Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) President Jin Liqun (R) and Canada's Finance Minister Bill Morneau attend a news conference in Beijing, China, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The story of China is well-known. China has achieved a remarkable economic growth lifting its country out of poverty. It presents itself as an economic model to the Global South, an alternative to one with liberal democratic political infrastructure. However, its rise on the world stage has not been supported by a commensurate positive national image.

Chinese international prestige predominantly built with political and economic prowess was met with skepticism among its regional neighbors and international actors. At the same time, China’s current international standing in its wide array of investment, trade, and diplomatic engagements opens an enormous potential for outreach and public diplomacy initiatives.

China’s involvement in development in Africa also breeds grounds for interconnectedness and exchange of commerce, culture, and mutual growth. It can expand soft power through a variety of channels promoting its culture, policies, and principles. China’s most formidable challenge remains building trust with foreign audiences.

China funnels large-scale infrastructure and resource projects in communities of Africa, and while most activities are viewed favorably by African nations, some nations view with the skepticism of aid packages without political preconditions. To launch a successful campaign on its development activities, China can lay emphasis on its coordination with the civil society, actors, and countries in Africa. China can begin by carrying out public dialogues with actors or groups who have criticized its policies and shape a responsible image whilst promoting a common agenda of mutual benefit to both nations. China can also emphasize the tangible effect of development activities rippled down into local communities. Through a multi-prong approach of close cooperation and engagement, China can stress its strategic goal to realize peaceful development and establish partnerships of mutual prosperity.

One area of improvement for Chinese national image also is its comparative lack of national brands. A nation’s attractive power can lie on international recognition of a brand name, where the audience can draw product’s image from the country of origin. Compared to the easily recognized US brands, such as NBA or Apple, WeChat or Xiaomi attains relatively less recognition. The 2008 Beijing Olympics and Shanghai Expo, China has been able to showcase its culture, but China has yet to tap into its most powerful resource – its own people.

China has incredible potential in harnessing rich culture and stories of minority groups in Yunnan or Xinjiang. In fact, China can promote its domestic agenda of protecting rights of ethnic minorities in China by embracing these groups and promoting their distinct culture from food, performance art to music. China can create a national image personalizing its rich traditions nurturing their people’s organic creativity and culture.

The conundrum for China has been to pursue its national interests while projecting the image of China as a peaceful and progressive nation. Its diplomatic, investment and development initiatives do not necessarily translate into improving China’s reputation, rather it is often seen as a vie for influence. China also has an opportunity to conduct modern diplomacy beyond traditional channels. Chinese diplomatic activities involving multiple networks and actors can utilize the global expansion of media networks. Through engaging with foreign civic organizations, international actors, and minorities, China can promote its values and systems without necessarily implicating its national identity.

Today’s outreach network is no longer unilateral or mechanical; it is evolving in trend with the dynamics of widespread, instantaneous communication technologies and diversity of interactional actors. A concerted effort to engage the foreign audience on China’s benign investment strategies, contemporary cultural trends and diversity of its people can make remarkable progress in promoting China’s pursuit of a harmonious social progress.

Grace Kim

Grace Kim has published research on human rights, cultural anthropology, and innovative philanthropy. With experience at the Korea Desk and Policy Planning Staff at the Secretary's Office of the U.S. Department of State, she has provided support to strategic guidance to U.S. foreign-policy priorities.

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