In today’s emotionally charged international moment, with populism and “fake news” dominating headlines, it is more important than ever for politicians and diplomats to work together effectively to manage perceptions and address the concerns of partner nations. China has particularly well-known concerns over its inefficient policy feedback process. The issue is not a new one in Chinese political thought; for thousands of years, Chinese emperors fought against local officials’ efforts to hide negative information. In the present day, concerns caused by China’s overseas initiatives—including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—are seemingly not reported back to Zhongnanhai for airing in front of China’s top leadership. Meanwhile, the Chinese diplomatic apparatus’s inability to communicate in ways that foreign audiences can understand hampers efforts to reassure partner nations, and can result in miscommunication of China’s intentions that contribute to mutual misunderstanding and suspicion. This has been particularly clear in the ways that the EU has embraced—or failed to embrace—the BRI.
“Report the Good, Ignore the Bad”
Chinese diplomacy has a serious information asymmetry problem. For many years, the overwhelming tendency of Chinese diplomats and reporters stationed abroad has been to “report the good news and ignore the bad (报喜不报忧)”, an issue that is deeply rooted in bureaucratic politics and official mindsets (Phoenix News, November 24, 2011). A social and cultural tendency towards “face-saving” also makes Chinese people, particularly officials, reluctant to openly discuss negative information (China News, January 13, 2015), while the bureaucracy’s performance-based evaluation system also discourages local officials from passing bad news up the ranks.
As a result, Chinese diplomats frequently fail to send objective information back to their political leaders, while internal diplomatic reporting and media reports capture only positive feedback from foreign audiences, and routinely overstate China’s success in internationalizing its economic presence abroad. In the process, negative comments, concerns and emotions are filtered out and ignored.
China has begun to address this problem. Since 2016, the Chinese MFA has helped each province produce and publicize its own provincial branding videos. The mindset of Chinese diplomats and officials needs to be shifted from internal reporting to political superiors within the bureaucratic hierarchy to external public engagement with foreign audiences (Oriental Outlook, October 12, 2017). Otherwise, the clumsy communication that results can manifest itself in a number of ways.
Getting the Little Stuff Wrong
Perhaps the most obvious is a failure to tailor message to audience. Simply translating publicity materials from Chinese to foreign languages is not effective communication. China spends billions of dollars every year on communicating with external audiences. However, much of the time, the content is not adapted to Western audiences’ tastes (People.com, March 26, 2010). In 2010, a PRC national branding video was criticized for using Chinese celebrities unfamiliar to western audiences, instead of focusing on ordinary people with whom Westerners might connect more easily (Xinhua Daily, August 10, 2010; Xinhua Net, March 6, 2011). A focus group of foreign audiences found China Daily’s BRI promotional videos are too long and unappealing (People.com, January 26). A more successful public diplomacy program would carefully select target audiences and produce tailor-made materials, with evaluations and contingency plans for potential risks and spillover effects (both negative and positive).
Second, official and quasi-official communication tends to rely too heavily on Chinese idioms, poems and political jargon, particularly at the operational level such as the MFA press conferences. This is a favorite practice of politicians and officials in China, but outside the country it can weaken the message being delivered. Chinese interlocutors frequently fail to ask themselves whether a message delivered in such a way can be understood and accepted by non-Chinese audiences without the historical, cultural and social context. Otherwise, ambiguity can create a huge space for speculations and mistrust towards the intentions of Chinese diplomatic activities. It can only reinforce the perception that China is mysterious, distant and difficult to understand, which is clearly not the diplomatic signal that China’s leadership want to send to the rest of the world.
China’s leadership has, to some extent, noticed this and tried to adjust. But the formal, stilted mode of its adjustment has only served to underscore the perception gap that still must be overcome. After Xi Jinping came to power, his team introduced the term “new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation (以合作共赢为核心的新型国际关系)”. In his 19th Party Congress Report, delivered last October, Xi refined the term, adding that this “new type of international relations” should be based on “mutual respect, fairness and justice, and win-win cooperation (推动建设相互尊重、公平正义、合作共赢的新型国际关系)” (Xinhua News, October 23, 2017). These concepts are meant to communicate a steady commitment to international peace, economic prosperity, climate change, infrastructure development and poverty reduction. But without clear and supportive messaging, they have been understood quite differently in some quarters, by some who believe China is intent on superseding existing rules.
