A Tug-of-War: How Spain is Caught in the Middle of a Narrative Power Battle between the United States and China

By Hunter Gilfillian, M.A. in International Affairs ‘20

In recent months, a battle of United States and Chinese narratives has gained traction in the land of Don Quixote. Although, instead of windmills, the new “giants” are satellites, economics, and security.

Currently, Spain is caught in the middle of a narrative “tug-of-war” between the United States and China regarding Chinese technological investment in Spain’s fifth generation (5G) networks. In response to Chinese efforts to develop and maintain its technological footprint in the Western Mediterranean, the United States has responded with an “offensive” narrative, one that places more pressure on Spain. Conversely, China is producing a “defensive” counter-narrative combatting that of the United States, resulting in a large-scale battle of narratives.


On one side of the narrative battle, ring is the United States. Threatened by investment of Chinese technology in the networks of a key European ally, the United States is maximizing a “great power” narrative in terms of its international relationship with Spain and China.

Normally, the United States does not need to warn its European allies, especially those of which it has a long and shared history. Recently, however, the United States utilized a “great power” narrative when it issued clear and concise feelings about Spain’s relationship with Chinese technology firms. In February 2020, United States officials warned Spanish officials and telecommunications executives of a potential withdrawal of sharing sensitive information with Spain should Chinese technology firms, like Huawei, continue to be involved in local markets.  Issuing these types of warnings toward a friendly nation is a tool that a “great power” can utilize in a narrative context. Spain would likely not issue a similar warning to the United States. Nonetheless, while the United States’ actions and warnings are rooted in trying to protect its ally and other partners against potential threats to security from China, this type of narrative places Spain in an awkward position.

A potential effect of the utilization of a “great power” narrative is an indirect and unwanted strengthening of the Chinese counter-narrative against the United States in Spain. International warnings and this type of narrative may harm an already fragile Spanish favorability view of the United States given that favorable views from Spain decreased from 59% to 42% from the end of the Obama presidency to the end of 2018 according to the Pew Research Center. This would arguably help China in its approach toward the issue further down the road, something the United States does not want.


United States and China, Image by Iecs on Wikimedia Commons (CC by 3.0)


Comparatively, China has produced a defensive counter-narrative in response to the United States. When asked about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments on China’s espionage, information stealing, and link to the technology company, Huawei, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, compared Secretary Pompeo to that of a fictional character in a Chinese short story. Spokesperson Chunying said, “unlike her harmless monologue, Mr. Pompeo keeps repeating poisonous lies.”

China is attempting to change and control the narrative through its response. This type of response produces a counter-narrative where China shifts the blame from itself to another country, despite any accusations or evidence. While this may seem like an offensive tactic, China’s action is in response to the United States, allowing it to take a defensive position in the narrative battle.

Furthermore, a defensive position allows China to continue bolstering its counter-narrative against the United States. Recently, Chinese technology company, Huawei, played a soft power role through its delivery of medical supplies to countries like Spain during the COVID-19 pandemic. These types of good acts by Chinese companies have the potential to strengthen China’s counter-narrative toward the United States as this type of action is a key public diplomacy instrument. Building a rapport with the Spanish government and people during times of a crisis undoubtedly have beneficial effects for diplomatic relations whether this is the intention of China or not.

This narrative battle between the United States and China is not only recognized in theory, but also in the heart of international relations as well. Huawei’s role, and ultimately China at large, was noted by the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, saying, “there is a global battle of narratives going on in which timing is a crucial factor,” and “China is aggressively pushing the message that, unlike the US, it is a responsible and reliable partner.”

If the United States wants to succeed in this battle of narratives, it may need to balance its approach toward Spain and its call for security in Europe in a more positive tone. While the counter-narrative produced by China is bolstered by technology and soft power approaches at the moment, the United States’ long and shared history with Spain is a force to be reckoned with. However, for the time being Spain is stuck in the middle of this narrative “tug-of-war” between the United States and China, so time will tell how “giants” in the land of Don Quixote will affect this narrative battle.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not express the views of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or the George Washington University.



