China's crumbling soft power in Europe
Recent polls show rising negativity towards China. There are ways Beijing can counteract this reputational loss but will it reverse its current course?
LONDON - "If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy." That sentence, recently uttered by an unnamed Chinese official, was apparently directed at Australia.
But it now resonates in Europe as well, not because European governments are eager for a showdown with China, but more because public opinion in most European countries now sees China in either very negative terms or as an outright threat.
And unless Beijing takes some serious measures to improve its collapsing image in Europe, sooner or later the negative perceptions of China among most Europeans will translate into a more hostile European policy.
Sadly, there are no indications that Beijing understands the reputational problem it faces in Europe or intends to develop any strategy to counteract its negative image.
Just a few years ago, China was all the rage in Europe. Its seemingly inexorable economic rise was frequently commented upon, and everything from Chinese culture to food was admired. Even those who criticised the domestic record of the Chinese government readily accepted the proposition that all this paled in comparison to the monumental achievement of lifting hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese from abject poverty.
Teenagers were told that if they wish to have a promising future, they'd better learn Chinese. And politicians rushed to seize the opportunities that China offered.
To visit China - and, more specifically, to return from China laden with commercial contracts worth many billions - was every European politician's dream. It did not matter that many of these contracts never came to fruition and fewer still turned out to be as valuable as initially touted, for the same contracts could be repackaged again in time for another visit to Beijing; what mattered for all European leaders was that they were seen to be engaging with China.
How times have changed. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre in seven key European countries points to a collapse in China's reputation on the continent.
Just two years ago, the number of Britons expressing confidence in China was equal to those who claimed to have no confidence in the policies of the Chinese government. Today, those claiming to have no confidence have soared to 74 per cent of the people in Britain, and similar figures were recorded in Germany and France.
The Chinese reputation appears to be holding up better in Spain or Italy, but even there, up to two-thirds of the electorate have a negative view of the Chinese government. Only North Korea trumps China in Europe's negative ratings; even Russia - viewed by many Europeans as a direct military threat - is performing better in the popularity stakes than the Chinese government.
Beijing may be touting its handling of the coronavirus pandemic as an example of its own efficient governance. But according to the same Pew survey, an average of 60 per cent of Europeans rate China's coronavirus handling negatively.
And although President Xi Jinping may have been hailed a few years ago in European capitals as the ultimate defender of globalisation and free trade, the European public remains distinctly unimpressed. In every major European country, between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of the Pew respondents say that they have no confidence in China's top leader.
A separate survey just published by the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), one of the country's top think-tanks, provides more granularity to this grim picture. Negative opinions of China, the survey claims, are shared across the board in France, and regardless of political views. French men and women who consider themselves right-wing mistrust China for its human rights record, while left-wingers rate China negatively because of its environmental record. Criticism of China is now the consensus position.
Failure of diplomacy
More worryingly still, the IFRI survey, which also polled people in the former communist Eastern Europe, discovered that almost half of voters in Poland or Hungary believe in the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was "artificially designed in a Chinese laboratory". Either way, "the results show a complete failure of Chinese diplomacy and its soft power", says Mr Marc Julienne, one of the IFRI researchers who worked on the study.
Does this really matter? Yes, and a great deal. To start with, a country that suffers from a consistent bad reputation finds it much more difficult to promote its initiatives on the global stage. Of course, soft power is no substitute for hard power, so a country like China that packs increased economic and military muscle can still get its way even if it is less loved, provided it is more feared. Nonetheless, ramming through policies against an unfavourable public opinion does extract a cost that drains political and diplomatic resources.
Confronting a bad reputation also has an impact on a country's trade. European consumers may not care that much about human rights when tempted by a cheaper China-made computer, for instance. But as China moves up the production chain, quality and reputation increasingly go in tandem, and count for a lot in higher-value items.
Furthermore, being the subject of emulation is just as important as - and sometimes even more so than - possessing hard power. That is why China has spent fortunes in trying to persuade other countries that its political and developmental model works not only for itself but also holds valuable lessons that could be copied by others.
Yet much of this investment appears to have been wasted. The network of Confucius Institutes, nestled within various European universities and designed to promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture, is shrinking. And universities throughout the continent are now being asked to explain what these cultural arrangements with China mean, and how they fit into the ethos of European teaching institutions. Many appear to prefer to either close or curtail these operations.
The same is happening to European politicians. Up to a year ago, Europe's leaders used to be quizzed on why they were not more successful in engaging with China; today, they are being asked why they persist in going to China for visits, or why they fail to raise thorny questions of human rights with the Chinese leadership.
Most of the Chinese-related initiatives that the European Commission has launched over the past 12 months have related to the imposition of further restrictions on Chinese investments and political actions in Europe, a reverse of previous trends. And the trade dialogue between the European Union and China has become much more "frank", diplomatic-speak for pointedly heated.
In short, while it is possible to exaggerate the value of soft power, it is also dangerous to ignore its importance.
Room for reversal
There is plenty China can do to counteract the negative image it suffers in Europe, without changing its form of government or its policies, as some of its European critics may demand.
The Pew survey, for instance, indicates that older Europeans tend to have substantially more negative views of China than younger ones. That means that an outreach to younger people is still feasible.
The opinion polls also indicate that, notwithstanding the negative views, just over half of Europe's population believe that China will overtake the United States as the world's top superpower. That means that although the Chinese may find it difficult to court love in Europe, they may still command respect with the European public.
And more interesting still, when French respondents were asked in the recent IFRI poll what they would like the priorities of the French government to be in dealing with Beijing, most put the question of the security of cyber communications first, followed by "cooperation on global issues such as epidemics and climate change"; advancing human rights and democracy came only third in the priorities of ordinary French men and women.
What this means is that European voters are fully aware of the trade-offs that must be made in dealing with China, so there are plenty of opportunities there.
The snag is that nobody in a position of responsibility in Beijing appears to grasp these opportunities to recast the country's image. Instead, all that seems to have happened is that Chinese diplomats in Europe have been given instructions to refute what they see as misrepresentations of their country, and they are doing so with an aggressive publicity campaign that until now has proven to be entirely counterproductive.
"The stories of China should be well told, voices of China well spread, and characteristics of China well explained," President Xi told his top officials soon after he came to power.
China continues to tell its story. But fewer and fewer Europeans appear to be listening.
Read the full article on the website of The Straits Times.