Does China Care About its International Image?

After summarizing the regionally varying China-related findings of a recent BBC World Service/Globescan poll on the global perceptions of 24 countries, University of Macau assistant professor Dingding Chen asks, “Does China care about its international image?” From The Diplomat:

A natural question that one might ask is “does China care about its international image?” Due to China’s recent assertive actions (here and here) in East China Sea and South China Sea, it might seem like China is not worried about its image among its Asian neighbors. But it is inconsistent with China’s efforts in recent years to enhance its soft power and build a positive national image around the world. Thus, the puzzle is this: if China does care about its international image, why would China behave in a way that hurts its own national image? This is a legitimate question given some evidence showing that many in Asia now see China as a big bully.

There are three possible explanations for the seeming inconsistency between China’s national image campaigns and its recent assertive behavior. First, it could be that China does not genuinely embrace the idea of national image or soft power. […]

[…] The second reason could be that China does care about its national image but the problem is that China is inexperienced or even clumsy in promoting its national image. Indeed, in recent years China has put in lots of resources into its ‘public diplomacy’ which has generated mixed results. Just think about how much money Beijing spent on the Beijing Olympics 2008 to promote China’s positive image. It is abundantly clear that Beijing does want to present a positive and peaceful national image to the international community. Nonetheless, it could well be that officials in China who are in charge of promoting national image are incompetent or there is no coordination between different ministries and actors such as the Foreign Affairs ministry and the military. […]

[…] Finally, China’s neglect of its national image could be explained by a rational choice strategy that puts national interests in front of national image. Thus, China does care about its national image, but it cares more about national sovereignty and territorial integrity. When forced to choose between sovereignty and national image, China will choose sovereignty — and any other country would do the same. […] [Source]

At the New York Times, Chris Buckley looks at another recently published report, this one from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Contrary to reason two above, the CSIS report suggests that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own hazy global vision may be the culprit of seemingly contradictory policy:

If you’re sometimes discombobulated by China’s foreign policy gyrations, there may be some consolation in knowing that so, apparently, is President Xi Jinping. […]

[The report’s author m]r. Johnson parts company from experts who believe that China’s external policy is at the mercy of factional divisions between, say, diplomatic moderates and military hard-liners. Mr. Xi has accumulated positions and authority with striking speed, suggesting that internal opposition is not a serious threat, the report says. China’s foreign policy uncertainties instead center on how Mr. Xi intends to hone his broad ideas for ascendancy while maintaining China’s self-assigned image as a paternal provider of economic good will, trade agreements, concessional loans and Confucius Institutes for language instruction.

Mr. Xi himself caught the paradox well when he described his country as a resurgent yet somehow cuddly beast of the wild.

“Napoleon said that China was a sleeping lion and when this lion awoke, it would shake the world,” Mr. Xi said in March while visiting Paris. “The lion that is China has awoken, but it is a peaceful, amiable and civilized lion.” […] [Source]

Is this roused lion becoming more willing to roar out demands? The Telegraph’s Tom Phillips reports on the near cancellation of Premier Li Keqiang’s upcoming trip to the UK:

The Chinese prime minister threatened to scrap an upcoming visit to the UK unless he was granted an audience with the Queen, it has been claimed.

Li Keqiang insisted on meeting Her Majesty during a three-day trip that is due to start on Tuesday and issued a “direct threat of cancellation” unless that wish was granted, The Times reported on Thursday.

[…] London appears to have acquiesced to Beijing’s demands. Mr Li will meet with the Queen during his time in the UK. [Source]

Phillips also notes that China put pressure on Germany to arrange for XI Jinping to visit the Holocaust museum while in-country early this year, a blatant attempt to deliver a message to Japan.

Cases of Beijing using its economic influence to gain favor abroad (be it directly—with large scholarly endowments tied to Party leadership, or indirectly—by using business clout to export the censorship of media coverage critical of Beijing) have been noted, as has China’s increasing ability to resist foreign pressure over human rights. For more on soft powerdiplomacy, or China’s image abroad, see prior CDT coverage.