Wandering China

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How 21st-Century China Sees Public Diplomacy As a Path to Soft Power #China #PublicDiplomacy [Global Asia]

Global Asia journal: On how China wishes to be seen as a world power in the 21st-century, in its own terms.

Despite its long history of diplomacy, thinking about how it wanted to be perceived by foreign publics was never much of a concern in a past where it felt it had almost unipolar regional dominance. Today where the political landscape sees the re-rise of a multipolar world with significant power projection tucked in all corners, Zhou Qingnan makes clear the role of the ability of public diplomacy in keeping China’s transnational leveraging cards, good for use in the global marketplace of ideas and goods.

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How 21st-Century China Sees Public Diplomacy As a Path to Soft Power
By Zhou Qingan & Mo Jinwei
Source – Global Asia Journal, published September 2012

China’s stunning economic growth in the last 30 years has not resulted in positive public feelings abroad for the country as misunderstandings over many issues, including territorial disputes, have generated negative sentiment, write Qingan Zhou & Jinwei Mo. But the Chinese have in recent years experimented with discreet public diplomacy strategies to help point the way toward a more effective use of soft power as a way to build up the country’s image. The 2008 Summer Olympics hosted by Beijing were a showcase of these efforts.

Although China’s approach to soft power is still evolving, government officials and academics are using it as a way to integrate international communications, public diplomacy and cultural exchanges. China’s academic community realizes that with the country now the second largest economy in the world, it faces growing challenges in terms of its image and power despite rapid economic growth, rising per capita incomes and deepening involvement in public diplomacy over the past 30 years. It is particularly striking that from 2010 to 2012, uncertainty over China’s image and intentions emerged in the Asia-Pacific region and some African countries, due to disputes over adjacent seas and misunderstandings over foreign investment, respectively.

Chinese scholars have been studying Joseph Nye’s influential concept of soft power for some time as it touches on values, communication techniques and the confidence of one’s civilization. Therefore, China has gradually realized that public diplomacy acts as a way to achieve soft power. This has placed public diplomacy at the center of Chinese foreign relations by the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

A Strategic Choice for Public Diplomacy

Academically speaking, the emergence of the concept of public diplomacy appeared in China in the late 1990s among a group of youthful scholars. They began to research public diplomacy, which had already been influential and popular in the West for many years, using case studies such as the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the strategic propaganda efforts used by the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War era. With a heightened awareness of the importance of public diplomacy in the 21st century, researchers have begun to pay more attention to the uses of information, and a number of scholars have participated in developing a national public diplomacy strategy, meaning that the discussion has become much more focused on the needs of the nation.

Despite having a very long diplomatic history, until the beginning of economic reforms and opening, China didn’t put public diplomacy in an important position and concentrated propaganda efforts mostly on Third World countries after the 1949 revolution. The 1989 incident of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations made the Chinese government aware of the necessity of image building and international discourse as part of the reform process. Thus, in the 1990s more attention was paid by Beijing to dialogue and exchanging information in the field of diplomacy. But the Chinese government did not see the full value of public diplomacy until the 21st century. The epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 prompted the establishment of a government spokesman system and enhanced the development of Chinese public diplomacy. More recently, during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games China used its public diplomacy channels to improve its image. Over the past five years public diplomacy has been gaining popularity in Chinese society and shown its face in various ways.

Generally speaking, however, the more subtle strategy of soft power in China remains discreet, which is somehow due to traditional Chinese customs and the features of China’s public diplomacy. In Chinese tradition, rulers highlighted principles of harmony and leniency and officials respected cultural diversity. On the other hand, conforming to the public diplomacy principle of “keeping a low profile,” a key factor in the reform period, China has emphasized not only its own cultural uniqueness, but also the importance of respecting other cultures and political systems. What’s more, China’s discreet decision-making in the public diplomacy arena has also been influenced by the actions taken by the US after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.


The fact that China shares a land border with 14 different countries, more than any other nation, influences China’s public diplomacy, but there are three principles: First, enhance public relations with countries like the US, Russia and Western countries to build a positive image in the international political system; second, stabilize public relations with neighboring countries ― that became an acute concern in 2011 and the first half of 2012, when China had disputes with countries in the South China Sea concerning sovereignty issues; third, reinforce a positive image in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

China should confront and rebuff the accusation of “neo-colonialism” raised by the Western media. A great number of government-sponsored Confucius Institutes have been established and a “going abroad” strategy has been formulated for the Chinese media. The Confucius Institutes, similar to the Alliance Francaise, the British Council and various US initiatives, are a way to spread public diplomacy. With more than 7,000 Chinese teachers and volunteers going abroad annually in co-operation with more than 100 countries, China has established more than 350 Confucius Institutes and 500 Confucius Classrooms around the world. At the same time, more attention has been paid to international communication ― for example, China Central Television (CCTV) has established new branches in North America and Africa. Another 11 international CCTV channels will be opened soon and five central reporting bureaus and 50 smaller bureaus will be set up around the world to broadcast from the field.

Recently, an advertisement about China’s national image was shown on a big screen in New York’s Times Square on a space rented by the official Xinhua News Agency; this was seen as a world-class public diplomacy platform in one of the highest-profile public spaces in the world.

Meanwhile, the public opinion controversy raised by the 2008 riots in Tibet demonstrated for Chinese scholars the true power of the Internet. As a result, academics predict that the Internet will play a growing role in the field of public diplomacy, according to a recent survey conducted in China. There have been numerous videos posted on YouTube to espouse China’s view, for example, including one posted in March 2008 of a young boy saying that “Tibet is a part of China.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Qingan Zhou is Associate Professor and Deputy Director, Epstein Center for Global Media Studies, Tsinghua University. Jinwei Mo is a Research Assistant at the Epstein Center for Global Media Studies.


Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Charm Offensive, Chinese Model, Communications, Culture, Domestic Growth, Education, Government & Policy, Greater China, Influence, Mapping Feelings, Nationalism, Panda Diplomacy, Peaceful Development, Politics, Social, Soft Power, Strategy, Territorial Disputes, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities, Trade, Uncategorized,

4 Responses

  1. Godfree Roberts says:

    Au contraire. Despite the best efforts of our WEstern media, the world’s opinion of China is surprisingly positive, as Pew’s annual survey shows:

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