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October 24, 2013, by Editor

China’s public diplomacy shifts focus: From building hardware to improving software

Written by Ingrid d’Hooghe.

China spends more money and effort on developing public diplomacy strategies and instruments than any other country in the world. The Chinese government has embraced the ideas of soft power and public diplomacy to an extent not often seen in China with regard to political concepts from abroad. It believes that public diplomacy, or wielding soft power, may help make China’s economic and political rise palatable to the world; contribute to the international recognition of Chinese values and policies; increase the government’s legitimacy; and that it is indispensable in the fight for China’s right to speak and to co-exist with the liberal international world order with its own political model.

As Chinese policy makers want to get public diplomacy right, they commission much public diplomacy research and encourage the domestic debate on the topic. Scholars extensively study and discuss other countries’ public diplomacy theories and practices, in particular those of the US. The Chinese government does not simply copy foreign public diplomacy policies, however. It critically examines Western approaches, rejects, selects and adapts Western ideas and strategies to the Chinese political and cultural context, and simultaneously develops its own concepts and approaches, resulting in ‘public diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’.

The call to further develop a distinct Chinese approach to public diplomacy, one that better suits China’s culture and the country’s political model, is also highlighted in a recent article in the People’s Daily by Cai Mingzhao, Director of the State Council Information Office (SCIO), and vice-director of the Chinese Communist Party’s External Publicity Office, two important players in China’s public diplomacy. The article is based on President Xi Jinping’s speech at the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference and provides various clues about where China’s public diplomacy is heading. The article first and foremost makes clear that the Chinese government will continue to strongly invest in expanding and improving its public diplomacy and media capacity. It also indicates that after investing for years in building the hardware, or instruments, for public diplomacy, China’s leaders will pay more attention to improving the software of public diplomacy: China’s messages and the use of public diplomacy instruments.

SCIO Director Cai points out that policy makers should pay more attention to the receiving side of public diplomacy and take a closer look at how Chinese messages are received by audiences abroad. After all, as Cai writes:

Whether or not China’s story can be told well, and whether or not China’s voice can be disseminated well, crucially requires us to look at whether or not audiences are willing to listen and able understand, whether or not they can form positive interaction with us, and engender even more resonance.

He calls upon policy makers to address political and cultural obstacles to the dissemination of the country’s messages and argues that, in stead of trying to fit China’s messages into foreign discourses, they need to develop and introduce their own Chinese discourse, with new formulations and concepts that better explain Chinese views and policies to the world. Language expresses a country’s culture and history, and many words and concepts cannot simply be translated into another language. Chinese and Western people indeed often mean different things when they use the same English words.

This process can be helped, in Cai’s view, by a strengthening of what China considers its primary instrument for public diplomacy: the Chinese media. In the past decade Chinese media organizations have ‘marched out’ and established an impressive presence all around the world. Disseminating more messages, however, does not mean that China’s voice is also better heard and the effectiveness of China’s costly media expansion is increasingly questioned in China. The Chinese government is aware that in many parts of the world their media products do not score well in terms of attractiveness and credibility and that in the global competition for people’s attention, they are no match for western or other country’s international media companies.

Cai, therefore, proposes a more strategic and innovative approach to media work involving the indigenization of media organs. This means Chinese media companies abroad will increasingly hire local staff members who are able to fine-tune messages to the local situation and who can develop the type of programs that local audiences like. Foreign local staff will furthermore add credibility to Chinese media products. This approach is quite successful in some parts of Africa, where the Chinese media stand out by providing a platform for African people to discuss their ideas and points of view. It is highly questionable, however, if this will also work in other parts of the world where credibility is a bigger issue, local media are well developed and people can choose from a wide variety of media channels. Cai’s other suggestions include expanding the role of subnational public diplomacy in China. In recent years the Chinese government has encouraged provincial and city governments, in particular those in the country’s Western border areas, to reach out to audiences in neighboring countries, with whom they are more familiar than the central government in Beijing and where ethnic minorities on both sides of the border often share language and customs, facilitating cultural exchanges. Local authorities in Yunnan, Guangxi and Xinjiang, gladly seized this opportunity to raise their profile, boost tourism and attract foreign investment and are now actively involved in promoting China via local-level cultural, media and educational cooperation projects in Southeast and Central Asia.

In his article, SCIO director Cai thus envisages a long-term socialization process in which China seeks to make foreign audiences familiar with Chinese history and culture, and as a result, more open-minded towards China’s ideas and messages. This is not a new idea, Chinese academics have long pointed out that the understanding of Chinese culture, ideas, and concepts is a prerequisite for acceptance of China’s policies by international publics [1] but Cai’s article suggests that China’s public diplomacy will increase its focus on creating acceptance of China’s political path.

Ingrid d’Hooghe is Senior Research Associate at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ and  Research Affiliate at Antwerp University.


[1] See e.g. Dai Ying, Gouzao zhongguo guoji huayu tixi de tujing  [The Way to Construct a Chinese International Discourse System], Gonggong Waijiao Jikan , No. 10 (summer 2012)

Posted in ChinaSoft Power and Public Diplomacy