Dear professors, students, friends,
I gladly accepted your invitation to discuss an unusual topic for me. As you know, apart from politics, I was and proudly remain a professor. Teaching is one of my deepest passions and I take great pleasure in exploring, with you, a theme that relates closely to both politics and economics.
You know very well how the image of a country is never separated from its international recognition. Countries with a bad image and good performance are the exception, at least in the medium-long term. This is the reason leading to new concepts to affirm a country’s success.
You are all familiar with new analytical instruments like “soft power”. Master Sun Tzu once wrote that you could win a war by just showing your positive side. There is no need to conquer another country or new customer; you can simply, and more easily, convince or attract them. In this case the approach should be complete, leaning on facts as well as on ideas, on both tangible and intangible assets — without fighting a battle. In the same way, you can gain the world’s admiration and friendship.
I understand that China is very sensitive to this aspect. Scholars, politicians, and academics have long debated upon the matter. The outcome is new, and promises fertile. Only the more superficial analysts say that China is stagnant or lagging behind in internal discussions. I will try to give my contribution to the topic, expressing my ideas on the following issues:
1. To what the country’s image is related;
2. China’s image in the world today;
3. Possible improvements for its international reputation.
After my speech, I will be glad to answer all the questions you might have.
So, how can you possibly describe what a country’s “image” means? Why is it so important? What are the parameters used to identify it? Usually the concept is not commonly associated with states or societies. It has a value related to entertainment, glamour, and fashion. Can a country be “nice”, “pleasant” or even “simpatico” like we say in Italy? Yes, but with some differences. To be well perceived might be useful to export, diplomatic relationship, and international milieu. We now know, for example, how important values like the “American dream” or the “American way of life” were for the United States. Whether we liked it or not, it is undisputable how these concepts helped both the country’s recognition and dominance throughout the world. On a more personal level, allow me to explore some rhetorical questions: How many movies have we all seen from Hollywood; or how many CDs have we bought from American artists? Billions of them. Naturally, the hard power was necessary, but the soft kind helped. The might of the US military, the magnitude of its economy, as well as the smile of its movie stars were all components of an enduring success.
Now, given that image is important, what are the intellectual pillars that can be used to study it?
The three most important are:
a) China is neither a friend, nor a foe. In a globalized world these categories are obsolete. It is widely accepted that every country or group of countries is acting in a competitive arena. Gone are the times of ideological identification, or at least they are faded as compared to the Cold War era, when competition between the two blocs was paramount. The opposition of capitalism and communism led to rigid positions that forbade — namely the socialist bloc — the expansion of productive forces. Today, the situation is entirely different. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for a more pragmatic vision. Economies no longer submit to politics; sometimes the former trails lead to the success of latter ones. China set a worldly example for this experiment: their immense productive forces were freed from constrictions and, under the guidance of the CCP, brought forth an outstanding growth.
The process is bigger than China and bears a name very familiar to us: globalization. Was China’s success driven by globalization, or, inversely, were the shifts in international affairs induced by China’s rise? The answer is complicated and interchangeable, and no definite conclusion can be drawn. One thing, however, is sure: globalization means that we are all independently looking for the prosperity of our own countries and our own citizens. The new scenario forces us to do so simultaneously. No country is powerful enough to achieve fruitful results alone. So, what is the real meaning of ‘friend’ in this socio-political sphere? Can a country’s image be rooted in its general appeal, or on its contribution to a better world? Moreover, being friend or foe is temporary, convenient, and sometimes difficult to explain. Early on, Thomas Friedman wrote “The world is flat.” If no barriers are in sight, there is complete freedom in choosing alliances and policies. Thus, the concepts of friendship and partnership must be reconsidered, with new categories to address countries’ images.
b) China is different. This statement may appear simple, since every country “is different.” It means that abroad, China cannot be fully analyzed with traditional measures: neither political, nor economical. Both the country’s long history and culture play an enormous role in depicting its international image today. The variety of socio-political and economic positions that have emerged in China are contemporarily surprising and revealing, because they are defining of the nation’s peculiarity and strength. Few other countries in the world are known for as many aspects as China is. The giant is known virtually everywhere for its economics, politics, literature, religion, society, and revolutionary history.
c) Nobody, no country, can overlook China. It is an already awakened giant. Its rise is the cause and effect of globalization. Its consequences are visible and accepted, although sometimes only in part. Its impact in the international spectrum might have been too quick at first, but it is now acknowledged. Beijing’s role is crucial in every issue: from the economic crisis to international security, from the environmental protection to the use of natural resources, from the ordinary life to new scenarios in the world arena. Negotiation among countries is the most useful form of challenge.
Now that we have somewhat outlined the criteria that determine the strings to which China’s image is attached, we can explore the country’s general image abroad. As you know, many studies in both Europe and North American have been brought forward to ascertain what is the perception of China on an international level. The main findings can be summarized as follows:
a) The perception of China as seen from abroad is that it is articulated, at times ambivalent or contradictory, and non-politically motivated. Different social groups show a variety of opinions. No single category of citizens took a specific position regarding the way they perceived China. There is no clear position on China to which an entire category of citizens belong. Even in relation to the human rights issue, one of the most sensitive, a variety of positions surface. Some social groups consider China a valid opportunity and others as a global threat. International citizens also have different opinions among them, even after clearly stating their political affiliation. For example, either poor labour standards are always not acceptable, or they are the “necessary evil,” as during the industrial revolution in Europe.
