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Chinese soft power: more Huntington than Nye?

– See The Diplomat

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China’s Reputational Deficit

“A lonely flower appreciating itself” (gu fang zi shang 孤芳自赏)

Most Chinese ignore how others perceive them. The typical Chinese person does not know, understand or care how the rest of the world thinks of China. And this is one of the fundamental issues that make China’s globalization costly, and it has even lead to misunderstandings on China’s diplomacy.[1]

National flags flying high above Shanghai's famous Bund.

National flags flying high above Shanghai’s famous Bund.

An emergent China is perceived far more positively by its own population relative to how it is perceived by publics in the rest of the world. According to a number of major indexes, the difference between positive domestic perceptions of the Chinese state relative to international perceptions of it are greater than for any other country. In short, the Chinese state enjoys a far more positive reputation at home than it does abroad. While it might be true of many countries that their own populations self-reflect more positively than others perceive them, the fact is that nowhere else is the difference between positive domestic perception and negative external perception so great as in China.

The Reputation Institute’s CountryRep 2009 Report, “measures the overall respect, trust, esteem, admiration and good feelings that the public in the G8 countries (US, Japan, UK, Russia, France, Germany, Canada, and Italy) hold toward 34 countries outside of their home country and how 33 of those countries rate their own nations”.[2] CountryRep measures perceptions of countries based on key performance indicators designed to assess the relative appeal of the country to respondents in relation to attributes that fall into three categories: “effective government”, “advanced economy” and “appealing environment”. In this report, China rated number one in relation to the degree to which a country’s public over-rates itself in comparison to external perception.[3] In relation to the question “Which countries like themselves the most?” China managed rating of 78.96, yet in relation to “Which are the best reputed countries?” China managed only 38.12. Accordingly, in terms of the degree to which a country’s public over-rates itself, China and Russia ranked scored significantly higher in first and second place, with Japan interestingly scoring negatively due to its public underrating itself relative to how it was rated by other publics.

This brief analysis utilizes various nation-branding approaches to explore this contradiction in China’s national image, with specific reference to perceptions of China among populations in the developed West. On the one hand, a self-confident and ascendant China will be reflected in data that portrays a national population that rates China and its influence in the world highly. On the other hand, a wary and untrusting developed world will be reflected in data that portrays international populations that view China and its influence negatively.

Measuring the Reputational Divide

According to a 2009 poll by researchers at the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and Globescan for the BBC World Service, 92% of Chinese surveyed were of the opinion that China has a mainly positive influence on the world, whereas only 39% of people surveyed in 20 other major countries agreed.[4]

Negative views of China were highest amongst European and North American countries, where they had a generally unfavorable view of China, while an even larger majority (80%) disapproved of China’s expanding military strength. Several European countries also cast a worried eye on the Middle Kingdom with majorities in Italy (61%), the Czech Republic (58%), Germany (54%), France (51%) as well as Turkey saying they held an unfavorable view of China.[5] The BBC World Service Poll found that while views of China were predominantly positive in 2008, they had become substantially less so by 2009. On average, in 2008, 45% of respondents had a positive view while 33% had a negative view, but by 2009 positive views had slipped six points to 39%, while negative views had risen to 40%. According to GlobeScan Chairman Doug Miller, the poll suggests that China “has much to learn about winning hearts and minds in the world. It seems that a successful Olympic games has not been enough to offset other concerns that people have”.[6]

Propaganda image of construction worker at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo site - a great triumph for domestic audiences, but internationally unremarkable.

Propaganda image of construction worker at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo site – a great triumph for domestic audiences, but internationally unremarkable.

Similar results were reflected in the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s Spring 2007 Survey. [7] In answer to the question “Please tell me if you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable opinion of China?”, 93% of Chinese respondents had a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” opinion of China, while 42% of US respondents felt the same way about China, 52% of South Korean, 49% of British, 47% of French, 39% of Spanish, 34% of German, 29% of Japanese and 27% of Italian respondents.

