How to build a “credible, lovable and respectable” China? How can you be lovely if you are not of good character?

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping recently asked Chinese officials to “strive to build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China. Some believe that Xi is making adjustments to his previous “war wolf diplomacy” to reverse the negative image that has resulted. According to several China experts interviewed by VOA, whether China is “credible, lovable and respectable” has less to do with its diplomatic style and more to do with its behavior, or the substance of its diplomacy. If the substance does not change, they say, the West is unlikely to “fall in love” with China, no matter how much the style changes.

Q: At a recent group study of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, General Secretary Xi Jinping asked Chinese officials to “strengthen and improve international communications to present a true, three-dimensional and comprehensive China. Is it because the West does not know China well enough that China’s image in the West is becoming increasingly negative? He also asked Chinese officials to “be open and confident, but also humble and modest, and strive to build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China”, which means that China will change its previous “war wolf” diplomacy and other aggressive practices?

Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, and author of “The Silent Invasion: How China Turned Australia into a Puppet State”: “One of the problems with the CPPCC study sessions is that they don’t think they have a problem, it’s the world’s perception that has a problem. So the Communist Party must change the way the rest of the world sees China, not change what it does in the rest of the world, hence Xi Jinping’s emphasis on gaining a greater voice for the Chinese Communist Party. In the Chinese Communist Party’s thinking, since China is perfect, there are problems with foreigners’ perceptions and foreigners’ understanding, so they must educate us through greater discourse and overseas propaganda. In my opinion, this is a profound misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the reality of the situation. …… It’s delusional for him to think that by educating us, we will turn around.”

In “The Power of Persuasion,” David Bandurski, director of the China Media Studies Program at the University of Hong Kong, analyzes, “There is much in the collective study that makes us stop and think: he describes the current challenge as The ‘struggle for public opinion,’ a Mao-era term; his continued emphasis on the need to educate foreigners to see the benefits of the CCP; his talk of mobilization, increased financial investment and training, and, more importantly, his emphasis on the need for local leaders to incorporate the building of international communications capacity into their ideological work, all hardly inspire confidence that the CCP will make a major change in its (propaganda) tone. In the next sentence of expanding ‘the circle of friends of international public opinion’, he again emphasizes ‘the struggle for public opinion’. In such a struggle, there are bound to be compliant media and those who defend them, which are their friends, and journalists, scholars and politicians who insist on criticism, which are their enemies, and these are the very people they aim to eliminate with these outreach operations.”

Ban also said that the CCP would not change its ways, as evidenced by the fact that the CCP Central Committee’s Politburo Study Session invited Professor Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University to propose work for it. “Zhang Weiwei is a staunch defender of the political system led by the Chinese Communist Party, the so-called Chinese model. In a 2011 debate with American scholar Francis Fukuyama, Zhang Weiwei praised the Chinese system, arguing that the Western democratic system ‘may only exist for a short time’ in human history.”

David Lampton, a leading American expert on China.

“I hope they will change, and I’m willing to look at their future actions with an open mind, but their foreign actions have not changed. If you look at the 20th Communist Party Congress coming up, Xi Jinping has to make China look tough ……

…… First, let’s look at China’s relations with those ‘middle powers’, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, etc. China is tougher with a significant number of these countries, which happen to be allies of the United States or have close relations with The countries that are close to the United States. You can also see from the recent Sino-European agreement on investment cooperation arrangements that was delayed, and some of the medium power countries are supporting tighter restrictions on transferring technology to China. I don’t think China is changing its behavior toward these ‘middle powers’. As long as China is perceived to be tough on U.S. allies and friends, it will be difficult for the United States to be very accommodating to China. Another major issue in China’s relations with the outside world is China’s treatment of Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and I don’t think Xi Jinping will change his approach to governing China because foreigners are unhappy.”

Q: At the study session, Xi said, “We should strengthen the propaganda and interpretation of the CPC to help foreign people realize that the CPC is truly fighting for the happiness of the Chinese people and understand why the CPC can, why Marxism works, and why socialism with Chinese characteristics is good.” Do you think the Western public will accept China’s argument that its authoritarian system is superior to the Western democratic system?

