I recently spoke with a young man who had just returned to Singapore after living in the US for close to a decade. He told me that he knew well of the American resentment towards China. But he was surprised that many of his peers in Singapore did not have a positive impression of China, even if they knew how important the country was to their future.
I do not have actual statistics to prove just how prevalent these sentiments are. China-US relations have been hostile in the last few years. While former US President Donald Trump’s style has turned many people off, China has also been dealing with challenges on several fronts at home and abroad. The latter’s handling of issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea and the whistleblower case in the early stage of the Covid-19 epidemic in Wuhan, as well as the way Chinese officials have spoken and behaved in the diplomatic arena, have befuddled many young people. Although these young people have a pragmatic appraisal of China’s economic strength, they also find China’s interests and values rather distant.
China greeted in Southeast Asia with a smile and a frown
This situation calls to mind The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report published by the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in February this year. Lianhe Zaobao had earlier done a detailed report on the survey findings. According to the survey, 44.2% of respondents acknowledged China as the ASEAN dialogue partner that has provided the most Covid-19 assistance to the region. This is the highest rating in the category and also double the number of respondents who chose Japan. At the same time however, 72.3% of respondents who see China as the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia are worried about China’s growing economic clout. This is a slight increase from the 71.9% reported last year. And out of those who view China as the most important political and strategic influence in the region, 88.6% are anxious about the situation, which is an increase from 85.4% last year.
This mindset of “appreciating your good intentions while worrying about your influence” is apparent throughout the report. The majority of respondents are optimistic about their bilateral relations with China in the next three years but are at the same time worried that China’s rising influence could lead to it to employ strong-arm tactics in the South China Sea or use economic leverage to dictate a country’s foreign policy. These sentiments reflect Southeast Asia’s close yet distant relationship with China — while there is no lack of cooperation and exchange, there is also insufficient trust.
Interestingly, the participants of the survey are mostly those between 21 and 45 years old. Among them, 45.4% are from academia, think tanks or research institutions, while 30.7% hold government positions. These two groups of people make up the majority of respondents. Only 9.2% of respondents are from the private sector.
We can interpret the survey’s respondents’ profile in this manner: the report mainly reflects the views of the young and middle-aged members of intellectual groups in Southeast Asia. On top of that, we cannot rule out the possibility that these people lead policy-making processes and public opinion in their respective countries.
Why do they have such perceptions of China and what has led to their worries?
I have previously received the ISEAS survey and am aware that it is essentially a survey to be filled out in English. This year, however, Bahasa Indonesia and Vietnamese have been included as well. Since the research is conducted in multilingual and multicultural Southeast Asia, providing appropriate language choices is paying attention to detail and also means that the survey can reach out to non-English speakers in Southeast Asia.
Language key to unlocking barriers
I am especially sensitive about the use of language because language very likely influences how one consumes information, thinks, understands events, as well as forms perceptions and value judgements. English-language media has long occupied the world’s mainstream position and many audiences recognise and understand China through the perspective of Western English-language media. The image of China that they highlight and shape directly affects people’s perception of China. Thus, it is a huge task for China to engage and make their views known to those outside China.
China is not only facing a language barrier problem. China’s political system and ideology is completely different from most countries.
Language is an important conduit. That is why we see China building media platforms in other languages to increase its soft power. One example is China Global Television Network (CGTN, formerly CCTV-9 and CCTV News), which was rebranded as an English-language international news channel in late 2016. However, as much as language is important, it is only the first step, and not just a matter of translation. Apart from ensuring that the selection of news topics and storytelling methods are acceptable to audiences accustomed to English-language media, building credibility or at least toning down the propagandist flavour of the platform is not something that can be achieved immediately by throwing in a lot of money.
If you do an online search in English about CGTN’s license being revoked in London, you might find news about China’s ban on BBC World News instead. Chinese foreign ministry spokespersons questioned the authenticity of BBC’s Xinjiang report and rebutted the interviews point by point. While China adopted a fact-finding and investigative approach, the majority of the people who do not read details or find it difficult to discern right from wrong would still be fixated on the fact that China banned BBC and hence conclude that China heavily censors the media and adopts high-pressure tactics against foreign media.
Unequal dissemination of information hurts China in the long run
However, China is not only facing a language barrier problem. China’s political system and ideology is completely different from most countries. Coupled with the fact that China is a big country facing a multitude of complex issues, the factors that it has to consider are often beyond the imagination of outsiders. In this sense, it is unsurprising for someone to form a certain perception of China if he or she only looks at China from the perspective of Western English-language media.
The world finds it hard to understand and accept the fact that China wants everyone to listen to it but shuts the voices of outsiders outside its doors.
Besides, as China continues to impress the world with its economic, technological and military prowess, people would have higher expectations of it in areas such as open access to information and diverse voices. The world finds it hard to understand and accept the fact that China wants everyone to listen to it but shuts the voices of outsiders outside its doors. Why does it always have national conditions and development paths that outsiders should understand but often fail to comprehend? A long-term unequal dissemination of information only highlights the fact that China is “different” from other countries.
Many of such incidents added together only puts China in a more disadvantaged position in terms of international public opinion, and makes it harder for its side of the story to be heard.
Knowing how to show strength without butting heads
And the more unfavourable the situation, the stronger China's sense of "struggle" becomes. Entrenched in “battle mode”, the actions and statements of some Chinese officials and media in their retaliatory attacks have sometimes been harsh and derisive in recent years. Instead of a composed and confident style imbued with modesty, China prefers a direct and intentional show of strength, as if anything less would imply an inherent weakness. And this show of strength is encouraged and applauded within the country.
However, China’s display of strength is constantly magnified by the media against the bigger picture of competition brought about by its rise. Outsiders watching at the sidelines would certainly form certain perceptions. Although they hear Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasising “good-neighbourly friendship” and the concepts of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness” when he expounds on these notions during his visits to neighbouring countries, they also see China’s tough and aggressive side.
How much does China care about such reactions? A friend told me pessimistically that China sometimes makes people think that it does not listen anymore. This is a pity.
Given the above, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute’s survey findings on the attitudes of young members of intellectual groups in Southeast Asia towards China are not surprising at all.
How much does China care about such reactions? A friend told me pessimistically that China sometimes makes people think that it does not listen anymore. This is a pity. I have seen the amount of effort and resources that China has put into promoting itself — I think that it does not wish to be seen as a country that only says what it wishes to say, but disregards things that it does not want to hear; it would also not want to please and perturb its friends at the same time.
While it is not easy to wield soft power with a light touch, what it ultimately wants to achieve is not everyone’s approval and praise, but an understanding and respect for its differences. A country’s external communication and image building is not a matter of propaganda and response measures of individual departments, but a big strategy in itself.
That young friend who returned from the US was excited and enthusiastic. He wanted to help his friends understand China. I also agree that understanding is a good place to begin, and it is good for everyone. He took out his phone and showed me his efforts. I listened attentively, humbly learning from him.
Related: Chinese academic: How the West's perception of China plummeted in 2020 | ASEAN’s future: China or the US? | Survey: China the most influential and distrusted power in Southeast Asia | Unfavourable views: Southeast Asia's perceptions of China and the US worsen amid Covid-19 | Why do the Chinese behave this way? China's 'middle society' holds the clue