Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: REUTERS
Chinese President Xi Jinping. Picture: REUTERS

President Xi Jinping urged Chinese officials to create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” image for the country, in a sign that Beijing may be looking to smooth its hard-edged diplomatic approach.

Xi told senior party leaders on Monday that the country must “make friends extensively, unite the majority and continuously expand its circle of friends with those who understand and are friendly to China”, according to the official Xinhua news agency. Beijing needed “a grip on tone” in its communication with the world, and should “be open and confident, but also modest and humble”.

The remarks suggest Xi may be rethinking his communication strategy on the global stage as US President Joe Biden works to bolster his country’s relationships that were weakened under his predecessor’s “America First” policies. Xi has cast aside the party’s decades-old “hide-and-bide” strategy of keeping a low international profile in favour of a “big country diplomacy”.

China has increasingly hit back against perceived violations of its core interests by foreign countries with trade measures, travel bans and diplomatic protests — an approach sometimes criticised as “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. That style has been blamed for diplomatic setbacks with partners that appeared open to closer ties with Beijing, such as the EU and the Philippines.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin sidestepped a question  about the government taking a different approach in its diplomacy during a regular briefing on Wednesday in Beijing.

Wang Yiwei, a director of Renmin University’s Institute of International Affairs and a former Chinese diplomat, said the country's more assertive diplomacy came in response to those in the West who cast it as a threat. But that has failed to satisfy both domestic and international audiences, Wang said.

“China’s image in the West has deteriorated since the pandemic, and this needs to be taken seriously,” he said. “The growth in China’s power needs to be accepted by the world. That would be the real growth of power.”

It remains to be seen whether the push will have any effect on China’s policies in disputes with countries such as the US, Australia or the EU, which have seen ties deteriorate further in recent months. Views of China turned sharply negative last year in 14 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Center, according to data released in October.

China’s emphasis on the superiority of socialism has led to concern in the West, Wang said, and the ridicule of other countries’ failure to contain Covid-19 was “a bit overdone”.

The discussion on international communication included a lecture by Zhang Weiwei, a professor at Fudan University, who’s also a staunch and vocal advocate for how China’s governance model is superior to Western democracies.

Wang Wen, the executive dean of Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies and an adviser to the government, said it was the first such session held by the 25-member politburo, the ruling party’s executive committee. He said Beijing would continue to defend its interests overseas.

“Chinese leaders see that misrepresentations of China’s image have led to negative impacts to core interests,” Wang Wen said. “The leaders hope that every layer of the government will pay attention to international communication and take an active role to communicate internationally.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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