Trade and Globalisation


The Chinese dream and successful communication with the world

03 Apr 2014 - 15:52
Bron: Flickr / Dan Forys


China is more visible than ever before. While its impact keeps growing, Asia and the world are watching, weighing their options, and wondering where the new Beijing leadership is going. Other powers looking at China see a state with an ever more pronounced role in the globalized economy and a rapidly growing participation in global networks and they expect China to have a major stake in the future balance of power. The next pages and chapters in this script of China’s rise are, of course, unknown. And since this is a story about international politics, there is some nervousness in the rest of the world about the future impact of Chinese power on other states. China itself shares a sense of insecurity about this. A key concern for its leadership is how to address/abate these worries and move the needle of foreign opinion in a favorable direction. China seeks to convey positive views about its rise to the world but global audiences do not easily accept these messages. This raises the question: what are the conditions for successful communication with the world?


I. Dreaming about China’s reputation at home and abroad

Here the Chinese Dream comes into the picture. The Chinese Dream is a dream about a rejuvenated strong and prosperous China. The official story is that it aims to inspire people to work hard and to achieve their personal dreams of a prosperous life in a prosperous society. Within China, the Dream is massively promoted from the top, but also questioned by critical voices in society, many of whom are not convinced this is more than a propaganda slogan. The creation of ideas, first and foremost, requires a robust domestic intellectual and cultural foundation and China needs to strengthen and broaden this foundation, for instance with regard to the expression of contemporary Chinese culture.
President Xi Jinping’s ambitions go further than the country’s rejuvenation and the domestic public. The President aspires to the Chinese Dream as an international project that may add to China’s efforts to explain itself and improve overseas opinions. He hopes the Dream may become relevant to foreigners’ thinking about China, its identity, and its future course. What foreign publics think of China or the Chinese Dream is however in the eye of the beholder.
The Chinese Dream is differently received in different parts of the world. The idea meets more puzzlement and rejection than approval. Chinese citizens have grown up with guiding mottos like “Peaceful Rise” and “Harmonious World”, but for many foreigners such slogans do indeed sound very “Chinese” or out of touch with the way they see the current state of world affairs. The Beijing leadership’s conundrum furthermore lays in its decision to keep the meaning of the Chinese Dream fluid. On the one hand this creates flexibility and a wide variety of reputational opportunities, on the other hand potentially also a risk for the government. Publics may either ignore the concept or interpret it in ways that do not support official views or policies.
The concept of the Chinese Dream appeals to Africans who can relate to aspirations to rejuvenate China and restore the position that it lost in the “Century of Humiliation”. Many Africans have similar dreams about a rebirth, or African Renaissance, to restore what the African continent lost in the centuries of exploitation by foreign powers.1  The promotion of the Chinese Dream in Europe and the United States, however, has so far not been successful at all. Western publics are concerned about the level of inclusiveness of a Dream that is not theirs. They feel that the voice of Chinese society in all its diversity is lacking, and they consider the concept as representing the dream of the Party leadership rather than that of the Chinese people.
The concept “dream” has a different connotation among Western audiences, for whom “dream” refers to the freedom that exists in people’s heads, unfettered by rules or practical concerns. Furthermore, the Chinese Dream reminds of the American Dream, a bottom–up idea that became popularized in the 1930s by American writer James Truslow Adams. The concept was picked up by American society and by foreign publics around the world because the Dream was – and is – inclusive: it is based on the possibility, for anyone in the world, to realize his or her American Dream. It reinforced the image of America as a land of freedom and endless opportunities, an image nourished and spread by movies and novels, and strengthened by people who had lived the American Dream.

The strength of the concept therefore lies in its domestic and international inclusiveness, and in the fact that the concept was introduced, used, and spread by others than the state. The American Dream was a grass-roots idea that did not accentuate the idea of American civilization, whilst the Chinese Dream is so far largely a top-down concept that is based on the principles of China’s unique culture.