Panda Diplomacy

By Colleen Calhoun, Mary Anne Porto and Libby Schiller

Exotic animals have long been seen as symbols of power and democracy. Dating back to the times of Ancient Rome and Emperor Octavius, large animals such as lions, rhinoceroses, etc. have been used as leverage in bureaucracy.

Animal diplomacy is not exclusive to the Chinese. In the era of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, Egypt gave Giraffes to foreign nations. Queen Elizabeth II gave two black beavers to Canada in 1970. The Chinese originally gave Pandas away as gifts, but in 1984 the government decided to begin a 10-year loan system with annual payments.

Today, there are more than 25 zoos worldwide that have Pandas.

With the new loan system, China has reached out to countries in an attempt to foster relationships. More so now, China has been using Panda diplomacy to pursue economic and political ambitions as well. The Edinburgh Zoo received its pandas in 2011, setting up a deal to pay an annual fee to the Chinese government to help giant panda conservation projects in the wild. Not only is China reaching out to countries using Pandas, they are benefiting from the relationships as well. Similarly, Japan also received two pandas in 2011, and the two countries hoped it would improve relations caused by dispute over islands and their sovereignty.

China has been successful in their efforts because Pandas are very cute and many
countries would like to have them in their zoos. Pandas are a soft power tool that the Chinese have been using to increase their scope around the world. More so than diplomatic relationships, China has seen more growth in economic relationships with Panda diplomacy.

According to a BBC article, Scottish exports to China have almost doubled in the past five years. Similarly, Panda loans in Canada, France and Australia coincided with trade deals for uranium. The article also said, “If a panda is given to the country, it does not signify the closing of a deal – they have entrusted an endangered, precious animal to the country; it signifies in some ways a new start to the relationship.” This shows that China is not looking to give countries Pandas and complete a one time deal. They are looking to foster long-term relationships, especially regarding economics.

As a soft power tool, the Chinese government can use cute, cuddly Panda to increase economic growth, not only for the time-being, but over an extended period of time.

There are many challenges facing those who wish to replicate animal diplomacy efforts of the past. Animal advocates have challenged the practice as they say it commercializes animal lives and puts stressors on already vulnerable endangered species. Others want more transparency about where fees for loans go. Countries who choose to do so should consider making their funding more transparent and perhaps shifting away from a funding model all together, instead focusing on just awareness, to reduce criticism.

Countries should also consider the logistics of their animals, making sure the animals are able to travel and not endangered. They should also ensure that the animals are representative of their countries and reflect positively on them.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

China’s Panda Diplomacy

by Lily Werlinich, Emma Barrera and Mailinh McNicholas

Nuclear arms may be the current talk of the town, but China has been successfully deploying a furrier weapon for years: the panda. Late last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Berlin’s Tierpark Zoo to commemorate the latter’s loan of Meng-Meng (“Little Dream”) and Jiao Qing (“Darling”). The two pandas will remain in Berlin for the next 15 years at an annual cost of $1 million.
The two world leaders met for the exchange two days before the G20 meeting to project a peaceful, friendly relationship to the international community, a stark contrast to the atmosphere that President Trump would bring with him to the conference.
Yet this loan is much more than a mere photo-op. For years, the Chinese government has loaned pandas to other nations as a way of signifying respect. China lent the United States its first pandas in 1972 after President Nixon’s historic visit to the Asian nation. Pandas can even be withdrawn when a nation refuses to support China’s political policies. After President Obama met with the Dalai Lama in 2010 against China’s wishes, panda cubs from Zoo Atlanta and the National Zoo were repatriated. Other times, pandas certify the existence of favorable trade
relations between China and its partner nations. China and Germany are the first- and third-largest trading nations in the world, respectively, and therefore must work to craft deals favorable to both nations.
This exchange of pandas is a theatrical display of public diplomacy and a way for China to flex its soft power, a branch of diplomacy that the nation has historically neglected. As defined by Joseph Nye, countries use soft power to make themselves more attractive. They do so by emphasizing their culture, political institutions, and foreign policies in ways that appeal to international sentiment.
Pandas are an excellent source of soft power because of their inherent charm. The bear-like mammals symbolize political power in the East and wildlife conservation in the West. But perhaps most importantly, they are simply adorable and adorable animals are transnational and transcultural.
China’s new soft power initiatives reflect the nation’s desire to project its power beyond the Asian region. In its nineteenth National Congress in October, the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping announced the country’s commitment to achieving “China’s dream” of becoming the number one global power during this century by developing a powerful military and reaching full economic development by 2050.
China’s new foreign policy strategy rejects isolationism and aims to promote inclusive development, as reflected by the country’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” to link China with Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia, Europe, and Africa through physical infrastructure, financial arrangements, and cultural exchanges.

