China Has an Image Problem—but Knows How to Fix It
Many in Beijing realize a declining international reputation won’t help the country achieve its goals.
According a recent Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of Americans registered “cold” feelings toward China in a rather nebulously named “feeling thermometer.” The study also revealed that roughly 9 in 10 Americans see China as an enemy or competitor rather than a partner. A different poll by Gallup put China’s unfavorability ratings among Americans at 79 percent—a historic high (or low), since polling began more than 40 years ago.
It isn’t just the United States. Around the world, unfavorable views of China have reached unprecedented heights in the last year, with the percentage of individuals having no confidence in Chinese leadership to “do the right thing” in world affairs rising by more than 15 percent across countries like Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The reaction among the Italian public is particularly noteworthy, given the extensive investment and medical aid China has offered the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
China expected that such extensive goodwill would be reciprocated by the country’s public, especially given the positive reception by the Italian government. On the arrival of Chinese aid, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio commented, “we are not alone. There are people in the world who want to help Italy.”
Elsewhere too, China’s attempts to court favor and rebuild frazzled alliances through pandemic diplomacy have been met with mixed reception. Despite reasonable successes in establishing consolidated supply lines and tentative partnerships over vaccines and masks in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans, China has struggled in a number of EU member states, where civil society backlash is threatening to undo decades of closer ties built as the country opened up trade and investment opportunities.
Such cold-shoulder treatment both precipitates and stems from the cooling alliance between the EU and China. Chinese actions have played a role in it and in the broader break between China and the West—Chinese diplomats have traded barbs with French counterparts, repudiated Australian and British politicians, and exchanged fire with icy U.S. leadership at the recent Anchorage meeting—but simmering resentment and the anti-China turn in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment have not helped.
The question now is whether China should care about its global reputation and, if so, what it should do about it.
Many in China are unfazed by the starkly souring relations between China and the West. As a metaphor, hawkish internet users have coined the phrase “Ruguanxue,” which means studying the invasion through a pass, where the pass is a metonymy for China’s northern borders.
In this extended metaphor, the United States is compared with the rapidly declining Ming dynasty while China is equated with the Jurchen invaders that came in from the north and swiftly seized control of the Ming’s preexisting territory. The United States’ anti-China uneasiness is viewed as a sign of its existential angst at being overtaken by China. Meanwhile, in the eyes of many in the Chinese public, the West’s condemnatory words and actions resemble the skullduggery committed by the Eight-Nation Alliance that stormed the country’s capital and ransacked the Forbidden Palace at the end of the Qing dynasty.
To the charge that China’s “wolf warriors”—the term that has come into fashion during the pandemic to describe the country’s arguably more aggressive diplomats—have been unduly bellicose and disruptive to the international order, the defiant hawks shrug. Government spokesperson Hua Chunying put it bluntly: “If the West is adamant on framing our defense of our sovereignty and core developmental interests as ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy,’ then so be it—what’s wrong with being ‘wolf warriors’ in that sense?”
Yet not everyone is so certain. Seeing the anti-China turn around the world, others are asking whether it is in China’s best interest to rehabilitate its image and rebuild relations with the West. And if so, how it can do while still advancing its own economic and political goals and not foregoing its core commitments to domestic stability and holistic development. That isn’t impossible, scholars Daniel A. Bell and Zhengxu Wang argued. China should not “bristle at discussion of its shortcomings” to “improve China’s image globally.”
Economically, China needs a modicum of popular goodwill—specifically from the private sector and civil society—to facilitate the continued expansion of Chinese firms and capital in prominent markets.
Beijing has long expected the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), a proposed agreement that would further open investment and economic cooperation between the EU and China, to pass with minimal opposition. Yet the deal looks set to hit a snag in the European Parliament as a result of recent scrutiny in Europe over China’s labor conditions and Huawei. If the CAI stalls, it will mean a heavy setback to a trade partnership that was worth more than $650 billion in 2019.
