A messaging strategy is only as good as the goal it serves; as Xi Jinping has made clear, China is seeking to make the world safer for its brand of authoritarianism by reshaping the world order. An analysis of messaging from China’s diplomats, state-backed media, and leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) demonstrates that Beijing repeatedly uses narratives, angles, and comparisons that serve to change perceptions about China’s autocracy and the United States’ democracy—to China’s advantage. However, Chinese officials’ recent embrace of increasingly aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, a more assertive and combative communications tactic, threatens the success of China’s overarching messaging strategy.
China has long executed international propaganda campaigns to promote China’s worldview. In recent years, the CCP has significantly increased the efficacy and reach of its foreign-directed media by engaging new media markets, expanding language capabilities beyond Chinese and English, increasing China’s official presence on Western social media platforms, and leveraging foreign voices to give legitimacy to CCP talking points. Xi gave direction to those propaganda efforts in 2013 at the National Propaganda and Ideology Conference when he first underscored the importance of “telling China’s story well” to international audiences, an overarching objective of Xi’s propaganda strategy.
However, telling China’s story well, while important, is only part of the strategy. According to Anne-Marie Brady, Xi’s communications efforts aim to “influence international perceptions about China, shape international debates about the Chinese government and strengthen management over Chinese-language public sphere.” For a positive message to be most effective it is usually accompanied by a negative message, creating a compelling contrast between two options. Take, for example, U.S. political campaigns. Every two years voters must endure a barrage of negative ads for one reason: they work. In changing perceptions, drawing contrast between two candidates is simply more powerful than positive messages alone.
The same messaging principles can be applied to competing visions—one authoritarian, the other democratic—for the international system. In addition to positive coverage of its rich culture, autocratic system, and technological prowess, official messaging from China also spotlights how democracy is failing to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century—and failing its own people. In examining statements by CCP officials, coverage in Chinese state-backed media, and comments by Chinese diplomats, four key pillars of China’s messaging strategy emerge: promoting China’s culture and competence, boosting authoritarianism by denigrating democracy, co-opting the legitimacy of democratic language, and creating the appearance of moral equivalence.
Pillar One: Promoting China’s Culture and Competence
From videos of wild snow leopards “roaring endearingly” in one of China’s national parks to segments on Xi’s call for international cooperation during the coronavirus pandemic to reports on the launch of China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft, the bread and butter of Chinese propaganda to an international audience is the positive portrayal of the Chinese political and economic system and Chinese culture. According to a report by Nadège Rolland, intellectual and political leaders in China believe its cultural excellence and wisdom not only undergirds its political legitimacy, but also provides a positive narrative to strengthen China’s appeal and its international influence.
In addition to showcasing China’s culture and successes, state-backed media’s non-critical reporting of problematic storylines provides a counterpoint to independent media’s more critical take. For example, China’s state-backed media has all but ignored the treatment of Uyghur Muslims that has led to more than a million Uyghurs in government “reeducation camps” in Xinjiang Province, as well as increasingly oppressive and technologically sophisticated surveillance of the ethnic autonomous region. China’s actions have been largely criticized by democratic governments, disavowed by human rights groups, and covered critically by independent media. However, China’s state-backed media ignores these criticisms and covers positive news from Xinjiang Province, including cultural festivities, the beautiful landscape, and economic development. On Twitter, a relatively new handle Discover Xinjiang (@DXinjiang) shares breathtaking photos of Xinjiang Province and #AmazingXinjiang, #AmazingChina, and simply #Amazing are among the most used hashtags by Chinese diplomats when tweeting about Xinjiang.
Pillar Two: Boosting Authoritarianism by Denigrating Democracy
China’s officials and state-backed media used the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic to openly question the effectiveness of the democratic system and showcase the benefits of an authoritarian response. This includes direct comparisons between the efficacy of the two systems. In one example, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, tweeted graphics with the number of deaths in the United States and deaths in China, writing “#COVID19 is a test for all countries regardless of political parties and social systems. Take a look at the scores of China and the #US.” A more subtle and implicit comparison was made when photos and videos of a packed pool party in Wuhan, the Chinese city originally plagued with the virus, made waves around the world. Zhao Lijian, another spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said the pool party “shows that Wuhan has won a strategic victory in its fight against the epidemic.” It was a clear contrast with the lockdown existence in the United States at the time. These criticisms and comparisons are not necessarily unfair—they echo U.S. coverage in many cases. However, it is important to understand the consistent effort to play up examples that demonstrate why democracy in the United States doesn’t work.
The nature of authoritarianism makes it more difficult to win hearts and minds based on a pro-authoritarian argument alone. Some experts have suggested China’s communist system lacks “ideational appeal.” Instead, support for authoritarian systems often comes from its seeming stability when compared with the alternative chaos found in other systems. The United States’ own challenges with racial tensions, polarized politics, and threatened institutions can dent the appeal of a democratic system, providing China’s state-run media and diplomats with ample comparative fodder. Highlighting dysfunction in the United States and other democracies works both implicitly and explicitly to seed doubts about the efficacy of democratic systems. It’s a tactic that has long been a part of the Russian playbook.
Pillar Three: Co-opting the Legitimacy of Democratic Language
Xi has defined “China’s people’s democracy” as “a type of whole-process democracy,” a turn of phrase that builds on the CCP’s effort to bring Chinese characteristics to democracy instead of avoiding the concept altogether. The CCP and its leaders regularly use democratic language to describe their autocratic system to both domestic and international audiences, a practice dating back to the Marxist-Leninist “people’s democracy.”
