Imagebuilding: China’s public diplomacy

What does the world think about China?

This question was a large part of my Thursday last week. Listening to Ingrid d’Hooghe’s talk about what China is doing to improve its international image, I was reminded of a coffee meeting earlier that day.

At one point during that conversation with a new acquaintance who moved from Hong Kong to the Netherlands a year ago, she mentioned: “Actually, I don’t feel that proud anymore to be Chinese.” It was an interesting comment and I asked her why that was. Unsurprisingly, moving away from your hometown or country means that you gain a different perspective on the place you come from. Seeing from a distance what is happening in China – on topics such as pollution, business, democracy, censorship – made her feel less positive about her country’s future.

China’s worldwide PR

The Chinese government is also not happy about its reputation abroad. It is concerned that the country is perceived (very) negatively abroad, and even suspects that foreign media report negatively on developments in China on purpose.*

Research done by the Pew Research Center published in July 2014 shows that the perception of China abroad varies hugely per country. Worldwide, 49% view China favourably, with on average a more favourable view towards China in developing countries in Africa and Latin America and a less favourable view in Europe. The view towards China in its immediate neighbours in Asia is a very mixed bag: with 78% viewing China favourably in Pakistan (and only 3% unfavourably) and a stunning 91% viewing China unfavourably in Japan.

What is China doing to improve its image abroad? That was the topic of Thursday’s talk at the monthly China Café in Utrecht. Ingrid spoke about some highlights in her recently published PhD-research on China’s public diplomacy.

Ingrid argues that China is heavily focused on improving that image: it invests probably the highest amount of money worldwide on activities that can be seen as part of public diplomacy: sometimes also called national ‘public relations’.

Some important ways in which China does this is, eg through media (with a large number of Chinese correspondents now posted overseas and some Chinese media outlets available in Europe), via student exchanges (China has become the largest destination of foreign students in Asia), the establishment of Confucius Institutes around the world (in the Netherlands there are institutes in Leiden & Groningen) and cultural diplomacy through the sponsoring of exhibitions and Chinese culture festivals.

Impact of public diplomacy?

But, do these efforts work? Public diplomacy aims at positively influencing a country’s image abroad, but although this image can be measured (for example with the Pew research mentioned above) it is difficult to conclude what makes the most difference: any regular news on a big (unexpected) event happening in China that makes global headlines may have much more influence on the general perception of China in the world than the well-thought out, strategic nation branding activities.

This strategic character of Chinese public diplomacy activities is a unique trait in public diplomacy and Ingrid concludes that this is an indication of a developing public diplomacy style with Chinese characteristics. China’s efforts are strategic and focused on the long term. Another unique trait which distinguishes Chinese policy is the fact that it has wide support both from the political leaders as well as the ‘man in the street’, who is proud of his country and want the world to see this.

As China gains in economic and political influence in the world, it will be interesting to see if its nation branding strategies will have effect, or if despite these efforts the world will increasingly view China as a threat to worry about and respond to.

* China & Europa, the book by Dutch journalist Fokke Obbema also talks about this alleged media bias (and also discusses China’s ‘soft power’ and Confucius Institutes).

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