Third, Chinese diplomats need to leave behind their habit of relying on simultaneous interpretation in public communication, since it strips their message of the emotion and empathy needed to connect to their audiences. Ironically, many are trained in interpretation or foreign languages at college; indeed, the majority of Chinese diplomats are drawn from language universities precisely because of the MFA’s stringent requirements for language proficiency. But their cautious and reactive approach makes them reluctant to use their language ability to address foreign audiences when it is needed the most. Directly quoting from government reports and official speeches reduces the chance they will make a career-damaging mistake.
BRI As Case Study
The rollout of the BRI in Europe provides an excellent case study for how these issues have hampered Chinese diplomatic reporting, making it hard to provide Beijing a full picture of reactions to the BRI, as well as making it difficult for Beijing to get its message across to a diverse set of European stakeholders, whose reactions have varied widely.
To cite one example, while EU companies perceive BRI as a huge business opportunity, and have competed to find a way to “have a bite of this big cake”; EU politicians are more suspicious, and have tended to decline any affirmative engagement with the BRI (Financial Times, January 31). BRI has also been received differently in Eastern and Western Europe. While Eastern Europe has fully embraced the BRI, Western Europe is deeply concerned that China is “deliberately” using BRI to take advantage of the growing East-West tension (Financial Times, November 27, 2017). Furthermore, the EU is also extremely nervous about China’s bilateral approach to BRI negotiations, which runs directly counter to the EU’s multilateral, consultation-based approach. The EU Parliament in Brussels increasingly feels left out of China’s negotiations with Central and East Europe.
Judging from Chinese leaders’ public statements, these concerns have not flowed back into China’s policy-making process. Without accurate information feedback, the Chinese leadership may actually not be fully aware of the concerns of their EU partners. Blinded by BRI success stories, they have missed opportunities to reassure audiences in Western Europe. In many cases, they have instead doubled down, emphasizing the large scale of the next round of BRI investment, which serves only to aggravate, rather than calm European concerns. Thus, despite Chinese leaders’ repeated assurances that BRI is not a China-centric initiative, but rather a global platform for peace and prosperity, a new wave of “China threat” sentiments has continued to grow.
Building Better Diplomacy
It will not be easy to better explain and promote China’s foreign policy initiatives abroad, given the institutional and political obstacles constraining Chinese diplomats who want to adopt more flexible, imaginative approaches to communicating with foreign audiences. The MFA has not taken substantial measures to combat the political resistance and bureaucratic inertia to institutional changes, to more provide competitive compensation and incentive programs for diplomatic jobs, or to provide diplomats more operational space for diplomatic flexibility and creativity. But there are concrete steps can be taken to improve the situation.
China’s outdated diplomatic corps do not match its global standing (South China Morning Post, April 1). To achieve President Xi’s ambitious foreign policy agenda, the MFA needs an urgent reform of its personnel selection and training process (Foreign Policy, January 23, 2017). For many years, the selection of diplomats in China has focused more on loyalty, discipline and language skills, rather than strategic thinking, creativity or interpersonal skills (South China Morning Post, April 1). The majority of Chinese diplomats follow the same career path, studying languages in college and entering the MFA through national exams. Most do not have any prior work experience. This personnel homophily reduces the diversity of skills and mindsets across China’s diplomatic corps. The MFA needs to attract more expertise in areas such as international relations, international law, environment studies, commerce, economics and advanced manufacturing. To do so it should diversify its talent pool, open a dialogue with academia, and try to attract people with varied educational backgrounds and work experience.
The MFA should also look beyond language universities to recruit attract more students from China’s top elite universities, such as Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University and Renmin University. Students in these universities are educated by China’s best scholars in international relations, politics and international law. They are often outgoing, social, well connected with foreign audiences, with good interpersonal and presentation skills (Foreign Policy, January 23, 2017). Students are also much more likely to come into contact with foreign scholars and future foreign elites at these schools, both of which are excellent ways to build their communication skills and social networks.
The MFA is increasingly concerned about its aging senior diplomatic line-up (South China Morning Post, April 1). The solution is staring it in the face: China has an abundance of young, creative, internationally-minded talent. But its outdated recruitment policies have failed to attract the best of this talent pool. If the MFA wants to sell China’s diplomatic message of peace and cooperation, it needs to reform its recruitment policy to provide a more open foreign policy platform for China’s most promising and passionate young talent.
Zhibo Qiu is an independent political consultant and researcher, focusing on China’s domestic politics, foreign policy and overseas investment. She holds degrees from Peking University and the University of Cambridge, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Oxford