Will China try to change image?

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Since 2016, China’s diplomatic strategy was to become more aggressive, more confrontational and even more antagonistic in answering criticisms of China’s domestic and foreign policies.

It was a sudden shift when it was reported a few days ago that President Xi Jinping wanted to create a more “trustworthy, respectable and loveable image” for China.

This news would have been met with disbelief and even attacked as Western propaganda, except that it was reported by a state agency, the Xinhua News Agency, which said that the statement came from President Xi himself. It also reported that Xi told senior Communist Party officials that China needs to “make friends extensively, unite the majority and continuously expand its circle of friends [when it comes to] international public opinion…” In its communication to the world China should “be open and just but also modest and humble.”

China has faced criticisms over human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority and the crackdown on pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong. More recently it has received global criticism for refusing to cooperate with investigations on whether COVID-19 came from a Chinese laboratory.

Surprisingly, China has also blatantly disregarded the feelings of allies like the Philippines when it sent hundreds of ships into the Julian Felipe Reef, which is clearly within the 12-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.

According to the news agency, Xi expressed his desire for an agenda to “…help foreigners know how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can get things done, why Marxism works and why socialism with Chinese characteristics is good.” This plan should show how China’s model of government is superior to democracies. He said: “The cases can explain that China’s development per se is what it contributes the most to the world and where China contributes its wisdom to solving issues concerning humanity.”

During the presidency of Deng Xiaoping, China’s policy was to avoid controversy and to encourage the use of cooperative rhetoric. Starting around 2016, under the presidency of Xi Jinping, Chinese diplomacy was beginning to be characterized by the use of confrontational rhetoric as well as willingness to rebuff criticism and even court controversy in interviews and on social media.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects was the effort to incorporate overseas Chinese into China’s foreign policy, with an emphasis placed on ethnic loyalty over loyalty to their adopted country.

This aggressive use of confrontational rhetoric to defend Chinese policies came to be popularly known as “wolf warrior diplomacy” in China and around the world.

“Wolf Warrior,” a 2015 Chinese war action film, is the story of an elite unit within the People’s Liberation Army. In the first episode, for example, their enemy is a group of foreign mercenaries led by an ex- US Navy SEAL called Tom Cat. The film sequel “Wolf Warrior 2” was released in 2017 and became the all-time highest grossing film in China.

Xi Jingping’s desire for his administration to be seen as more “loveable” will require abandoning the wolf warrior strategy and adopting a completely opposite strategy. The question is, why does Xi want to reverse the diplomatic strategy it has been pursuing so far? It is possible that he has been persuaded that the “wolf warrior” approach has actually been counterproductive. World opinion has not favored China in almost all surveys.

In a world survey taken a year before the pandemic, Pew Research Center had this as one of its conclusions:

“While most agree that China’s global role has grown over the past decade, a lack of enthusiasm for Chinese world leadership persists. A median of 34 percent of people around the world currently regard China as the world’s leading economic power – only slightly less than the 39 percent who picked the US. Yet when thinking about the future, a 25-country median of 63 percent say they prefer a world in which the United States is the leading power, while just 19 percent would favor one in which China leads. Notably, four of the five countries most inclined to choose the United States are located in the Asia-Pacific region: 81 percent of Japanese; 77 percent of Filipinos; 73 percent of South Koreans and 72 percent of Australians all favor a future where Washington, not Beijing, leads.

There are reasons that a campaign to eliminate the wolf warrior strategy may not work. The CCP has been conducting campaigns for a nationalist awakening among its people. It is for this reason that the wolf warrior diplomacy has become very popular domestically and resistance to a more humble, modest, loveable strategy may very well meet with domestic resistance.

Changing the diplomatic tone without changing China’s obvious aggression in international geopolitics will not change the CCP’s international image. Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy and China’s brutal suppression remain globally alive, which soft words will not change. Stories of genocide in concentration camps for the Uyghur Muslim minority are emerging more and more, which will promote the image of China that has no respect for human rights. Chinese territorial aggression in the South China, West Philippine Sea and against India will continue to add to China’s image as a rising imperialist country.

China’s stonewalling of any meaningful investigation of the origin of COVID-19 will also increase speculation that China is hiding something. There is, of course, the speculation that if China is simply changing rhetoric or tone without changing its policies, it has ulterior motives. Perhaps, it is simply trying to prevent a widespread boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Deeds rather than words are needed to change China’s image from wolf warrior to loveable.

*      *      *

Young Writers’ Hangout on June 19 with May Tobias Papa, 2-3 p.m.

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