritarianism – particularly in Hong Kong, where repression has been more widely exposed because of the city’s media base – has proven a factor in Beijing’s deteriorating image in the world’s democracies.

Meanwhile, China’s zero-COVID strategy has virtually cut the country off from foreigners and is hurting its soft power efforts. It has curtailed many of the student and visitor programs for foreigners that once helped boost its image abroad, particularly in developing states. There also has been a sharp drop in outbound Chinese tourists who had served as important people-to-people contacts with the world (and major sources of revenue for many countries in Europe, Asia, and other regions).

Beyond visitor and student programs, and outbound tourism, China’s other soft power tools are also failing compared to their performance in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. Beijing has tried to modernize China Global Television Network (CGTN), Xinhua, and China Radio International (CRI), its major state outlets, as well as China Daily, its major global English-language print outlet. It sought, at least until recent years, to make these outlets relatively reputable. With Al Jazeera as a kind of model, Chinese state outlets hired respected local journalists and reporters from major global outlets. Beijing also boosted its state media’s presence on Facebook and other social media.

In the early 2010s, it seemed like some of those brands, such as CGTN, had the potential to challenge channels such as CNN and the BBC, at the very least in developing regions where outlets like CGTN often focused their resources. Yet other than Xinhua, which has the potential to become a global news leader and major soft power tool, most of these state outlets have failed to achieve high levels of viewership or listenership. Sarah Cook of Freedom House, who has closely studied Chinese media in the United States, believes that CGTN’s actual viewership numbers in the U.S. lag behind even those of New Tang Dynasty TV, an independent Chinese-language station available in far fewer U.S. households. A comprehensive study of CGTN-Español, CGTN’s Spanish-language channel, by Peilei Ye and Luis A. Albornoz, suggests that the network’s “audience and visibility was still low.” The continuing climate of self-censorship at CGTN, which has only gotten worse as the war in Ukraine has polarized the world and seemed to make the Chinese leadership more paranoid, further threatens to undermine whatever credibility remains.

Growing Backlash

To be sure, China’s deteriorating global image will never fully negate its ability to wield vast military and economic power in its own neighborhood or further abroad. China is already the dominant economic power in Asia, especially given the U.S. government’s refusal to join Asia-Pacific trade deals or make any binding concessions to Asian states in the Biden administration’s proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. In the Taiwan Strait, China is increasingly shifting the balance of power and using land reclamation and a range of other tactics to move toward militarily dominating the South China Sea. Its deteriorating public image, statist economics, and isolation are not going to fully stop its continued economic rise, its military modernization, or Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power at home. China’s increasingly skillful use of “sharp power” will likely also remain unaffected. Even if China’s popularity were to fall even further, it still would possess all of these economic, trade, strategic, and military tools.

Yet Beijing’s collapsing popularity is having immense ramifications for China in many areas. Its terrible public image creates roadblocks for its foreign policy aims, in realms from diplomacy to economics to global governance to strategy. For one, as Beijing becomes more of a pariah, especially in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China is losing significant trade supporters in other countries, such as Germany’s major industrial groups, who helped foster economic ties in the past between the two giant economies. Recent data from the Rhodium Group shows German direct investment in China, which had been enormously attractive to German firms, is now slowing. Similar slowdowns in foreign direct investment into China are happening from the U.S., some Asian democracies, and other European states beyond Germany, as their trade organizations increasingly divorce themselves from advocating for China, and as governments become more antagonistic toward Beijing. These advanced democracies also are inaugurating tougher policies toward Chinese inbound investment and generally adopting more hawkish foreign policies toward Beijing.

China’s growing belligerence, outspokenness, and use of coercion have worked in some industries and with some countries that are heavily dependent on Beijing. China has silenced some leading multinationals, who now avoid any criticism of the country, most notably Hollywood, but also the National Basketball Association, hotel chains, and some major global tech companies.

But with many other states and corporations, China’s tougher approach is backfiring. Hollywood may have given in, but many foreign companies, alienated by Xi’s increasing authoritarianism and statism, are growing wary about making new investments in China. Increasingly, they are diversifying their manufacturing to other locations such as the Balkans, Central America, Thailand, and Vietnam. Some countries and regional groups, meanwhile, are already freezing major deals with Beijing as it becomes more isolationist, statist, aggressive, and close to Moscow. The European Union has frozen a major planned bilateral investment deal with China, one that promised massive economic benefits for both sides.

With China refusing to back down from what it has called its “no limits” strategic partnership with Russia, European countries could take further steps to chill trade relations with China, too – just as the U.S. is increasingly decoupling its economy from that of China. European firms could shift manufacturing back to parts of Europe or to other locations, while European states could impose other types of trade pressure on China. Brussels already has moved to prevent China from bidding on major infrastructure projects in the European Union’s public procurement market.

