Given the widespread international criticism of China’s approach to a number of problems at home and abroad, its leader has an idea: a rebranding.
President Xi Jinping said this week that China needs to 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 Xinhua news agency reported.
“We have to be careful to understand the tone, be open and self-confident, but also humble and humble and strive to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China,” Xi said at a study meeting of the Communist Party on Monday, according to Xinhua .
He added that it is crucial that China improve the presentation of its narrative worldwide in order to “make friends”.
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The comments suggest a possible change in China’s approach as relations with key powers – particularly the United States – continue to deteriorate.
They could also indicate a departure from so-called wolf warrior diplomacy, in which Beijing has positioned itself more confidently and antagonistically on the global stage.
But revising China’s approach and image around the world may be easier said than done.
China has been criticized for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority, and its crackdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Beijing has denied allegations of human rights abuses and denied allegations of a coronavirus cover-up while clashing with Washington over trade, Taiwan and territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken said last month that China has recently behaved “more aggressively” abroad and is “increasingly hostile”. During his first major foreign policy speech in March, Blinken said China was America’s “greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century.”
Xi’s language marks a “fundamental shift” away from China’s previously confident global rhetoric, said Dr. Yu Jie, Senior Research Fellow on China at the London think tank Chatham House.
“President Xi is clearly concerned about the drastically deteriorated relations between China and many countries in the west. Therefore, China must readjust its course of public diplomacy,” she told NBC News.
“This is a strong signal that the highest Chinese leadership believes that the hardened diplomatic rhetoric has lost its course,” she added.
However, the sheer breadth of problems and depth of allegations Beijing faces could make it difficult for China to bring a more positive case to the court of international public opinion.
Greeting Xi’s calls after a change in tone, China’s state newspaper Global Times remained contradictory in an editorial on Tuesday, accusing the West of “using its hegemonic advantage on the battlefield of public opinion to stigmatize China and forge a negative narrative about China.”
Beijing may have cause for concern about its global position beyond power corridors.
A 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center in 14 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada noted that “unfavorable views” of China had skyrocketed over the past year. The survey also found widespread criticism of China’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic to be mean.
Negative views of China rose the most in the UK and Australia, where 81 percent of those surveyed said they now see China unfavorably, up 24 percentage points from the previous year.
Beijing has disheveled feathers in both Australia and the European Union over trade and has quarreled with Britain over Hong Kong – a former British colony.
The evidence of Xi’s desire to make China more lovable will lie 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 pay less attention to Xi’s words than to the actions China is taking both domestically and abroad,” Trubowitz told NBC News. “For Beijing’s many critics, this is where rubber hits the road.”
He added that Xi’s request for a change of tone could also be “tacit recognition that Beijing has lost diplomatic ground internationally, especially since the pandemic began.”
The means by which China can present itself in the world media may also encounter hurdles after Beijing expelled a handful of journalists from Western media in recent years, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BBC World News.
The US has also reduced the number of Chinese journalists allowed to work in America and has announced that it will treat Chinese state-owned media companies with US businesses like foreign embassies.
In some regions, however, China’s image has improved in recent months, particularly in countries in Africa and Latin America where China is heavily involved in infrastructure projects and distributing Covid-19 vaccines.
“Some will admire China for presenting an alternative to a selfish and unfriendly world order under US leadership,” said Astrid Nordin, professor of international Chinese relations at London’s Lau China Institute, a research center.
Nordin said Xi’s testimony was likely made for a domestic as well as a foreign audience, with the people of China “being the ones who, at least on some level, must genuinely believe that China’s party state is a better friend than other possible leaderships. “
For the time being, the ambitions of the ruling Communist Party of China, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in July, continue unabated and seem to be reaching new limits.
Last month, an unmanned Chinese spacecraft successfully landed on the surface of Mars, making China the second space nation after the United States to land on the Red Planet.