China has seen its image in the US and other countries worsen due to its slow initial responses to the novel coronavirus and its failure to disclose sufficient information. Meanwhile, China has been trumpeting its success in containing the coronavirus and pursuing "mask diplomacy" by sending medical supplies and teams of doctors to countries around the world in a frantic effort to rehabilitate its image. A glimpse of the desperation with which China is seeking to comport itself as a world leader can be seen in the facts that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman has used her own account on Twitter, inaccessible to the Chinese public at large, to appeal to public opinion in other countries, and that President Xi Jinping himself has engaged in a telephone offensive with the leaders of other countries.
China's campaign has proven futile, however, and in fact has sparked opposition around the world. The US has termed the novel coronavirus "the Chinese virus", and China has met recent suggestions that the virus was released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology with claims that it was instead the US military that had brought the virus into Wuhan, with both sides using the media to check the other. The ensuing "propaganda battle" has undermined public opinion of China in the US. While still dependent on Chinese medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, Europe and Australia, whose strong economic ties with China have kept it for many years from directly criticizing China, as well as a number of African countries have become increasingly distrustful of China in the wake of demands for public expressions of "gratitude" for China's support as well as economic threats made by China.
China's frantic "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy" to restore its image
China's public diplomacy was frequently labeled propaganda even before the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Communist Party of China's Publicity Department, the United Front Work Department and diplomats have all been engaged in manipulating public opinion in other countries via a wide range of media strategies, including programs designed to popularize the Chinese language and Chinese culture, and at times engaging in criticism of these countries to send them menacing messages aimed at restricting the information made available to the international community.
The concept of "power" as used in China's public diplomacy has come to be called "sharp power" in the US and elsewhere since around the end of 2017, and hardline diplomatic approaches known as "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy" and "Ultimatum Diplomacy" have seemingly gained momentum. President Xi has held telephone discussions with the leaders of more than 20 countries in which he has offered assistance and promised cooperation, and some of these countries have been asked to publicly acknowledge their gratitude toward China. The New York Times on May 3, for instance, reported that Polish President Andrzej Duda had himself been pressured during a telephone call with Xi to openly thank China for its assistance, and that government officials and major companies in Germany had been asked to present letters of appreciation for China's assistance and activities. Wisconsin State Senator Roger Roth also claimed to have received an e-mail from the Chinese consulate in Chicago demanding that Wisconsin support China's efforts.
On a side note, "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy" takes its name from the "Wolf Warrior" series of Chinese action films released in 2015 and 2017, and refers to the combative diplomatic approaches being employed by China's radical diplomats. The plots of these films feature the protagonist, a former member of the People's Liberation Army "Wolf Warriors" Special Operations Forces, engaged in deadly combat with a group of American mercenaries who had killed his comrades during a training exercise. About the time that these films became major hits, trade frictions between the US and China had heightened and there was a running battle over technological leadership and influence in the international community, and it is said that the aggressive methods employed by Chinese government officials and diplomats engaged in these public relations battles call to mind the "Wolf Warrior" films. Even greater use has been made of this approach in the diplomatic arena in the course of dealing with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"Wolf Warriors" asserting China's place as a major power
"Ultimatum Diplomacy" has also been employed with some countries. "Ultimatum Diplomacy" entails threatening to reduce or terminate aid in order to get countries (especially developing countries) closely tied to China through economic aid to accept its demands, and this approach appears to have been widely utilized in coping with the coronavirus. For example, the Netherlands on April 28 changed the name of its representative office (the equivalent of a diplomatic mission) in Taiwan from the Netherlands Trade and Investment Office to the Netherlands Office Taipei, prompting China to object and to pressure the Netherlands by suggesting it might suspend exports of medical supplies and other products to the country. China has consistently sought to enforce a "one China" principle and, insisting that the Netherlands' inclusion of "Taipei" in the name of its representative office amounted to treating Taiwan as an independent state, deemed the action unacceptable. The Netherlands appears to have had concerns about China's mask diplomacy even before this, as evidenced by its recall of 600,000 of 1.3 million masks for "not satisfying the standards for medical use", and the recent name change can be seen as backlash against China's mask diplomacy. In retaliation for this renaming, China took advantage of the difficulties confronting the Netherlands in dealing with the coronavirus to threaten the cutoff of medical assistance.
On the other hand, China has courted Japanese public opinion by pursuing pro-Japan public relations diplomacy. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunyin expressed official thanks for Japan's support and assistance at a regularly scheduled press conference in February, and she has frequently posted passages from classical Chinese poetry and pro-Japan messages of support in Japanese on her own Twitter account, believed to have been created at the end of last year. It is highly unusual for a Foreign Ministry spokesperson to express gratitude to Japan in public, and even more so to do this on Twitter, use of which is generally banned in China.
