Falling Out of Love With China
By DAVID SHAMBAUGH
Published: March 18, 2013
NOW that China is becoming a world power, it is beginning to recognize the importance of its global image and the need to enhance its “soft power.” It is tracking public opinion polls worldwide and investing huge amounts into expanding its global cultural footprint, “external propaganda work” and public diplomacy. Unfortunately for China, that’s not enough.
While pockets of positive views regarding China can be found around the world, public opinion surveys from the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project and the BBC reveal that China’s image ranges between mixed and poor. And the negative view is expanding: for almost a decade, European public opinion toward China has been the most negative in the world, but that is now matched in America and Asia.
There are likewise increasing signs of strain with Russia: on the surface, there is considerable harmony of worldviews and interests, but underneath lie lingering historical suspicions, growing trade frictions, problems stemming from Russia’s military sales to China, immigration controversies and nascent strategic competition in Central Asia.
China’s reputation has also deteriorated in the Middle East and among the Arab League due to the country’s support for the Syrian and Iranian regimes as well as its persecution of Muslim minorities in far western China, a policy that has also sullied its image in Central Asia.
Even in Africa — where relations remain positive on the whole — China’s image has deteriorated over the past three years as a result of the flood of Chinese entrepreneurs, its rapacious extraction of oil and other raw materials, aid projects that seem to benefit Chinese construction companies as much as recipient countries and support for unsavory governments. A similar downturn is apparent in Latin America for the same reasons.
Finally, China’s most important relationship — with the United States — is also troubled. It is now a combination of tight interdependence, occasional cooperation, growing competition and deepening distrust.
For both sides, the critical question is how to manage an increasingly competitive and distrustful relationship without its becoming a full-blown adversarial relationship. Neither country has any experience handling such strategic competition amid deep interdependence, although we can hope that the latter feature will buffer the former.
While the decline in China’s image may be global, the reasons differ from region to region.
China’s huge trade surpluses have contributed directly and indirectly to job losses around the world, but the impact on its image has been most pronounced in Europe, Latin America and the United States, where China seems to loom as an unprecedented economic threat.
Meanwhile, China’s military modernization and regional muscle-flexing in Asia has tarnished its reputation among its neighbors. Its unprecedented cyber-hacking has skyrocketed to the top of the agenda of Sino-American relations in recent weeks, while China’s domestic human rights situation has been a long-standing concern in the West.
Underlying many of these complaints are China’s authoritarian political system and its business practices, which are opaque and riddled with corruption.
While trying to broaden their global operations, China’s multinational corporations often encounter substantial difficulties establishing themselves abroad and gaining global market share. China does not have a single corporate brand listed in the top 100 of the annual Businessweek/Interbrand global rankings of respected corporate brands.
Given China’s growth rates, its image might not seem to matter much. But it does. As a result of China’s declining image, its new president, Xi Jinping, and his new foreign policy team face mounting foreign policy difficulties and challenges, both perceptually and substantively.
Mounting suspicions and growing frictions are part and parcel of being a global power. But China would be better advised to substantively engage foreign criticisms than to reflexively dismiss them or respond with unconvincing public-relations campaigns.
There are any number of immediate steps China could take. It should work to halt its hacking. It should open its markets and reduce its trade surpluses, while restricting subsidies to its foreign investment and exports. It should protect intellectual property rights and ratify and adhere to the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which commits its members to protect individual liberties.
In foreign policy, it should involve itself in multinational negotiations under the Law of the Sea Treaty to resolve its disputes in the South China Sea, negotiate a settlement with Japan over its disputed islands and pressure North Korea and Iran to end their nuclear programs. It should also be transparent in its overseas aid programs and military budgets, and it should better respect sensitivities in developing countries over China’s extraction of natural resources.
Taking such steps would go much further toward enhancing China’s international image than the billions of dollars the country is currently pumping into its overseas propaganda efforts.
David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “China Goes Global: The Partial Power.”