China's reputation in major countries is at its worst. Can it save itself?

China’s accomplishments in the past four decades deserve respect and emulation from many countries across the globe, despite disparagement from the West. However, China may squander this opportunity to gain goodwill by erring on two fronts: its attitude towards liberalism, and its handling of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s legacy. Making a wrong move on either of these fronts can easily diminish its chances of becoming “one of the good guys” in international politics.
Chinese national flags displayed at Wong Tai Sin Temple to mark National Day in Hong Kong, China, on 1 October 2021. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)
Chinese national flags displayed at Wong Tai Sin Temple to mark National Day in Hong Kong, China, on 1 October 2021. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

There are two major trends in the world today. One is that of the flattening of power distribution, while the other is that of the plebification of the means of violence. 

As super-affluent and super-strong as the US is, it could not beat the ragged, ragtag Taliban even after 20 years. When it is up against petty, lone wolf terrorism, even a superpower is often at its wits’ end. Small players can create big troubles. Hard power is depreciating, whereas soft power is rising in value.

For China, which hopes for a peaceful rise, winning the world’s respect and approval is more important than building atomic bombs and nuclear submarines. Nevertheless, according to various opinion polls, China’s reputation in the major countries is presently at its worst in over a decade. 

It was only seven or eight years ago when China was insanely popular. The “Chinese model” and Beijing Consensus were the talk of the town across the world. The bustling flow of people who converged on China to learn or to make big bucks was endless. Even today, the craze for learning Mandarin has yet to fizzle out. So why the sudden about-turn? 

One important reason is that, 30 years after the USSR’s demise, the old reputation of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) has come back to haunt the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Over four decades into its economic reform and opening up, China has been radically transformed, yet the CCP fails to present itself with a brand new look. Instead, it insists on putting new wine in old bottles, and declares itself as part of the Soviet Union’s lineage.

By doing so, it has unwittingly plugged itself in the Cold War’s circus of thinking and discourse. After all, much of its bad name is derived from perceptions of the now-gone USSR, or — to put it in the current CCP “officialspeak” — a “serious misjudgement of China”. 

Solid grounds for China’s self-confidence 

China as imagined under “serious misjudgement” is, of course, not the real China. While the “China mania”, so to speak, of some years ago might have revolved around a somewhat overblown image, it did not arise from a vacuum. China does have under its belt achievements it can take pride in, and which are worthy of other countries’ learning, emulation and envy. The society, with its low crime rate, is orderly and feels safe; the people work and live peacefully with unity and stability; there is little sign of the sort of homelessness that is so common in the US.

The prevalent sense of constant improvement and positive outlook on the future as seen among the populace are long missed in most developed countries, and very rare among developing countries.

Shoppers and visitors walk along a road in Shanghai, China, on 3 October 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Shoppers and visitors walk along a road in Shanghai, China, on 3 October 2021. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

The Chinese national economy has been growing continuously for over four decades, without major crises. From infrastructure, education, healthcare and housing to the environment, elderly care and sports, the general livelihood-related sectors are constantly improving. Absolute poverty has been eradicated. In science and technology, China is among the best in the world across many fields. Its market is flourishing, its consumption strong. In terms of the development of electronic payment, no other country has come as far as China. Transport is convenient in this Asian powerhouse. Chinese aunties are bursting with incredible purchasing power. The figures for average life expectancy, residential housing size and housing ownership rate are on par with those of developed countries, or even higher than some of them. The global numero uno for the sales of private cars? Again, China.

The common folk enjoy enough freedoms (of choice of school, choice of career, relocation, speech in the everyday setting, entrepreneurship, marriage etc.) to live life as they desire. Anti-corruption and the building of the legal system have seen much improvement and the government approval rate is high. Not only do policy responses come quickly, the Chinese government also shows a strong capacity for decision-making, execution and emergency mobilisation. The cadres have long-term experience and a considerable reserve of competencies. The state is capable of making comprehensive, long-term plans across various areas of concern, and can accomplish almost anything it sets out to do. China’s international standing and the building of its national defence are being enhanced continuously. The prevalent sense of constant improvement and positive outlook on the future as seen among the populace are long missed in most developed countries, and very rare among developing countries.  

All these are very real. They cannot be covered up or cancelled out by the shortcomings or “evils” that the West tends to focus on. While these achievements may be ignored by Western politicians, they are highly appealing to the common folk, and constitute solid grounds for China’s self-confidence. If China handles the present situation appropriately, then learning from, emulating and even glorifying China could become the in-thing once again around the world, even in the Western countries that feel a strong sense of superiority and yet have proved to be powerless against a whole litany of difficulties and problems.  

