In the last forty years, China made astonishing progress in economy, technology, infrastructure, finance and even global diplomacy, but shockingly neglected soft skills such as marketing, sales, public relations, and journalism
In the global information war, China is bringing a plastic knife to a gun fight and is getting slaughtered by America. Given the absence of a vibrant private sector for journalism in China, the burden of explaining, defending, and promoting China lies with the Chinese state media, which is abysmally failing in its job. How bad? Well, let’s say that if the Chinese state media wrote a sex manual, it would be less interesting than a car repair manual.
China’s Image Takes a Beating
This is why, according to the latest Pew Research poll, the unfavorable view about China in many western countries have skyrocketed to more than 70%. In UK, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Italy etc., people are getting bombarded by U.S. propaganda that obliterates China’s meek rebuttals.
Perhaps the government needs to reward journalists based on social media metrics — clicks, views, likes etc.
As for the Pew poll, the only consolation for China is that Europeans have similar negative views about the U.S. and Trump as well. For example, in Germany, only 26% and 10% have positive views about the U.S. and Trump respectively. But logically, China should have something like 80% approval in Europe. After all, China doesn’t dictate Europe’s foreign or domestic policies; and China doesn’t bomb the Middle East and send millions of refugees to the E.U.
Why Soft Power Matters
The geopolitical realities have changed dramatically and China cannot afford to live in a cocoon. Chinese companies are starting to capture global markets and China’s Belt and Road Initiative encompasses projects in 130 countries. All these grand plans are dependent on China’s soft power. When people like your country, they eagerly buy your products, visit your country and spend money, learn your language and culture, defend your country, and treat your fellow citizens nice when the latter travel or live abroad. Politicians around the world will also line up to meet with your leader and make deals. Basically, life is a lot easier when you’re popular and loved.
Consider how many people of Chinese heritage in Hong Kong are brainwashed to hate China. Obviously, the Communist Party of China (CPC) didn’t bother to look at what the heck Hong Kong’s youth were learning in schools and the media. Similarly, if China had good PR skills, a majority of people in Taiwan would want to unite with China.
This is the beauty of soft power.
The smart thing for China would be to modify its “Made in China 2025” strategy to include the urgent development of soft power and positive image.
Chinese corporations are also too passive — Huawei and Tik Tok being two noticeable examples.
However many times the west publishes libelous articles about Huawei stealing IP in 2004 and causing the death of Nortel (the telecom giant from Canada), Huawei never responds. Huawei could easily debunk this myth by pointing out that Nortel crumbled in 2001 during the dot-com bust; and by 2003, Nortel had laid off 2/3rd of its workforce and its CEO had been fired for manipulating sales numbers.
Similarly, ByteDance never challenges Trump’s ridiculous concerns about data mining, as if the entire Internet isn’t based on the paradigm that “data is the new oil.” ByteDance could also point out that Apple, PayPal, American Express and countless number of American corporations operate in China and gather far more valuable information about Chinese people than TikTok could collect about goofy Americans.
All Chinese corporations on America’s “entity list” should be pointing out to the omnipresent CIA/NSA spying and the incredible hypocrisy.
Litany of other accusations — about China stealing IP, China not being open for western corporations, trade deficit being China’s fault, Chinese people being oppressed, blah blah blah — go completely unanswered, causing massive damage to China’s reputation.
China is Getting Better, But …
If the U.S. has a Ph.D. in media and public relations, China is still in high school. Chinese media make numerous rookie mistakes and I could write an entire blog post about it. But…
Chinese state media like CGTN, Xinhua News, China Daily and Global Times have gotten better in the last two years. They are hiring talented TV journalists, making lots of short and informative videos, being active on Twitter etc. Female TV anchor Liu Xin brings intellect, fact-based journalism, and social media savviness; and JingJing Li‘s bubbly personality and smartness appeal to younger audience. However, China needs hundred more such influencers.
Chinese media are also starting to leverage new foreign voices such as Daniel Dumbrill, Jerry-the-cyclist, and Cyrus Janssen. This is extremely important, since positive opinions from non-Chinese are more impactful (just like in personal relations — if you want to impress a girl, the best way is to have someone else tell her how awesome you are). Another excellent example is Kishore Mahbubani — an author and diplomat from Singapore — who has done more for China’s image than anyone else over the years. China should cultivate the goodwill of hundreds, if not thousands, of such people.
Chinese foreign ministry officials like Hua Chunying and ambassadors have started fighting back on Twitter in the last few months. We can see that they are being effective, since western journalists are whining about China’s new “wolf warrior diplomacy.”
In the next phase, China must develop journalists, analysts, authors, artists, photographers and moviemakers who focus on other countries and cultures as well as neutral topics that would have global appeal — like BBC’s documentaries, for example.
There are 400+ billionaires and 5 million millionaires in China. They could establish a massive private fund to start journalism & film schools, establish think tanks, hire journalists, and pay bloggers and social media influencers around the world. If that sounds crazy, guess what, that’s exactly what the west does.
Good Propaganda v. Manipulative Propaganda
Propaganda is everywhere and everyone has to embrace it. The key to remember is that there is a difference between good versus manipulative propaganda, and the former is based on facts.
The west mastered the manipulative propaganda more than 100 years ago, when Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays figured out the secrets of mass psychology. Since then, corporations, media and governments have used propaganda to sell products, wage wars, instill beliefs, control behaviors, manufacture consent, and socially engineer societies around the world.
However, China can focus on the four principles of good propaganda:
- Tell others about yourself. And make it interesting. Why and how is China doing well? What’s good about the system, country, people, and the culture? Why are people happy? What are your accomplishments? What are your future plans? How will your success benefit the world? (There’s a lot of Sinophobia out there, so China has to work extra hard).
- Defend yourself. Don’t let a single conspiracy theory or a vicious rumor go unanswered. If you don’t define yourself, others will. Bad news travel faster and farther than good news. So, you have to create multiple campaigns to fight each negative news cycle.
- Punch back. Don’t start the fight, but don’t hesitate to punch back. Your geopolitical rivals have plenty of horrendous skeletons in the closet. Call them out on their lies, hypocrisy, shortcomings, and crimes.
- Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. Go through the items 1-3 above and repeat them. Every day. Every week. Every month. And repeat them through multiple sources.
Chinese government and corporations should be willing to spend significant amount of efforts, money and time on the soft power campaign. Chinese netizens should also be far more active on social media. Perhaps due to political history and cultural factors, there may be resistance to embrace, learn, and invest in this extroverted art of information war. But there’s no choice — it’s time for China to evolve and adapt.