Surekha Ragavan
May 6, 2020

Is China losing the global PR war?

As Beijing invests billions of dollars to rebuild its post-outbreak image, we ask one PR chief if the world will be persuaded by its campaign.

Is China losing the global PR war?

China is not one to be in most countries’ good books, and this sentiment has intensified in the last few months. Especially in the West, backlash against the republic has amplified as the coronavirus continues to ravage much of Europe and the US.

Whether it’s criticism against China’s alleged withdrawal of information around the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak, or a lack of trust in China’s official tally, the country is buckling on the world stage and in need of a cleaner, more trustworthy image altogether.

Propaganda or publicity?

China’s current PR machine to ‘repair’ its global reputation, at the cost of “billions of dollars”, includes efforts both domestically and overseas.

“The first inclination of the [Chinese] government is to turn to tools that have made it so successful domestically over the years, and then try to adapt those tools for international use," says David Wolf, global corporate affairs and advisory at Allison+Partners.

"And that traditionally has been what we would call ‘propaganda’ and what the party has recently started calling ‘publicity’. A rose by any other name, if you will."

Wolf was previously managing director of the firm’s global China practice, and is the author of Public Relations in China: Building and Defending Your Brand in the PRC.

An anti-China headline from UK's tabloid newspaper The Sun

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) current campaign is primarily being executed via traditional owned and earned media. The usual way this has been done domestically is to “attempt to influence” and that influence can take many forms such as regular interaction with journalists to discuss a point of view that is “right”.

This tactic is by no means a unique effort on China’s part. Historically, governments and brands anywhere in the world have gently nudged or wooed journalists towards the “right” direction, and in many facets of journalism such as public affairs or lifestyle, particular titles might have inclinations towards a particular party or brand. Even in 2020, a publication or journalist that is objective in absolution is a rarity.

But Wolf argues that in China’s case, its efforts to silence journalists and dissent cross the line. “It’s when they start throwing the reporters out, that's when the influence begins to weaken, it begins to cross a line,” he says.

In March, China expelled 13 China-based reporters from three major US newspapers: Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and The New York Times. The mainland’s actions also prohibited those journalists to report from Hong Kong and Macau, where there is greater press freedom. The move—in the middle of a deathly infectious disease—further circulated chatter on what China might be “hiding” with regards to coronavirus. It fed into the already simmering global distrust.

But China’s highly controlled earned media efforts have picked up elsewhere, thanks in part to state-owned machines such as China Central Television, Xinhua News Agency, and China Radio International. All three operate in multiple languages and are available internationally.

A positive headline on the state-owned Xinhuanet

On social media, the CCP’s influence also shines via what is known sometimes as the ‘50 Cent Party’. The term refers to internet commentators hired by the Party to speak positively about its efforts, and it’s been named after the alleged 50 cents each commentator gets for each post.

Wolf says that while it may be unfair to categorise all commentators as “doing it for the money”, there are just as many who do it out of genuine patriotism. At the moment, China’s ‘paid influencers’ can take the form of online influencers, bureaucrats, international NGOs, or academics.

“China has redoubled those efforts in the last couple of months because they want to come out of this entire pandemic situation with at least a neutral rating from the rest of the world, if not a positive rating for having handled [the coronavirus] with greater alacrity than Europe and North America have,” says Wolf.

Meanwhile, domestically, the CCP has executed PR campaigns for more than 95 years. “Between the Party departing from the Popular Front [during the split with Chiang Kai Shek in the mid 1920s] they got very, very good at domestic information operations,” says Wolf. “You get pretty good at that. Especially when you're trying to do it when people are shooting at you.”

Distrust of Chinese comms

Despite the CCP’s clever media game, it struggles with trust outside of mainland China, especially among the non-Chinese population. Even domestically, locals tend to trust their families and influencers to a far higher degree than they do state-owned media.

“At a time when China is publicly ejecting journalists from well-respected international media outlets, it doesn't make it look like their number one goal is transparency. And that’s the challenge. If China's information efforts are going to be effective, they have to follow the same rules that the rest of us have to follow, which is that actions are always going to speak louder than words,” says Wolf.

“You can say what you want and you can make the videos as beautifully produced as you want to, but it's not going to convince people until unless your actions are consistent with your words.”

Wolf adds that a crisis like this can be a “profound opportunity” for China to change everyone’s minds.

“If they simply say, ‘Listen, we’re going to tell the whole story because we know that this pandemic is only the first and the more open we are, even if it makes us look like we made mistakes, at least we're going to learn from it’”, he says.

“And that's more than enough, that’s exactly what they need to gain domestic and international credibility. It’s just by taking that one step. They can do that literally almost overnight. But if they're going to just try to fight the old war of words, it's going to take years to be as transparent as they could from now on.”

China’s facemask diplomacy – yay or nay?

As China has successfully managed to overcome the coronavirus in a short span of time with strict measures and regulations, it now passes on its learnings to the world. Or so it thinks, according to the West.

China’s efforts—or what has been often labelled as its ‘facemask diplomacy’—to supply medical equipment and manpower have been met with skepticism in the West, and according to Wolf, this could be because of the nature of aid being offered in the first place.

“The perception in the West is that the aid that they're giving Europe is actually not aid in the classic sense. It's paid-for assistance. I also believe that there's been more questions about the degree of accuracy to which China is reporting on its own casualties. And so the questions have come about such as: Were their efforts as effective as they say they were? And if so, should we be taking their aid in their systems? Or at face value? Or is there something else happening?” says Wolf.

An airplane carrying members of a medical assistance team from Shenyang returns home after helping with COVID-19 recovery efforts in Wuhan

Reports show that Asian countries are far more receptive towards China’s aid. Teams sent to Cambodia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Pakistan and Malaysia have been received warmly. But why?

“I chalk it up to cultural affinity. China has gone to a great deal of effort to be perceived as a positive player [in Asia], there's a lot of admiration for what China has accomplished, both economically and politically. If you think about it, this is the first Asian power in history to rise to the point that it has without actually having to do it at the point of a gun,” says Wolf.

“While it’s good to be close to the dragon, you don't want to chase the eagle away at the same time. You want a good balance of superpower influence in the region. You don't want to see a hegemony.”

On the contrary, partly owing to the poorly run administration in the US, President Trump has been quick to react harshly to China’s aid or advice, including aggressively and publicly labelling the disease as the “Chinese virus”.

A New York Times report said that the US State Department “appears determined to compete with China on publicity over aid”. Proof is in the department’s website saying it has given nearly US$500 million in foreign aid during the pandemic while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “There is no country in the world that will provide as much aid and assistance through multiple forms as the US will.”

China is not entirely blameless in this scenario. According to a separate report last weekend, the Party has responded negatively to global criticism and is now implementing increased “nationalist rhetoric” via overseas-based Chinese diplomats, threatening to disrupt economies, and “demanding for gratitude”.

If the act of lending a helping hand is in itself a PR strategy, Wolf says there’s still no reason for countries to say no to China, at least not while most of them are still reporting staggeringly high numbers.  He says: “We're talking about doctors here. We're not talking about intervening peacekeepers.”

Because, at the end of the day, why should large-scale PR campaigns and international politics supersede people’s lives?

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