II. Communicating the Chinese Dream

This article, however, does not primarily aim to contribute to the discussion about the content of the Chinese Dream. Literally millions of articles on what the Chinese Dream is or should be about can be found on the internet and multiple conferences have been dedicated to filling this container idea with the desired content. Outside China it is hard to imagine the sheer magnitude of attention paid to the concept. It therefore makes sense for us to focus on the process of communicating the Chinese Dream by questioning the conditions for successfully promoting this idea both at home and abroad. We argue that this is an important concern, and one that goes far beyond the metrics of evaluation. In terms of public diplomacy, the Dream bridges the traditional divide between the domestic sphere and international relations.
The issue of what works in China’s public diplomacy and what does not work is vital, and should not be avoided by policy-makers. For the Chinese government it raises critical questions about such issues as the changing nature of international relations and the extent to which government can, or should, exert control over international communication flows. But there are opportunities too. More balanced global relationships on the level of ideas would give room to the introduction of Chinese concepts and values into the international debate. Indeed, the international community expects rising powers like China to play their role in negotiating the creation of new values and rule sets. In a ‘post-western’ world, China faces the challenge to share responsibility for global governance rather than just the pursuit of its national interests.
The Chinese Dream could become the stuff of transnational socialization processes rather than the Chinese projection of a set of ideas to the global scene. Indeed, public diplomacy is based on the principle that communication with foreign publics aimed at influencing their opinions is two-directional and, importantly, such communication flows take into account that they may also affect the opinions of groups of individuals at home. Domestic opinion in China may be guided from above, but in the digital age the new dynamic is bottom–up and with growing global interconnectivity, domestic public opinion absorbs more and more inputs from the outside world.

III. New rules of the game

One of the challenges for powers, big and small, in current international relations is to stay abreast of changing patterns in diplomacy, and to be prepared to adapt one’s own diplomatic behavior to the evolving “rules of the game” on a global playing field that is much less hierarchical than before.2  Governments everywhere – and China is no exception – are coming to terms with living in a post-globalist world characterized by state-based relations and a networking environment that enhances official interaction with non-state actors. They also increasingly face the issue of how to deal with the global digital environment as a new transnational “region” that will only expand in years to come. Digitalization will impact on diplomacy in all sorts of ways.
The most significant changes impacting on diplomacy can be observed in the domestic realm. What first of all meets the eye in China is the growing diversity of diplomatic actors in a political system that seems to be based on the opposite idea of centralized rule by the party-state. This is somehow mirrored within the Chinese government’s executive branch, where we see no delegated authority in external relations to a single agency, but the emergence of a “national diplomatic system” with a variety of actors playing their part. This reflects the complexity of the national government communicating abroad. Under its central leadership, different shades of grey can be observed in China’s external communication.
International relations are also progressively managed and conducted at the sub-state level. China is encouraging sub-state public diplomacy. The international role of activist big and mega-cities like Shanghai and Chongqing, and also the business of provincial governments engaged in cross-border regions, such as Yunnan in Southeast China are increasing – though clearly circumscribed by centralized authority. In light of the reforms that were announced in the wake of the 2013 Central Committee’s Third Plenum, large corporations – private and state-owned – will also raise their international profile. Already a subject of much discussion in China and in countries where they are operating, these corporations will affect the future reach of the state. Their impact on China’s international reputation will wax rather than wane.

One example is Chinese ICT company Huawei, which has on the one hand been under scrutiny in the United States for security concerns, but this showcase Chinese multinational is also increasingly visible to international publics in positive ways. Next, the role of the Chinese public as a consumer and producer of information is fuelling debates taking place within the country. Changes in government–society relations in China have been profound since the widespread use of the internet and social media and here the future reach of the state is also in question.

IV. The limits of control

The societal dimension of international relationships has become a critically important ingredient of a hybrid world. The internationalized version of the Chinese Dream can only become a reality if the message is considered legitimate by foreign publics – in other words, if there is sufficient room for societal actors at home and abroad to leave their mark. People all over the world are closely following developments in China and their interest goes beyond official policy lines: they want to know what the Chinese people think and feel and, indeed, what they dream.

Such greater interconnectedness among people everywhere confronts governments with new realities of international relations. In a “flat” info-sphere very little remains unnoticed. Everything said in public is potentially overheard and commented upon outside the country. Official pronouncements targeting the domestic public are also observed outside China as are the domestic public’s reactions, not least because a steadily growing number of people are able to read Chinese. Policy-makers increasingly know this, and those who do not yet realize this are bound to find out soon.
Regardless of the nature of the political system, in the present information environment governments are not able anymore to control the flow of information. People will always find and share the information they seek and more and more of what is going on is known by greater groups of people. Sui generis, this applies to China just as it does to any other country. Future public diplomacy policies need to adapt to such changing conditions. A more open world dictates unwritten communication rules to governments that want to get their message across. Without losing sight of the unstated aim of influencing others, public diplomacy is increasingly about facilitating and encouraging our societies and different groups within them to communicate with each other.

Also in China, where domestic government-society relations are characterized by strong guidance from the leadership and control over society, this trend is not going unnoticed. In relations with other countries, there is an increasing number of cultural and student exchanges and people-to-people dialogues that the Chinese government has established, and in which people from all walks of life participate.
The growing visibility of ‘society’ in all corners of the world today is a reminder of the need to redraw mental maps that keep reproducing a world with unique Westphalian features. There will never be much of an international variant of the Chinese Dream without official acceptance of radically changing practices in diplomacy today. It is a different post-Westphalian world that may welcome Chinese concepts and ideas.

