The upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing have increased international control over the Chinese government’s violations of rights. But even before the Games, China’s global public image had taken a huge hit.
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China’s public image “remains largely negative”In many countries, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. In Australia, a place where the public had a positive image of China in the late 2010s, only about 20 percent of the population has a positive image of it today. In Japan, only 10 percent of the population has a positive image of China. In addition, prominent opinion leaders in many nations are now implementing diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, and even some of Beijing’s most ardent former supporters, such as trade organizationshas increasingly expressed dissatisfaction and anger at China.
This decline in Beijing’s image has implications for its influence abroad, but Chinese officials appear reluctant to do anything to correct it.
Why has the public image of the Chinese government deteriorated?
Beijing’s global public image has deteriorated for several reasons. In some countries, there is still a reservoir of mistrust of Beijing over its disguise of the initial COVID-19 outbreak. Some of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects have also created negative pressure as countries have gathered higher debt than expected. Beijing’s rising authoritarianism at home, especially its suffocation of Hong Kong freedoms and it is oppression in Xinjianghas acidified many foreign publics.
In recent years, China has adopted an increasingly coercive, belligerent diplomacy, called wolf warriors diplomacywhich has alienated countries in its neighborhood and as far away as Lithuania, as Beijing bullied to allow Taiwan to open a representative office in the capital Vilnius. But instead of seeing results to its advantage, Beijing’s increasingly aggressive approach has backfired in many countries. In the case of Lithuania, the country refused to resign and European countries rallied behind it.
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Where has Beijing’s image fallen?
China’s public image is still worst in developed democracies in Asia, such as Japan and South Korea, North America and Western Europe. Not only has the public in these countries developed a strong negative view of China, but many of their governments are shut down important Chinese soft power initiativessuch as the Confucius Institutes, which offer Chinese language and culture programs at colleges and universities around the world.
Its image has received less of a hit in other parts of Asia and in Africa. Some Asian countries with close historical ties to China, such as Singapore, Thailand and Pakistan, have responded more positively to Chinese public diplomacy, and they have typically not faced the more coercive diplomacy. In some African countries, Beijing has funded necessary infrastructure projects and hired local workers and won goodwill that it has not completely wasted.
How harmful has this been?
China’s declining image has caused geostrategic and economic pain. An investment agreement with the EU has been put on hold, and many European countries initially accepted BRI projects have soured on them. BRI is stalls in places also beyond Europe, in part because of China’s wolf warfare diplomacy and fears that the BRI is linked to corruption and debt. Relations between the United States and China are now at their lowest point in decades, putting trade ties at risk and increasing the risk of great power conflict.
How is Beijing trying to improve its image?
In a speech last year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping seemed to be calling for rein the wolf warrior diplomacy and promote Beijing as a reliable and relatable partner. The country’s massive soft power campaign over the past decade has also included an expansion of its global state media. But China’s state media has only got minimal market share in most countries.
During the pandemic, China has become one large international donor of vaccines, although it has not donated as many as the United States. Yet countries like Malaysia are reject Chinese vaccines which do not appear as effective as others.
Meanwhile, some Chinese opinion leaders—maybe even Xiwhich continues to promote wolf warrior diplomats, including in positions in the United States– believes that China should not change its increasingly aggressive stance, even if it results in a negative image abroad. They argue that China, as a rising and assertive power, will always be outraged by leading democracies trying to curb it. Also this aggression seems to please much of the Chinese public, which has become more and more nationalistic. In fact, China has continued its coercive tactics not only with Lithuania, but also with Australia and many others.
How should the United States respond?
Washington could let Beijing continue to dig its hole and in the meantime rebuild US ties with democratic partners. China’s coercive measures could ultimately alienate even more countries and benefit the United States.
However, the United States should remain vigilant against Chinese efforts that cross the border from soft power to so-called sharp forceEfforts to covertly and often coercively influence public discourse. These could include directing suitors to foreign politicians through backdoor channels and with bribery using disinformation tactics online to promote Chinese government ideas or have pro-Chinese business people buy local press shops and quietly change their coverage to be more favorable to Beijing.