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The coming China rebrand

Protesters hold up blank white papers during a commemoration for victims of a recent Urumqi deadly fire at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022. Students in Hong Kong chanted “oppose dictatorship” in a protest against China’s anti-virus controls after crowds in mainland cities called for President Xi Jinping to resign in the biggest show of opposition to the ruling Communist Party in decades. (AP Photo/Kanis Leung)

Chinese public diplomacy rests in part on soft power. China extends its global reach with ballet, art, overseas broadcasting and its infamous Confucius Institutes on American college campuses — centers that teach Chinese language and history from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party.

But China is always adjusting its public diplomacy — especially now with protests erupting throughout the country over its COVID-19 policies.

The Chinese are masters at altering perceptions and rebranding in subtle ways. A new report suggests that Confucius Institutes are being rebranded by the Chinese government to be less obvious and overt. The report, by the National Association of Scholars, says 64 colleges and universities have newly reopened Confucius Institute-style programs under a different name.

But COVID-19 policy is harder to rebrand with a simple name change.

When COVID arrived in 2019, it caught all countries, including China, where the virus originated, unprepared. Even the Chinese, with a talent for long-range planning, couldn’t get ahead of COVID.

COVID’s arrival ushered in a period of isolation for many Chinese officials and citizens caught up in a massive net of policies designed to quarantine people with a goal of zero COVID spread. The so-called “zero-COVID” policy turned a health crisis into a political firestorm as millions of Chinese were locked in place on and off for three years in a costly experiment that has now led to protests across the country, not to mention the continued spread of COVID.

In some ways, China should have anticipated the discontent that bubbled up, in part due to social media, which the Chinese government has worked so hard to curtail. With many foreign students and businesses in China during the early days of COVID, it was inevitable that a backlash against forced quarantines and lockdowns would build and that word of it would spread through banned technology platforms.

Technology is critical to Chinese power and growth — both positively and negatively. When China revealed its “Made in China 2025” strategy seven years ago, it laid out a roadmap for becoming globally competitive in technology. Soon, China became the global hub for everything from chips to satellite equipment, laser beams and other hi-tech items. China’s share in the global imports of high-tech products has steadily increased over the past decade, from 16 percent to 19 percent.

But COVID, combined with sanctions from the United States, has put China in a more precarious situation, with factory closures, manufacturing delays and now public protests.

The question is: Will the same technology used to crush dissent in China stifle its economic prowess? What if the technological sophistication that fuels China’s economic growth continuously erodes citizen confidence in the Chinese Communist Party? Will police and government officials using facial recognition, iPhones and online applications to identify and punish protesters help weaken the power of the state?

For now, most analysts agree that China’s crackdown on COVID protests will be severe and effective. Leaders of the protest movement will be tracked down and may “disappear.” Censorship is strong and will likely get stronger. Force will be used where necessary to crush opposition.

At the same time, China has already begun softening some COVID restrictions — opening more roads, reducing testing, lifting some lockdowns and allowing more businesses to open.

The Chinese government knows there is a lot at stake in its COVID response and that it cannot afford to lose either the perception or the reality of its technological prowess. 

A recent Harvard Business Review article finds that many scholars of China, such as corporate strategist Handel Jones, still predict that when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), China will be firmly ahead of the United States by 2030 because of its unique regulatory and economic framework. Jones believes that will give China leverage to surpass the West in AI applications in health care, virtual reality and self-driving cars, because China, “with its longer-term goals and ability to turn those goals into reality, has a distinct advantage over a system driven solely by market forces.”

One-party systems do have some advantages over democracies, but crackdowns come with a cost. Just this week, Formula One announced it is canceling next year’s Chinese Grand Prix in light of COVID-19 policies in China.  

Even if China gets back to business as usual, it has drawn the attention of global media for its negative policies. So, expect China to start another rebranding campaign with its new, lighter COVID touch, as it is doing with its Confucius Institutes. Branding a nation is important work.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Tags China China protests China tech companies Chinese Communist Party Chinese economy COVID-19 protests COVID_19 restrictions

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