As China transitions to a more assertive role in the international arena, President Xi
Jinping aims to develop China’s soft power by presenting a“true, multi-dimensional, and panoramic view of China.” Ultimately, China’s embrace of globalism and shift in style, attitude, and behavior in global affairs is likely to have a profound impact on the international order.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s). They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

Formation of race stereotypes is undermining Chinese effort in Africa


A well-intentioned Chinese Central Television (CCTV) comedy show went horribly wrong last month.  CCTV brings out its best programming during the peak Chinese new year’s holidays, but one comedy sketch this year earned wide international media criticism for its portrayal by a Chinese actress in blackface portraying an African mother with stereotypical curves and mindset.  Her appearance—coming at a time when China is actively building its business and diplomatic presence in Africa—was followed with another “African’ actor with monkey-like features. A single sketch threatens to damage the goodwill China has built up in Africa and has become a tempting target for international critics who claim that China is showing its traditional world view.  The incident reflects two threats that the Chinese government faces as it tries to expand its global influence: its lack of racial education, and its own colonial tendencies.

This is not the first time that the Chinese media have been called out for racism.   Another controversy in 2016 involved an advertisement for a laundry company that stuck an African-American male in a washing machine and made him paler and Asian-looking.  While it is tempting to think that the PRC is deliberately inconsiderate, the closer truth is that the Chinese government—which supervises CCTV, the country’s most influential network—may not even know its flaws because there is no history of understanding racial context.  And without that understanding, its censorship system doesn’t catch race-related mistakes.   Since the Chinese government is focusing right now on its investment in Africa, the government doesn’t want to disrupt relations with the Continent by showing prejudice or discrimination. There’s simply too much at stake for China to have its central message of friendship and partnership distorted by racist stereotypes in its official media.

This kind of misguided humor should be taken seriously. As a society, China has stepped onto the world’s stage through its dramatic growth and prosperity of the last two decades, and its naturally increased global role in trade, politics, and humanitarian issues.   Chinese media are also no longer just domestic.   Maybe a couple of decades ago media could echo parts of society with derogatory terms for Japanese (ri ben gui zi) Koreans (bang zi), or Westerners (bai gui zi). Now the situation has changed as more foreigners starts to follow the activities of the Chinese society and media, but a lot of people in Chinese society have still not realized just how much some jokes and metaphors hurt other people. While many Chinese feel angry when foreign media or people use stereotype to describe Chinese, they don’t connect that with how other races feel when they are portrayed as monkeys.

Perhaps an even more serious problem is the colonialist tendency that has started to form in the Chinese mind. In the controversial sketch I mentioned above, Africans actors praised the railroad that the Chinese government built in Africa and expressed how much Chinese investments helped Africa. There are sentences such as, “When I became a train attendant, I have a different identity. I am so beautiful right now and I am able to marry a nice man. My life will be good from now on!” and “I want to study in China. I want to be like Chinese!” Chinese actors are teachers and travelers, while African actors are just students and servants. If we read the history of colonization of African in 19th century by English and French, we can find a similar theme and propaganda as the Chinese government is promoting now: we bring civilization to Africa and we are their savior. After one hundred years of humiliation by imperial countries, Chinese are becoming like their humiliators after Chinese are able to expend their power.

Du Mu, a Chinese poet in Tang (唐) dynasty, use the story of the rapid collapse of the Qin (秦) dynasty to warn people who do not learn the lesson from history: As the rulers of Qin were too busy  to mourn their own destruction , posterity must mourn for them; but if in mourning the destruction of Qin posterity fails to learn the lesson, then posterity’s posterity will have to mourn for posterity itself. If the Chinese government cannot prevent the formation of an colonist mindset in Chinese people’s own hearts, the Chinese government will not only fail to “rise peacefully” but will also repeat the mistakes of the English and French colonialists.