There have been growing calls within the Chinese government for a more assertive diplomacy worthy of China's status as a great power. As if to suggest this course of action, "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy" was discussed in an article in the English-language newspaper Global Times, run under the auspices of the Chinese Community Party's People's Daily newspaper, that unreservedly declared that "[t]he days when China can be put in a submissive position are long gone." The New York Times and other Western media outlets have been quick to react to this article.
Reflecting this sentiment in China, Zhao Lijian, deputy director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Information Department, has repeatedly made hardline remarks as a "pugnacious diplomat" since being appointed a Foreign Ministry spokesperson in late February, and tough talk from Chinese ambassadors and other diplomats has been reported both inside and outside China.
It thus seems that China is frantically trying to maneuver public opinion to redeem its own image and win Japan and other countries over to its side, and the high-handed behavior of Chinese authorities openly putting economic pressure on other countries' governments and directly insisting that they offer expressions of gratitude represents a complete course change from the shrewd public diplomacy strategy China had previously pursued.
This gives a glimpse into China's impatience, being the flip side of the perception by Chinese leaders that dealing with the coronavirus constitutes a serious crisis that could adversely impact their own positions at home. The Xi administration has been criticized inside and outside China for concealing information and thereby enabling viral infections to spread further, and dissatisfaction within Chinese society has intensified due to the economic damage suffered as a result of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Premier Li Keqiang is trying to offset the impact of the pandemic by adjusting macroeconomic policies. As Li's presence grows, Xi seems intent on enhancing his own authority within China by presenting himself as the hero who kept the coronavirus at bay, and this suggests that the ferment brought about in domestic politics by the corona crisis is also having an impact on Chinese diplomacy.
The Trump administration scapegoats China as criticism from European and other countries mounts
The latest US-China confrontation has taken on the character of a new US-China Cold War, with relations only growing worse as the two countries engage in a fierce information war over the coronavirus. China has publicly raised the possibility that the US military brought the virus to China while, in the US, Trump has called the virus the "Chinese virus" and Trump as well as Secretary of State Pompeo have, without presenting any evidence, asserted that the Wuhan Institute of Virology could be the source of the novel coronavirus and instructed US intelligence agencies to conduct a thorough investigation. In addition, Trump announced on April 15 that the US would be suspending its contributions to WHO, claiming that the international organization had been carrying water for China in dealing with the coronavirus.
Geng Shuang, deputy director of the Foreign Ministry's Information Department, responded to this in a regular press conference on April 21: "China has all along been advancing international anti-pandemic cooperation in an open, transparent and responsible attitude...With regard to the origin of the virus, we've repeatedly stated that it's a matter of science that should be researched by scientists and professionals." With Trump announcing on May 5 that the US would be releasing a report on the origins of the novel coronavirus outbreak, the two countries are now blaming each other for the spread of the virus.
Other officials outside the federal government have joined in the US' criticism of China. State Senator Roger Ross of Wisconsin submitted a resolution on March 26 blaming the Chinese Communist Party's actions for the global pandemic. The state of Missouri on April 21 accused the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China of failing to put in place measures that might have prevented the spread of infections and of thereby causing serious economic losses. Missouri constitutes part of Trump's Republican electoral power base, and it would seem that Trump's goals in scapegoating China are to win re-election in this autumn's presidential election and to fend off criticism of his own policies and political skills.
The United States has not been alone. Even Germany and Australia have become critical of China over the issue of the novel coronavirus's origins. For example, Australia, one-third of whose exports go to China, has also hardened its attitude toward China, calling for an independent investigation into the source of the coronavirus; the Chinese ambassador to Australia responded by hinting that retaliatory economic measures might be taken. The editor of the Global Times took to his own Weibo account on April 28 to denounce Australia as "gum stuck to China's shoe". Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne protested, and relations between the two countries have since deteriorated.
On April 15, Germany's largest tabloid Bild featured a byline article by editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt that demanded $160 billion in compensation from China for the coronavirus pandemic, eliciting an official objection from the Chinese embassy in Germany.
The unscrupulous measures taken by the Chinese government in responding to the coronavirus have drawn fire from other governments as well. According to a May 3 New York Times article, at least seven Chinese ambassadors (those posted to France, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and the African Union) had been asked by their hosts over the preceding few weeks to explain the "disinformation" about the coronavirus coming out of China and the rampant racial discrimination against African residents in Guangzhou. A good number of media outlets have reported that this discrimination stemmed from the emergence of coronavirus clusters in heavily migrant-populated areas of Guangzhou.