b) In this “overshadow of doubt,” some positions can be traced:
- Business circles tend to be friendlier towards China. In their consideration, what prevails is the partnership with a nation having two promising opportunities: first, an infinite market for import and consumption, and second, an immense reservoir of cheap labour force. As long as China keeps its open market economy, the perceptions and understandings are mainly positive. Consequently, negative approaches regarding other issues can be marginalized;
- Consumers generally like China. It is considered a source of cheap and increasingly high quality products. Especially in a time of crisis like the current one, China plays an important role in maintaining a respectable level of consumption in the global market. In addition, the distribution system finds in China an endless source of products to sell with high returns;
- When consumers consider themselves citizens, however, they may change their approach. In fact, civil society has a different perspective from the positive picture I just painted. Mainly, they lament about the lack of democracy and the opaque situation surrounding civil rights issues. In their opinion, economy should follow democracy, not drag it;
- The media is also split when analyzing the way China is perceived overseas. On one hand, members of the media find an increasing, albeit insufficient, general interest in China. On the other hand, they resent the lack of free press, as well as the cumbersome weight of bureaucratic measures designed for foreign journalists;
- Governmental representatives are the most realistic unit of civil society. Most of the time, they acknowledge that the country’s rising importance cannot be challenged. For them, negotiation with China is unavoidable;
- Nations that enjoy essential economic clout with China, and/or those that do not present conflicts of interest, usually have a better perception of it. China can either invest in these territories or, otherwise, purchase raw material from them. For this group, China is seen as an economic aid rather than a selfish country.
c) Still, China has an image problem which has deteriorated over the years. Many concerns touch upon labour and environmental standards in China. What varies among them is the degree of accusations towards China and the number of possible justifications to absorb them. The quality of Chinese products is also seen as poor, regardless of how low the prices are. Counterfeiting and a generally low respect for intellectual property rights (IPR) are yet another concern commonly associated with China. Countries that border with China also lament Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy. A lack of a political reform is indicated as one of the biggest obstacles to fully recognizing China as an inimitable model.
d) Criticism towards China is concentrated in some Asian countries (particularly India and Japan) as well as in the western hemisphere. North America and Europe rank lowest when assessing China’s image abroad. Moreover, awareness turned into alertness when China’s rise kept pace, even during the economic crisis. Unfortunately, Italy holds the first position for the country with the worst perception of China overseas. This is largely due to traditional concerns about food standards, such as the products’ quality and safety procedures, as well as to Italy’s perception of Chinese imports as a threat to national (and European) unemployment.
e) China is perceived mainly through an economic lens. Taking a closer look, however, it is clear that its economic side significantly affects its other national spheres as well, such as politics, arts, culture, and immigration. The available information on China is considered insufficient to capture its multifaceted identity. Media coverage is limited, superficial, sometimes sensationalistic and not in tune with the magnitude of the country. Consequently, foreign perceptions are often based on factors that do not provide a thorough understanding of the country itself.
f) Today, China’s major question mark is its identity. It is still very difficult to determine whether China is perceived as a communist or capitalistic country; an industrial or agricultural economy; a free or controlled market; a threat or an opportunity. Even if these questions do not have precise answers, it seems appropriate to pose them anyway. In my opinion, for many years the interpretations linked to the so-called “Chinese miracle” were often misleading. The country’s success is too often attributed to a mere combination of low salaries and authoritarian rule. In fact, among the general public, and in some of society’s more exclusive members, it is quite rare to discover a deeper and more comprehensive analysis than the one mentioned. Although insufficient, this perspective dominated over Italy’s negative outlook on China.
What are some measures that can be taken to improve China’s controversial image? Like any other, a country’s image needs two parties: the protagonist and the audience. China can only work on the former, i.e. itself, but it can influence the viewers’ feelings. The last topic of our conversation will not assess whether these perceptions are right or wrong, but will explore the measures that can be used to improve them. In my view, the following can be done:
a) Perceptions, so far, have been influenced mainly by institutional communication and media
coverage. A more “grass roots” approach is needed because it reaches ordinary citizens. Chinese culture — and I mean culture in the most comprehensive sense, so not only art and literature, but also lifestyle, values, and traditions — should be more internationally spread. In other words, China should pursue more “soft power”.
b) Privileged attention to economic relations might be reconsidered, for two reasons: they are already big, consistent, and growing, and they are already underpinned by companies and business people and therefore do not need additional support.
c) Consider China more as “a country like others,” even if it is not. This is a very critical point. You all know the debate surrounding China’s “universal values” and national peculiarities. In fact, so far, the country has thrived on “exceptionalism,” which implies that no other country can serve as ‘a model’ for China, and vice versa. I personally believe there may be additional contributing factors in analyzing China’s international role. China is now more mature and more powerful; its path is admired (if not followed) by many emerging countries; the nation is, ultimately, respected worldwide. There would actually be no danger if China were to propose itself as an international model, so long as this proposal takes the shape of an interpretation and not that of an imposition.
d) China should pursue a more active role in the global arena. By integrating itself in the international community both better and faster, China could enjoy greater national stimuli. Again, I understand that these decisions are not entirely in China’s hands. Allow me to draw a final conclusion on this topic: I am aware that recently, China has not avoided the new responsibilities it is facing, such as peacekeeping in dangerous areas, mediation in conflicts, contribution to anti-terrorism intelligence, disaster relief, and economic recovery after the crisis ignited in 2008, and although this is a great number of issues to tackle, the international community needs “more China.” There is plenty of capacity to act coherently with the nation’s size, history, and success.
As a legacy of the past, China identifies international institutions as “organs of control” rather than places dedicated to the elaboration of a participative process. Change might be a necessary step, not to avoid differences, but to cope pacifically with them. China’s role cannot be confined to being the “factory of the world” — even if that experiment proved successful. The country is much more than a mass-production site surrounded and protected by the Great Wall. I encourage my Chinese friends to cross the same wall that preserved their civilization. I am confident that the world would appreciate this commitment and that China’s international recognition will know even more prestigious heights.