Chinese Image Under Scrutiny in the context of the War in Ukraine

In the twenty-first century, states know that influence and communication require a narrative. Today, the narrative is the base for the construction of China’s image towards the rest of the world, and it unfolds along three axes. It is first the promotion of culture, and its attractiveness, the most classic approach to a soft power policy. This display is embodied, among other things, by the Confucius Institutes or by diplomacy and the promotion of the panda and avatars, whether in zoos or as mascots of the last Winter Olympics Games. The second axis is economic and is materialised by two projects: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the 16 + 1 Platform for Central and Eastern European countries. Well described, these are cooperation projects dominated by infrastructure improvement and economic exchanges. Here, the Balkans are a textbook case where the interests and logic of China and the European Union (EU) are in contact. After the founding argument of 2013 articulated around the “win-win” dimension of the BRI, then a recent greening in the modalities of the projects, these two initiatives seem to be on hold, and China communicates little on this subject in this year 2022. The third axis includes more targeted communication actions, such as the purchase of media and the dissemination of messages to politicians and academics to gain relays of influence. Researchers and most of today public opinion identify this “Chinese political narrative”.

However, the reception of these speeches is problematic since China’s image has significantly deteriorated, as shown by several polls and studies published in 2021 and 2022. In other words, the question of the effectiveness of China’s communication policy and image arises. The first explanation for this phenomenon, the image has deteriorated with the diplomacy of the mask, the uncertainty of the origin of the virus and the mode of communication seems poorly adapted to the public, in Europe at least. China is developing a discourse that is at odds with what the public can understand. Put another way, no cultural idiot exists, and the receiver can decode the messages. So, what are the messages and the narrative that China will try to promote to continue to seduce part of the world’s population? At this point, the clues are slim.

When an image falters

The international situation centred on the war in Ukraine, of course, influences the possibilities. Since the beginning of the conflict, China has displayed benevolent neutrality based on its doctrine of refusing to interfere in a country’s external affairs. The second consequence is the reorganisation of political, economic, financial and data flows, all signs of the visibility of interdependence and the reorganisation of supply chains. Impossible to assess today; part of these reorganisations will benefit the country that will trade more with the Russian Federation. The other facet of these reorganisations could be unfavourable for Chinese trade, thus continuing the awareness and developments related to the Covid19 pandemic. The situation in Ukraine requires China to move forward in the open, to position itself quickly, a posture that the country does not appreciate.

Since the beginning of the conflict, China has displayed benevolent neutrality based on its doctrine of refusing to interfere in a country’s external affairs.

Let us take the three narratives to place them in front of the consequences of the war in Ukraine. Logically, the soft power and cultural aspect are not impacted. The BRI and the 16 + 1 Platform projects are weakened or on hold. And the communication of political and media influence, more and more commented on, must, if not reinvent itself, at least develop another message capable of being heard to convince the public.

Awareness – Masks are falling

Today, the message sent by Beijing is twofold. On the one hand, the Chinese government’s arguments are more oriented in favour of the Kremlin. And the economic, legal, and financial sanctions decided by the EU against Russia are an unfavourable signal for Beijing. This is because the other aspect of the consequences of this conflict is the desire to continue trade and commerce with the EU. However, the war in Ukraine represents a factor of disorganisation, more precisely, a strong signal if we look ahead to three to five years. This war is an accelerator of the reorganisation of economic, financial, and data flows for the EU and, more broadly, the Western countries. This should worry the Chinese government, as these flows to China are indeed the force behind its activity and economic model. Two other elements are important for 2022: first, the COVID infections and, above all, the need to have internal and external stability to allow Xi Jinping to continue the governance of China in October.

The long-term approach, classic of Chinese strategy, shows Russian losses in any case, regardless of the results of the war in Ukraine: economic loss, symbolic loss, and isolation of Russia. An analysis considers that the EU, NATO, and the United States, more broadly, the democratic model emerged victorious from this conflict, both physical and model. This analysis goes on to indicate that the People’s Republic of China (PRC)  should help Russia in a search for a solution which would allow the PRC to appear as a positive player. The underlying idea is to prevent the People’s Republic from becoming the next “target” in a moment of convergence of the above actors. The country seeks to prevent its capitalism from being brought to light in a way that is as frank and sudden as that of President Putin’s Russia. It will always be possible to take your children to observe pandas in the nearest park or participate in the Chinese New Year parade in our city square. However, in a balancing position dear to Chinese culture, China seeks to spare its entourages, continue trade and dialogue with its European partners, and remain monopolised by its rivalry and methodical competition with the United States. Questions of images and perceptions, elements built over a long time, China is the crossroads. She can try to get out of her “Machiavellian moment”; it can also try to play the role of good offices before the eyes of European or even international populations, who have suddenly seen the masks fall.

Olivier Arifon

Prof. Olivier Arifon is currently a master trainer, consultant and researcher at several universities or institutional bodies. He conducts research on China issues on a comparative perspective with Europe, in particular, the question of disinformation and interference.

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