China's Image Woes, by Bill Wanlund

American Security Project (ASP) Chief Operating Officer Matthew Wallin wrote last week, “Public diplomacy practitioners interested in how the U.S. can leverage progress against climate change [should read] Thomas Benson’s analysis of China’s global image.”

I did, and it’s indeed worth a read. Benson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Department of Energy research lab in Richland, WA; his research areas include community involvement and climate security.

Benson starts from the premise that, after an initial boost from its international Belt and Road Initiative [BRI] infrastructure development program, China’s image began to suffer, and now is the worst it’s been “in many decades—particularly due to inadequate action on climate change—and [because its] slowing economic engine contrasts with the U.S.’s climate action both globally and nationally.”

He also thinks that China’s concern for its global image—witness the “stringent pollution control measures to control external perception of China” introduced for the 2008 Beijing Olympics—suggests an opportunity for both international and bilateral U.S.-China cooperation on climate change.

China subsequently used examples of domestic improvements to burnish its environmental credentials until 2018, when it chose to celebrate its worldwide climate impact. Benson notes Beijing’s 2018 report of efforts to address climate change stressed China as an “important participant, contributor, and torchbearer in the global endeavor for ecological civilization, [broadening] an originally domestic concept by applying it internationally.” This seemingly subtle switch in emphasis, Benson believes, “suggests an effort by Beijing to imprint its domestic values and narratives on the global stage, as well as to enhance China’s international prestige.”

Enter BRI. The initiative, by initially helping the economies of many recipient countries, has been a useful soft-power instrument. It also gets credit as a major component of China’s economic surge through its interest-bearing loans and heavy promotion of Chinese goods and services. That economic success makes a potent soft-power tool as well, and contributes to China’s generally favorable reviews in middle-economy countries. However, an inconvenient truth is, “more than 60 percent of [BRI’s] energy financing has gone toward non-renewable energy resources, leading to growing emissions in other countries.”*

Benson concludes that, to keep China from dominating international climate policy, the U.S. and its allies should consider reinvigorating the climate agenda to embed liberal values. However, they should also “cooperate with China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adopt sustainable development practices, and speed up the transition to clean power.”

Here's Benson’s ASP report, "Climate Change and China’s International Image."

* Benson is citing a 2021 Council on Foreign Relations [CFR] study that reported that China is the world’s top bankroller of fossil fuel infrastructure: ”Researchers found in 2019 that BRI could drive the global average temperature to increase by 2.7°C., significantly higher than the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C.”]


In a CFR essay last year, Joshua Kurlantzick took a broader look at China’s popularity slump, attributing it to “a reservoir of mistrust of Beijing over its cover-up of the initial COVID-19 outbreak”; China’s aggressive, confrontational, and occasionally even violent “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, which brooks no criticism of President Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party; and its brutal handling of 2019’s Hong Kong autonomy protests, as well as resentment over the effects of Beijing’s aforementioned BRI repayment policies [CFR’s interactive “Belt and Road Tracker” shows BRI’s effect on bilateral economic relationships with China.]

What should the U.S. do? Nothing sounds like a good option to Kurlantzick:

“Washington could let Beijing continue digging its hole and, meanwhile, rebuild U.S. ties with democratic partners. China’s coercive measures could ultimately alienate even more countries and benefit the United States.”

Nevertheless, he continues,

“The United States should remain vigilant about Chinese efforts that cross the line from soft power into so-called sharp power—efforts to covertly and often coercively influence public discourse, including bribing foreign politicians, using disinformation to promote Chinese government ideas, or “having pro-China businesspeople buy up local press outlets and quietly alter their coverage to be more favorable toward Beijing.” Read Kurlantzick’s essay here.


Finally, the Pew Research Center’s just-released report, “China’s Approach to Foreign Policy Gets Largely Negative Reviews in 24-Country Survey" by Laura Silver, Christine Huang and Laura Clancy, adds an important qualifying perspective and details to the subject of China and world opinion.

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Bill Wanlund is a PDCA Board Member, retired Foreign Service Officer, and freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. His column, Worth Noting, appears in the PDCA Weekly Update and the PDCA Blog; it seeks to address topics of interest to PDCA members.