Outside of Europe, China must win over the burgeoning middle classes and elite in Southeast Asia to maintaining the appeal of its Belt and Road Initiative in undecided states. Yet in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, recent polls have shown public attitudes swing in favor of the United States over China if asked to pick between the two.
International goodwill remains key to some domestic goals as well. Beijing remains intent on consolidating its domestic political legitimacy and winning the tech war. Legitimacy can certainly be bolstered in the short run by ramped-up nationalistic rhetoric, but in the long run, the rise of isolationist hawks in both China and the United States would undermine both as they decouple their technology, communications, and trade relationships. In particular, Chinese buyers remain voracious consumers of Western goods. If the supply is undermined in a trade war—or if foreign loans dry up—it could place great pressure on China to go “domestic,” a critical—albeit nascent—component of its dual circulation strategy.
For now, China seems to have the upper hand since its access to high-end telecommunications and digital technology renders its tech firms an attractive alternative to Western counterparts. Yet its manufacturers remain heavily dependent on the international market for revenue that can sustain their research and development. Huawei drew $55 billion (41 percent of total revenue) from the international market in 2019; 70 percent of technology giant DJI’s sales were made overseas. Souring public opinions can and will affect the revenue streams of leading Chinese corporations. International backlash could well sabotage Chinese leaders’ plans of establishing China as a self-sufficient, sustainable economy.
So, what’s a progressive path forward for China?
Leaders and diplomats would benefit from recognizing that the West is by no means homogenous and that Western hostility is not inevitable.
To begin with, the country should seek to mend relations with targeted regional allies and wavering partners. These include states or sub-state actors that have had grievances over aspects of Chinese behavior in the past yet remain open to deepening ties with the country in the future. These include Southern European states like Greece, Italy, and Spain, which have registered strong complaints over Huawei and intellectual property rights while also embracing tourism and investment at large from China. The limits to vaccine and mask diplomacy suggest that beyond the provision of medical equipment, China should look toward facilitating greater bilateral cultural exchanges and frank dialogue between citizens and civil societies in ways that are sensitive to the needs and perceptions of locals in Europe.
Concurrently, addressing some of the concerns about Chinese overreach in academic spaces and civil society in Australia and New Zealand would help dial down the temperature there. Rekindling dialogue with Japan over disputed waters and military de-escalation could improve relations with what is arguably the most Sino-friendly member of the “Quad,” an informal strategic alliance that is picking up steam under U.S. President Joe Biden’s new administration.
In all these cases, compartmentalization could do China much good in limiting the number of fronts that it must defend its critical interests. In practice, this may mean changing its communications strategy as diplomats engage with their counterparts around the world.
When it comes to the United States, both sides in the Sino-American relationship would benefit from dialing down their rhetoric. It is possible to speak to some Western concerns without undermining Chinese diplomats’ commitments to their country’s core interests. For example, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s address to the Lanting Forum, in which he attributed the deterioration in Sino-American relations to “the previous U.S. administration, [acting] out of its own political needs,” reflected a conscious effort on the part of Beijing to extend an olive branch to the Biden administration. And as former Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying recently noted at the China Development Forum, “China and the U.S. should face up to and solve their differences in a calm and objective way as cooperation is the only right choice for both nations.”
There remains a worry in Beijing that the country would come across as weak if it de-escalates its rhetoric. Yet if anything, the opposite holds true: Stripping away inflammatory rhetoric and openly acknowledging the room for collaboration and concession would allow the country’s representatives to stand more firm on genuine concerns and aspirations. It could also help get the CAI back on track.
The bottom line is that China can and should repair its international image, and none of the steps it could start with would require it to capitulate or accept what it deems is the West’s most unreasonable demands. Doing so would benefit both sides in the spiraling China-West relationship and benefit all citizens.
Brian Y.S. Wong is the founding editor in chief of the Oxford Political Review and a Rhodes scholar from Hong Kong.