This will be remembered by many as the year that China did near-irreparable damage to its international reputation and image.
Chinese leaders and policymakers have generally understood that China’s gradual rise to international prominence would bring with it challenges, especially regarding the perceptions of others. To allay the fears of outsiders about its rise, China has, for the past decade or so, attempted a multi-pronged charm offensive aimed at the rest of the world.
Billions were spent on soft-power initiatives such as the Beijing Olympics, promotional videos, media expansion and the proliferation of Confucius Institutes across the globe. Diplomatic efforts went beyond traditional forms and included an emphasis on “sister city” partnerships between Chinese and other cities.
In more recent years, China has even sought to become something of a defender of globalisation, spearheading new institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and new economic programmes like the Belt & Road Initiative.
A big gripe in China is that it has never been given a fair chance by the West to demonstrate its envisaged international role and has been treated with double standards.
China has some legitimate points here. Its rise has often been viewed through a Western-centric lens which associates any emerging international behemoth with suspicion and fear. Furthermore, latent Sinophobia has at times reared its head.
But, in recent years, much of blame lies with China itself. The ongoing Hong Kong crisis has been a source of tremendous negative PR for China, even though Beijing’s handling of the situation so far has been quite patient and reserved, certainly much more than many in the West expected.
There’s the haranguing and quasi-boycott of the NBA over a tweet of the Houston Rocket’s general manager expressing support for the Hong Kong protesters. Jerseys were burned, murals and logos painted over, and big-time sponsors severed ties with the NBA.
Although the NBA has returned to Chinese screens, the Houston Rockets (the most popular team in China) remain banned, suggesting that Beijing will not forget this incident for some time.
And the Hong Kong issue has not just affected the NBA. There was the pressuring of Blizzard Entertainment, which led to the barring of a player who made critical comments about Hong Kong. Apple and Google have also capitulated to Chinese demands with regard to protest-related emojis and apps.
And it is not just Hong Kong, China has been pressuring foreign companies or entities that deviate from their narrative on topics such as Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Film fans were reminded of China’s influence in Hollywood by the removal the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Japan’s flag from the flight jacket of Tom Cruise in the upcoming Top Gun film, while the animated movie Abominable showed the South China Sea with the disputed “nine-dash line” of China’s territorial claims.
The capitulation of Western companies to Chinese demands demonstrates China’s useful market power and how it can be used to get its way. But, at the same time, there are costs to wielding this power. The problem for China is that many of its other initiatives have been faltering in 2019. There are the well-documented issues with the Belt & Road Initiative, and the concerns around the Confucius Institutes expanded into a broader issue of untoward Chinese influence on academic freedom in Britain and Australia.
Even in sister-city diplomacy, where China has arguably led the way internationally, the news that Prague and Beijing have severed their sister-city agreement,
after the Czech Republic’s capital-backed out of a clause on Taiwan’s status, raises questions about these arrangements moving forward.
While China has been doing a great deal to tackle environmental issues on the domestic front, 2019 was the year that the world woke up to what its rise means for global ecology. China is returning to building coal-fired power plants, heedless of the climate targets set out in the Paris agreement. Meanwhile, its growing demand for meat is also contributing to deforestation.
Perhaps most damaging, however, has been the continued exposure of Chinese treatment of Uygurs and other Islamic minorities in Xinjiang. The leak of official documents in recent months has painted a clearer picture of what is happening in these re-education camps. China’s claims of using the camps to fight terrorism are unlikely to be seen as legitimate or proportional by many in the West.
The foreign public is starting to react to the revelations about Xinjiang. Consumer groups have begun pressuring Western companies using products from Xinjiang. The recent comments by Arsenal footballer Mesut Ozil, in which he chided Muslims for not speaking out against the camps in Xinjiang, have also made the headlines.
All these issues are taking their toll on China’s international image, recent Pew surveys
suggest. In the space of one year, China’s favour-ability rating dropped in 17 of the 26 countries surveyed. In eight of these countries, the drop was more than 10 percentage points (Indonesia, Canada and Sweden all experienced a 17-percentage-point shift).
Despite the damage done to China’s international reputation in 2019, the situation is not irreparable. But, as it stands, China is not doing much to reverse this negative soft-power trend.
Other than employing some sophisticated strategies to counter the sources of bad press, China is ultimately relying on the draw of its market to quell these scandals. While it might work in the short term because money still speaks continued knee-jerk reactions to outsider opinions will breed further cynicism externally.
Ultimately, if China is to fulfil its desire of securing a prime position in a newer, more equal international order, it is through co-option, not coercion, that it will be most successful.
Nicholas Ross Smith is an assistant professor of international studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. Tracey Fallon is an assistant professor of China studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.