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

When Policy Meets Public Diplomacy: U.S. losing its edge in attracting international students

china education fair
Chinese students attend an Education Fair at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to learn more about study abroad programs in the U.S.


U.S. public diplomacy efforts are about attraction, rather than coercion. A major variable in measuring “attractiveness” of the U.S. is through attitudes of potential foreign exchange students. The ability of the U.S. to attract bright minds from around the world has bolstered the country’s development since its inception and fuels the U.S. “melting pot” narrative. China is now the primary source of these foreign exchange students. The recent release of Institute for International Education’s 2016 Report revealed that numbering almost 330,000, Chinese international students comprise 31.5 percent of the total number of international students in the U.S. Sheer volume holds weight, but from a public diplomacy perspective, the numbers are less important than the attitudes behind them. Why do Chinese students choose to study abroad in the U.S.? Will this trend last? Research I conducted in 2015 concludes that unless the U.S. sees major education and public diplomacy policy shifts, we have reason to doubt it will.

In 2015, I completed an in-depth study of the evolution of Chinese students’ motivations to study abroad in the U.S. Its findings highlighted a need for the U.S. to foster policies that attract foreign talent as the web of international politics becomes increasingly multipolar. These conclusions ring true today.

The rapid influx of Chinese exchange students, who make up the majority of foreign students in the U.S., will play an unprecedented role in Sino-U.S. relations, as well as in the U.S. economy as potential future skilled immigrants. Through historical contextualization, observations at U.S. Consulate Guangzhou, as well as primary interviews of study abroad participants from the 80s, 90s, and today, my research concluded:

  • In comparison with students from the 1980s, 1990s, and even early 2000s, today’s Chinese students have a greater freedom of choice and the economic means to take advantage of that freedom of choice. To date, that choice has overwhelmingly been to study abroad in the U.S., but both quantitative and qualitative data suggest that trend is waning as students begin to consider other countries in place of or in addition to the U.S. as study abroad destinations.
  • Though modern-day students make the decision to study abroad out of desire for a better education and personal development, practical factors dictate which study abroad location and program students choose. Factors that may affect a student’s decision include the cost of a program and a country’s immigration policies, which may become even more important in the future as developed countries reach equilibrium in terms of education quality.

The student exchange trends described above call for the U.S. to adjust its education policies to continue attracting foreign talent, a factor that is crucial to the economy’s continuing success. Giving international student policies a more important role is not a betrayal to the “America First” rhetoric on the rise. In a recent interview, Thomas Friedman described his new book as a “manifesto for the eye people”. The “eye people” are those who thrive in the middle of the hubbub of globalization and interconnectedness and draw power from it. The “wall people” are those who withdraw into extreme nationalism. To thrive, the U.S. needs to maintain its status as a hub of global leadership. America’s largest group of international students is beginning to perceive the eye-to-wall shift. When will we?

Click here to read the full study.

Hosting the Olympic Games: A Public Diplomacy Opportunity Like No Other!

Source: NBC

On Saturday, Olympic Committee delegates chose Tokyo (over Istanbul and Madrid) to host the 2020 Summer Olympic games. Meanwhile, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit recently announced that they will spearhead an effort to support Washington as the host of the 2024 games (Washington Post article here).

Competitions to host the Olympic games inevitably generate considerable controversy and criticism about the merits (or lack thereof) of hosting the games.  Most of the debate focuses on the economic costs and benefits involved.

Little attention is paid, however, to listing the intangible benefits of hosting such a major event. Public diplomacy should be high on any such list. Hosting the Olympics is a unique opportunity to attract international attention – not only hundreds of thousands of tourists, but also many millions of television viewers – and to shape a powerful and positive narrative of the host country, city, and its people.  Recent hosts, most notably China, worked hard to capitalize on this very opportunity.

