Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to persuade the world that his country is "credible, lovable and respectable". And the government should do it with more propaganda, he has told a top meeting of Chinese Communist Party officials.
"Fat chance," will be a typical reaction from foreign observers. Unlike its domestic propaganda, China's efforts at international thought-control are weak. And it faces the seemingly impossible challenge of getting the rest of the world to overlook the country's increasingly unpleasant behaviour.
But we need to be careful about this. China has a lot of room to improve its international propaganda, and it could indeed do so. For a start, it could just copy Russia.
In his speech reported early this month, Xi told officials that, apart from gaining credibility, lovability and respectability, China must improve its "guidance of international public opinion". So, prepare to be guided.
Someone might suggest to Xi that if China wanted to be loved, it might desist with unlovable behaviour, such as attempted annexation of the South China Sea, rising threats to invade and oppress Taiwan, crushing of resistance in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, and ongoing efforts at ransacking the world's intellectual property.
But, for those times when the party does not want to change what it does, it has a tried-and-true alternative: it cranks up the propaganda instead. Don't change the facts; change the perception. Domestically this works marvellously, but internationally not well at all, so far.
The CCP understood its foreign-persuasion weakness in 2009. Under then-president Hu Jintao, the government poured money into getting better results. The most prominent measure was the establishment of China Global Television Network, a spin-off from the domestic national broadcaster, China Central Television.
If you have not watched CGTN, you're not alone. On Wednesday, its top story was "President Xi sends congratulatory letter to second China-CEEC Expo", a gripping yarn about a trade fair, itself the latest Chinese move in seeking influence in Central and East European countries.
Another lead item during the week brought the exciting news that Beijing had "refuted Hungarian politicians' erroneous remarks about China". This story addressed a problem that, while the leader of one Central European country was cosy with Beijing, his compatriots were not happy about it.
Why does the CCP serve up such drivel to foreigners? Because that's what it serves up to the Chinese people. With complete control of the domestic mass media, the party has long had the habit of publishing turgid press releases as news. It persists with this despite its own research revealing years ago that a deceased relative, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had made the mistake of dishing out propaganda that was too boring.
Also, creativity in political writing can be career-destroying for a Chinese journalist. It's always safer to run an official statement.
To get Chinese people to read this dull stuff, it's mixed in with interesting news - about such things as crime, business and social trends (politically acceptable ones, anyway). Importantly, the party's message is also carried in more subtle ways, notably on domestic social media - for example, in articles supposedly written by members of the public but in fact written by talented propagandists.
China has begun exploiting social media internationally, too. But, overall, its propaganda efforts abroad have hardly been able to contain the damage to its image inflicted by its behaviour.
The independent Pew Research Center in Washington surveys popular opinion of China in 14 developed countries. Its numbers show that, in general, the proportion of foreigners holding a negative view of the country was steady in the three to four years before Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, but then rose.
Britain has been approximately typical: 35 per cent of Britons held a negative view of China in 2012, then 55 per cent in 2019 and 74 per cent in 2020.
Last year there was a sharp rise in disapproval in all the countries for which Pew had comparative data. Emergence of the pandemic from China was obviously a factor, so the disapproving proportions may fall back a bit as the contagion eases.
Considering that China became much more internationally aggressive almost as soon as Xi took power, Australians were slow to adopt a negative view. In 2012, 35 per cent disapproved of China; in 2016, the ratio was still only 32 per cent. It's skyrocketed since then, to 81 per cent in 2020.
Do we attribute this slowness to Australians' goodwill and easy-going nature, or to a worrying lack of interest in foreign affairs and defence policy?
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When targeting foreigners, Beijing's propagandists cannot rely on two advantages they have at home: the audience's nationalist support for China, and an absence of competition.
But Russia somewhat overcomes the same challenges, which is why we should expect China to try Russian methods.
These include establishing many different channels for feeding falsehoods and confusion to foreigners. For example, Russia runs social media messages that separately appeal to the left and right, adjusted to fit the biases of the consumer.
Russia also arranges for targets to hear the same message from different sources, making it more persuasive.
The main Russian international television channel, RT, looks and feels much more like a genuine media operation than CGTN, with stories that are more interesting and propaganda that is less blatant.
One Chinese domestic method could be applied overseas: the use of masses of people to write propaganda lines on social media. These people comprise what locals call the 50-Cent Party, because they are supposedly paid 0.50 yuan (10 Australian cents) per post.
I've never met one (I think), so I can't verify the rate, but I'd bet it's higher these days. And foreigners would want to be paid more than 10 Aussie cents.
Finding foreigners to do such work might seem to be an obstacle. In fact, it is no problem at all.
Plenty of foreign journalists work in formal Chinese media, day after day helping to present the party's messages. For years I've wondered how they look at themselves in the mirror each morning. They do it because China pays them well, of course.
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
- This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.