China: Rebranding 101

By Roseline Twagiramariya

Even if you've been living under a rock, chances are you have heard about China's impressive economic growth and its continuing rise as an important global player. A few weeks ago, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released an informative report on the disparities between Chinese and American public diplomacy activities today. Most importantly, the report, commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the Ranking Member of the Committee, gave a clear and concise look at China's current rebranding strategies. Aware of its current spotlight and of its negative perceptions abroad, China has heavily invested in their soft power in hopes to ameliorate their image and be seen as less of a threat during their economic expansion. However, having read the report and other articles about China's so-called "peaceful development", it's easy to see how China could very well be standing in their own way. In terms of country branding, their initiative lacks one key factor and that is truthfulness.

For most, the country is seen today as closed and uninviting. This is largely due to the fact that it has an authoritarian and repressive government, controversial human rights issues and blocks information to its citizens. They don't want to continue to be perceived as aggressive or threatening so they are using cultural diplomacy to soften their image and explain themselves to the world. Some of their recent initiatives include the Confucius Institutes and Classrooms which teach and engage the world about Chinese language, literature, culture and arts. Let's not forget the 2008 Beijing Olympics and China's successful showcase of its countryside and people, fueling existing interests in the mysterious place. However, these and other efforts highlighted in the report, won't be as effective if they don't follow some of the basic rules of image branding: be truthful and transparent.

In an attempt to change perceptions, states have to make sure the new image being promoted is rooted in reality. China wants to be seen as friendly, open and inviting but it's going to be a tough sell if members of its audience are still aware of the country's negative attributes; they will be even more skeptical if they don't see any current efforts to change things. Change won't happen overnight, though they have to show that they are doing something, as opposed to denying existing issues or completely avoiding the conversation. This was the case for the United States at the height of the Cold War as they were trying to improve their image abroad and also engaged in a battle to win the 'hearts and minds" of the larger world; America was trailing behind. The U.S. wanted everyone to see it as the leader of the free world and that it was a democratic wonderland committed to freedom and making sure all were treated equally. Yet, their message was overshadowed by the issue of racism and the fact that the African American population was still being treated as second class citizens. The more vocal rights activists became, the more the international press paid attention. The stories they reported back to their countries painted an increasingly negative image of America and de-legitimized the country's efforts to improve that image. It wasn't until America addressed the issue and coordinated their PD efforts accordingly that they begun to see more positive results. The report clearly states that China is now facing a similar problem though I found no indication of plans to address the issues in the near future.

Transparency is key because it can often be the best defense against scepticism. But even that is unattainable if China continues to discourage free speech in the country. With such a huge re-branding effort underway, they will need their own citizens' support. The best brand ambassadors of a country are often its citizens. If they do not buy into it, and if the international media picks up on this, the chances of its success are reduced. At this point, it is hard to tell if these new soft power initiatives are being supported by the Chinese people themselves because they can't talk about it and they don't even hear what is said to us. Smith-Mundt anyone? We need to hear it directly from the Chinese citizens and we have to know that we are getting all of the possible perspectives and that the messages aren't being filtered before they reach us. Instead, we are hearing stories about jailed journalists and protesters. 'Open" countries shouldn't have these issues and as we have seen with the current revolutions taking place in the Middle East, they won't get away with it forever.

I do applaud China for recognizing the power of cultural diplomatic and making it an important part of rebranding efforts. By now, we have seen how important and an effective tool it can be; there may be no other way to cross cultural boundaries and have the opportunity to reach and connect with audiences that have a negative perception of country. However, it is time that they take the next step and be more transparent, both in their PD efforts and as they work to improve conditions at home.

Roseline Twagiramariya is from Rwanda and is a first-year public diplomacy student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She double-majored in public relations and sociology at Western Kentucky University. She is a student in Matt Armstrong's Spring 2011 public diplomacy class.

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