Illustration: Two hands (China and the EU) spin a web.

New Poles in Uncertain Times?

The election of Trump, Putin’s Crimean intervention, Erdoğan’s extremism: the parameters for Europe’s external relations have changed. In this setting, will Europe and China have closer relations? This requires Europe to take a more united and coordinated approach, despite the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis and Brexit.

There are a number of complex geopolitical uncertainties that could hinder China-Europe relations in future in ways that are unpredictable. In spite of this, it is not difficult to identify symbolic embodiments of the spirit of (cautious) optimism in public and academic discussions on the future relations between China and Europe. This is especially the case in China. For example, Professor Wang Yiwei, an expert in International Relations based at Renmin University of China, published an opinion piece on the front page of the People’s Daily Overseas Edition on 31 May 2017, a day before the start of China’s Premier Li Keqiang’s official visit to Europe, in which he painted a rosy picture of future China-Europe relations.

He also suggested that the global impact of these relations will be stronger in future as both a ‘Global China’ and ‘Global Europe’ are emerging as important poles in the 21st century. Such optimism can in part be seen as a by-product of China’s increasing assertiveness in handling its external relations in general and its relationship with Europe in particular. More importantly, China and Europe have reached the same conclusion: that they need each other’s cooperation and partnership more than ever before in order to handle various global uncertainties in the age of Trump.

They also share a long-term goal to build a truly new multipolar world order. From China’s point of view, handling ist relationship with Europe is considered as a less tricky affair than handling relationships with the USA and neighbouring Japan. There is neither an intensive geopolitical rivalry (such as that which exists between China and the USA) nor the burden of history (which has compromised the relationship with Japan) to create obstacles to the present or future of China-Europe relations. China-Europe relations are thus relatively free of baggage and can be more forward-looking.

From China’s perspective, this is indeed the right time to strengthen its ‘strategic partnership’ with the European Union. At least two main reasons can justify the timing. First, President Xi Jinping has just started his second five-year term (2017-2022). Second, under Xi’s leadership, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched in 2013, and is now in full swing, covering Eurasia and surrounding areas.

China and Europe have reached the same conclusion: that they need each other’s cooperation and partnership more than ever before in order to handle various global uncertainties in the age of Trump.

Strategic partnership between China and the EU The ‘strategic partnership’ between China and the EU was officially established in 2003. Since then China-EU relations have experienced ups and downs. There have been disputes, which could be seen as unavoidable for a partnership between the largest group of developed liberal-democratic countries and the world’s largest developing authoritarian country. These disputes have been partly trade-related and partly involving different interpretations of fundamental human rights and key political values. Some of these disputes, mostly those which were trade-related, have been settled; others, mostly concerning political values and ideologies, are unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. In this context, then, where are China-Europe relations going in the next five years?

Since 2014, Chinese policymakers and scholars have openly called for a further strengthening of the multidimensional relationship between the two major civilisations, represented by China and Europe.

According to some Chinese scholars’ newly adopted view, inspired by Martin Jacques, a UK-based China expert, China deserves to be treated as a ‘civilisation state’, which has managed to survive with a continuing / unbroken civilisation, just like Europe as a whole.

Posters of Chinese films.
Posters of Chinese films at the 12th China Beijing Cultural and Creative Industry Expo in Beijing, China on September 11, 2017, photo: How Hwee Young / EPA-EFE via picure alliance

In order to rejuvenate Chinese civilisation, in recent years China has begun to pay more attention to the relatively underdeveloped cultural dimension of China-EU relations, which is seen as serving the country’s longterm foreign policy priorities. Moreover, under the leadership of Xi, China is no longer shy about revealing the ambitions that lie behind the new objectives, with an emphasis on culture in a broad sense.

Although the concept of ‘culture’ is notoriously difficult to define, unlike ‘ideology’ to which it is related, it carries no negative connotations, especially in liberal democratic countries. In spite of the rhetorical use of culture in public and media discourses, China’s new inclination towards strengthening cultural exchanges with the outside world, specifically European countries, indicates that the evolving Chinese society is willing to engage in intercultural dialogues with ‘different others’ instead of isolating itself or forging a new ideological war.

This shift is undoubtedly a positive gesture made by the world’s second largest economy towards the world at large and Europe specifically. Meanwhile, China’s effort to boost cultural relations with European countries also fits well with the EU’s long-standing blueprint for promoting multipolarism and multiculturism, both inside and outside Europe. In this respect, this is also the right moment for EU Member States to collectively reconsider their relations with China, including their cultural relations. Both China and Europe have changed significantly over the last decade and their influence in terms of handling major global and regional issues, such as climate change and global economic integration, has increased.

