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Hugo Jones

January 12th, 2022

Telling China’s Story Well or Speaking in Tongues? Narrative Communication Challenges in China’s Public Diplomacy

2 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Hugo Jones

January 12th, 2022

Telling China’s Story Well or Speaking in Tongues? Narrative Communication Challenges in China’s Public Diplomacy

2 comments | 3 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

  • Despite investing heavily in public diplomacy, China still struggles to communicate a compelling “China story” to foreign publics.
  • Several practical challenges, including increased sensitivity to foreign criticism, a recent people-to-people deficit and a misapplication of online public diplomacy, hinder the “China story”.
  • These challenges are not inherently the result of China’s political system, and the “China story” does not necessarily have to be a poor one. Given Beijing’s capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, a shift in its public diplomacy strategy could take place to recognise and address these challenges.

Ahead of US President Joe Biden’s inaugural Summit for Democracy in December 2021, China’s public diplomacy machine went into overdrive. The social media accounts of Chinese diplomats and state-affiliated media went to great lengths to try and redefine (or at least obfuscate) shared understandings of democracy, claiming that China’s political system was in fact more democratic than the US’s.

A white paper released by the State Council Information Office on 4 December read: “whole-process people’s democracy integrates process-oriented democracy with results-oriented democracy, procedural democracy with substantive democracy, direct democracy with indirect democracy, and people’s democracy with the will of the state.” Few international observers understood what this meant. Far from “telling China’s story well”, the white paper seemed to be talking in riddles.

China has had some success in extending its international “discourse power” to influence elites and policymakers at state level. However, China’s external communication still struggles to “tell the China story well” to a broader public international audience – in other words, to build shared narratives in the sub-state international realm which bolster a positive image about China.

A Pew survey of international public opinion towards China in 2020 found that negative views had increased across all seventeen developed countries polled. A 2021 Afrobarometer survey of several African countries found that public opinion towards China was generally more positive than in developed countries, but China still polled lower than the US on a number of key items, such as their respective developmental models. This is surprising for many, considering China’s huge trade and infrastructure footprint in Africa and the many soft power initiatives China has deployed across the continent.

The “China Story” has been a focal point of China’s diplomatic efforts under Xi Jinping, who regularly entreats Chinese entities which interact with the outside world to “tell China’s story well” (jianghao zhongguo gushi). The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is the principal agency tasked with coordinating the telling of the “China Story” to foreign audiences, with resources which have been greatly expanded under Xi.

There are several theoretical frameworks with which to understand the project of “telling China’s story well”, such as soft power, sharp power, discourse power or ideational power. Here I consider the “China story” in fairly practical terms as a form of public diplomacy – a strategic communication effort to develop a favourable international image amongst foreign publics.

The “China story” can be understood as a bundle of several narratives that China’s leadership hopes to popularise: China as a provider of global public goods, China as a champion of win-win cooperation, China as a developmental model, and China as a non-threatening rising power. This narrative perspective focuses on the public elements of the “China story” told to a general (or ‘popular’) international audience, putting aside some of the UFWD’s more covert operations which seek to interfere with sections of foreign societies (although this distinction is not always entirely clear).

So why does China struggle to tell its own story well? And why has this problem become more acute in recent years? Some argue that China is fundamentally poor at communicating with the outside world due to the nature of its political system, and is destined to remain an unpopular global power. However, in this blog post I argue that poor global reception of the “China story” is not necessarily due to China’s model of governance, and is instead exacerbated by a number of practical challenges which have emerged over time. Amongst these are three key challenges: an oversensitivity to foreign criticism; a recent people-to-people deficit; and a misapplication of online public diplomacy.

Weaponised sensitivity

The notion of “sensitive issues” informed by Beijing’s “core interests” is well-established in China’s public diplomacy. China has historically been able to pressure private companies and entrepreneurs which operate in China to adhere to the party line on Taiwan, by publicly reprimanding those that list or present Taiwan as an independent country.

In recent years the number of sensitive issues has increased beyond the “Three Ts” – Tiananmen Square, Taiwan and Tibet – with Xinjiang and Hong Kong becoming particularly contentious issues which corporate entities have struggled to avoid wading into. For example, the US National Basketball Association lost broadcasting privileges in China for two years after a team executive, Daryl Morey, expressed solidarity with Hong Kong’s protestors in 2019.

This sensitivity is often applied strategically when required and withdrawn when its purpose is served. In November 2021 reports emerged that JP Morgan’s Chief Executive, Jamie Dimon, had made a joke about the bank outliving the CCP. Dimon swiftly apologised, and many expected a dressing-down by Beijing. But Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that his regret was “noted” and called on the media to stop hyping the matter. This emphasises that China’s oversensitivity is at least to some degree a choice by decision makers rather than a matter of fact.

Furthermore, the notion of “sensitive issues” has gradually expanded to the point that it encapsulates any and all criticism of China and the CCP. In November 2021 Tom Fowdy, a British journalist who has contributed columns to CGTN for several years, published an opinion piece for Russia Today critical of the Chinese government’s handling of Peng Shuai’s alleged sexual assault by former Vice-Premiere Zhang Gaoli. According to Fowdy, despite devoting his entire journalistic career to flattering Beijing, this piece lost him his job as a regular columnist at CGTN.

A recent interview with China’s Ambassador to the US Qin Gang epitomised this problem. Speaking in December 2021, Qin told a group of American media outlets: “China is being blamed, attacked, lectured. Facing unfriendly words and actions which interfere in China’s internal affairs and are harmful to our interests, a Chinese national, not just a Chinese diplomat, will rise up to say no, to argue, to fight back. We are not fighting, but fighting back”.