According to both the 2009 BBC World Service Poll and the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s Spring 2007 Survey, perceptions of China were generally more positive among the populations of developing countries than among the populations of developed countries. Negative perceptions of China were more prevalent among the developed nations of Europe, East Asia and North America, and less prevalent in developing Africa and Central and South America. Among respondent Western European, North American and Northeast Asian populations (including G8 populations), the Pew survey indicated far more positive opinions in relation to the US compared to those held in relation to China and Russia.

Perhaps a more nuanced differentiation of Chinese versus international perceptions of China is charted by Y&R’s BrandAsset Valuator (BAV) study, which measures the performance of the China brand across several international markets. International respondents were least impressed with China in relation to the attributes of “dependable”, “original” and “on the move”. Interestingly, these were also the attributes Chinese respondents were least impressed with, yet to a far lesser extent. According to Joshua Cooper Ramo, the author of a paper for which the BAV data was collated, “China’s problem is more complex than whether or not its national image is “good” or “bad”, but hinges on a more difficult puzzle: China’s image of herself and other nations’ views of her are out of alignment”. [8]

The Implications of Reputational Deficit

Ramo contends that “China’s greatest strategic threat today is its national image (国家形象 guojia xingxiang)”.[9] The threat, argues Ramo, comes in the form of the externalities faced as a result of poor image: quality of foreign investment and technology transfers, increased commodity costs due to uncertainty, and inability to exploit trade and investment opportunities due to regulatory and lobbyist barriers, lack of stakeholder confidence and misunderstanding. These externalities are increasingly well documented. In Australia, for example, a 2011 Lowy Institute poll indicated that 57% of respondents thought that the government was allowing too much Chinese investment (only 3% thought there was not enough). John Larum writes “Chinese investors and officials frequently see the Australian media playing a negative role in reporting on Chinese FDI into Australia”.[10] This is seen to result in a more negative government approach towards Chinese investment as reflected in perceptions of discriminatory regulatory practices. The collapse of the Chinalco – Rio Tinto deal in 2008 and the rejection on national security grounds of China Minmetals Non-ferrous Metals’ takeover of OZ Minerals in 2009 are seen as examples of such discrimination.

Could China’s powerful future be compromised by poor image? Public surveys unequivocally support the assertion that the Chinese nation overrates itself relative to how it is rated by publics in OECD countries. This suggests that either these publics are relatively critical of China or that the Chinese are not self-critical enough, or a combination of these. Interestingly, it further suggests that while the Chinese state’s soft power is internationally weak, its ‘internal’ soft power has remained a surprisingly effective influencing force. As China ascends towards superpower status, domestic self-confidence will continue to increase while foreign unease will likely grow.  Greater power will mean greater image problems for an already problematic nation brand. The potential implications of this for China are profound.


[1] Zhang Lijuan, “Furthering cooperation needs better perceptions”, china.org.cn, 21 May 2011. http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/2011-05/21/content_22608375.htm accessed 25 May 2011.

[2] CountryRep 2009, Reputation Institute, 2009. p.12.

[3] ibid. p.15.

[4] China’s Far Too Rosy Self Image, http://bbs.chinadaily.com.cn/viewthread.php?gid+&tid=631844, accessed March 2010.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Doug Miller, quoted in Views of China and Russia Decline in Global Poll, BBC World Service, 06 February 2009. p.2.

[7] Pew Global Attitudes Project: Spring 2007 Survey – Survey of 47 Publics, 2007.

[8] Referenced in Joshua Cooper Ramo, BRAND CHINA (淡色中国), London, The Foreign Policy Centre, February 2007. p.12. http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/827.pdf accessed 15 September 2010.

[9] Joshua Cooper Ramo, op cit. p.12.

[10] John Larum, Chinese Perspectives on Investing in Australia, Lowy Institute for International Policy, June 2011. p.16.