Thus, broadly speaking, highlighting the importance of culture in China’s external relations somehow signals the country’s willingness to continuously pursue a longterm benign development, notwithstanding its increasing economic, political and military power. Moreover, this is a significant development for a country that until not too long ago used to let its GDP growth targets overshadow any other initiative that did not bring immediate economic returns.

The greater emphasis on culture in China’s existing economic growth model is already reflected at the domestic policy level in the push to foster the growth of the national cultural and creative industries.

Yet, the greater emphasis given to culture does not diminish the importance of trade and commerce in China’s relations with European countries. Quite the opposite: foreign trade and investment will remain as important as they have been in the recent past, given the fact that China’s economy is slowing down and growth is needed to keep the country’s unemployment rate low. Therefore, the most likely outcome of all these combined forces is for China to stress the role of culture as a vehicle for economic growth in the years to come.

The greater emphasis on culture in China’s existing economic growth model is already reflected at the domestic policy level in the push to foster the growth of the national cultural and creative industries. Extending it to China’s external relations under the BRI framework is arguably not only possible but also necessary. This is in keeping with China’s medium-to-long-term plan for making ist burgeoning cultural sector a pillar industry in its national economy.

A Pillar of Power

However, China’s plan for a cultural rise does not stop here. Increasingly, China has been using ‘culture’ as a new hegemonic tool for its global positioning and repositioning in parallel with the country’s steadily strengthening economic and trading power. So have other emerging powers, such as India, which are also eager to learn from the experience of European countries in terms of how to wield ‘soft / smart power’. For China, the importance of culture has also been framed in relation to concerns over the country’s continuing cultural foreign trade deficit with developed countries and national cultural security.

In other words, the importance of culture to China has reached the national strategic policy level. In practice, a number of Chinese cultural initiatives worldwide, including the Confucius Institutes, (arguably the most successful one), have been launched since the early 2000s under the ‘Going abroad’ banner, with the aim of promoting the Chinese language, cultural heritage, traditional artefacts and intercultural dialogue.

The vast majority of existing cultural initiatives continue to receive governmental funding, while generating, until now, few or no economic returns. Although these cultural diplomacy / relations projects have prompted criticism both within and outside China for not being cost-effective, the Chinese government is determined to offer continuing support to them in order to pursue long-term foreign policy objectives as well as to boost the country’s soft power.

Qingqi Wang adorns a scroll with calligraphy during the grand opening of the Confucious Institute on the GRU campus.
The Confucius Institutes are the most successful project in a series of Chinese cultural initiatives, photo: Todd Bennett/Staff / via picture alliance

The Chinese government’s position in relation to its long-term soft power project has been restated in the current national development plan as well as in a number of recent policy papers about the reforms of media, cultural and creative industries. Subsequently, culture has also been turned into a pillar of China’s rising soft or smart power, not only in theory, but also in practice.

In spite of policy support and the increased resources invested since 2009, China’s soft power project has its shortcomings too. According to both the Pew Research Centre and the BBC World Service’s global opinion surveys conducted in 2017, the perception of China across Europe remains generally negative with the exception of Greece, where 50 per cent of respondents held a positive view of China. Spain (15 per cent), Germany (20 per cent) and France (35 per cent) have the lowest opinions of China in Europe, as revealed by the 2017 BBC survey.

This is clearly worrying from China’s point of view. Chinese scholars have identified both ‘internal’ and ‘external’ reasons for the lack of improvement in how China is perceived in European countries.

Internally, China’s image problem is due to its internationally unpopular communication system, which needs improving in terms of how to tell ‘a good story about China’ to the world in order to strengthen the country’s media and cultural influence overseas. A number of state-owned central news organisations, such as the Xinhua News Agency, the People’s Daily, China Central Television, the China Daily and China Radio International, have taken the opportunity to expand their infrastructure and business activities in Europe and other parts of the world.

They have also begun recruiting talent locally, including veteran European journalists. Externally, Chinese scholars see China’s failure to win hearts and minds in Europe as mainly a consequence of the fact that coverage of China in Western media has over a long period of time been predominantly negative, mostly due to ideological differences. This was seen as the major cause of the clashes between Chinese patriots and global civil societies / non-Chinese protesters during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Torch Relay in Europe. Since then, China has sought to boost its soft power in Europe, particularly in countries of strategic importance to China such as the United Kingdom and France.

The perception of China across Europe remains generally negative with the exception of Greece, where 50 per cent of respondents held a positive view of China.

