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China’s image crisis

Sandwiched between articles on the smog in Beijing and the political machinations of the Chinese government, a BBC article a few weeks ago featured Chinese painting, calling it “one of the world’s oldest continuous artistic traditions – and so innovative that it was centuries ahead of the European art movement”.It neatly exemplifies the main thrust of this article – China currently has something of a media-led image crisis outside its borders that threatens its ascendancy in the world order. Who can be sure of what China stands for when the CCP is quite so opaque?

So how do people all over the world view China? Perceptions appear to be almost as diverse as the country itself but key themes of surging economic growth, the prevalence of ‘Made-in-China’ products,  and rapid urbanization on an unprecedented scale all make a strong showing. According to a recent poll, 23 out of 39 nations believe China either has or will soon supplant the US as the world’s next big superpower. Whilst close neighbours view China negatively (just one in twenty Japanese think of the Chinese in a positive light), what makes 79% of El Salvadorians choose the US over China? After all, the US had a tendency to favour dictators in Latin America while China has a booming economic relationship with the region. The Chinese, for their part, think this is quite unfair – the majority, in a survey by the Pew Research Centre, felt their country deserved more respect globally than it gets now.


The cultural and linguistic gulf between the West and China is undeniable, but is underscored by the Chinese immigrant story in the West, that still taints perceptions. As with other immigrant groups, first generation Chinese made their niche in classic immigrant sector jobs characterised by manual labour, often catering to the needs of the local communities where they settled in businesses such as restaurants and laundries.This led to historical stereotypes associating the Chinese with laundries and restaurants.


In recent years this has changed as university towns are inundated with an influx of wealthy Chinese students who represent a wholly different category of educated, ambitious Chinese expats. Chinese business people are welcomed globally as the carriers of much needed investment and Chinese tourists are even spoken to in their native tongue in the most fashionable shopping districts such as 5th Avenue in New York and Knightsbridge in London .


The Western media’s portrayal of China, also contributes significantly to China’s global image crisis. International politics is obviously a major factor in the media’s decisions, but so is the Chinese government’s press censorship policies –in a vicious cycle, the censorship tends to antagonise the press further, causing more ‘bad press’. But as China’s grip on the world economy tightens, Western media may choose to impose self-censorship to protect their business interests in the country: the recent New York Times article on Bloomberg editors halting publication of an article that questioned the uncomfortable relationship between the Chinese leadership and business being one such example.


The most obvious vehicle of Beijing’s soft power efforts has been the Confucius Institutes – there are ten in France, nine in Germany and seventeen in the UK alone. But even this soft power is soft power, Chinese style. The Chinese government’s heavy-handed dealings with its neighbours – such as the recent unilateral extension of air-defence identification zone over the disputed East China Sea islands – belies the promise of panda diplomacy. No amount of Mandarin lessons will decrease the anxiety nations around the globe feel upon seeing China’s border disputes with almost all its neighbours. The obvious question they ask is, ‘If that’s what the next superpower does to its neighbours, what happens if we ever land in their bad books?’


Nevertheless, there are many nations where China is making steady inroads in gaining prominence – for them Chinese business is key to survival and China is a ‘partner’. Asian countries, such as Pakistan and Malaysia, and African nations, such as Senegal and Kenya, lead the pack when it comes to pro-Chinese views. For 4 of the 5 former Soviet Republics, China is their largest trading partner.  In some regions it is a case of strategic alliance – Pakistan, for example, receives military support from China, which shares its antipathy towards rival India. In other nations, it is the business angle that triumphs –China is Ghana and Kenya’s second largest trading partner, Nigeria’s fourth, and Senegal’s fifth. This scenario is similar to Latin America as well. (China Brain has covered China’s trade relationship with Latin America in detail, particularly Brazil and Mexico.)


The Chinese government’s approach in Africa has been an intelligent one: “Soft power, Hard cash”, along with the launch of CCTV Africa and its numerous partnerships with African media bodies.Its positive coverage of African affairs, focusing on the self-reliance of Africans in developing Africa, also sets itself apart from the Western media’s mostly doom-and-gloom coverage of the continent. This has helped it gain significant popularity as an alternative source of credible news in the region. The charm offensive is also helped by heavy investment in building infrastructure, which are very visible sources of cooperation between the nations and plays a role in garnering much needed  public support.


To understand to what degree this approach has been successful one should look at some of the voices coming out of Africa that quite worryingly question the very basis of liberal democracy in favour of China-style state capitalism: ‘Why wait for lacklustre democracy tomorrow if you can get a job or a new roof over your head today?’


Some of the criticisms levelled against China – lack of freedom of expression, workers safety, etc. – certainly also merit some serious internal reflection. The way forward for China therefore lies in a combination of rethinking its media policies, along with strengthening its soft power initiatives. Defining a brand, that fits with the country, of who it is now and who it hopes to become in the future, can be the first step in this process. The country contains so much young talent and ability that is simply under represented to the world. In doing so it can draw significantly on its glorious history of arts and culture to establish ‘Brand China’, but it also needs to promote the intellectual and commercial innovations from a fresh emerging China, least its image remain in a quandary.




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