Group of Chinese flags standing next to lectern in the conference hall. 3D illustration.
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China’s defense against the war of words

Chinese experts see public opinion as the country’s Achilles’ heel in its race with “the West”, says Vincent Brussee. This is the first in a series of short analyses that looks at China’s systemic competition and normative rivalry with the US and the EU. A look beyond the Beijing leadership shows how far debates about the features of political systems and the power to interpret events reach into Chinese society – and possibly shape the country’s actions. 

Xi Jinping once called upon his compatriots to “tell China’s story well”. Yet the Washington-based Pew Research Center last year found a record 70 percent (and more) of citizens in many Western countries held unfavorable views of China. And it’s unlikely their opinions changed in light of Beijing’s recent whitepaper on Chinese Democracy or questions about the fate of Peng Shuai, the tennis star who has accused a former senior Chinese official of rape. 

As critically as these episodes may have been received in the West, they should not distract from serious attempts by China to respond to what Sun Ming, the director of the Center for Global Public Opinion on China, calls the “US’ public opinion war against China”. Many scholars in the People’s Republic are convinced of a campaign against China that is driven by the USA’s ideological prejudice, its inability to deal with a rising China that does not want to align itself with US values, and its need to distract from its own failures at home and abroad. 

As Liu Ruisheng, an associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), illustrated: “Within only 20 minutes on March 8, 2020, the New York Times commented in two separate tweets that Italy’s lockdown was ‘risking its economy to contain Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak’, while China’s lockdown was a ‘huge loss of life and freedom for its people’. It is clearly black and white in its two very different approaches to similar measures”. Most Chinese-language papers on this subject cite this example as proof of ideological bias. 

Many scholars concede the US maintains “hegemony” over international discourse. Zhou Qingan, a media professor at Tsinghua University, stated that in public relations “the West is strong, and we are weak”. As Zheng Qingxiang, a researcher at CASS, emphasizes: Western media construct a false narrative of the “weak” against the “strong”. According to her, they emphasize human experiences and suffering, while China’s official media primarily report what is being done to resolve the issues. The former is enticing psychologically and emotionally, while the latter is “what the country needs to overcome the difficulties”. 

Chinese scholars consider Western media’s reporting as inferior but highly effective

The Western media’s reporting is inferior but highly effective, according to this line of thought, while the authoritative approach in China is superior but internationally ineffective. Scholars are aware that any war of words is as much about China’s ability to engage with the rest of the world as with the US. Li Dan, a professor at Xiamen University, has written that China’s Belt and Road initiative has suffered tangibly from negative public relations. Kang Sheng, Professor of Marxism at South China University of Technology, argues that China’s diplomatic relations with African countries “are facing serious challenges from international public opinion”. 

It no longer seems to matter to some scholars how a small number of countries that constitute the West see China. As China’s Deputy Ambassador to the UN, Geng Shuang, said of these nations: “They are not tired of talking, but we are tired of listening”. State media like to propagate the narrative that it is just “the US and a few countries” that “make untenable accusations at China”, to cite the party’s tabloid Global Times. Their framing makes it clear the US alone is to blame: scholars such as Sun Ming, Zheng Qingxiang, Liu Ruisheng and others refer to it as “the war of public opinion against China” (emphasis mine). This helps to explain why a survey by the US China Perception Monitor in September 2021 showed that 78 percent of Chinese citizens believe their country has a favorable image abroad. Such a high score does not, of course, rule out that some parts of the world might have an unfavorable opinion of their country. But it illustrates that Chinese citizens are dismissing “a few” countries critical of China as ideologically prejudiced and unrepresentative. 

In Africa, the US and China are neck-and-neck in public opinion

This may be closer to the truth than advanced economies realize. In Africa the US and China are neck-and-neck in public opinion, and in the Middle East, more people have a favorable opinion of China than of the US. Indeed, the US and the EU appear to share the same global image problem. According to the same survey 62 percent of Chinese citizens have an unfavorable view of the US, while a 2020 MERICS survey found Chinese students studying in Germany usually leave with a worse impression of the West than they had before arriving there. 

This suggests real disillusionment with countries that see themselves as beacons of human rights and economic development. Indoctrination could, of course, be taken as the driver of this trend, but that would ignore very real and justified reasons like anti-Asian racism. As Sun Ming argues, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has “stirred up long-standing racist and xenophobic sentiments in Western societies”. Chinese students’ exposure to anti-Chinese discrimination in Western countries has been shown to increase their support for Beijing. 

The West and China find themselves in a downward spiral of public perception in one region towards the other – and experience suggests this reinforces rather than threatens the status quo. When Chinese citizens deem China under ideological attack, many appear to rally behind Xi and the Communist Party. When H&M stopped using cotton from Xinjiang, the European retailer lost a quarter of its revenue in China through consumer boycotts. 

The louder Western criticisms of China become, the more resistance in China they appear to face and the more assertive China’s official counter-propaganda will become. (Zheng Qingxiang explicitly highlighted Wolf-Warror diplomat Zhao Lijian as key example of the appropriate response.) That obviously does not mean that the other countries should not dare to criticize China’s government. But they should see voicing criticism as a means to an end, not an end in itself. To avoid being dismissed as “anti-China”, they need to address discontent in China about anti-Chinese prejudice and Western double standards and arrogance. Only then can Western countries hope to be viewed an ally rather than an enemy of China’s citizens.  

This analysis is part of a series that was supported by a Ford Foundation grant and is licensed to the public subject to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.