Faced with widespread international criticism over China’s approach to a litany of issues both at home and abroad, its leader has an idea: a rebrand.
President Xi Jinping said this week that China must improve the way it tells its “stories” to a global audience as it seeks an “international voice” that reflects the growing status of the world’s second-largest economy, the official news agency Xinhua reported.
“We must pay attention to grasp the tone, be both open and confident but also modest and humble, and strive to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China,” Xi said Monday at a Communist Party study meeting, according to Xinhua.
He added that it was crucial that China improve how it presented its narrative globally in order to “make friends.”
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The comments suggest a possible shift in China’s approach as relations with key powers — most notably the United States — continue to deteriorate.
They could also hint at a move away from so-called wolf warrior diplomacy, in which Beijing has positioned itself more assertively, and antagonistically, on the global stage.
But revamping China’s approach, and its image throughout the world, may be easier said than done.
China has faced criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority population, and its crackdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Beijing has denied allegations of human rights abuses and rejected claims of a coronavirus cover-up, all while clashing with Washington over trade, Taiwan and territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that China had recently acted “more aggressively abroad” and was behaving “increasingly in adversarial ways.” In March, during his first major foreign policy speech, Blinken said China represented America’s “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”
Xi’s language marks a “fundamental shift” away from China’s previously assertive global rhetoric, said Dr Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at the London think tank Chatham House.
“Clearly, President Xi is getting anxious with the drastically deteriorated relations between China and many countries in the West. Therefore, China must re-set its course of public diplomacy,” she told NBC News.
“This gives a strong signal that the most senior Chinese leadership considers that the hardening diplomatic rhetoric has lost its course,” she added.
The sheer breadth of issues and depth of accusations facing Beijing may make it tricky for China to put a more positive case before the court of international public opinion, however.
Welcoming Xi’s calls for a change in tone, China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper remained adversarial in an editorial Tuesday, accusing the West of “using its hegemonic advantage in the battleground of public opinion to launch stigmatization against China and forge a negative narrative of China.”
Beijing may have grounds to be concerned about its global standing beyond the corridors of power.
A 2020 survey of 14 countries by the Pew Research Center, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada, found that “unfavorable views” of China had soared over the last year. The survey also found widespread criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic to be common.
Negative views of China increased the most in the U.K. and in Australia, where 81 percent of respondents there said they now view China unfavorably, up 24 percentage points from the previous year.
The proof of Xi’s desire to make China more lovable will be in the pudding, according to Peter Trubowitz, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
“Most Americans and a growing number of Europeans will be looking less at Xi’s words, than the actions China takes going forward at home as well as abroad,” Trubowitz told NBC News. “For Beijing’s many critics, this is where the rubber meets the road.”
He added that Xi’s call for a change of tone may also represent “a tacit acknowledgment that Beijing has lost diplomatic ground internationally, especially since the start of the pandemic.”
The means by which China can represent itself in the world media may also face hurdles after Beijing expelled a handful of journalists from Western media outlets over the last few years, including from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and BBC World News.
The U.S. has also reduced the number of Chinese journalists allowed to work in America and said it would begin to treat Chinese state-run media entities with U.S. operations the same as foreign embassies.
But in some regions China’s image has been boosted in recent months, most notably in countries in Africa and Latin America where China is heavily involved in infrastructure projects and has been handing out Covid-19 vaccines.
“Some will admire China for presenting an alternative to what is understood as a selfish and unfriendly U.S.-led world order,” said Astrid Nordin, professor of Chinese international relations at London’s Lau China Institute, a research center.
Nordin said Xi’s statement was likely made as much for a domestic audience as a foreign one, with people in China “the ones who really need to believe, at some level at least, that China’s party state is a better friend than other possible leaderships.”
For now, the ambitions of China’s ruling Communist Party — which will celebrate 100 years since its founding in July — continue unabated and are seemingly pushing new boundaries.
Last month an un-crewed Chinese spacecraft successfully landed on the surface of Mars, making China the second space-faring nation after the United States to land on the Red Planet.