Global Opinion Turns Against Beijing: A Failure of Soft Power?

In the doldrums: Chinese President Xi Jinping with his foreign minister, Wang Yi. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

A recent set of polls conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates a precipitous decline in favourable opinions of China in many countries around the world. RUSI’s Jonathan Eyal spoke to Professor Gary Rawnsley, an expert on soft power at the University of Lincoln, about what these results mean for China’s global influence.

Jonathan Eyal (JE): The Pew Research Center has been mapping for many years attitudes towards China and other countries, and the latest report that was published at the end of July indicates a fairly calamitous collapse in the reputation of China in many countries around the world. This collapse seems to be taking place across the board, across most continents, with very few exceptions. How would you interpret that?

Gary Rawnsley (GR): I would begin by saying that the results of this survey are not surprising, and mirror previous polls conducted by Pew, Gallup, the BBC and other polling organisations. Public opinion about China, particularly in so-called Western countries, has never been particularly favourable, so it's not surprising that such trends are continuing in those countries. I think what we are seeing is some dramatic decline in certain countries; India, for example, was a particularly interesting case. But again, I'm not seeing anything here that is particularly out of the ordinary or that is out of line with polls over the past 10 or 15 years.

I would also say that, if Chinese government officials are reading these polls – and I don't know if they are – I doubt that they are particularly worried, because they are most concerned about public opinion within China. A lot of the soft power projection that China engages in is not so much for global influence, but for domestic consumption and enhancing the status and legitimacy of the Communist Party. If there are any discussions of these results in China, they will follow the official narratives – and given that Pew is a US organisation, they won't want to take too much of what we say into account. In their view, the West does not understand China; this is a continuous narrative, and something I've been accused of myself many times while working and living in China.

Although the West believes China is a threat, China is favoured among those countries in which Beijing is investing heavily. So that's why we're seeing still some rather high favourable opinions, particularly in those African countries where Chinese investment is quite high through the Belt and Road Initiative. But even then, they're not as high as they were. I think people are now becoming much more aware of the Belt and Road and are becoming more suspicious. And certainly, the fact that Italy decided to withdraw from the Belt and Road will be a huge blow, not only to the Chinese government but to narratives in China. They want to show that Chinese influence is spreading throughout Europe.

JE: You say that the Chinese don't pay much attention to their image, but they've spent a large amount of money on Confucius Institutes around the world and on a lot of publicity. And they have a lot of diplomats who keep on tweeting and engaging in all kinds of social media. That doesn't indicate to me a country that doesn't care about its image.

GR: I don't think that it doesn't care about its image, but it's not a driving force in the way that it would be in a lot of Western countries. I don't think they are too worried that an opinion poll by a US organisation ranks them low on a particular indicator in a particular country. They have their own public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, soft power initiatives, and these will continue throughout the world. And of course, they are designed to reinforce the political agenda that President Xi Jinping is following around the Chinese Dream, around the rise of China and its growing status. I do think that these are important, but at the end of the day, the biggest audience for these narratives is within China and not outside. It's demonstrating to the Chinese people that Beijing has a status and that it's on the rise around the world. That's more important to the Chinese government than what countries around the world think of them.

JE: So would you say that a lot of this investment, like the Confucius Institutes – which try to highlight the achievements of Chinese culture and the Chinese language – is really much more an exercise in asserting that China has ‘arrived’, rather than in creating a favourable opinion?

GR: I would think so, because Beijing is always under the impression that the West does not understand China. And Xi Jinping has certainly said that one of the objectives is to present a more accurate picture of China and to tell China's story to the world. But at the same time, that is a very particular story, one which is not really resonating with many audiences around the world, as this opinion poll demonstrates. So when I look at these polls and I'm talking to my students about them, for example, I will say that despite China's spending $10 billion a year on its influence programmes and on its soft power projection, it isn't moving the needle in terms of public opinion. And that's because at the end of the day, actions speak louder than words. People can perhaps see China in a favourable light when it comes to history, culture, TV or films, but when it comes to the hard reality of policy, people are seeing a very different picture of China. And that undermines all the other soft power initiatives that China may be pushing.

