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As China’s power grows, ‘hearts and minds’ is still a struggle


China has risen to be an economic superpower. But a soft power superpower? Not so fast.

In many liberal democracies, unfavorable opinions toward China are at a high, according to a poll released this week by Pew Research Center. Criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus is a significant factor, but the souring of public opinion was underway for at least two years before, possibly impacted by developments like mass protests in Hong Kong and internment camps in Xinjiang. 

It’s complicated Beijing’s bid to inspire support for its authoritarian model. But in response, the government appears to be taking a two-track approach: adopting a combative stance toward liberal democracies, while promoting its model among weaker and authoritarian-leaning regimes. Leaders may be purposefully projecting a tougher image toward the West, some experts suggest, symbolized by what has been dubbed “wolf warrior” diplomacy, named for a blockbuster action movie.

“You started to see this more assertive diplomatic stance as the U.S.-China trade war heated up, and with Beijing beginning to realize it needed to set the domestic stage for what was going to be a protracted struggle with the United States,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor at Cornell University.

China is struggling to wield soft power even as it rises as an economic superpower, complicating Beijing’s bid to inspire support for its authoritarian model and vision for reforming global governance, according to recent polls and China experts.

Instead, public attitudes toward Beijing and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping have dramatically worsened, at least in many wealthy countries, despite their growing consensus that China is now the world’s top economy. 

In response, Beijing appears to be taking a two-track approach, experts say, adopting a combative stance toward liberal democracies while promoting its model among weaker and authoritarian-leaning regimes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

“You started to see this more assertive diplomatic stance as the U.S.-China trade war heated up, and with Beijing beginning to realize it needed to set the domestic stage for what was going to be a protracted struggle with the United States,” says Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor at Cornell University and author of “Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations.”

On average, three quarters of people surveyed in 14 countries with advanced economies in North America, Western Europe, East Asia, and Australia held negative views toward China and lacked confidence that Mr. Xi will do the right thing in world affairs, according to a Pew Research Center poll released this week. In most of those countries, the unfavorable opinion toward China hit its highest level since the polling began 12 years ago.

“China just doesn’t have much capacity for soft power, and there is not much of a magnanimous element to the way China operates around the world,” says James McGregor, chairman of the greater China region for APCO Worldwide, a consulting firm. “China treats the world the same way it treats its own citizens and how government officials treat each other – it’s all transactional, it’s all about the one with the most power saying what goes,” says Mr. McGregor, who has lived in China for three decades.    

Widespread criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak is significantly impacting opinion, with almost two-thirds of those surveyed by Pew saying Beijing handled it badly. Concerns have centered on Beijing’s delayed reporting of the virus and suppression of whistleblower doctors.

But the souring of public opinion was underway for at least two years before the pandemic, Pew polling shows. Other possible impacts include major developments such as Hong Kong’s mass protests in 2019 against Beijing’s encroachment on the territory’s promised autonomy; China’s internment of an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in camps in the western region of Xinjiang, starting in 2017; and the growing U.S.-China rift over trade, technology, and other issues.

Imam Talib Shareef waits to speak as he gathers with others near the White House to call on the U.S. government to respond to Beijing’s alleged abuses of the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in China, near the White House in Washington, July 3, 2020.

“China can do a much better job at telling its own story,” says Jia Qingguo, professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies. “China has not been very good at explaining … problematic areas, like Xinjiang,” he says.

“Wolf warrior” approach

China’s leaders may also be purposefully projecting a tougher image toward the West, some experts suggest, symbolized by what has been dubbed “wolf warrior” diplomacy, after a blockbuster Chinese action movie. For example, in recent years Chinese diplomats have taken to Twitter – which is banned in China – to advance often stridently nationalistic messages.

“By September 2019, you had Xi Jinping encouraging cadres to ‘dare to struggle’ and ‘be good at fighting,’ and giving Foreign Ministry spokespeople like Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying a much longer leash to engage in all sorts of brazen social media messaging,” says Professor Weiss.

This combativeness may reflect a view in Beijing that aggressively asserting China’s interests can in some cases yield better results than a more persuasive approach, Professor Weiss and other experts say.

“They may have judged that it is better to be feared than to be loved,” says Professor Weiss. “They are certainly not winning hearts and minds with their current strategy.”

Amid accelerating hard power competition with the United States, Beijing is likely to be less concerned about its image than about getting what it wants, says Robert Ross, a professor at Boston College and an expert on China’s security policy. “If China is going to exercise its power, there will be critics,” he says. “The question is whether the gains are worth it [and] is it worth the criticism on the front pages of newspapers.”

Dual strategy

Meanwhile, experts point out that attitudes toward China are not uniform across the globe. Beijing maintains a favorable image in some countries, such as Nigeria, while its model appeals to like-minded authoritarian states such as Cambodia. “China doesn’t always have to act, there is a degree of noncoerced followership,” says Rosemary Foot, senior research fellow in international relations at the University of Oxford.

This reflects in part Beijing’s dual strategy when it comes to soft power.

China’s leaders “are still presenting themselves as a model that is superior to Western liberal democracies in the way they managed the pandemic, and that narrative and effort to shape the outside perception is very much targeting the global south,” says Nadège Rolland, senior fellow in political and security affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research.

“In the Western countries, we have been more the recipient of the wolf warrior diplomacy, but some of that is a way for China to position itself as a country that stands up for itself …. and that is appealing in a way for portions of the global south,” she says.

It’s a pragmatic approach in which China targets developing countries in Eurasia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa – the “soft underbelly of Western influence,” Ms. Rolland says.

“It’s like the Leninist principle: ‘Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed. If you encounter steel, withdraw.’ So the steel right now is felt in advanced industrial democracies, in the U.S., in Asia, in Europe,” she says, as they push back on China’s human rights record and military expansion.

“So instead of pushing harder, you use those efforts in other parts of the world more amenable to your views,” she says – countries that “could then become your partners and vote with you at the U.N. and be your friends on the international stage whenever you need voices to back you up on what you are doing in the Xinjiang region or things like that. This is what we are starting to see.”

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