A staff member at the Chinese embassy in France sent out a message claiming that French senior citizens were dying of neglect in nursing homes, evoking a bitter reaction from French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and the French Parliament.
China's frustrations in the face of concerns about isolation
China has portrayed itself as a hero exerting leadership as the international community confronts the coronavirus crisis and working alongside other countries facing difficulties, all the while shifting the responsibility for the spread of the coronavirus to other countries and pursuing its "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy" and "Ultimatum Diplomacy". One of its aims domestically has been to put a lid on criticism of the Xi administration for being slow to react to the coronavirus and for concealing information, and to propagate the idea that China's coronavirus countermeasures are highly regarded within the international community. Looking outward, China has become concerned about being isolated from the international community as the bilateral confrontation between the United States and China grows more serious, and it appears to be soliciting support from a greater number of countries in order to frame this confrontation as one between China and the rest of the international community on one side and the US on the other.
China's efforts are not progressing as smoothly as it might wish, though, and they are even proving counterproductive. Not only are relations between the US and Chinese governments worsening but general public opinion of China in the US is also deteriorating. In a March survey by the Pew Research Center in the United States, a record-high 66% of respondents held an "unfavorable" view of China, while an all-time low of only 26% saw China in a "favorable" light. The percentage of the US population with a negative opinion of China has risen by nearly 20 points since the start of the Trump administration. In Europe, even those countries with strong economic ties to China have expressed concern about their overreliance not only on trade with China but also on China's communication technologies, medical devices and pharmaceuticals.
The limitations and challenges of China's corona diplomacy
China has strategically pursued public diplomacy in the 21st century, and its endeavors to affect public opinion in the US in particular have met with a degree of success. China has become more confident as a major power since the beginning of the 2010s, however, and its relations with the US have become frostier in recent years, pushing to the forefront the idea that China should be firmer in asserting its own positions.
This "Wolf Warrior diplomacy" approach has gained momentum with the emergence of the young star Zhao Lijian as deputy director at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Information Department. This approach emphasizes China's national interests and assertively defends the country's stances, but the manifestation of this approach in patronizingly requesting that aid recipients express their gratitude and in continually making extortionate statements is regarded as undignified and counterproductive.
Questions are now being raised even in China about hardline approaches such as "Wolf Warrior Diplomacy", and a paper posted on April 24 on a website run by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences - "Let's Focus on Improving Our Ability to Respond to Outside Attacks on China" (Chinese: "着力提升因应外部对华舆论攻击能力") - specifically discussed the following means of communication China should employ to win out in the fight for hearts and minds:
(1) To preserve its own honor and rights, China needs to more deeply comprehend, ponder and reasonably and appropriately respond to the fundamental conditions, characteristics and trends of attacks on China by media in the US and elsewhere.
(2) Given the increasingly belligerent coverage of China by overseas media as the coronavirus makes its way around the world, government media, private media, media workers associations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, key companies, think tanks, etc., should establish multi-dimensional mechanisms (networks) to track public opinion overseas, monitor major foreign media outlets in the US and elsewhere on a round-the-clock basis, organize rapid and robust responses and counterattacks to abuse, defamation and attacks leveled at China, and cover the sources and spread of negative public opinion.
(3) With foreign media criticizing China's shortcomings (in responding to the coronavirus crisis), Chinese media should discern the truth and then make the facts known to the rest of the world in an objective and fair manner.
(4) Chinese social platforms such as Weibo and WeChat should be used as alternatives to Twitter and Facebook for publicity purposes.
(5) Methods for approaching and dealing with the media should be improved so that media representatives can be calmly and objectively persuaded with reason rather than caught up in angry exchanges of words, and the concepts of equality, cooperation, and goodwill unleashed.
(6) More effort needs to be devoted to developing human resources who are well-versed in the rules governing media operations overseas and in public opinion trends, who have composite communication skills and who are adept at writing commentaries in foreign languages.(partial excerpt)
China's ability to engage in effective public diplomacy will require reflecting on the dangers of overly aggressive diplomacy and adopting calm and objective approaches. In doing so, exhibiting thoughtfulness and modesty will be more useful than patronizing or threatening other countries, but it may not prove easy for China as a rapidly rising major power to set aside its haughty attitude. Prompted by Australia's call for an investigation into the source of the coronavirus, middle powers in Europe and elsewhere have checked China and begun encouraging international collaboration. China's public diplomacy is facing a major test.
* This article is based on content published in the author's column at WEDGE Infinity, with suitable additions and revisions made.
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