In one instance, Global Times Editor Hu Xijin used the recent winter storms and mass power outages in Texas to redefine a democratic concept China finds problematic: human rights. Hu pointed to human rights as a political tool in the United States and attempted to broaden its definition to include power outages in Texas. In another example, after the CCP made moves to further solidify Beijing’s control in Hong Kong, a member of a pro-Beijing party interview on the BBC heralded the need for “patriotism” and claimed Hong Kong has one of the highest degrees of “democracy” and “freedom.”
China expert Jo Kim wrote that the emphasis on democracy “reflects an effort to change the narrative and can be viewed as an initiative to demonstrate that China’s political system is meritocratic, unchallengeable, and superior to Western democracy.” Applying democratic language to authoritarian rule requires Beijing to redefine the terms. In doing so, the legitimacy of democratic principles is simultaneously diluted by injecting multiple definitions and strengthened by an acquiescence to the soundness of democracy’s philosophical foundation. Co-opting democratic language and redefining it to support autocratic governance stealthily and incrementally erodes its power over time. Take the human rights example—if human rights are merely a political tool with an amorphous definition, that’s a win for Beijing.
Pillar Four: Creating the Appearance of Moral Equivalence
During the height of the 2020 protests against police violence and racism in the United States, a State Department spokesperson tweeted in support of Hong Kong protesters after a draft security law endangered human rights and special status for the territory. Hua tweeted in reply “I can’t breathe.” The state-backed outlet Global Times negatively compared the Black Lives Matter protestors with the Hong Kong protestors, with Hu writing that it was “as if the radical rioters in Hong Kong somehow snuck into the U.S.” And Chinese diplomatic accounts highlighted the United States’ “double standards.”
It is to China’s benefit to lift up the sins of democracies and attempt to establish moral equivalence in comparing, for example, wholesale human rights abuses and genocide in Xinjiang to the reckoning of police violence and calls for racial justice in an open society. It is a variation of classic Soviet “whataboutism,” a deflection tactic with which one side charges hypocrisy in attempts to confuse the audience and avoid directly addressing criticism. China’s efforts to equate the Hong Kong protestors with the George Floyd protestors successfully pulled then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo into a debate about how and why those two protest movements were different. Regardless of the merits of the arguments, China gains ground by merely having this discussion publicly and with such a high-profile U.S. official.
Curveball: Wolf Warrior Diplomacy
The curveball in China’s messaging strategy—and opportunity for the United States—is its “wolf warrior” diplomacy, a more assertive communications style named for the popular patriotic Chinese action movies. If China’s overarching goal is to make the international system more amenable to autocratic leadership, the style and delivery associated with “wolf warrior” messaging imperils the big-picture messaging strategy under the four pillars.
Recent public polling suggests that views of China in developed economies have become more negative in the past year—a time during which China’s officials expanded their use of the “wolf warrior” tactic, peddling disinformation and increasing combative tweets. A Pew poll surveyed 14 democratic countries and found that China’s highest unfavorable rating is 81 percent in Australia; its lowest is 62 percent in Italy. That means in each of the 14 countries surveyed, the percentage of people who viewed China favorably never broke 38 percent. A recent Gallup poll looking at American attitudes toward China recorded a record low favorability rating at just 20 percent. This signals that China’s propaganda effort to change opinion around China’s role in the pandemic and, ultimately, highlight the efficiency and success of its authoritarian system is not working, at least in democratic countries with advanced economies.
Over the past year, domestic challenges in the United States and Chinese diplomats’ embrace of Western social media platforms like Twitter have provided a petri dish for experimentation in “wolf warrior” diplomacy. One of the most prominent examples took place at the height of international criticism of China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic when Zhao began publicly peddling disinformation about the origin of the virus, erroneously claiming it had been developed in the United States. Analysis shows the top tweets by engagement over the last six months of 2020 from Chinese diplomatic accounts featured “confrontational or conspiratorial content, and their most followed accounts are the most combative.”
To explain these seemingly misaligned tactics and interests, experts point to domestic considerations and insecurity for the way “wolf warrior” diplomacy is playing out in public messaging. Nationalism is on the rise in China, encouraged by Xi and the CCP, and a confident tone is lauded among Chinese officials. Some of these messaging decisions can be traced to personal and professional considerations—solidifying personal standing within the Party, for example—as opposed to part of a comprehensive strategy aimed at changing opinions internationally. China expert Jessica Chen Weiss wrote that such nationalist appeals will “prove even more of a hindrance” to Beijing because it “undermines Chinese efforts to attract international support and show global leadership.” Additionally, Twitter emerged as China’s Western platform of choice—and with it the same perverse incentives to drive engagement with more outlandish and controversial content that plagues the U.S. Twitter discourse.
Understanding China’s messaging strategy enables U.S. officials and spokespeople to avoid falling into the trap of communicating reactively and on China’s terms alone. In developing a communications strategy to purposefully engage with China, the United States should play the long game. U.S. officials should be on guard against providing fodder for China to exploit, overreacting to “wolf warrior” diplomacy, and forgoing long-term gains in favor of short-term wins. The bipartisan acknowledgement of the importance of navigating this competition with China strategically provides an opportunity for the new administration to develop and telegraph a forward-thinking communications strategy for engaging in public discourse with China. A good first step toward developing that strategy is understanding China’s messaging.