China’s public diplomacy shifts focus: From building hardware to improving software

This article was first published at the China Policy Institute Blog of Nottingham University, to see the original click here.

October 24, 2013, by

China’s public diplomacy shifts focus: From building hardware to improving software

Written by Ingrid d’Hooghe.

China spends more money and effort on developing public diplomacy strategies and instruments than any other country in the world. The Chinese government has embraced the ideas of soft power and public diplomacy to an extent not often seen in China with regard to political concepts from abroad. It believes that public diplomacy, or wielding soft power, may help make China’s economic and political rise palatable to the world; contribute to the international recognition of Chinese values and policies; increase the government’s legitimacy; and that it is indispensable in the fight for China’s right to speak and to co-exist with the liberal international world order with its own political model.

As Chinese policy makers want to get public diplomacy right, they commission much public diplomacy research and encourage the domestic debate on the topic. Scholars extensively study and discuss other countries’ public diplomacy theories and practices, in particular those of the US. The Chinese government does not simply copy foreign public diplomacy policies, however. It critically examines Western approaches, rejects, selects and adapts Western ideas and strategies to the Chinese political and cultural context, and simultaneously develops its own concepts and approaches, resulting in ‘public diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’.

The call to further develop a distinct Chinese approach to public diplomacy, one that better suits China’s culture and the country’s political model, is also highlighted in a recent article in the People’s Daily by Cai Mingzhao, Director of the State Council Information Office (SCIO), and vice-director of the Chinese Communist Party’s External Publicity Office, two important players in China’s public diplomacy. The article is based on President Xi Jinping’s speech at the National Propaganda and Ideology Work Conference and provides various clues about where China’s public diplomacy is heading. The article first and foremost makes clear that the Chinese government will continue to strongly invest in expanding and improving its public diplomacy and media capacity. It also indicates that after investing for years in building the hardware, or instruments, for public diplomacy, China’s leaders will pay more attention to improving the software of public diplomacy: China’s messages and the use of public diplomacy instruments.

SCIO Director Cai points out that policy makers should pay more attention to the receiving side of public diplomacy and take a closer look at how Chinese messages are received by audiences abroad. After all, as Cai writes:

Whether or not China’s story can be told well, and whether or not China’s voice can be disseminated well, crucially requires us to look at whether or not audiences are willing to listen and able understand, whether or not they can form positive interaction with us, and engender even more resonance.

He calls upon policy makers to address political and cultural obstacles to the dissemination of the country’s messages and argues that, in stead of trying to fit China’s messages into foreign discourses, they need to develop and introduce their own Chinese discourse, with new formulations and concepts that better explain Chinese views and policies to the world. Language expresses a country’s culture and history, and many words and concepts cannot simply be translated into another language. Chinese and Western people indeed often mean different things when they use the same English words.

This process can be helped, in Cai’s view, by a strengthening of what China considers its primary instrument for public diplomacy: the Chinese media. In the past decade Chinese media organizations have ‘marched out’ and established an impressive presence all around the world. Disseminating more messages, however, does not mean that China’s voice is also better heard and the effectiveness of China’s costly media expansion is increasingly questioned in China. The Chinese government is aware that in many parts of the world their media products do not score well in terms of attractiveness and credibility and that in the global competition for people’s attention, they are no match for western or other country’s international media companies.

Cai, therefore, proposes a more strategic and innovative approach to media work involving the indigenization of media organs. This means Chinese media companies abroad will increasingly hire local staff members who are able to fine-tune messages to the local situation and who can develop the type of programs that local audiences like. Foreign local staff will furthermore add credibility to Chinese media products. This approach is quite successful in some parts of Africa, where the Chinese media stand out by providing a platform for African people to discuss their ideas and points of view. It is highly questionable, however, if this will also work in other parts of the world where credibility is a bigger issue, local media are well developed and people can choose from a wide variety of media channels. Cai’s other suggestions include expanding the role of subnational public diplomacy in China. In recent years the Chinese government has encouraged provincial and city governments, in particular those in the country’s Western border areas, to reach out to audiences in neighboring countries, with whom they are more familiar than the central government in Beijing and where ethnic minorities on both sides of the border often share language and customs, facilitating cultural exchanges. Local authorities in Yunnan, Guangxi and Xinjiang, gladly seized this opportunity to raise their profile, boost tourism and attract foreign investment and are now actively involved in promoting China via local-level cultural, media and educational cooperation projects in Southeast and Central Asia.

In his article, SCIO director Cai thus envisages a long-term socialization process in which China seeks to make foreign audiences familiar with Chinese history and culture, and as a result, more open-minded towards China’s ideas and messages. This is not a new idea, Chinese academics have long pointed out that the understanding of Chinese culture, ideas, and concepts is a prerequisite for acceptance of China’s policies by international publics [1] but Cai’s article suggests that China’s public diplomacy will increase its focus on creating acceptance of China’s political path.

