China's Growing Popularity

Last week Chinese president Hu Jintao arrived in Russia for a three-day visit. Remarkable as the trip itself—not long ago, Chinese leaders rarely left home—was the way Hu was feted by this former enemy. Russia has declared 2007 the "Year of China," and plans to hold hundreds of China-related business, educational and sports events in the upcoming months. Hu and Russian President Vladimir Putin presided over the opening of a massive new Chinese-culture exhibit in Moscow and pledged to build a series of cooperative energy projects. They also agreed to work toward aligning their stances at the United Nations.

Putin's bear hug was no anomaly, and though done for good strategic reasons, also reflects Russian public opinion. Even as relations between Moscow and Washington continue to sour, China is growing more popular than ever; a major public-opinion poll last year found that most ordinary Russians now think China has "a positive impact on the world" and that the United States has a negative one. And Russians are far from alone in these sentiments. Over the last five years, while anti-Americanism has surged around the globe, Beijing has worked hard to ingratiate itself in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The name of this game is soft power: making China and its culture as attractive as possible to foreign publics, not just their leaders. For years, Washington has dominated the field. But Beijing's new outreach—through foreign aid, investment, deft diplomacy, tourism and education—is starting to best American efforts.

Ordinary people across the planet now view China more warmly than they do the United States. Polls taken by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and the BBC show that majorities of people in most countries today consider China to be a more positive influence and less of a threat to international peace than the United States is. Such sentiments are particularly strong in the developing world; China is rated far more favorably than the United States is in places ranging from Saudi Arabia (54 percent to 38 percent) to Turkey (27 percent to 15 percent) to Indonesia (60 percent to 40 percent) to Brazil (53 percent to 42 percent). Even in Australia, one of Washington's closest allies, polls by the Lowy Institute now show that average citizens feel as good about China as they do about the United States.

Beijing is already reaping the benefit of this attitudinal change in traditional, hard-power terms. Consider: this summer it plans to hold joint military exercises with a number of Southeast Asian nations—cooperation once unthinkable for U.S. allies such as Thailand and the Philippines, and a direct result of Beijing's charm campaign. China also recently inked a free-trade deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after U.S. attempts to do the same were derailed by fierce public protests in Bangkok. In India, one of China's oldest enemies and sparring partners, Beijing has taken advantage of its higher standing to sign landmark oil- and gas-exploration agreements. And a similar deal has been struck with Vietnam, a historic foe that fought a war with China only 28 years ago.

All this would have been impossible a decade ago, when China seemed to have no idea how to manage its image. In the late 1990s, China deeply offended many Asians in states like the Philippines by clumsily claiming sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, and ongoing border disputes poisoned relations with India. China had virtually no presence in Africa and Latin America, and its diplomats—holdovers from the isolationist Mao Zedong era—were awkward on the rare occasions they left home at all.

Under Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, however, this began to change: China started thinking of itself as a major international player. Now its new, younger leaders have recognized the importance of winning over the foreign Street. To get a feel for their new agenda, consider foreign aid: a recent study by the World Bank found that China soon will become the largest lender to African countries—last year it granted such states at least $8 billion, more than double what the United States had provided in 2004 (the most recent year for which figures are available). Henry Yep, of the U.S. National Defense University, says China's assistance to key Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines now far outstrips U.S. largesse. Beijing has also become much more sophisticated about how it spends its money. It now generally targets practical grass-roots projects like anti-malaria clinics (30 of which it recently agreed to fund across Africa) rather than building the massive showcase projects (such as soccer stadiums) of the past.

China has also started emphasizing particular areas where U.S. public diplomacy is lagging. While the Bush administration has always had an awkward relationship with multilateral forums such as the United Nations, Beijing has recently embraced them—for example, by contributing troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions, by cofounding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a loose Central Asian security group that also includes Russia) in 1991 and by creating nearly 30 projects with ASEAN in the last decade. Washington, by contrast, has created only seven in 30 years.

Beijing is also taking advantage of Washington's tightening of visa restrictions on foreign students since September 11, 2001, which have thinned their numbers. China plans to establish 100 "Confucius Institutes," Chinese language and culture programs at foreign universities, over the next decade. In December, Hu promised that China would train some 15,000 African professionals over the next three years and announced 4,000 scholarships for Africans to study in China. Due to generous financial assistance, the number of non-Chinese attending schools and university in the People's Republic has grown tenfold over the past decade. "If they can, everyone [in Cambodia] wants to go on to China for school," says Loh Swee Ping, editor of a Chinese-language newspaper in Cambodia. "For most of these students, that's their best chance."

Meanwhile, China's young, Western-educated and business-savvy diplomats now often display as much local knowledge as their American counterparts, thanks to Foreign Ministry programs that send growing numbers of Chinese envoys to study abroad, as in Mexico. China's image has also been helped by loosened travel restrictions on its own nationals, which have increased the number of Chinese business people and tourists heading abroad from 12 million in 2001 to 34 million in 2006. These itinerant Chinese spread the image of a worldly country with plenty of money to spend, whether in Parisian boutiques or in new business projects in Africa, Asia or Latin America.

Beijing has been quick to convert this new worldliness into concrete gains. In Brazil—where President George W. Bush was met by thousands of angry demonstrators last month—a majority of the population now gives China high marks. This helped Brasília decide to start building satellites with Beijing, a move the Pentagon is watching closely. Here, too, U.S. allies such as Australia are a bellwether: Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has questioned in public whether his country would back the United States in a war with China over Taiwan.

Such statements show how much the balance of popularity has changed. The improving image of the People's Republic is making cooperation possible in new ways and places—and often more attractive than doing business with Washington. "There's just not the kind of popular concern about China today [that] there is about the U.S.," says Kraisak Choonhavan, a former Thai senator. And a top Philippine defense official who asked not to be identified says that his "government is able to consider the types of relations it never would have before ... because China's public image is strong." (It's probably no coincidence that Manila recently accepted more than $400 million in Chinese aid.)

Of course, China's soft-power campaign could still run off the rails. For example, if the country does not deliver on its generous foreign-aid commitments—and it's occasionally reneged in the past—local sentiment could turn against it. Beijing's continued embrace of authoritarian and repressive regimes such as Burma's could also hurt its image. So could China's negative impact on local labor and environmental standards; in Zambia, for example, poor safety conditions at Chinese-owned mines have led to nearly 50 deaths and sparked waves of protests. Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, recently warned Beijing against pursuing a "neocolonial" adventure in Africa, and such feelings could grow if China isn't careful.

For now, however, Beijing seems to be enjoying the fruit of its impressive re-branding campaign. "Even Chinese diplomats well below the ambassadorial level, like the cultural and commercial attachés, get treated like royalty here," says James Wong Wing-on, a leading Malaysian writer. "They get the type of treatment the U.S. used to get."