Losing Control of the Narrative? China’s Image Problem
Since being appointed Party Chief, Chinese President Xi Jinping has undoubtedly been motivated by his desire to “tell China’s story well”. He has followed through with years of propaganda, pursuing a harsher line towards foreign critics and emphasising his country's leadership potential. The ongoing pandemic, however, has damaged China’s carefully-constructed public image and cast doubt over the legitimacy of its desire for a “peaceful rise”.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, unfavourable views of China have reached an all-time high. In Australia, 81 percent viewed China unfavourably, an increase of almost 25 percent. Double digit increases were also recorded in the United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, United States, South Korea, Spain, and Canada. As well as this, most countries (save for the U.S.) believe that China has done a poor job of handling COVID-19 compared to their own governments.
This may come as no surprise. The initial secrecy surrounding details of the new disease, a lack of co-operation with foreign media and the active suppression of information about the outbreak have damaged the credibility of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), heightening distrust and suspicion that it allowed the outbreak to spread across the globe unchecked. On top of that, several other ongoing issues – such as the Hong Kong Security Bill, the assertive use of “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”, and the human rights abuses in Xinjiang – have undoubtedly marred China’s attempts to cultivate a favourable image.
The situation has also affected perceptions of China’s efforts to distribute aid. “Facemask diplomacy”, China’s attempt to frame sales of medical supplies as foreign aid, has been constantly undermined by its attempts to change the narrative in its favour. Take its offers of help to an ailing Italy, for example. In a much-needed attempt to save face, China kickstarted the hashtag #forzaCinaeItalia (“Go China and Italy”) on Twitter; however, this backfired when a study revealed that almost half of these tweets were circulated by bots. Despite trying to reframe the narrative and bury negativity, distrust over the authenticity of pro-China narratives has only heightened.
U.S. officials, sensing an easy scapegoat, have capitalized on the ensuing distrust to try and deflect from their inadequate handling of the pandemic at home. Even if this hasn’t necessarily distracted voters – the same Pew Research study found that there is still more global faith in Xi Jinping doing the “right thing” on COVID-19 than there is in Donald Trump – it has nonetheless played a part in perpetuating and amplifying anti-Chinese rhetoric.
However, while audiences abroad might disapprove of its outward ambitions, it can be argued that China’s primary focus is at home. Wolf Warrior Diplomacy seems to largely be aimed at sending signals of strength and self-defence to a domestic audience after the initial handling of the virus left much to be desired. This also comes at a time when China is focused on maintaining economic growth and stability, which in turn provides legitimacy for the governing party. Being able to maintain a sense of normalcy while countries that criticized their harsh measures are forced into lockdown once again allows China to reframe its outward aggression as a show of patriotism.
China’s image also benefits from the chaos plaguing U.S. politics, which weakens the legitimacy of its greatest rival and critic and throws into question the effectiveness of the “world’s leader”. While the United States rejects internationalism and adopts a stance of “America First”, China looks towards global dominance. Its ambitions to reshape the international system and challenge Western dominance are shown in the rise of alternative institutions such as the New Development Bank (NDB) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which seek to give more weight to emerging economies and challenge global norms. It has also seen numerous big-ticket development projects funded worldwide through the Belt & Road Initiative in an attempt to win influence across the developing world and re-network global supply chains with China at the centre.
At least for now though, it seems the damage has been done. The Western world remains wary of a rising China and anti-China sentiments have been recognized internally as the highest seen since Tiananmen square. When the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that foreign relations with China will be handled with sincere caution and the international community will continue to regard the CCP with distrust.
Despite this, China shows no signs of slowing down in its bid to project influence onto the developing world. As well as this, the reparation of U.S. foreign policy and global standing will now be in the hands of President-Elect Joe Biden. Despite hopes that he can tackle bipartisan disagreements with diplomacy, his immediate focus may be America’s struggles with COVID-19 instead of competing with Chinese ambitions.
Only time will be able to tell if China can regain control of the narrative and project a sense of stability, or if it has turned away the nations it dreams of leading.
Noah Diamantopoulos is a Master of International Relations student at The University of Melbourne, with a keen focus on affairs in the Asia-Pacific region.