The promotion of Chinese public diplomacy became more visible with the leadership of Hu Jintao, who held the position of president from 2003 – 2013, and was increased significantly by President Xi Jinping, whose leadership has spanned from 2013 to the present. At the end of the 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) national congress, held in October 2017, Xi announced the close completion of China’s centenary goals that include achieving a moderately prosperous Chinese society and building a modern socialist Chinese republic, as well as contributing to a new international relations approach. With China’s growing influence in the world, China has a conscious desire to tell the good China-story. China’s new style of international relations that was discussed at the 19th CPC congress is part of China’s public diplomacy and national branding strategy. This article puts forth that China’s new approach will not necessarily be vastly different from previous approaches, but rather that its efforts and growing soft power have started to change the perceptions of the international community.
Public diplomacy is the communication of a country’s foreign policy objectives to a foreign elite population, while nation branding is the management of a nation’s reputation and image through the spirit and substance of a nation’s identity. Both of these activities are conscious desires to improve and manage global perceptions, however both are affected by the choices of political leaders, events, and the national and foreign policies of the country. Both of these concepts are linked to the understanding of soft power, the ability to persuade others without resorting to means of force or coercion. Classical Chinese thought and values will continue to inform China’s relationships and engage partners in terms of mutual respect, fairness, justice, and win-win cooperation. This international relations strategy remains largely unaltered but it is anticipated that China’s new approach will be more holistic. Although China’s emphasis on its cultural heritage as the idiomatic root of departure for its national and foreign policy goals may be critiqued for not showing a stronger political imperative, it does not mean that China’s approach has not been successful.
China’s branding strategy is focused on Chinese culture that is disseminated through numerous national and international media platforms, student and other people-to-people exchanges, cultural showcases and exhibitions, a large emphasis on sharing Mandarin through Confucius Centres, as well as building on friendships and economic cooperation. Critiques express that China’s focus on culture prevents it from communicating new images and changing identities. Yet this critique does not necessarily take into account the growing importance of branding initiatives linked to cultures and ways of life, which are becoming more important in how a country is represented. Perceptions of China are starting to improve, and once hardened impressions are beginning to soften through the use of culture, and the Chinese nation brand and related reputation is steadily improving or ranked highly internationally. In addition to China’s changing image, observers have started predicting that China’s rise to geo-political and geo-economic notoriety is an indication of China’s superpower potential. Although China’s response to this credit has been to express that it is not the intention or desire to become the next superpower; China’s geo-strategic positioning, and historical and political relationships position it as a favourable leader in international relations. For example, firstly, China has not acquired its international status through historical colonial relations, which is immensely valued by countries of the global South; secondly, China’s leadership is relatively stable and predictable; and thirdly, China is renowned for its successes in economic and mega-infrastructure development. China’s participation in international trade through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) positions China to market its nation brand at the centre of international trade which could contribute to redefining globalisation. Moreover, China is taking more global responsibility in promoting peace and global development. However, this also creates a challenge to China’s international image, as China’s military presence creates regional ambivalence. Another barrier is the knowledge and ease of doing business with China. While the Chinese market is relatively accessible, Latin American countries have cited issues with labour practices, unfair competition and too many informal barriers in entering the Chinese market. Although this may paint a relatively bleak picture, perceptions of China in Latin America are relatively positive because of the development cooperation coming from China. Noting sources of barriers to China’s soft power justify the importance of continuing to pursue the Chinese brand abroad. Such barriers are similar in African countries, yet the perception of China is more positive because of the impact that China has had on African infrastructure. Particularly, China’s success in cooperating with Africa has portrayed it as a favourable global leader and partner that can bank on the un-bankable and grow from the partnership.
Challenges to China’s image are existing perceptions about a rigid or strict political system, imbalanced trade and economic competition, human rights issues, severe environmental concerns associated with fast industrialisation, and the existing international bias towards a western knowledge system. Although it has been challenging to completely alter existing negative perceptions of China; Chinese public diplomacy and nation branding efforts, as well as China’s engagement within regions, has encouraged positive perceptions of the giant. While criticism may be aimed at China’s strategy of promoting its national culture as a soft power strategy; China’s commitment to telling its own story and changing perceptions may be an illustration of China’s interpretation of soft power and its long term soft power strategy.
Ms Arina Muresan holds a Masters in Political Science from the University of Johannesburg and is a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.