V. A Chinese approach

China’s rising power is not necessarily paralleled by a capacity to strengthen its attractiveness, one of the four fundamental components of China’s Comprehensive National Power.3  People in power have for some time understood the dimensions of the challenge, although often not its true nature. Successive Chinese leaders sanctioned the spending of more time, effort, and resources on public diplomacy than any other country in the world. The Chinese government will keep giving priority to China’s attractive power, and to public diplomacy to help deliver that most desirable form of power. A lot of that effort has not produced the desired results.

One key characteristic of global public opinion is that it does not cooperate. The realization dawning upon the Chinese leadership is that the sources of future Chinese soft power lie far beyond government.
The years ahead will also show significant changes in the policy discourse. The origins of the debate on soft power and public diplomacy lie in the United States and Europe, but growing Chinese familiarity with associated practices is likely to be followed by less mimicking of the West.4  Rather than copying or rejecting the dominant discourse, the future Chinese approach is likely to build on existing approaches with home-grown ideas. It will increasingly include the development of Chinese narratives – that is, ideas and stories that are not just meant for domestic consumption but that aim at foreign publics.

One can currently already observe an interesting drive in China to look beyond Western concepts and expressions.5  There is a growing belief in China and abroad that future ideational competition is not expected to take place on exclusively Western terms.
Chinese policy-makers increasingly seek to include Chinese concepts or Chinese expressions of values into the global discussion. But this emerging trend in Chinese thinking is facing the considerable challenge of becoming trapped in one-way international communication. Our normative perspective on 21st century public diplomacy and cultural relations is to conceive of them as being based on the principle of mutuality, the public diplomacy equivalent of reciprocity in diplomatic relations. We do however not only advocate the recognition of public diplomacy as a two-way socialization process between different societies that includes converging ideas.

Over a longer period of time, we also observe a gradual move of public diplomacy practices in that direction. By no means is this however a linear development. In East Asia there are important countervailing tendencies and practices that turn the domain of public diplomacy into an international arena of propaganda warriors. It is plain to see how one-way communication aimed at short-term national political goals is infecting the regional public diplomacy discourse. Here Asians can take a leaf out of the American public diplomacy book. As the United States has learned during the early 21st century’s “war on terror”, crude propaganda in the interests of immediate foreign policy goals is ultimately self-defeating.

VI. Meeting in the middle

The terms of the international discourse on soft power are in the process of being renegotiated. It is no longer just an American or European affair. Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, and China have also become major public diplomacy forces. Chinese academics and policy-makers no longer just try and fit China’s ideas into foreign concepts and terminology, but develop and introduce Chinese formulations and concepts that better explain the Chinese way of thinking to the world.6  With debates on public diplomacy coming of age in Asia, opinion-makers in Western countries might come to see Asian or Chinese concepts and ideas as potentially transferable intellectual merchandise.

The West can also draw lessons from China’s long-term and strategic approach in public diplomacy and its integration in overall foreign policy and diplomacy. China can in turn draw inspiration from Western governments’ public diplomacy approaches, in which society plays a more important role. Societal involvement in public diplomacy is a necessary condition of success, whilst overdoing government-driven communication is lethal in a relatively level information environment. Governmental credibility needs to be earned every single day. Western governments have become aware that they need to develop influence strategies based on dialogues with social networks and by taking society’s views and interests into account.
This mutual public diplomacy learning process between the West and China would be a symptom of a more two-way process in China’s relationship with the world. The balancing out of global relationships on this soft level of ideas – not just economic power or military might – is however no easy task. Dialogues and joint collaboration projects that offer people time to get to know and trust each other, provide the best chance to successfully convey ideas and to develop the right vocabulary and approach.

VII. International inclusiveness instead of nationalism

This article focuses on the process of communicating the Chinese Dream but in order to successfully promote the Chinese Dream the content of the communication is of course just as important. The elements of the Chinese Dream that are of a nationalist and militaristic character are a reality, and they are not conducive to creating acceptance and could turn the Dream into a nightmare. They are raising much concern in the East Asian region and other countries.

Recent images in the Global Times linking military strength to the Chinese Dream were not helpful. It is easy to see how lasting damage was done when China promoted a picture of its first aircraft carrier on which sailors lined up to form the characters ‘Chinese Dream’. The photograph quickly spread across the world via the Internet, and pictures speak louder than words.7  Neither would it be helpful, to put it mildly, if international tension on the Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea were to be linked to the Dream as a grand strategy for China.
The concept of the Chinese Dream may evolve and mature over time. As said before, though, one can safely assume, though, that the role Chinese society will be allowed to play in developing the Dream is going to determine the extent to which it will take root among the Chinese people and become alive abroad. Domestic popularity is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for selling the Dream in the West. The slogan that “the world will benefit from a more prosperous China” does in no way convince foreign publics that they should engage with the Chinese Dream.

