According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Americans registered “cold” feelings about China in a rather nebulously named “emotional thermometer”. The study also found that roughly 9 in 10 Americans see China as an enemy or competitor rather than a partner. Another Gallup poll put China’s poor ratings among Americans at 79 percent – a historic high (or low) since the poll began more than 40 years ago.
It’s not just the United States. Globally, unfavorable views of China have reached unprecedented heights in the past year, and the percentage of people who do not trust Chinese leadership to “do the right thing” in world affairs has increased by more than 15 percent in countries like Australia and Germany , Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The response from the Italian public is particularly noteworthy as China offered the country extensive investments and medical assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
China expected the country’s public to return such extensive goodwill, especially given the positive reception by the Italian government. When the Chinese aid arrived, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said: “We are not alone. There are people in the world who want to help Italy. “
Elsewhere, too, China’s attempts to bring stunned alliances to justice through pandemic diplomacy and rebuild them have met with mixed responses. Despite reasonable success in building consolidated supply lines and tentative partnerships for vaccines and masks in sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans, China has problems in a number of EU Member States that threaten civil society response, decades of closer relationships that have built as such were to undo land opened up trade and investment opportunities.
Such cold shoulder treatment is both absent and a result of the cooling alliance between the EU and China. Chinese actions played a role in this and in the further rift between China and the West – Chinese diplomats exchanged barbs with French colleagues, rejected Australian and British politicians and exchanged fires with icy US leadership at the most recent Anchorage meeting – but simmering resentment and the anti-China turnaround in the US foreign policy establishment has not helped.
The question now is whether China should care about its global reputation, and if so, what should it do about it.
Many in China are unimpressed by the severely stressful relationship between China and the West. As a metaphor, Hawk internet users have coined the phrase “ruguanxue”, which means studying the invasion through a passport, the passport being a metonymy for China’s northern borders.
In this expanded metaphor, the United States is compared to the rapidly declining Ming Dynasty, while China is equated with the Jurchen invaders, who came from the north and quickly took control of pre-existing Ming territory. The United States’ anti-China discomfort is seen as a sign of its existential fear of being overtaken by China. In the eyes of many in the Chinese public, the West’s condemnation words and actions resemble the cranial fossa of the Eight Nations Alliance that stormed the country’s capital and ransacked the Forbidden Palace at the end of the Qing Dynasty.
The defiant hawks shrug their shoulders under allegations that China’s “wolf warriors” – the term that became fashionable during the pandemic to describe the country’s arguably more aggressive diplomats – were overly bellicose and disruptive to the international order. Government spokesman Hua Chunying put it bluntly: “If the West is determined to define our defense of our sovereignty and our central development interests as ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’, then so be it – what is wrong with calling it ‘wolf warriors’ in this sense be? ”
But not everyone is so sure. Given the global turn against China, others wonder whether it is in China’s best interest to rehabilitate its image and rebuild relations with the West. And if so, how can it do it while advancing its own economic and political goals and not foregoing its core commitments to internal stability and holistic development? That’s not impossible, argued scholars Daniel A. Bell and Zhengxu Wang. China should not “balk at discussing its shortcomings” in order to “improve China’s image worldwide”.
Economically, China needs a minimum of popular benevolence – especially from the private sector and civil society – in order to enable further expansion of Chinese companies and capital in major markets.
Beijing has long expected the Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI), a proposed deal that would further open up investment and economic cooperation between the EU and China, to be passed with minimal opposition. However, due to the recent review of working conditions in China and Huawei in Europe, the agreement in the European Parliament is likely to stall. If the CAI falters, it will be a major blow to a trading partnership that was worth more than $ 650 billion in 2019.
Outside of Europe, China must win over the rising middle classes and elite in Southeast Asia in order to maintain the appeal of its Belt and Road initiative in undecided countries. In Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, recent polls have shown that when asked to choose between, public attitudes in favor of the United States towards China fluctuate.
International goodwill also remains vital to some national goals. Beijing continues to seek to cement its domestic legitimacy and win the technology war. Legitimacy can certainly be bolstered in the short term through increased nationalist rhetoric, but in the long run the rise of isolated hawks in both China and the United States would undermine both as they decouple their technology, communications and trade ties. Chinese buyers in particular remain insatiable consumers of Western goods. If supply is undermined in a trade war or if foreign credit runs dry, it could put great pressure on China to go “domestic”, a critical – albeit nascent – component of its double-circulation strategy.
At the moment, China appears to have the upper hand as its access to high-end telecommunications and digital technology makes its tech firms an attractive alternative to Western counterparts. However, manufacturers continue to rely heavily on the international market for revenue that can support their research and development. Huawei achieved sales of 55 billion US dollars (41 percent of total sales) in the international market in 2019. 70 percent of the tech giant DJI’s sales came from overseas. Bad public opinion can and will affect the revenue streams of leading Chinese companies. International backlash could sabotage the plans of the Chinese heads of state and government to establish China as a self-sufficient, sustainable economy.
So what is a progressive way for China?
Leaders and diplomats would benefit from the realization that the West is by no means homogeneous and that Western hostilities are not inevitable.
First, the country should seek to improve relationships with targeted regional allies and fluctuating partners. This includes states or sub-state actors that have had complaints about aspects of Chinese behavior in the past and are still open to deepening relations with the country in the future. These include southern European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, which have registered strong complaints about Huawei and intellectual property rights, while also advocating tourism and investment from China. The limits of vaccination and mask diplomacy suggest that, in addition to providing medical equipment, China should seek to facilitate greater bilateral cultural exchanges and open dialogue between citizens and civil societies in a way that takes into account the needs and perceptions of locals in Europe .
At the same time, it would help address some of the overreach concerns about China’s academic and civil society in Australia and New Zealand in order to bring the temperature down there. The revival of the dialogue with Japan over disputed waters and the military de-escalation could improve relations with arguably the most Chinese member of the “Quad”, an informal strategic alliance that is gaining momentum under the new administration of US President Joe Biden.
In all of these cases, the division of China could do a great deal of good to limit the number of fronts on which it must defend its critical interests. In practice, this can mean changing the communication strategy when diplomats work with their counterparts around the world.
When it comes to the United States, both sides in Sino-US relations would benefit from downplaying their rhetoric. It is possible to speak to some Western concerns without undermining the commitment of Chinese diplomats to their country’s core interests. For example, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s address to the Lanting Forum, in which he highlighted the deterioration in Sino-US relations on “the previous US administration, [acting] for political reasons, ”reflected Beijing’s conscious effort to extend an olive branch to the Biden government. And as former Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying recently stated at the China Development Forum: “China and the US should face and resolve their differences in a calm and objective manner, as cooperation is the only right choice for both nations.”
Concerns remain in Beijing that if the country de-escalates its rhetoric, it will be perceived as weak. If anything, the opposite is true: by touching the inflammatory rhetoric and openly recognizing the space for collaboration and concession, the country’s representatives can be more determined over real concerns and aspirations. This could also help get the CAI back on track.
The bottom line is that China can and should repair its international image, and none of the steps it could begin would require it to surrender or accept what it considers to be the West’s most unreasonable demands. This would benefit both sides in the spiraling relationship between China and West and benefit all citizens.