China’s president has called for better international communication to repair the country’s coronavirus-hit image and win a battle of narratives with the US and its allies.
Xi Jinping’s remarks at a study session of the Politburo, the ruling Communist Party’s top echelon, on Monday came amid a deepening feud with Washington and with negative perceptions of China at record high levels in many parts of the world.
It is not the first time Xi has called on party cadres and state-controlled media to “tell China’s stories well” to the world and present the country in a positive light.
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But Chinese observers said his latest call was a rare admission of Beijing’s isolation that has been exacerbated by aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy and ineffective propaganda and influence campaigns abroad. It also suggests how Beijing will seek to shift the unfavourable narratives in its ideological and geopolitical wrangling with Western democracies.
Xi highlighted the need to “create a favourable external public opinion environment” and strengthen communications “under the new situation” to secure its rise, state news agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday.
“It is necessary to speed up the construction of Chinese discourse and the Chinese narrative system, and use Chinese theories to interpret Chinese practice,” he told the Politburo.
The focus would be on improving the party’s global image and countering criticism about its omnipresent role in China’s development.
“It is necessary to give better play to the role of high-level experts and use platforms and channels such as important international conferences and forums and foreign mainstream media to speak out,” Xi said.
The Chinese leader listed goals including building a team of professionals who can meet the country’s international communication needs and embracing new ways to communicate with different audiences.
“It is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority, and constantly expand the circle of friends [when it comes to] international public opinion,” he was quoted as saying.
Beijing is pushing back over what it sees as fundamentally biased Western narratives and negative sentiment, from the blame game over Covid-19 to US efforts to form a coalition against China over its policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and its aggressive posturing on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University, said poor communication and combative diplomats were holding back China’s efforts to fix its image.
“Xi’s remarks appear to be related to Washington’s move to use an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus to target China, which has gained momentum in recent weeks,” he said.
Beijing and Washington’s battle to control global narratives has been building since the trade war erupted in 2018, and the rhetoric has escalated over the pandemic and vaccine diplomacy.
US President Joe Biden last month said Washington wanted to “lead the world with our values” in sending Covid-19 jabs abroad amid “a lot of talk about Russia and China influencing the world with vaccines”.
However, Beijing-based independent analyst Wu Qiang said China was unlikely to abandon its aggressive style of diplomacy.
“China is facing the worst international isolation since the reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, but it seems the leadership has not been able to find any solutions,” he said.
“Xi has effectively admitted the failure of China’s external communications and the country’s isolation, which could be attributed to a lack of convincing communications strategies and good China stories,” Wu said. “But I don’t think there will be any change to the assertive diplomatic approach apart from some fine-tuning.”
Since Xi took office in 2012 – and especially as relations with the US deteriorated – Beijing has invested heavily to encourage its state media outlets to expand overseas.
That global network of media infrastructure has since helped to promote Beijing’s Covid-19 narrative, the International Federation of Journalists said in a report last month.
“Beijing’s tactics in this narrative war are incremental but steady, with journalists in each country believing their media systems strong enough to withstand developments,” the report said.
“Yet the evidence from the global survey shows the narrative landscape is being redrawn globally, story by story.”
Those outlets will also be part of the latest push, which has mainly been prompted by countries, including some neighbours, turning away from China over its foreign policy, according to a mainland-based media and communications expert.
“[Xi’s remarks] can be seen as a general assessment of global opinion on China, which is far from satisfactory,” said the expert who declined to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media.
“While it’s good that state leaders realise the problems we face, it would be naive to expect the media can make a big difference to how China is perceived around the world.”
Gu from Nanjing University echoed that view, saying an overhaul of foreign policy was needed, and polishing its communications strategy would not be enough for China to improve relations with other countries.
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