Other countries, enraged by Beijing’s behavior, are realizing that they can stand up to its economic coercion, weakening Beijing’s threats. Had China not been so aggressive, these states could never have realized they could reduce trade with Beijing. Australia is a prime example of shifts in public opinion leading to changes in trade policies with China, and to strategies beyond dependence on bilateral trade with Beijing. As Ye Xue noted in a recent article for the Lowy Interpreter, China’s sanctions on Australia did not significantly harm the Australian economy, lowering Australia’s overall exports to China by only two percent. But they did prod the Australian government, and Australian industry, to aggressively cultivate new markets as alternatives to China. Ye Xue notes that the Australian industries most heavily targeted by Chinese coercion have, in the past two years, begun to make effective shifts to other markets. China, Ye Xue writes, “has only succeeded in making its market matter less to Australia and [lessening] the fear of trade as a weapon.”

A poor public image hinders China’s strategic aims as well. In democracies from the Czech Republic to the Philippines to Italy, politicians cannot build closer strategic ties with China once its image with their publics becomes negative, or they risk the wrath of voters. To take one example, although Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte pushed hard early in his term as president to build closer links to Beijing and reduce Manila’s dependence on the U.S., China’s belligerence, inability to complete major infrastructure deals, and increasing unpopularity among the Philippine public limited Duterte’s room to maneuver Beijing had an opportunity in the Philippines. As the prominent Philippine analyst Richard Heydarian notes, ordinary Filipinos were open to boosting strategic links with China early in Duterte’s presidency: “The number of Filipinos preferring engagement over confrontation with Beijing dramatically increased from 43 percent in 2015 to a steady majority of 67 percent in 2017.”

Yet, Heydarian adds, China’s aggressive diplomacy, continual expansion of its South China Sea claims, and inability to provide the Philippines with much aid or infrastructure led to a shift in public opinion: “Halfway into Duterte’s presidency [i.e., around 2019], however, it … became clear that China’s promises of large-scale investments were largely illusory.” Anti-China sentiments in the country skyrocketed and Duterte himself was forced to take a tougher rhetorical approach to Beijing’s South China Sea actions and, ultimately, to continue and even bolster strategic links to the United States.

Beyond the Philippines, countries terrified of Beijing’s belligerence, power, and growing coercion are building informal coalitions against China in a wide range of areas. These range from control of semiconductor production, excluding China, coalitions to stop major Chinese firms like Huawei from building the next generation of wireless technology in many countries, to new types of military relationships, like AUKUS and an upgraded Quad, designed to constrain Beijing.

Growing fear of China controlling wireless networks, for instance, has led the U.S. to ban Huawei and many European states that considered allowing Huawei to erect their 5G broadband cellular systems to change course and choose other companies instead. Even in parts of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, where Chinese telecommunications companies had made much greater inroads, fear of China has helped shift attitudes against Chinese-built telecoms infrastructure. States including Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, wooed heavily by Huawei, have chosen other 5G providers to build out their networks.  Overall, as many as 60 percent of countries in the global cellular market now have banned or imposed restrictions on Huawei, according to Tufts University’s Michael Beckley.

China’s negative image is also undermining its soft power, making it harder to repair its negative reputation in the next five years. A lack of soft power in the zero-COVID era – visitor programs, journalism training programs, Confucius Institutes, programs for students to come to China – makes it harder for Beijing to spread its developmental model. Beijing’s image has become so toxic that countries are closing Confucius Institutes, banning or reducing the reach of Chinese state media outlets, and limiting other potential sources of Chinese soft power. Many universities in the U.S. and Europe have shut down Confucius Institutes and also begun cutting links with sister programs in China, sometimes moving the sister programs to Taiwan instead.

Leadership Vacuum

Perhaps most problematic for the world, and the many crises it faces today, China remains vastly powerful, but its weak soft power and negative image are constraining its international influence and global leadership. Having alienated so many countries in its region, China has weakened its ability to lead Asia on trade integration, though with the U.S. out of the picture, China could still be able to exert some leadership. Nonetheless, China’s poor image has allowed other regional powers such as Japan to become more active in leading Asia-wide trade integration.

On public health in general, the global lack of trust in China and Beijing’s own failures to move away from a zero-COVID strategy have undermined Beijing’s efforts at leadership. Beijing’s health leadership is failing even as China donates sizable amounts of vaccines, masks, and other supplies to other countries. It does not help, of course, that the Chinese vaccines do not match the efficacy of the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna. Indeed, some countries, such as Malaysia, which initially received Chinese vaccines, have decided instead to rely on mRNA vaccines from these manufacturers.

Worst of all, enjoying so little trust among other countries, and with Xi and other leaders remaining in China for years because of the zero-COVID policy, China has weakened its ability to lead on issues such as climate change, where it once seemed focused on taking a major global role. Yet at the same time, the Biden administration’s key bill to address climate change failed in Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court may soon drastically limit U.S. regulators’ ability to control greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Given those problems, China’s collapsing image, closer links to Russia, and the general decline in its ability to play any coherent global leadership role is a tragedy for all, not just for Beijing.

This article is excerpted from the Council on Foreign Relations Discussion Paper entitled “China’s Collapsing Global Image: How Beijing’s Unpopularity Is Undermining Its Strategic, Economic, and Diplomatic Goals.” The paper can be found here.

Portions of the paper will appear in the forthcoming book by Joshua Kurlantzick, “China’s Global Media Offensive,” to be released by Oxford University Press in the fall of 2022.