The Power of Perception and Image in Global Governance and Great Power Relations

Why does so much of the world not perceive China as it sees itself? Why have its efforts to improve its image abroad not seen a significant return on investment? And, what can be done to convey a more accurate picture of China?

The Peoples Republic of China considers itself a benevolent nation that seeks the well-being of the world. It knows that only a win-win approach can lead to a global community where all parties build on each other’s success to provide a better life for their children and a prosperous future for all societies.1 While America discusses erecting walls and putting ‘America first,’ China has announced it will play an increasingly positive role in global governance. Under the leadership of President Xi China speaks of championing globalization, climate change, and international trade- all in an effort to build a community of a shared future for all mankind. 

Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era offers many insights into the improvement of global governance. President Xi wishes to inspire change in the [traditionally Western dominated] global order, to create a world in which international affairs are jointly managed, and economic and social progress is shared by all. However, reshaping the architecture of the global system, and aligning the world’s values and standards with that of its own necessarily require that other countries perceive China’s goals as legitimate and admire Chinese culture and institutions. In other words, it requires soft power. 

At the 7th National Conference of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007, former Chinese president Hu Jintao said that “Enhancing cultural soft power is a basic requirement for realizing scientific development and social harmony. It is necessary for satisfying rising demands for spiritual culture and national development strategy.”2 This focus on soft power has since been adopted by President Xi, who at the beginning of 2014 delivered a speech in which he stated: “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.” 3

Over the past decade, China has reportedly spent $10bn annually on soft power. 4 As of 2018, China had established over 500 Confucius Centers globally. China has also been increasing the reach of its foreign news outlets; Xinhua has established roughly 170 international bureaus, and both China Daily and Global Times now have English language editions available worldwide. China’s development strategy has lifted millions out of poverty, an approach they wish to share with the world through the Belt and Road Initiative. It has made significant contributions to institutions like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank ($50bn), New Development Bank ($41bn), and the Silk Road Fund ($40bn) to help finance these international projects. Furthermore, China has offered unique Aid programs across the developing world that include interest-free concession loans and training programs to support public health, food security, and governance.5 Despite all this, China is still not beloved by all abroad, including in the West.

It’s true, China’s soft power has increased over the past three years. In 2015 China ranked 30 (last place) in the Global Soft Power Index. 2016 saw China move up to 28, and in 2017 China’s ranking stood at 25. The 2017 global soft power report explains that this is primarily a result of the ‘Chinese rise American retreat dynamic,’ particularly in Africa and Latin America.6 While China spends more on soft power than the combined governments of France, the UK, U.S., Germany, and Japan,7 they are still perceived by many in the West and some in the East to be a threat to international stability.8 9

Given China’s soft power efforts, global investment and unifying, stabilizing agenda, why does so much of the world not perceive China as it sees itself? Why has the image conveyed in China’s soft power efforts abroad not resulted in more significant returns? How can China better succeed in helping the world understand this ancient nation?

According to scholars like Wang Jiangbo, China’s shortcoming in winning the hearts and minds of many in the international community is rooted in failing to account for the vast cultural divides between China and other parts of the world.10Culture has been defined as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category from those of another.”11 It comprises shared ideologies, values, beliefs, expectations, attitudes, and norms that bind communities together. Culture is molded by geography circumstance, and importantly, history. 12 Culture shapes the way peoples brains select, organize, and assess incoming stimuli from the environment. 13 As a result, no two nations perceive the world in exactly the same way. The differing prisms through which people and countries view the world often lead to misperceptions and misunderstandings that foster suspicion and mistrust. If China hopes to captivate the hearts and minds of its friends abroad, understanding the sources of these misunderstandings and how they manifest is of vital importance. 

Constructing Ideas- The Case of the Chinese Dream
President Xi Jinping is motivated by a wish for China’s rejuvenation, addressing domestic public concerns.14 The President initiated the Chinese Dream and presents it to the world as an international project that aims to help explain China and improve global opinions. 15 Xi’s aim is for this dream to become relevant to the global community and the way they perceive China, its identity, and its trajectory of growth and development. How members of the international community understand the dream, however, is interpreted by the lens through which they perceive the world. 