Social anomie, political disorder, the security situation running out of control, the elite’s dereliction of duty etc. — these are the troubled waters that many liberal democracies are sailing in. They make it possible for China to turn its reputation around yet again. The decline of the hegemony of liberalist discourse will speed up the reorganisation of international relations, the reconfiguration of the international gestalt, the rebuilding of an international order, and the rewriting of international rules. The containment and suppression of China may melt away naturally in due time.

...the CCP might err on two fronts, thereby missing this opportunity — one is its attitude towards liberalism, the other is its treatment of the CPSU’s legacy.

People walk along a street in Beijing, China, on 12 October 2021. (Noel Celis/AFP)
People walk along a street in Beijing, China, on 12 October 2021. (Noel Celis/AFP)

This spells good fortune and a golden opportunity for China. If the revolutions of 1989 happened today and not when they did, the outcome would probably be very different. However, the CCP might err on two fronts, thereby missing this opportunity — one is its attitude towards liberalism, the other is its treatment of the CPSU’s legacy. Getting the former right will rehabilitate China’s image as one of the “good guys”. Getting the latter right will enable China to shake off the reputation of being a “villain”. 

Dealing with liberalism 

Being a good guy presumes speaking a common language and embracing a set of generally recognised standards. The peaceful rise of China can only be predicated on the common understanding of modern civilisation. The values of liberalism thrive in symbiosis with modernisation, so it is very difficult to criticise one in separation from the other, especially when China itself engages in modernisation. The CCP’s campaign in the 1980s to counter “bourgeois liberalisation” had died out quickly, causing considerable humiliation to the CCP.

Running outside of the international mainstream system of discourse causes one to be seen as an alien. Liberalism is in decline mainly not because of its core values (i.e., liberty, democracy, equality, rule of law, human rights and so on), but because of the absence of some other notions therein, including many found in Chinese traditional culture and political philosophy, such as the traditional fivefold virtues (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and integrity), justice, filial piety, probity, diligence, collectivism, peace and order, self-discipline and self-cultivation, harmony, respect for the elderly, helpfulness to the young, the unity of Heaven and Man, harmony of the world, the notion of “all under heaven”, etc. 

The rejuvenation of Chinese civilisation is not about setting up an alternative in opposition to liberalism. Rather, it is about assimilating all that is good, so that what China offers may do better and be more thorough.  

In the modernisation driven mainly by the West, Chinese culture is completely marginalised. Now that modernisation has come to a stage where it urgently needs the introduction of new elements to break through its bottleneck, but because of its narrow scope, liberalism cannot solve the series of major problems the world is facing presently, so it is finally time for Chinese culture to shine. But this must happen with the purpose of meeting humanity’s common needs, pursuing values that bear universal significance, and not merely emphasising uniquely “Chinese characteristics”. The rejuvenation of Chinese civilisation is not about setting up an alternative in opposition to liberalism. Rather, it is about assimilating all that is good, so that what China offers may do better and be more thorough.  

Dealing with the Soviet legacy 

When Qin Gang, the new Chinese ambassador to the US, arrived in Washington DC, he was keen to convey a particular message immediately. He went around declaring that China is fundamentally different from the Soviet Union, and admonished the US not to misjudge his country. Indeed, the numerous achievements mentioned earlier in this essay would have been unimaginable for the USSR. Nevertheless, the belated effort of Mr Qin only exposes the limits of whatever lessons drawn by the CCP from the CPSU.

The CCP’s leaders were busy with governance matters before they ascended to the apex of power, so they have had little opportunity to engage in self-reflection and innovation with the bigger picture in mind. Inevitably, they naturally fall back on the ideological indoctrination they received in their formative years, and they have even brought back some of the old terminologies. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders stand above a giant portrait of late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong as they arrive for the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo/Reuters)
Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders stand above a giant portrait of late CCP chairman Mao Zedong as they arrive for the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the CCP, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo/Reuters)

For example, there are “the knife that is Lenin” and “the knife that is Stalin”, which according to Mao Zedong, must never be cast off. The use of such language in this day and age reflects a kind of nostalgia that is impacting the direction in which politics is heading. The West is therefore not entirely making a “misjudgement”, at least as long as the CCP has yet to clearly and thoroughly sort out where it stands with regard to the Soviet legacy.  

In the mainstream international public opinion, to be associated with Stalin is to position oneself among the “villains”. People who grew up in the Mao era are blissfully ignorant of this, but in the world at large, being pro-Stalin is as much a taboo as being pro-Hitler. Undoubtedly there is prejudice in this way of looking at things. The Western countries can concede that the communist states have had tremendous achievements, and yet denounce the leaders of these states as thugs, murderers and wicked tyrants who are a calamity to their own people.  

Regardless of the facts or the rights and wrongs of this view of history, such is the reality of general international opinion. To blindly “stay true to the party’s original mission” is to widen the chasm between the CCP and the world at large, leaving the Chinese government to stand isolated in the cold once again. This would be at odds with how the rise of a major power and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation should be.