Hamilton: “You know in the West, the idea of freedom, everyday freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of movement, those are very precious. I mean deep down, it’s the nature of the people who live in a democratic society. When they see the news coming from China, the crackdown on Xinjiang, the atrocities in Hong Kong in particular, the constant threats to occupy Taiwan with violence and so on, people say, ‘Well, you know this is not my kind of system.’ More and more people are now being arrested or imprisoned in China for no reason, for long periods of time. In the West, even supporters of China have a hard time defending Beijing’s actions. Beijing will never be able to get most people, the vast majority of Westerners, to accept the claim that the Chinese system is superior. The only way they can win this battle is by punishing, suppressing and punishing those who speak out.

Bonnie Glaser, head of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the US

There are aspects of the Chinese system that are indeed unacceptable and, in some cases, even condemnable to people in the West. The way China treats minorities, the way it treats those who criticize Xi Jinping’s policies. Lawyers who wish to help others are being thrown in jail simply for speaking out what is on their minds. There is no doubt that Westerners would strongly oppose this practice. We will never think this aspect of the Chinese system is cute. There are many other aspects of the Chinese political system that Westerners dislike, including subsidies to state-owned enterprises, including the treatment of Chinese women, the one-child policy, forced abortions, that sort of thing. …… Some aspects of Chinese policy, the way they implement domestic policy, yes, the West is always unacceptable and does not find it endearing.

I think that the U.S. and China are in the beginning stages of an ideological battle, and for many years there has been a focus on economic and military competition, but the ideological competition is getting stronger and stronger. The competition about which political system is better is also getting stronger. China says its system is better to its own people, to the West as well, and that has drawn a strong reaction, especially from U.S. President Joe Biden.”

Q: If you were Xi Jinping’s foreign policy adviser, what would China do if it really wanted to project a “credible, lovable and respectable” image of China?

Hamilton: “If Beijing wants to project a ‘credible, lovable, respectable image of China,’ then it has to change the way it behaves, change the way the Chinese Communist Party behaves, and that can’t be done through PR and marketing campaigns. The problem now is not the way the message is peddled, but the underlying message coming out of China, out of Beijing. It is a message of intolerance, threat and aggression. There is nothing cute about such a China or the Chinese Communist Party. This is also

the reason why the Western public and elites have stopped supporting China in the last three or four years.”

Gladys: “I think the most important thing is not the style of Chinese diplomacy, but the substance of Chinese diplomacy. Even if the tone of Chinese diplomats is more moderate, that won’t matter much if the policy itself doesn’t change. War-wolf diplomacy is just a style that is more assertive or aggressive in the language used. Yes, if they decide to abandon that style in favor of more friendly language, we should welcome that, but I don’t think we can say it will solve the problems that exist if they don’t start addressing the (substantive) problems with Chinese diplomacy.

These examples include the economic coercion of Australia, the intimidation and bullying of countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam in the South China Sea with maritime police or maritime militia vessels, the military intimidation of Taiwan, and so on. These are all examples of China’s actions, China’s foreign policy, that in my view need to be changed. If China’s actions don’t change, I don’t think that we can say that because China now has a better tone, China is cute.”

Lampton: “I would say the key to a ‘cuter China’ policy is figuring out how to improve the way they deal with Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, that’s one aspect. Secondly, obviously, maintaining economic growth, caring about the rest of the world, starting to move to a reassuring foreign policy rather than a deterrent and unifying foreign policy, moving to a cooperative foreign policy …… The world is about actions, not rhetoric.”

In an email to Voice of America, Ben Chi-yuen, director of the China Media Studies Program at the University of Hong Kong, said, “One of the biggest challenges to telling the China story well is that it is too narrowly conceived and too limited. The real strength of a country comes from the diversity of ideas and voices, but this is wasted in the pursuit of formal consistency.

To me, the idea that a country should be portrayed in a positive light, that it should be ‘believable and lovable and honorable,’ is inherently problematic. And to think that such an image can be shaped and maintained is even more foolish. Chinese leaders say they want to have the discourse that the West enjoys, but what country in the West simply enjoys a positive image, untouched by social, political, cultural and economic realities? It’s a mirage.”