This lens, shaped by culture, means different interpretations in different parts of the world. Expressions such as “Peaceful Rise” and “Harmonious World” are ascribed to by Chinese because from a young age they have been exposed to these ideas conveyed in this fashion.16However, for many foreigners these are not ideas, they are slogans – a PR effort that is perhaps created to disarm and mislead. As ideas, they are not congruent with the way Westerners have been socialized to make sense of the world. As a result, when the Chinese speak of “Harmony” and “Balance” Westerners believe what they really mean is “Chinese Supremacy” and “Totalitarianism.” 17 Consequently, the Chinese dream is not understood as intended. Instead, it is often met with confusion, rejection, and disapproval. In fact, over the past decade, Americans have grown more negative towards China. According to a survey administered by the Pew Research Centre in January 2017, 65% of Americans reportedly believe “China is either an adversary (22%) or a serious problem (43%), while only about a third (31%) said China is not a problem.” 18 While China works to convey itself in a positive light, in America and Europe many ascribe to the notions of China as an aggressive juggernaut, intent on taking over the world.

Notably, Melissen and d’Hooghe explain that the construct of the Chinese Dream has been well received by African countries “who can relate to aspirations to rejuvenate China and restore the position that it lost in the “Century of Humiliation.”19 The notions of rebirth and African renaissance mirror the sentiments of the Chinese, and like them, African people wish to restore the losses Africa suffered at the hand of Western colonialism. While Western literature often depicts China’s entry to Africa as neo-colonialist and exploitative, Africans welcome the presence of the Chinese and generally view their engagement with them in a positive light.20In a study examining perceptions of China’s presence in Africa, Nassanga and colleagues reported: “Our findings showed that the local perceptions of China in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa are largely neutral and positive, rather than negative.” Similarities in history and culture lead to correspondingly similar perceptions and congruent interpretations. In other words, we identify with those who are similar to us. The ability to relate to ‘the other’ enhances capacity to internalize their views. 

The construct of ‘dream’ in the West is fundamentally different from that projected by the Chinese. While the Chinese dream seems to echo the concept of the American Dream by using the same phrasing, they are in fact vastly different. The Chinese dream is primarily a top-down concept that accentuates the idea of Chinese civilization deeply embedded in principles that originate from within Chinese culture. By contrast, the American dream is a bottom-up concept promoting the freedom that exists within people’s minds, free from rules, and practical concerns.21 Unlike the Chinese construct of ‘dream’ which revolves around the rejuvenation of China, the American dream focuses on the individual and his or her ability to achieve their potential in a free society promoting creativity and self-expression. If China wishes for their Ideas to be internalized by those from other parts of the world, these ideas need to be constructed with culture and context in mind- in ways that ‘speak’ to their intended audience such that they are able to internalize them. 

Disseminating Ideas
While Ideas need to be carefully constructed to resonate with foreign audiences, the way in which ideas are framed when being disseminated also plays a significant role in the how they are perceived. Often, when Chinese media attempts to promote a positive message, the message is framed such that it fails to connect with a Western audience. For example, a video released in early 2017, in which Children of different races sing praise for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was not particularly well received by the West.22 The messages conveyed in the video are in no way intrinsically sinister, the concept of the BRI certainly has the potential to connect the world, and many countries stand to benefit from its success. However, a video of a group of children singing together to promote an economic initiative appears manipulative and cynical to Western observers. For Westerners, the video conveys a sense that China has a hidden agenda, fostering distrust and suspicion regarding the BRI. Many Westerners are unable to appreciate that these messages are positive because they are projected top-down and rooted in Confucian cultural values. As such they fail to resonate with a Western audience. While ideas of unity and harmony might appeal to Chinese viewers -and other nations like those in Africa who also have a strong interdependent culture- this is not so for Americans and other Western countries. To nationals of countries whose culture is rooted in individualism, the video may project the feel of forced collectivism. Reframing the narrative to better reflect the values of Western culture may improve the way Chinese media is received in these countries. Again, an underlying reason Westerners fail to internalize China’s messages lies in the nature of perception. If the audience is Western, the ideas, information, and intentions must be conveyed in terms that speak to the west.

Alternative Strategic Perceptions 
In their 2017 report, Alternative Strategic Perceptions in U.S.-China Relations, Feinstein and colleagues posit that “The United States and China apply starkly different perceptual lenses to virtually most of the contentious issues on their docket, often leading to very different understandings of what even the facts themselves are.” 23 The authors outline the contrasting perceptions of China and the West in relation to a number of issues. These issues are directly related to context, not only in the political realm but also historical and cultural. Their presentation of the contradicting perceptions of the U.S. and China concerning the South China Sea exemplifies this. The authors report that Americans perceive China’s claim as “ill-defined and ambiguous,” while China views its claim as having “historical backing” and being “indisputably clear.” 

For Westerners socialized by Judeo-Christian law based societies,24 the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is believed to override any historical claims. Americans, who perceive time as “monochronic” -linear- rarely even consider much less dwell on the past, believing rather that the present should be seized for future gains. 25 By contrast, East Asians tend to view time as “polychronic”26 – fluid and malleable, where past, present, and future are all interconnected. Thus, for the Chinese, history is perceived to carry more weight than contemporary international law. ‘Strategic suspicion’ arises in response to these divergent perceptions. 