Xi Jinping’s recurring Chinese dream

According to a recent Qiushi opinion piece, “The Chinese dream has been nurtured and has grown from the sediments in the collective memory and history of our entire nation, humiliation and suffering are its soil, and that is why it is so profound, why it moves the people’s hearts so, and shakes people’s minds so.”

Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ reprises a particularly Chinese nationalist rhetoric of rejuvenation, renaissance and historical redemption. It was the dream of reformers of the new Chinese republic a century ago; it was the dream of revolutionary communists a half century hence. It is the recurring dream that just maybe a new galvanizing ideology and enlightened leadership can steer China out of a largely humiliating modern history towards reclaiming its place as a great world power.

Living in the Past

It is widely held that the traditional Chinese view of history is a cyclical one, of timelessness and proximity to the past.

In dynastic China system of dating which was based on the year of an Emperor’s reign, for example, reinforced an historical consciousness devoid of a sense of change over the longue duree. In the popular and “high” cultures of pre-twentieth century China, writes William Jenner, “there is little sense of secular development or change, unless as a decline from imagined golden and silver ages of remote, pre-dynastic antiquity”.[1]

If the Chinese were to put their faith in any historical locality, it was the past, not the future, that was idealized. “In traditional China”, claims Vera Schwarcz, “history took the place of religion”.[2]  A strong attachment to the past, she claims, was a “sacred commitment”, and references to the past became a major source of moral value. The past was regarded as a repository of everything good, an exemplification of virtue.

Throughout Chinese history, the past was held aloft as a normative symbol, a goal of history, an example of the way things ought to be. Even the great iconoclast, Mao Zedong, was a man embedded within an intense interest of and deference to the past. Crucially, Jiang Zemin’s leadership saw cultural nationalism take a prominent place within Chinese socialist ideology.

The ability to draw lineage from the established moral tradition and cosmological order, and to equate its ambitions with deep historical imperatives, has formed the bedrock of the Chinese Communist Party’s political legitimacy – despite its various attacks on tradition.

Living for the future

Flanked by charisma and a glamorous wife, Xi Jinping has been viewed outside of China as something of a redux himself, evoking comparisons with JFK.

According to the Financial Times, Mr Xi’s Chinese dream evokes the saccharine sentimentality and social mobility of the Kennedy era. “The American dream may have had a bad 50 years since JFK’s untimely demise but Mr Xi seems to think it is ripe for reinvention now, halfway across the world in China.”

Notwithstanding such comparisons, the Chinese dream is a message of hope that captures and harnesses the domestic optimism welcoming new leadership. In this way, perhaps a more apt and recent American comparison might be found in the messaging of hope that had framed President Obama during – and for a time following – his initial race to the White House. Ultimately, however, for Obama and for any object of great expectations, hope fades.

TRT5

[Caption: public service advertising posters surrounding a construction site at a busy Beijing street corner promotes an ideal future. Photographed by author.]

The obvious challenge for a fledgling leadership is to start turning the rhetoric of hope into action… for Xi Jinping to turn his Chinese dreams into reality. The state of international affairs suggests, however, that China’s new president is playing on a pitch more favorable to that faced by his modern predecessors. China, it appears, is now steaming inevitably towards a future in which its national power will eclipse even that of the US. The country’s already well-documented rapid rise may well prove Mr Xi’s dream rhetoric to be something more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Banking on historical redemption makes sure-fire sense when history is on your side. The rhetorical device of the Chinese dream is one that resonates with the collective Chinese memory, and its narrative of redemption resonates with what will be China’s likely future. In this sense, as a byline of the fledgling Xi Jinping administration, the Chinese dream makes for an effective weapon in the arsenal of what is being increasingly referred to in Chinese bureaucratic speak as ‘internal soft power’.


[1] W J F Jenner, The Tyranny of History [1992] London, Penguin, 1994. p.8.

[2] Vera Schwarcz, No Solace from Lethe: History, Memory and Cultural Identity in Twentieth Century China, in Tu Wei-ming (ed) The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1991. pp.76-77.