JE: Perhaps the top leadership may not care a great deal about it or dismiss it as just a product of another Western propaganda activity. But the United Front Department – would they not be paying any attention to such figures? You have South Korea, for instance, where in the past only 30% had a bad opinion of China. Today it is 77%. And this is not Japan – this is South Korea, which of course historically had a very different attitude to China. Yet the collapse in China's image is all too obvious. Do you think the United Front Department will be worried about this?

GR: They may be. Under Xi Jinping, the importance of the United Front doctrine has escalated, and the party organisation tasked with its oversight has welcomed a large increase in funding to carry out its work. Increasing awareness of such activities may affect public opinion in the target countries, but I would suggest this is less to do with concern about ‘image’ or ‘narrative’ and more to do with influence within societies abroad, and to monitor the activities and opinions of the Chinese diaspora. Public opinion is suspicious of the United Front because it is by its nature insidious, working through organisations who may or may not be compliant, and seeking to exert pressure on citizens and organisations overseas. This is designed to disrupt policy that may be against China’s interests, and to deepen China’s influence in society.

The decline in favourable opinion towards Beijing is based more on China's behaviour and actions than on what it's trying to do through any soft power initiative

Some may call this ‘sharp power’, though I discount this term. I consider it a form of soft power – after all, soft power does not have to be benign – but perhaps simply ‘influence’ is a more accurate term. Like much of China’s influence strategy, the United Front is intended mainly for nationals living within its borders – it has been a strategy followed by the Communist Party since its foundation in 1921 – but it is also designed for Taiwan (especially organisations considered more ‘blue’ or nationalist/KMT) and for Hong Kong during its transition to more authoritarian rule.

Again, I don't think that the government is going to be concerned with how to influence public opinion or political elites. What is going to influence political elites more in these countries is trade, economics, the Chinese market and investment. And those will continue regardless of the trends in public opinion that we are seeing in these surveys.

JE: We've seen the Chinese understand soft power because there was a period, if you remember, at the beginning of the Confucius Institute movement when even Xi Jinping was arguing that one of the objectives was to project soft power, to persuade countries to see things in China's way. Do you think they understand what soft power can do? You've worked on soft power for many years.

GR: Well, yes, although I think even I sometimes don't know what soft power really is – and there isn't a consensus about that. I think the Chinese understand their own version of soft power, which is very different from the Anglo-American literature that we know through Joseph Nye and others who've been working on this. And they privilege culture. But my approach to soft power privileges political institutions, political values and behaviours, and this is where China falls down in terms of soft power, because actions speak louder than words.

I think that there are a number of reasons why these polls are presenting a slightly more dismal picture for China this year. Firstly, there is the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping himself, the growing nationalism in China and the growing cult of personality around Xi. There have also been misgivings about the very strict way that China handled Covid. We saw that with the protests in Shanghai and other places, which is quite rare in China on the scale that we saw. And of course, there is still the idea that China was somehow responsible – that it was the originator of Covid. Whether that's true or not, there is still that perception in some circles. Then there is the continuing worry about what's happening in Xinjiang, concern about growing action against Taiwan as it gets ready for its presidential election next year, and growing suspicion about the surveillance state with what we saw in the US regarding TikTok and everything else. So there is a whole package of issues that are causing opinion to slide away from being favourable towards China, and these are based more on China's behaviour and actions than on what it's trying to do through any soft power initiative.

JE: You mentioned the rise of Chinese trade as being one of Beijing's key preoccupations. But don't you think that these sorts of negative opinions – which incidentally, are not mirrored by the opinions that people have towards the US – have an impact on the readiness of people to buy Chinese consumer goods?

GR: I don't think so. I think it would have more impact at the higher level than with consumers. In terms of trade policy, if there is a worry about governance, or about security and safety – and we've seen that with Chinese technologies, as I said, in relation to the surveillance state, TikTok and so on – then that may have an impact on the more macro level of trade and economics. But I don't think it's going to trickle down to the point where consumers on the streets are not purchasing equipment or goods that are made in China.