The improvement of people’s livelihoods, the construction of a better society, and the aim for sustainable development are however aspirations that people in Western countries can relate to. Young people, in particular, will be interested in possibilities to become part of and contribute to the Chinese Dream if they are allowed to co-create information and messages about China. They will, however, not be satisfied with consuming information. Dreaming and talking about dreams stimulates creativity, whilst the old-school approach to public diplomacy in China used to stifle any form of creativity.


Successfully promoting the Chinese Dream at the international level requires open communication. A clear-headed and self-critical look at the conditions for success in China’s communication with the world is essential. Too often, government officials skirt around this most fundamental of all conundrums in public diplomacy.
This paper offers some modest pointers. The Chinese Dream as an international project needs to be co-created with foreign partners in processes of socialization rather than stale identity and image projection. Without discussing existing variants of public diplomacy within the scope of this article, we argue that it can only work if the Chinese government keeps developing its understanding of the evolution of government-society relations, and international relationships beyond the state level. Successful communication with the world requires empowering a variety of non-state actors in Chinese society and sophisticated knowledge of what works and what doesn’t when dealing with foreign publics.

Chinese government officials need to realize when they should let go and create more space for other voices, rather than to stay in control, paradoxically in order to reach official objectives. They should also realize that their Chinese Dream can only work abroad if it moves beyond Chinese ideas about the country’s cultural uniqueness and the official line of China’s ‘special characteristics’.
To realize better communication with the international community in the interests of promoting the acceptance of the Chinese Dream and its co-creation by Chinese and foreigners, four policy tools are needed.
Firstly and most importantly, as we have argued in various ways, the Chinese leadership should give serious thought to a greater presence of society in its dealings with the rest of the world, which would enhance governmental legitimacy at home and credibility abroad.
Secondly, and the flip side of the first point, ideational competition in a “flat” global info-sphere is to be based on official Chinese acceptance that there will be decreasing governmental control in the future international information environment.
Thirdly, the Chinese government can play an important role in facilitating broad domestic platforms for the creation of ideas how to realize the Chinese Dream, without playing an active role in actual discussions. Diverse voices from other sectors of society than the academic world, from designers and artists, businessmen, young people, and those from inland provinces, should resonate more strongly through China’s public diplomacy messages. International inclusiveness and involvement of the “next generation” are of the greatest importance.
Last but not least, Chinese and foreign think tanks should engage in joint research projects on public diplomacy and diplomacy at large, which may serve the purpose of incorporating non-Western ideas and concepts in the global debate. We support the plea for a more balanced international exchange on the level of ideas. No truly global debate should take place within either the realm, on the terms, or within the self-contained literature of a single civilization.

  • 1See, for example, the interview with former South African President Thabo Mbeki, see Dorothée Enskog, “Thabo Mbeki’s Vision of an African Renaissance,” Corporate Communications, Credit Suisse, June 7, 2013, middle-east-and-africa.article.html/article/pwp/news-and-expertise/2013/06/en/thabo-mbeki-s-vision-of-an-african-renaissance.html; and the podcast on “The Chinese Dream (in the African Context),” Africans in China, October 25, 2013,
  • 2Brian Hocking, Jan Melissen, Shaun Riordan and Paul Sharp, “Whither Foreign Ministries in a Post-Western World,” Clingendael Policy Brief, No. 20, April 2013, sites/default/files/20130425_policybrief20Whither%20Foreign%20Ministries%20in%20a%20Post-Western%20World.pdf.
  • 3The others are economic, military and political powers.
  • 4For a recent contribution to the European literature, see Mai’a Cross and Jan Melissen eds., European Public Diplomacy: Soft Power at Work, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013; and a policy paper based on this study, Mai’a Cross and Jan Melissen, “Communicating Europe: At Home in Tomorrow’s World,” Clingendael Policy Brief, No. 24, October 2013, http://www.
  • 5Ingrid d’Hooghe, “China’s Public Diplomacy Shifts Focus: From Building Hardware to Improving Software,” UK Campus, October 24, 2013.
  • 6See Cai Mingzhao, “Jianghao Zhongguo Gushi, Chuanbo Hao Zhongguo Shengyin [Tell China’s Story Well, Spread China’s Voice Well],” Renmin Ribao, October 10, 2013.
  • 7See