Trying to impose a unitary image of China on foreign audiences ultimately inhibits China’s ability to popularise a positive international image. As Jian Wang writes, country image as a concept is fundamentally multidimensional, where “people may like certain aspects of a country while detesting others”. It becomes difficult for foreign individuals to understand and repeat the “China story” if the parameters of acceptable discourse are so limited that discussing China at all becomes a potential minefield.

An emerging people-to-people deficit

Cultivating strong people-to-people ties has been a core element of China’s modern communication with the outside world. Peter Martin points out in his recent book, China’s Civilian Army, that this strategy dates back to the early days of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Yan’an. However, over the past two years China has closed its borders to most international travellers to maintain its Zero-COVID policy. As a result, there are now far fewer opportunities for meaningful people-to-people exchanges to take place inside China.

This includes a huge number of international students – it is estimated that nearly half a million foreign university students have been waiting to return to their studies in China since the pandemic began two years ago. Education became one of China’s most successful soft power outputs over the past two decades, carrying Chinese language, culture and perspectives back to the home countries of a diverse pool of scholars. Education provided an ideal discursive environment to mould foreign individuals to adopt and repeat narratives and vocabulary which China finds preferable.

This people-to-people deficit can be understood not only as a loss of narrative promotion, but also as a loss of narrative control. Foreign academics, researchers, civil society representatives and journalists who would usually travel to China to conduct their work understood that this access was effectively conditional on working within certain narrative frameworks and avoiding criticism of sensitive issues, such as human rights abuses. Visa issues were not uncommon for those vocally critical, as well as reported harassment and intimidation of certain foreign journalists.

But with the prospect of visiting China in the near future being minimal, this implicit threat of punishment can no longer encourage self-censorship amongst foreign voices with the same force.  This may partially explain why some China scholars have recently become more vocally critical of China’s domestic policies.

Moreover, China’s closed borders have given many foreigners the chance to consider if they want to return to this hostile environment. A ChinaFile survey of several hundred contributors found that less than 50% of respondents thought it was likely they would return to China once restrictions were lifted. Many cited the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

People-to-people communication is of course a two-way process, and in this way other actors are also responsible for reduced opportunity for people-to-people exchanges – the US continues to create an unwelcoming environment for many Chinese nationals working and living in America and US nationals with links to China. But in the immediate term, the US as a discourse superpower can afford to do this without facing serious narrative consequences. To tell the China story well, China will eventually need more foreign voices to interact with China first-hand.

Online presence

A third practical challenge is China’s one-way communication in implementing its online public diplomacy. In recent years China has been consolidating its social media presence, including setting up a network of diplomatic and state-affiliated media accounts on Twitter. But presence is not an indication of power.

In May 2021, the Oxford Internet Institute found that Chinese diplomats in the UK used a network of fake accounts to amplify their messaging on social media platforms. At some points, 50-75% of Twitter engagement with these accounts was driven by the inauthentic network. Similarly, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report in December 2021 finding that Chinese state entities have supported foreign social media “influencers” who promote China’s image, with a particular focus on messaging around the situation in Xinjiang. The network of accounts which interacts with these influencers and shares their content is driven primarily by Chinese state media and diplomatic accounts.

This does not represent the successful communication of the China story – these amplification networks may expand the reach of these tweets, but do not necessarily increase their positive reception.

Arguably, these tactics misunderstand the benefit that online diplomacy can bring to a country’s public image: social media platforms present a unique opportunity for two-way communication, feedback mechanisms, constructive dialogues, and the co-optation of diverse voices. In neglecting this, China’s online output may end up alienating foreign audiences, such as the aggressive campaign to present China as a democracy.

Conclusions

The recent case of Peng Shuai – an ongoing individual tragedy – shows how these challenges intersect to hinder China’s public diplomacy efforts. The Chinese leadership was from the outset oversensitive to foreign criticism of a high-ranking party official accused of sexual misconduct, conflating this with criticism of the party itself. And a lack of two-way communication on social media produced a complete misreading of international public sentiment – as Chinese diplomats and state media outlets repeatedly tweeted videos and emails attributed to Peng Shuai which appeared to be either coerced or faked. This fiasco has caused severe reputational damage to China, particularly in the sporting world ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

This blog neglects a number of structural factors which interact with China’s narrative communication and public diplomacy efforts – China often must compete with a Western system of discourse which is more experienced and confident on the international stage than a Chinese system of discourse. Moreover, China’s domestic political system certainly impacts its public diplomacy and the way Chinese political actors understand narrative projection. The various actors communicating the “China story” act under certain overriding imperatives to enthusiastically align with party dogma.

But, in focusing on the processes and practices of “telling China’s story”, it becomes clear that several key challenges are not hardwired into China’s political or diplomatic DNA. And while other analyses may argue that different factors outrank those outlined above in terms of significance, the listed challenges simply serve to illustrate that China’s image problems are not immutable or inevitable.

Some recent developments show China’s capacity to recognise and address these challenges. An event held by the Center for China and Globalisation (CCG) in July 2021 saw a diverse range of opinions shared on the practice of “telling the China Story”. Like much else, we should view China’s public diplomacy as a learning process. The fate of the “China story” is not set in stone.


This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.

About the author

Hugo Jones

Hugo Jones is a programme and research associate at LSE IDEAS, The London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank. He holds an MSc in International Relations from LSE.

Posted In: Diplomacy

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