While soft power is important in creating certain images, perceptions and trust in governments, at the end of the day it is often be trumped by hard power and economics

If there's anything in this poll that will concern China, I think it is going to be that only around one third of countries now see China as the world's leading economic power. And in the countries that make this claim – including Australia and several European countries – the numbers are falling. They're saying, yes, China is the world's number one economic power, but we don't think that's necessarily a good thing. So I think that for the economy, there's a worry. It doesn't matter whether this is good or bad for the surveyed country, but rather the position of China within the hierarchy of major powers. Xi Jinping has put a lot of stock on the recovery of China's importance and status. This drives his domestic agenda, and I think it's going to be very difficult to tell the Chinese people that fewer people in fewer countries now see China as the world's number one economic superpower.

JE: And don't you think that that matters? I mean, wasn't that one of the objectives of Chinese policy – to persuade countries that they are effectively a steamroller and whether you like it or not, they are destined to grow, so you might as well shut up and accept that narrative because your chances of succeeding otherwise are considerably reduced? This was the explanation for the ‘Golden Age’ of relations in the UK, with our Chancellor at the time saying that whether you like it or not, this is how it’s going to be. So, if people no longer believe that China's rise to a top position of power is inevitable, doesn't it have consequences?

GR: Oh, absolutely. And as I said, I think that takes place more at the macro level rather than the consumer level. So, governments, economic ministries, corporations and companies will be looking at these figures and making decisions about future trade with China. But at the end of the day, are they more worried about their profits and doing trade or are they more worried about the situation in Xinjiang? I'm going to be very cynical here and say that I think it will be the trade and economics that wins out. And all of this just tells me that while soft power is important in creating certain images, perceptions and trust in governments, at the end of the day, it can often be trumped by hard power and economics.

JE: Indeed. If we turn it around for a second, would you say that these increased negative perceptions of China would make it easier for a government like that of the US to build a coalition to contain China, based on a more general perception that the current Chinese government may represent a threat?

GR: It may well do. I would be sceptical that the US could lead a coalition of concerned states regarding China though, because I think so many countries have their own policies, their own interests, their own perceptions of China. We saw this with Italy joining the Belt and Road Initiative and then deciding to pull out. I think it would be very difficult to reach a consensus that could build a coalition. There will always be groups of countries that express concern, and that will trickle down towards whether they engage and on what level. But I don't see that it would be possible or even in everybody's interest to build a coalition against China – all that will do is mobilise even further the nationalism within China. It will strengthen the hand of the nationalists and the Chinese government, and could actually lead to more destabilisation rather than stabilisation.

JE: Interesting. So in sum, if you look at this episode and the conclusions that you've drawn, does it actually mean that the whole concept of soft power and its utility may be a bit overhyped? Because in a case where it is so critical, it seems to me – that of a rising power like China – you are suggesting that it has a minimal impact on China's considerations and that the impact on our own policies towards China is probably less than assumed.

GR: I think that is my conclusion, especially with regards to China. Every country has its own soft power strategies and ways that it understands soft power. In China, as I said at the beginning, I think that the main audience for a lot of these initiatives is the Chinese audience itself. At the end of the day, it is other considerations that will decide whether countries engage with China and on what level. And I think that will include how China behaves as an international actor, what it does at home, and the kinds of friends that it keeps. If you look at the current situation, it hasn't really made much movement in terms of Ukraine and Russia. And I think these are the kinds of things that are more important to people around the world than spreading Chinese culture or the Chinese language through Confucius Institutes. Culture plays a part in familiarising people and getting them interested in a country, but it's very difficult to move political opinion and policy through culture. If the bottom line is that the West does not understand China, then it's very, very difficult to see how far they can go in changing that through the kind of initiatives that China has been engaging in.

JE: I know I said that was the last question, but I will put another one before we finish, just a tiny one. If you as a Brit knew that your country was mistrusted by large amounts of people, it would probably affect you on a personal level as well. It is a question of pride and your view of your own country. Don't you think anything similar to that is felt by the average member of the Chinese public?

GR: No, I don't think so. I mean, I've just returned from living for four years in China. And as I said, the information and narratives are controlled to such an extent that if this opinion poll and its results become known within China, there will be a narrative that is communicated around it, which is basically, don't believe it – that it is all part of a political agenda against China. And this could actually heighten the nationalist spirit within China because it shows, again, the West having what China considers a distorted or deliberately hostile view of China, that the West wishes to interfere in China and so on. So I think that actually it might have the opposite effect on many Chinese people because of the kind of narratives that the Chinese government engages in.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Professor Gary Rawnsley

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