In recent years China has invested heavily in new media operations to balance negative global media narratives. This is an important task. China’s global engagement is going to increase in coming years and its economic activities will bring its companies and people into greater contact with local populations in every corner of the world.
It is important for host countries, for China and for international society as a whole that these interactions are positive. Intensifying connections in any sphere can cause friction, and it is vital they are managed and sources of tension minimized as much as possible.
In this regard, the Chinese government, one of the most efficacious institutions in the world, can do more to address the concerns that some host populations have. I am not suggesting that the government make efforts to monitor the behavior of private individuals abroad, but concerns about the ways in which state companies operate, for instance, could be better addressed.
Labor conditions, pollution, lack of knowledge exchange and the general unaccountability of Chinese companies are real issues that can damage China’s prestige and reputation. And while China is at pains to demonstrate its respect for African nations’ sovereignty, less effort is made to learn and adapt to local cultures and norms.
Transposing practices and norms directly from the Chinese environment can be problematic considering the incredibly diverse range of places where Chinese companies operate. Demonstrating greater sensitivity to local cultures could go a long way to enhancing positive attitudes toward Chinese engagement. While less tangible than infrastructure projects or trade figures, these practical, grassroots activities are an important component and basis of “soft power”.
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