According to Cpcnews.cn, the official website of the Communist Party of China (CPC), there have been 73 group study sessions for its Politburo (which comprises 25 of the country’s most senior leaders) since Xi Jinping took power. The focus of these lectures has included debates about dialectical materialism; the importance of Chinese archaeology; the history of the ancient Silk Road; the intricacies of blockchain technology; and the opportunities offered by quantum science (see WiC516).
The study groups give a glimpse of the priorities nurtured at senior Party levels – i.e. by Xi. So the latest session, held last week, has sparked much interest. The topic this time: improving China’s skills in international communications.
The session came just days after Xi dispatched a message to China Daily on its 40th anniversary, calling on the newspaper to “innovate its approach”. That may sound like an unsatisfactory appraisal for China’s leading English-language newspaper but what is clear is that Xi is dissatisfied with the performance of the CPC’s propagandists and their media apparatus in conveying China’s message to international audiences – despite his repeated calls for them to “tell China’s stories well” (see WiC529). Xi reiterated the importance of that task during last week’s Politburo group study session, calling for greater efforts to build China’s discourse with the outside world in a way that presents an image of a “credible, lovable and respectable China”.
That’s no easy task for the propaganda teams, who he also urged to help outsiders better understand “how the CPC can get things done, why Marxism works and why socialism with Chinese characteristics is good,” Xinhua reported.
However, some China-watchers wonder if the softer “lovable” remarks are an oblique admission of a new sense of isolation on the international stage, especially as Joe Biden tries to re-energise Washington’s traditional allies in a more collegiate approach to responding to China (see this week’s “China and the World”). Maybe the message means that Xi is trying to take the sting out of a harder-edged style that has been adopted by some of China’s diplomats in the last few years. News outlets claimed that Xi wants to soften the instances of what is described as “wolf warrior diplomacy” – an approach that has seen Chinese officials become more assertive in making their views known to other countries.
Tim Burchett, a US legislator, put the question directly to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a Congressional hearing this week, though America’s top diplomat was careful in his response.
“Here is one possibility. It may be China has concluded soft power is important, too. The way it is engaging around the world is alienating more people than it is attracting them. This may be a manifestation of that recognition. I don’t want to draw any clear conclusions. I cannot get inside their thinking on this,” Blinken said.
China’s bid for ‘soft power’ has been going on for years at governmental level, although the impact of the campaign has been limited. A series of surveys over the last two years have suggested a decline in perceptions of China as well. Polls by the Pew Research Center found that negative opinions reached the highest levels last year in 9 of 14 major economies since it began polling on China’s image more than a decade ago.
Whether the Chinese can address this decline with Xi’s demand that its representatives get “a grip on tone” is debatable. Others will argue that the bid for soft power will become less pressing as China grows in economic strength, making it less important to win over hearts and minds elsewhere.
Talk of the demise of wolf warrior diplomacy is probably premature too. Zhang Weiwei – the Fudan University professor that Xi invited to address the Politburo’s study group on international communications – certainly doesn’t see much wrong with the approach. “We need to make the West get used to this,” the Global Times reported him as saying this week. The Chinese need to “be straight” when responding to “arrogant and ignorant people” but also to “be humble” in talking to more amenable audiences.
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