Ingrid d’Hooghe is Senior Research Associate at The Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ and  Research Affiliate at Antwerp University.

[1] See e.g. Dai Ying, Gouzao zhongguo guoji huayu tixi de tujing  [The Way to Construct a Chinese International Discourse System], Gonggong Waijiao Jikan , No. 10 (summer 2012)




The expansion of cultural, academic and educational exchanges with foreign countries is an important element of China’s public diplomacy strategy, including its strategy towards Africa. On several occasions Chinese and African leaders have emphasized the need for more people’s exchanges and the 2013 White Paper on China-Africa Cooperation Beijing Action Plan (2013-2015) includes various concrete plans to boost cooperation between non-governmental institutions on both sides. In recent years the number of platforms for people’s exchanges between China and Africa has rapidly increased. Examples are the China-Africa People’s Forum, jointly organized by the China NGO Network for International Exchanges (CNIE), the African Union and several African NGOs, and the Africa Communication Research Center at the Communication University in Beijing.

The most recent initiative in this area is the launch, in late October 2013, of the Sino-African Think Tank 10 + 10 Partnership Plan. This plan links 10 Chinese think tanks to 10 African think tanks for long-term paired cooperation and exchanges. The website of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), one of the 10 participants on the African side and partner of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), provides more details. The plan has evolved out of the China-Africa Think Tank Forum (CATTF), which in its past meetings has brought together a lot of people but – according to the results of the 2012 meeting published at the website of David Shinn and comments by participants – failed to lead to focused discussions. The initiative fits in a broader trend to supplement large scale China-Africa talk-shops with small-scale and concrete cooperation projects. A similar project – mentioned in the Action Plan but yet to be launched – is the China-Africa Cultural Cooperation Partnership Program which aims to link 100 African cultural institutions with 100 Chinese partners.

This form of cooperation encourages Chinese and African people to really engage with each other and provides African participants with much-needed opportunities to make themselves and their ideas better heard in China.  The initiative will furthermore help both sides to identify concrete policy areas in which China and countries in Africa can work together and develop an agenda for joint research on topics that matter, such as those suggested by Deborah Brautigam or those studied by the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University, South-Africa.


November 1, 2013 · by Chinarelations
A NYT blog entry by Keith Bradsher drew my attention to a speech by President Emeritus of the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, Yang Jiemian, at an event organized on October 31st by the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent’s Club.

Being a well informed and sharp observer Yang Jiemian’s speeches and writings are always worth examining. What struck me in this speech is the strong emphasis he puts on public diplomacy as a major and strategic element of China’s diplomacy.

Speech summary

In his speech Yang outlines four challenges faced by China’s foreign policy and diplomacy: (1) transforming China’s domestic and foreign policies in a way that adequately addresses the rapid changes in China’s domestic situation; (2) addressing the international community’s calls upon China to take more responsibility with regard to global issues; (3) dealing with an increasingly politically ‘complicated’ Asian neighborhood in which positive developments are overshadowed by the media’s attention to China’s maritime disputes; (4) matching up to others in promoting and sharing China’s own ‘distinctive values’.

According to Yang, China seeks to overcome these challenges by adjusting its foreign policy and public diplomacy in four ways. The first way he mentions is by paying more attention to strategic thinking and a ‘focus on the strategic goal of building favorable external environments for China’s modernization and the nation’s renewal’. The other three are: prioritization of neighborhood diplomacy and a ‘new major countries relationship’ with the US; finding a better balance between China’s ‘practical interests’ and the country’s obligations; and a better coordination of internal and external policies by paying more attention to different interest groups within China.

What does this speech say about China’s public diplomacy approach

1. Role of public diplomacy will be strengthened

Yang doesn’t use the term ‘public diplomacy’ but in elaborating on the first of four adjustments in China’s foreign policy and diplomacy, he speaks twice about a new strategic focus on ‘building favorable external environments for China’s modernization’. This confirms that China seeks to further develop public diplomacy as a major strategic and integrated element of its overall diplomacy.

2. Public diplomacy towards the Asian region will be expanded

The Asian region has always been a priority in China’s public diplomacy strategy but with the continued emphasis on good-neighbor policies the efforts in Asia will likely be expanded. Yang indicates China should address the international media’s focus on China’s maritime disputes and ‘troublesome spots’ in Asia and mentions the importance of expanding and strengthening cultural and people-to-people exchanges in the region. In the Q&A session Yang also mentions the growing involvement of a broad range of central and local players in developing China’s neighborhood diplomacy which points towards the policy to give more room to subnational diplomacy and public diplomacy.

3. China will more actively promote Chinese values

Echoing elements of Cai Mingzhao’s speech (see my previous blog entry) Yang calls for better explaining China’s ‘distinctive values’ and ‘different expression’ of values to the world so that they will become a match for others’ (read ‘Western’) values.

This speech thus confirms three trends in China’s public diplomacy, which also emerge from recent Chinese policy documents and Chinese leaders’ speeches (see e.g. my previous entry).