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Xi Jinping would like to portray a gentler China to the global community but appears to only listen to an academic whose articles "smack of a wolf warrior."   © Reuters
China up close

Analysis: Xi's 'lovable' China is wolf in sheep's clothing

Beijing eager to propagate own governance style, but world has no appetite

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

TOKYO -- When President Xi Jinping at the end of last month told his fellow Chinese Communist Party leaders that China should seek to become "humble," "credible," "lovable" and "respectable," many observers initially welcomed the pronouncement as a possible shift away from the internationally notorious "wolf warrior diplomacy."

But this hope is quickly dissipating in China, as people whisper among themselves that perhaps such an interpretation was off the mark.

The pessimism comes from the presence of one Chinese scholar at the Politburo study session on May 31.

Zhang Weiwei, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, was the only guest speaker invited to the gathering of the party's top 25 leaders.

Zhang's signature theory is that China's governance model is superior to those of Western countries. The success of China's development can be attributed to the one-party rule under which competent leaders are chosen based on merit, Zhang has repeatedly insisted, comparing it to the ineffectiveness of party politics and elections seen in the West.

Zhang Weiwei, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, spoke to an important audience last month. (FIle photo by AFP/JIji)

His biography, in effect, tells us that Zhang is more spokesman than academic.

At the end of 2013, about a year after Xi became top leader, the Fudan University Center for China Development Model Research was established. Zhang became its director, leading an institution that touted to the world the wonders of China's unique governance model.

Zhang has also published many articles explaining his theory.

As China's national power rose, so did its confidence in its governance model. Wolf-warrior diplomacy is the inseparable, other side of the same coin.

It is clear from his presence at the study session that the Xi administration's basic views remain unchanged.

So why did Xi give such instructions?

First, it is clear that China needs to urgently improve its image. Xi will be looking for results.

In response to Xi's order, a media executive at a pro-Chinese Hong Kong newspaper noted that the problem was that news about China is dominated by media outlets from English-speaking democratic countries. For China to construct its own narrative, the country needs to hire and foster English-speaking talent, the official proposed.

Xi's instructions will also spur the already aggressive expansion around the world of the China Global Television Network, the international arm of state-run China Central Television.

Xi Jinping is shown on a screen during an event marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of Chinese Communist Party, in Shanghai on June 4.   © Reuters

But such party-led measures to convey the "voice of China" will require huge amounts of money.

Xi's order reflects his pent-up frustration with the current situation.

"The correct picture of China is not being conveyed to the rest of the world," he must be thinking.

That is why Xi could not help but call for a "lovable" China at this particularly sensitive juncture in China's political calendar. The command came just before the 32nd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, on June 4; the first anniversary of the Hong Kong national security law, on June 30; and the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the party's establishment, on July 1.

But the contradiction is obvious. Seeking a "lovable" China is incompatible with touting China's governance model. They just don't go together.

"The Biden administration and the Western world are doing all they can to prevent Chinese-style governance from spreading to the world," a Chinese intellectual said on condition of anonymity. "The fact that the entire leadership sat to listen to Zhang Weiwei's theories will backfire. It risks sending the wrong message."

That wrong message could be delivered directly to the summit of leading industrial nations that will be held later this week in Cornwall, southwestern England, where two prey of China's "wolf-warrior diplomacy" -- Australia and India -- are joining as guest participants (India by video).

A worker vacuums a red carpet laid out for dignitaries on the first day of the Group of Seven Finance Ministers meeting in London on June 4.   © EPA/Jiji

On the Chinese internet, Zhang Weiwei has come under harsh criticism since he appeared at the Politburo session.

"If people praise him as a guoshi [state preceptor], the future of the country will be a dangerous one," one social media post read. "He is just writing pleasing articles that smack of a wolf warrior," said another.

In Xi's China, criticism of decisions made by the party's central leadership is taboo and subject to punishment. But the public is allowed to bash scholars. Criticism of Zhang in this very small patch of "free speech" is an indirect expression of frustration with Xi and his team.

Those who have written online posts critical of Zhang are seriously concerned that if Xi and those around him praise the wolf warrior scholar while calling for a "lovable" China, their behavior would be tantamount to picking a fight with Western countries.

Another problem is that China is blending its domestic and external propaganda policies despite their having completely different target audiences.

Speaking at the study session on May 31, Xi emphasized that party committees at all levels should strengthen their international communication capabilities, invest more in explaining China's narrative and step up external propaganda.

Xi also said he will attach importance to transmitting information through international conferences and major overseas media outlets and promote the spread of Chinese culture abroad on a large scale.

Xi positioned these efforts as a political "struggle" aimed at leading international public opinion, saying he will implement them in a top-down manner.

Residents of democracies will not trust information from a Chinese media outlet that cannot criticize its own government.    © Reuters

Xi specifically made it clear that a "responsibility system" involving various levels of party divisions in charge of thought and ideology will be introduced. He urged those who are mainly responsible to take the initiative and act. His enthusiasm is reminiscent of his anti-corruption campaign.

With its thick playbook of propaganda methods that the party uses at home, can China really steer international public opinion? The answer is no.

People in democratic societies will not trust information that comes from a Chinese media outlet that cannot even criticize its own government. Such information will only draw a backlash.

A country's external image is not something that can be manually manipulated; it is something that should be presented through specific actions.

Xi stressed the need for China to "expand its circle of friends" by revamping its image. But unless China fundamentally changes its behavior, it cannot make more true friends.

As long as he sticks to the current unsuccessful "lovable" strategy, Xi's frustrations will linger.

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