How ‘mask diplomacy’ helps cultivate a positive image of China abroad

China seeks to control the international narrative on its role in the pandemic. But while Beijing cannot always deflect criticism, its mask diplomacy efforts and external propaganda streams do affect China’s image, write Samuel Brazys, Alexander Dukalskis and Stefan Müller

Late last month, news emerged that the top echelons of China’s Communist Party (CCP) were considering a rethink of China’s external communications.

Over recent years, an aggressive comms style has become the norm for the CCP. In the past few months alone, diplomats and the party-state’s external propaganda streams have used the US’s history of slavery as rhetorical material. They told ‘small’ countries like Lithuania to know their place, and even mocked Uyghur survivors of sexual abuse.

It's a mode of communication popularly known as the ‘wolf warrior’ style, after a nationalistic film series of the same name.

But who is the Wolf?

Sometimes, this approach can result in unintentional hilarity, as happened recently on Twitter. In April, the Chinese embassy in Ireland posted a confused tweet referencing Aesop’s The Wolf and the Lamb:

Some people accused China of so-called ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’. In his well-known fable, Aesop described how the Wolf accused the Lamb of committing offences. The wolf is the wolf, not the lamb… by the way, China is not a lamb.

Tweet from Chinese Embassy in Ireland, 1 April 2021

The new announcement saw CCP leader Xi Jinping encourage the promotion of an image of China that is more ‘trustworthy, lovable and respectable’. Xi argued that China should ‘make friends extensively, unite the majority and continuously expand its circle of friends with those who understand and are friendly to China.’

Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi alluded to a similar point at a high-level US-China meeting in Alaska in March. At the meeting, he claimed the US does not speak for ‘the overwhelming majority of countries in the world.’

The implication is that there is an audience for Chinese diplomats and media to speak robustly, even if it annoys ‘the West.’

Some observers are therefore sceptical that last month’s announcement will change much in the tone of China’s external propaganda. Time will tell. But the sceptics make a crucial point: China’s external propaganda is not just one thing for one audience.

Mixed messages from Beijing

Chinese diplomats or media outlets may ‘scold’ Western actors critical of China’s human rights. At the same time, they foster friendly and beneficial relations with states not prone to criticise Beijing. China may do both of these things while trying to promote a sort of transnational personality cult around Xi Jinping. It may also deny or whitewash its domestic human rights atrocities.

Previous research by two of us using almost two million articles from Xinhua, China’s state-owned international news agency, illustrates this point. Xinhua changes its messaging depending on the linguistic audience and the messages Beijing wishes to promote. This may not be too surprising. But it’s a point often missed when observers fail to remember that external propaganda has multiple audiences at once. Railing against ‘the West’ may irritate some audiences but appeal to others.

External propaganda has multiple audiences – railing against ‘the West’ may irritate some audiences but appeal to others

An even more interesting question is whether China’s external messaging changes the way independent foreign media discuss China. In other words, is China’s external propaganda effective in changing the ‘discourse’ about China?

Shaping the pandemic narrative

In a new AidData working paper, we test this proposition. Given Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan, the PRC has come under criticism for its early handling of the virus. The theory that the virus escaped from a Wuhan virology lab has been much in the news over recent weeks. Yet China has sought to shape the narrative on its role in the pandemic since the earliest days of the outbreak.

We analysed more than 1.3 million statements from media articles about China and Covid-19. Our analysis first shows that China does indeed take heat for the pandemic abroad. Language describing China is noticeably more negative in the run-up to, and in the week of, the peak deaths in a given country.

China does indeed take heat for the pandemic abroad

However, by coding almost 600 instances of Chinese ‘mask diplomacy’ – denoting China’s efforts to provide medical supplies, teams and remote consultations to other countries in order to appear a benevolent global player – we find that media tone in a country significantly improves in the weeks following receipt of such efforts. These results hold even when we exclude articles about mask diplomacy itself. A more general change in discourse about China seems to happen, at least for a while.

Mask diplomacy can prove effective

China may not always be able to deflect criticism in international media. Its public diplomacy efforts, however, amplified by external propaganda streams, can be effective.

Authoritarian states like the PRC work hard to manage their image, as detailed in Alex Dukalskis’ new book, summarised on this blogsite. It’s not always clear when these efforts work, but when it comes to mask diplomacy, there is some evidence that they do.

Why does this matter? Well, we don’t know yet whether last month’s meeting will change the way Chinese diplomats and media outlets talk about China and its role in the world.

But if it does, then it may also change the way the rest of us talk about China, too.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Samuel Brazys Samuel Brazys Associate Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin More by this author
photograph of Alexander Dukalskis Alexander Dukalskis Associate Professor, School of Politics & International Relations, University College Dublin More by this author
photograph of Stefan Müller Stefan Müller Assistant Professor and Ad Astra Fellow, School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin More by this author

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