Beijing in diplomatic effort to change misperceptions at home and abroad

Leaders fear nation is perceived as weak at home and aggressive abroad, and hope new initiatives will change view of an increasingly vocal public

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 March, 2013, 6:44am

Beijing is ramping up its public diplomacy efforts because the leadership fears that foreign affairs initiatives have led to misperceptions at home and abroad.

The belief that China is perceived as aggressive in other countries but weak among its own citizens was the driving force behind the establishment of the China Public Diplomacy Association in December.

The association is a non-profit group backed by the government. Its president is Li Zhaoxing, a former foreign affairs minister who chairs the foreign affairs committee of the National People's Congress.

Instead of focusing largely on foreign audiences, public diplomacy is increasingly targeting domestic citizens, who are more vocal about politics.

"As China is progressing towards becoming a major power, we have to ensure that our citizens have a proper understanding of what constitutes a major power," said Ma Zhengang , deputy president of the association and former ambassador to Britain.

"There needs to be some effort taken for citizens to properly understand China's foreign affairs directives."

Beijing has been scrambling to project its "peaceful-rise" image and its soft power by setting up Confucius Institutes and expanding state media overseas.

But at home, there is growing frustration about diplomacy, particularly as Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes with Japan and other Southeast Asian countries. Some citizens reject Beijing's approach of settling the disputes through dialogue.

"When Beijing is involved in talks with other countries on controversial issues such as territorial disputes, we need public support and understanding of our diplomatic directives," Ma said.

Jia Xiudong , a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, said mainlanders had long had a disconnection between their lives and diplomacy.

But as the nation pushed for economic reform, interaction with other countries would intensify, and mainlanders were becoming more eager to discuss foreign affairs.

Many citizens have used social media to urge a tougher approach by Beijing, with some calling the Foreign Ministry "too weak" because it strives to exercise restraint and resolve disputes peacefully.

Those viewpoints are encouraged when hawkish military personnel, such as Major General Luo Yuan , declare that China cannot tolerate further sovereignty infringements, and when the PLA steps up patrols around disputed territories.

"The public expects our diplomats to be aggressive, even though the most important issue is not whether China should be tough, but whether we can have our foreign policy goals achieved," Jia said. "Through public diplomacy, the Foreign Affairs Ministry should explain to the public what our goals are, and in what way we can achieve them."

Professor Zhou Qingan , who teaches public diplomacy and global communications at Tsinghua University, said the mainland public expected the nation to build strong ties with other countries without repeating the bitter history that saw China invaded.

"The public is looking for new foreign policy directives, and they are disappointed that our diplomats and officials are just repeating some slogans or official statements time and again," he said. "Eventually, [the public] will lose trust in our diplomacy."

Zhou said officials should not expect quick results from their campaign, and that China should start targeting emerging markets, in which Beijing was increasingly interested in cementing ties.

Ma said the association was still working on a long-term plan, but he noted that seminars were likely. Diplomats would continue to try to engage the public, he said.

The ministry has been holding online discussions. Its spokesman Qin Gang hosted an online chat about public diplomacy in February.

Ma said the association would continue to direct some effort abroad, including projects that promoted Chinese culture.

"Some of the comments conveyed in overseas media reports about China are not objective or accurate," he said. "This is something we need to work on to convey the real image of China."

But analysts warned that overseas misconceptions about China were deep-rooted.

The Confucius Institutes have been seen by some critics as tools for spying, and a "Made in China" TV advertising campaign initiated by the Ministry of Commerce has been criticised for lacking creativity.

Sunny Lee, a fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Chinese officials involved in public diplomacy were not familiar with Western thinking.

"They lack the experience of having lived in foreign countries, and they are not developing the campaign around what interests foreigners. Officials also have to learn one important thing - that public diplomacy is neither a tool to deceive foreigners nor to hide the negative side of China."