A shipment of donated Chinese medical equipment arrives in Cambodia in April 2020. Photo: AFP / Getty Images / Tang Chhin Sothy

China’s tarnished image does not seem to be improving, and in fact may have been getting worse since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Recently, the author of this article came across two commentaries with very interesting yet conflicting arguments. One op-ed is titled “A distressing year for China’s global diplomacy”; the other is “China’s soft power on the rise during the pandemic crisis.” Both articles were coincidentally published almost on the same day by two different research institutes in Cambodia.

These two articles look at a similar issue from different angles. One argues that China’s global image seems to be getting worse, while the other argues otherwise. Both articles have merits and make convincing arguments.

However, when reading both pieces, at least one question arises: Is China’s image, soft power, or global diplomacy improving or deteriorating in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic? Asked differently, is China’s international image getting better or worse?

While contemplating this question, I saw another recently published article, “China needs diplomats, not wolves.” This article presents findings from three opinion surveys with respect to the perceptions of Americans, Canadians and Australians toward China. All three surveys indicate that China is unfavorably perceived by the people of these three democratic nations.

The article notes that public opinion about China has worsened. Thus the findings from the surveys as well as the argument of the article seem to be in line with the argument of one of the above pieces that argues that 2020 is a distressing year for China’s global reputation. However, is this the end of this debate?

To understand this critical issue further, over the past weekend, I did a Google search using “China’s global image” as a search term. There were more than 28,200 results, many of which were articles published in 2020. A quick scan of the titles revealed that the majority of these articles tended to suggest that China’s international reputation has been tarnished since the outbreak of Covid-19.

To shed light on the debate around China’s image, two more articles are highlighted in this piece. One is an article in The Diplomat published on July 22, titled “Did Covid-19 really give China a strategic advantage?” The other, published on July 23 by the Lowy Institute, is titled “China’s deep state: The Communist Party and the coronavirus.”

The first article argues that “the pandemic was an opportunity for China in a very narrow sense.” The fact that China was later able handle the virus successfully and began assisting the international community with its “mask diplomacy” may have improved China’s international image; however, its early mishandling of Covid-19 and its suppression of important information about the outbreak, leading to global spread of the coronavirus, have severely undermined its reputation.

The article concludes that “the pandemic was more burden than opportunity.”

The second article similarly argues that “China’s global image might have been enhanced by the Covid-19 crisis” if Beijing had not suppressed vital information about the new coronavirus when it was first detected in December 2019. The article concludes that “China’s early lack of openness, subsequent trumpeting of its achievements, and mishandled diplomacy provoked backlash abroad and have damaged its global image.”

Thus, although it seems reasonable to argue that China’s image may have been improved amid the pandemic through mask diplomacy and financial assistance, this argument pales in comparison with the growing negative perceptions toward China for its initial coverup of the virus that later became a pandemic and for being the origin country of Covid-19.

In addition, China’s growing assertiveness and territorial claims in the South China Sea; its practice of no-strings-attached development assistance; its use of debt-trap diplomacy; its Wolf-Warrior diplomacy; and other behavior such as alleged intellectual theft all have had a negative impact on China’s regional and international image as well as its efforts to raise its international reputation as a responsible global leader.

Based on these anecdotes and the prevalence of America’s soft power, it seems that China will need both time and intentional efforts to project a positive image to the world and make its soft power a dominant phenomenon.

At present, it seems certain that China has become increasingly well received among less democratic and developing countries worldwide, including in Southeast Asia. Political leaders of states that are seen to edge toward authoritarianism such as Cambodia are likely to embrace China and support its endeavors to project itself as a benevolent global leader.

Given the decline of the United States as a global leader and superpower under President Donald Trump’s administration, there seems to be an emergence of a new trend in which countries across continents, particularly declining democracies, begin to have a favorable view of China, embrace Chinese-led development initiatives, and adopt a less critical or a supportive stance toward China’s domestic and international affairs.

China’s actions and models have seemingly gained traction among authoritarian states or countries that appear to be becoming less democratic.

Despite these, China’s international image does not seem to improve, and may in fact be getting worse amid the coronavirus pandemic. It therefore has to continue to engage in its image-enhancing efforts, introduce new initiatives that aim to improve its global reputation, and reassess its ways of engaging with other counties, particularly its apparent lack of willingness to promote human rights, rule of law, and good governance in countries with young or dying democracies.

As China has an ambition to lead the world and has the potential to realize that vision, it needs to redouble its efforts to enhance its image as a responsible global leader. It needs to promote transparency, good governance, human rights, environmental protection, regional and global peace, and sustainable development.

Kimkong Heng

Kimkong Heng, a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship, is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland and a visiting senior fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. All views are the author’s own.