China’s image problem is worsening worldwide. It is time for...

China’s image problem is worsening worldwide. It is time for...
China’s image problem is worsening worldwide. It is time for...
As the increasingly virulent rhetoric against China in recent months has made clear, China has not been very popular in countries like the US and Australia for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

However, new research shows how extensive China’s image problem is currently.

Recent polls by the Pew Research Center show that the majority of people in 14 advanced economies have an unfavorable view of China.

In nine of these countries, including the US, UK, Australia, South Korea and Germany, negative views about China have reached their highest levels since Pew began polling in those countries more than a decade ago.

In Australia, 81% of respondents said they viewed China unfavorably, up 24 percentage points from the previous year, while in the UK 74% had a negative view of China, up 19 points.

Sweden (85%) and the Netherlands (73%) also recorded dramatic peaks, increasing by more than 30 percentage points compared to 2017.

A more assertive diplomatic approach

Significantly, the survey suggests that perceptions of how China dealt with the pandemic has had a major impact on people’s views of the country.

With the pandemic devastating economies and costing millions of lives around the world, it is understandable that people should feel resentment and anger towards China, whether it is reasonable or not.

À lire aussi: The world has a hard time trusting China. But does it really matter?

In addition, these unfavorable attitudes could linger for some time, since it is human nature to remember negative things in greater depth and detail than positive things.

However, these negative views about China may not have been solely due to dealing with the crisis.

China’s diplomats have also become increasingly self-confident in answering questions about the origins of the virus and have pushed themselves back with what is known as “wolf warrior diplomacy”.

The Pew poll should be a warning to the Chinese government to rethink its foreign policy practices, especially if China intends to take on more international leadership in a post-pandemic world.

À lire aussi: Behind China’s newly aggressive diplomacy: “Wolf warriors” who are ready to fight back

Emphasis on mutual respect

There are three lessons Chinese diplomats should consider.

The first lesson is that good diplomacy is based on mutual respect. And China can earn respect from the world through conviction – not through coercion and propaganda.

For example, an open letter that the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi recently sent to the Indian media about its coverage of Taiwan failed spectacularly, the Indian Foreign Ministry said

In India, there is a free media that reports on subjects that they see fit.

It is true that some foreign media outlets have biased and even skewed reports about China. But instead of trying to censor reports they consider biased, Chinese diplomats should instead use counter-arguments, ideally in the same media. Let the audience make their judgment.

Empathy without conditions

The second lesson is that diplomacy should be based on empathy, especially during the pandemic or similar humanitarian crisis.

China has tried in the past to demonstrate empathy by providing much-needed humanitarian aid to other countries, but how China gets the message across makes a big difference.

For example, it is undiplomatic and ridiculous to seek praise and compliments from overseas governments after providing aid, which is exactly what some Chinese diplomats did during the pandemic.

China’s diplomats should keep in mind that humility is a respected virtue in traditional Chinese culture. And in international relations, soft power is more effective when there are no conditions.

“When they go low, we go high”

The third lesson looks at the art of diplomacy, which is essentially about intergovernmental relations between countries. Diplomats need to know what to do, and more importantly, what not to do, in order to maintain good relations with other countries.

For example, the Chinese Ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, has often attacked the local media and public figures for, as he put it, “in the habit of criticizing, blaming and smearing China.”

Gui has been called to the Swedish Foreign Ministry more than 40 times in two years, and several parties have called for him to be expelled from Sweden.

In Brazil, the Chinese Embassy protested violently when Brazilian Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of President Jair Bolsonaro, blamed China for the pandemic on Twitter.

Ambassador Yang Wanming called it a “nasty insult” and the embassy stated that Bolsonaro contracted “a mental virus” during his visit to the US.

China’s diplomats should understand that due to the different political systems in other countries, it is sometimes normal for politicians and public figures to express controversial views on China.

À lire aussi: Relations between the US and China were already heated. Then coronavirus threw fuel on the flames

How and when to react is part of the art of diplomacy. Sometimes a quiet, measured reaction is more effective than a public argument.

This is not to say that China should bow its head when it is bullied by other countries. A wise diplomat should know how to choose a fight with the right aim at the right time. In addition, good diplomacy should be built on assuming moral superiority whenever possible.

Michelle Obama’s famous adage – “When they’re low, we go high” – also applies to foreign policy.

Australian journalists attended a press event at the Chinese ambassador’s residence last year before relations deteriorated.
Lukas Coch / AAP

Lessons for the West too

These three lessons are not unique to China. The U.S. image has also declined internationally as the administration dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, Pew polls show.

Australian diplomats might also find these lessons useful in mending their country’s deteriorating relationship with China.

China’s First Prime Minister Zhou Enlai famously said:

There is no small thing in diplomacy.

Today, a more sensible and balanced approach to diplomacy is best for China and the rest of the world – not more heated rhetoric.

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