In the West, the legacy of the Cold War includes an entire vocabulary and system of discourse, not to mention many other historical accretions, such as works of fiction, poetry, memoirs, interviews, reports, political documents, laws, defence treaties, international alliances and so on. In addition, there are also a host of political parties, politicians, media and corporate consortiums that can benefit from a new Cold War to push for it. When the conditions are right, all these forces can be very easily activated, and they would then evolve with a life of their own. The CCP is doing just that — creating the right conditions. 

For the party to break free from this quagmire, it must distance itself from what it used to be, and also from the CPSU.  

The Communist Party logo is seen on a skyscraper in Shanghai, China, at dusk on 31 August 2021. (Greg Baker/AFP)
The Communist Party logo is seen on a skyscraper in Shanghai, China, at dusk on 31 August 2021. (Greg Baker/AFP)

It is hardly surprising, then, that the “evils” of the CCP are being churned out from this system of discourse and vested interests continuously. Every act of the party is understood in terms of preconceived pigeonholes. All the good done is cast in a bad light, and even inaction is framed as being up to no good. For the party to break free from this quagmire, it must distance itself from what it used to be, and also from the CPSU.  

High standards rather than grand external publicity 

China’s achievements as outlined earlier in this essay have outstripped some developed countries on many counts, but the weight of such accomplishments is quite small in the liberalist value system. In the ongoing global upheaval, however, the people’s livelihoods have become a top political issue in the developed countries, which will lead to an adjustment in the liberalist value system, making it possible for China to become a benchmark country. This requires China to constantly elevate its own standards across various aspects through hard work, rather than craft its own image through “grand external publicity (GEP)”.

The CCP’s grand external publicity (GEP) is a monumental failure.

The CCP’s GEP is a monumental failure. After spending tens of billions, it gets only derision for showing “sharp power”, investigations by foreign governments on Chinese “infiltrations”, as well as the old reputation of the Soviet propaganda machine, comparable to Joseph Goebbels’. The GEP drive has started off on the wrong foot fundamentally. To simply apply domestic propaganda in the international arena is to reinforce the impression that the CCP is the resurrected CPSU. 

People walk near a subway station in Shanghai, China, on 12 October 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People walk near a subway station in Shanghai, China, on 12 October 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

That aside, the CCP must change a series of behaviour and habits that serve to reinforce the Cold War discourse and give credence to the old image. And it could do so only by having a thorough reckoning with the legacy of the CPSU. Below are some of such behaviour and habits, grouped into a few sets.

In the first set, we have the issue of not being able to relate with interlocutors as real human beings, coupled with the pervasiveness of “officialspeak”, formulaic utterances and trashy talk. We hear everyone say the same things, endlessly reiterating the official lines and quotes from the top leaders. Government officials of every rank, scholars, journalists, editors, and even the man on the street behave as if they have been programmed. They tirelessly echo the same things over and over again, with no regard for the occasion, their own image and the listeners’ numbness, until a new programme is inputted. 

Even when scholars voice their personal views or publish the results of their research, the government will habitually interfere and set the “right” tone, forcing self-censorship on everyone. This is happening because diplomatic expression is being conditioned by China’s domestic political discourse.

In the second set, we have the practice of drawing battle lines and falling in, such that everything is seen in black and white, people are either “with us” or “against us”, and normal discussions and debates are suppressed. Along with that, there is conniving at unprincipled and irrational nationalism, populism and speech terrorism on and off line; the high pressure from political correctness.

For the third set of old behaviour and habits, we have the fanning of a personality cult; the manipulation of public opinion; putting words in people’s mouths, ideological indoctrination of the entire population, the control of information, the silencing of people; as well as the practices of repression accreted in the name of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” over the decades before reform and opening up. Included in the last-mentioned subset are the encouragement of snitching and betrayal, confession of guilt under duress, unlawful incarceration, heavy-handed maintenance of stability and so on.  

Instead of all such negativities, objective rationality, the rule of law, the transparency of decision-making, the civilisation of political struggles, human rights and human dignity, social fairness and justice, the “blooming of a hundred flowers” and the “contending of a hundred schools of thought” and so on should be actively promoted.

Raising the country’s standards in all these areas is not about putting up a show for others. It’s about actual self-improvement that would also serve to improve China’s image, such that the country may win approval and respect, and would no longer be seen as an alien and a threat. This will reduce the probability of conflict and help with the peaceful rise of China. 

Related: Rise of China's CCP and demise of USSR's CPSU: A tale of two communist parties | China's peaceful rise has to start in Hong Kong | China: A good guy or a bad guy? | China everything: Where has America’s confidence gone? | China's new-found confidence to hit back at the West