As China’s status grows so too does the imperative of communicating its intentions and aspirations effectively with the West. However, when communicating with the West, it does so from a distinctly Chinese mindset, one shaped by Chinese culture. The result is that China’s intended meaning is often lost or worse, misunderstood and misinterpreted. Divergent perceptions also contribute to and augment the effects of policy differences related to a number of contentions between China and the West, often perpetuating existing conditions of mutual suspicion and mistrust. The only way to resolve the dissonance experienced by both sides is to illuminate the differing perspectives, and as Feinstein and colleagues put it, “bring those perceptions into the fabric of bilateral discourse more explicitly and honestly.” As China wishes to integrate its standards and values into the existing global order, it would do well to frame its messages in a way that employs a level of understanding of its audiences that comes as close as possible to standing in their shoes. 

  1. Qi Hao.“China Debates the ‘New Type of Great Power Relations”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2015, 349–370 
  2. Wang, Jian. “Introduction: China’s Search of Soft Power” in Jian Wang, ed., Soft Power in China: Public Diplomacy Through Communication, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) 
  3. Ibid 3 
  4. Sir Davidson, Martin. “China’s Soft Power: A Comparative Failure or Secret Success.” USC Center on Public Diplomacy. August 25, 2017. Retrieved from: 
  5. Ibid. 3 
  6. McClory, Jonathan. “The Soft Power 30–A Global Ranking of Soft Power 2017.” Portland/The USC (2017). 
  7. Ibid. 6 
  8. Rogers, John. “China is world’s BIGGEST threat in 2018: Think tank warns Beijing is at ‘turning point.” Sunday Express. January 5, 2018. Retrieved from: 
  9. Tiezzi, Shannon. “Beijing’s China Threat Theory.” The Diplomat. June, 2014. Retrieved from:  
  10. 王江波. “中国公共外交理论的逻辑生成和价值取向.” 党政论坛 1 (2016): 9-12. (Wang Jiangbo, “The logical formation and value orientation of China’s public diplomacy theory”) 
  11. Hofstede, G. (1984). The cultural relativity of the quality of life concept. Academy of Management review, 9(3), 389-398. 
  12. Keener, Patti. “Improving Intercultural relations and Communication in International Business: Japan and Mexico.” Senior Thesis Projects, 1993-2002 (2000): 45. 
  13. Park, Denise C., and Chih-Mao Huang. “Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 5.4 (2010): 391-400. 
  14. Melissen, Jan, and Ingrid d’Hooghe. “The Chinese dream and successful communication with the world.” Global review (2014): 17-27. 
  15. Yang Jiechi, “Implementing the Chinese Dream”, The National Interest, 10 Sept, 2013a, 
  16. Melissen, Jan, and Ingrid d’Hooghe. “The Chinese dream and successful communication with the world.” Global review (2014): 17-27. 
  17. Chu, B. (2013). Dazed and Confucius: Nine common myths about China. The independent. Retrieved from: 
  18. Manevitch, D., (2017) Americans have grown more negative toward China over the past decade. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from: 
  19. Melissen, Jan, and Ingrid d’Hooghe. “The Chinese dream and successful communication with the world.” Global review (2014): 17-27. 
  20. Nassanga, Goretti L., and Sabiti Makara. “Perceptions of Chinese presence in Africa as reflected in the African media: case study of Uganda.” Chinese Journal of Communication 9.1 (2016): 21-37. 
  21. Wasserstrom, Jeffrey. Here’s Why Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ Differs Radically From the American Dream. October 2015. Time. Retrieved from: 
  22. Lui, Kevin. According to Chinese Propaganda, Children Around the World Just Love Beijing’s Trade Policies. (11 May 2017). Retrieved from 
  23. Feinstein, David., Tran, Euhwa., Leung, Zoe., Val Teresa., Prezer-Lin, Natalie. “Alternative” Strategic Perceptions in U.S.-China Relations. 2017. East-West institute. Retrieved from 
  24. Chen, Ming-Jer., (2015). The Nuances of Cross-Cultural Communication. University of Virginia. Retrieved from: 
  25. Shipp, Abbie J., and Yitzhak Fried, eds. Time and Work, Volume 1: How Time Impacts Individuals. Psychology Press, 2014. 
  26. Shipp, Abbie J., and Yitzhak Fried, eds. Time and Work, Volume 1: How Time Impacts Individuals. Psychology Press, 2014.