Losing Control of the Narrative? China’s Image Problem

Street art of Xi Jinping with yellow and red paint
Source: "Xi Jinping, painted portrait _DDC2126" by Abode of Chaos is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Noah Diamantopoulos

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.