However, China’s soft power efforts, though eye-catching, have not been very effective in resolving negative perceptions of China in Europe. This has motivated China to search for other solutions to handle the perception issue such as the employment of ‘smart power’ tools, combining overseas commercial investments with intercultural exchanges. Nevertheless, boosting China’s soft power worldwide and in Europe specifically is now part of a long-term national development plan. Its importance has recently been emphasised again by Xi in his new blueprint for building ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’, unveiled in a keynote speech addressed to all party members in October 2017. Xi’s blueprint outlines a twostep approach to turning China into a great modern socialist country recognised by the world by 2035.

Vogelperspektive von Universitätsstudenten, die an einem Tisch sitzen und zusammen arbeiten.
Culture, especially people-to-people cultural relations, are likely to be given an even bigger role to play in China’s national economy as well as its external relations in the next years, photo: Benis Arapovic / Zoonar via picture alliance

This illustrates the fact that culture is likely to be given an even bigger role to play in China’s national economy as well as its external relations in the next five years and beyond. In relation to the EU specifically, more resources for enhancing cultural relations with European countries in general and people-to-people cultural exchanges in particular are likely to be allocated.

State-run organisations and business entities are both expected to play a leading role in promoting China’s cultural exchanges with the outside world. With more support from the government, they are also being encouraged to take the lead in adopting a more ‘precise’ communication approach in order to meet each target country / society / community’s audience’s special needs, as revealed recently by a Chinese think tank based at Communication University of China, Beijing.

Whether this new approach will work and how it is going to be implemented in European countries and elsewhere remains to be seen. But this message should serve as a reminder that China is not only prepared to deal with the EU as a whole, but also willing to engage with each Member State in its future cultural projects by employing a more tailor-made approach.

In the next five years at least, China’s cultural relations with the outside world in general and with Europe in particular are likely to concentrate on three main areas: cultural trade and investment, cultural / public diplomacy and (people-to-people) cultural exchanges.

The increase in China’s foreign cultural trade and overseas investment might result in the gradual opening-up of the Chinese market, which will however remain highly regulated. Cultural/public diplomacy and people-to-people cultural exchanges, in practice, largely overlap. This mixed nature is also likely to be maintained in the near future, as the current government tends to centralise control over China’s cultural activities, both internally and externally.

More non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and non-state funding bodies are expected to be involved in the three areas, but their activities in China will remain subject to strict regulation and supervision. Ultimately, China’s external cultural relations are intended to serve the following purposes: to enhance the country’s cultural influence in support of its foreign policy priorities; to stimulate its burgeoning cultural and creative industries; to improve China’s overseas image; to engage in people-to-people cultural exchanges and intercultural dialogues.

The increase in China’s foreign cultural trade and overseas investment might result in the gradual opening-up of the Chinese market, which will however remain highly regulated.

Similar cultural relations objectives may apply to the EU too, though with slightly different collective and national foreign policy priorities. In terms of cultural influence, soft power, overseas perception and the GDP contribution of national cultural/creative industries, some EU Member States remain far ahead of China. But China is trying to catch up. It is also prepared to learn more from Europe in these areas and beyond, albeit rejecting any ready-made European political / economic model. More importantly, China is willing to cooperate with Europe in many areas in order to create a better international environment, which will enable China to realise its ‘Chinese dream’ or ‘national rejuvenation’.

In these circumstances, the EU should take this as an opportunity or even treat it as a matter of urgency, strategically adjusting its relationships with China both in the short and long term. This also means that culturally and ethnically diverse Europeans should be more united and more coordinated, despite the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis and Brexit, in terms of handling their collective and national relations with China. They must move fast, preferably before China works out how to deal with each European state individually. In many ways, to elaborate a coordinated and effective approach to future cultural relations with China is to pass the first compulsory test for the future of the European project and the EU’s standing in a developing multipolar world.

About the Author
Xin Xin

Xin Xin, is Reader in International Communications with a special focus on China at the University of Westminster, United Kingdom. Her first book How the Market Is Changing China's News: The Case of Xinhua News Agency (Lanham: Lexington) came out in September 2012. Her forthcoming book is about China's soft power. Before embarking on an academic career, Xin worked as a journalist at Xinhua's Beijing headquarters for seven years and spent a year (1999-2000) as a visiting fellow in the State Pushkin Russian Language Institute, Moscow. She obtained her doctorate on Xinhua News Agency and globalisation in 2006 and her MA in Journalism (international) in 2003, both from Westminster. Xin received her BA in Russian Language and Literature in Beijing in 1994.