There are obvious risks for the host, of course, including the possibility of a man-made or natural disaster, as well as the potential for groups to use the event to highlight particular political agendas.  Russia, for example, currently faces precisely such a challenge with regard to its record on LGBT issues and the upcoming Winter Games in Sochi. That said, perhaps no other event has quite the same potential for national rebranding and polishing of a country’s image than the feel-good vibes of the peaceful competition, international camaraderie, and mutual understanding epitomized by the Olympic Games.

While the nay-sayers will have their say, I have no doubt that leaders in Japan, Turkey, and Spain all had this in mind as they lobbied for the 2020 games.  Congratulations to Japan (and good luck to Turkey and Spain in their future bids) for securing this incredible public diplomacy opportunity!

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The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

March Madness on China’s Social Media: Unveiling the Beijing Conundrum

Wang Lijun

What’s happened in China within the Communist leadership in the past two weeks has been not only a mystery to Westerners, but to most Chinese as well. Wang Lijun, the aide of the flamboyant Chinese politician Bo Xilai seeking political asylum in the US embassy in Chengdu, followed by Bo removed as the party chief in Chongqing (read how the New York Times interprets the link between Bo’s dismissal and China’s political reform here), and the block of the word “Ferrari” in Chinese search engines. Now, not just the West, but also the majority of Chinese are aware of what’s behind such bizarre incidents thanks  to microblogging.

March 8 – rumors on Weibo

It all starts with a whisper on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), that “something big has happened” in the early morning of 8 March, by Mao Shoulong, Dean of the School of Public Management at Renmin University, Beijing. Within hours, his post was forwarded over 2,600 times and attracted almost 1,000 comments.

@LunaZHONGBellFall: I’ve climbed over many layers of wall. Besides yesterday morning’s news of Hu Jintao calling Wang Lijun a traitor, there’s no latest development or confirmation of this news.

@TangGu2010: I’m outside the wall scouting for everyone. The South China Morning Post reports that Hu denounced Wang. What this means for Tomato is hard to say.

You can read more excerpts of Weibo comments here

March 15 – Bo disgraced by Wen

Bo Xilai

Then Bo was officially sacked on March 15,  which drew speculations around the world. The Atlantic even asked “Is there a coup in China now?“. However, the Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine on China run by mainly Westerners who distil stories reflected on China’s social media debunked this rumor. Unlike such bold inquiries by the Western media, the Chinese Weibo users have to invent phrases to discuss this issue in order to get around the tight censorship. For instance, to avoid publishing sensitive words that might be blocked on Weibo, they use “Great Pacifier of the West” (平西王) as Bo’s nickname because of his crackdown on organized crime as Party Secretary of the southwestern city of Chongqing, and tomato (西红柿 xī hóng shì) to refer to Chongqing because tomato sounds the same in Chinese as “western red city” (西红市) (Bo has been famous for evoking Mao’s revolutionary “red” in Chongqing).

You can read some wistful words of Bo from Weibo in English here.

Read China Digital Times, which offers perspectives from Chinese and foreign experts on China’s recent political conundrum. “Bo Xilai: Down, But Out?”

 March 19 – Ferrari crash involving son of top official

The Ferrari crash in the early morning hours of 19 March did not arouse that much attention among most netizens until they woke up to find that the word “Ferrari” was blocked on Weibo. Rumors say that the driver was the illegitimate son of Politburo member Jia Qinglin who is supposed to be in the same league as Bo Xilai.

This series of events somehow linked together has been called the March Madness in China by many media reports. This conundrum is no longer only accessible to those who are able to climb over layers of the “Great Wall” or those outside China, but to the average Chinese Weibo user. 195 million of China’s 1.3 billion population uses Weibo, according to China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC)’s June 2011 report. This huge wave of awareness created by Weibo as the platform of civil society discussion reminds me of the stimulant Twitter during the Arab Spring.  However, put aside the question whether China will have a “Arab Spring”, I can be certain that during this period of leadership transition in China, the fact that citizens are better informed of what’s going on in China’s politics, which were so intangible before, is a good sign for China’s future.

Learn more about the speculations on the Ferrari accident among Chinese netizens and foreign media here and how these discussions led to a number of of banned terms online.

Read the translated Chinese official reportage of the story here.

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