GENEVA – Chinese leaders have long been sensitive about their communist country’s international image. Now, they are battling back — investing in diplomacy and a courtship of hearts and minds, just as the United States digs in on the Trump administration’s “America First” mindset.
A trade war and other frictions between the world’s top economic power and the fast-growing No. 2 have exposed Washington’s fears about technology, security and influence. U.S. political leaders have derided China’s government over policies in protest-riddled Hong Kong, at detention centers in the majority Muslim Xinjiang region, and over allegedly underhanded business tactics by tech titan Huawei.
But increasingly, China is seeking to recapture the narrative — with a new assertiveness under President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades.
“Almost overnight, we have awakened to the reality that while America slept, the Chinese Communist Party has emerged as an immediate and growing threat to our prosperity, our freedoms, and our security," Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.) said in a speech to the National Defense University last week.
Now the Chinese even have the world's biggest diplomatic arsenal to draw from. China’s diplomatic network — including embassies, consulates and other posts — has overtaken that of the United States, according to the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. Beijing has 276 diplomatic posts worldwide, topping Washington’s declining deployment by three posts, the institute found.
China's growing diplomatic presence comes as Beijing is trying to expand its international footprint in places like resource-rich Africa or the strategic South China Sea, and to compete economically with Western countries, including with its much-ballyhooed Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to expand Chinese economic clout in places like Africa and Asia.
China’s campaign to increase its influence on the global stage comes as the Trump administration retreats from multilateral diplomacy. Trump has pulled the United States out of the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural organization and the U.N.-supported Human Rights Council, and this month the U.S. squeezed the World Trade Organization’s appeals court out of action. His administration has announced a U.S. pullout from the Paris climate accord and shredded multilateral trade pacts.
It’s part of a broader diplomatic retrenchment that has led to the loss of nearly 200 foreign service posts at American embassies and consulates abroad.
“We’ve entered an era in which diplomacy matters more than ever, on an intensely competitive international landscape,” said William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former deputy secretary of state who has been highly critical of Trump’s foreign policy. “China realizes that and is rapidly expanding its diplomatic capacity. The U.S., by contrast, seems intent on unilateral diplomatic disarmament.”
The U.S. pullback has been particularly felt in Geneva, a hub of U.N.-backed multilateralism: More than 2 1/2 years into Trump’s tenure, the U.S. finally brought in a new ambassador to U.N. institutions in Geneva only last month. Meanwhile, China’s deployment has grown, complete with a months-long renovation to its WTO offices on the bucolic Geneva lakefront.
Trump's administration has initiated staffing draw-downs in Afghanistan and Iraq in particular, recalling diplomats from those countries to Washington but not sending them out to other overseas missions, according to the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats.
“ This the first time that any country has had more global presence than the United States and it’s a concern,” said union president Eric Rubin. “If we’re going to meet the challenge of a rising China, we need to represent ourselves aggressively and with resources overseas.”
In African nations like Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda, U.S. diplomats report being outnumbered five-to-one by their Chinese counterparts, according to a union presentation to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Since Trump took office in 2017, at least five small nations in Latin America and the Pacific — Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands — have rejected intense U.S. lobbying and cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in order to recognize China, which often promises them major investments of the kind that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned against.
And countries in Europe and elsewhere have been reluctant to heed U.S. admonitions to cut Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei out of their advanced communications networks. The U.S. says Huawei equipment is suspect, subject to intrusion by the Chinese Communist Party, and has warned nations including NATO allies that they could be stripped of intelligence cooperation with the United States if they grant the company a role in their national grids. Huawei denies the U.S. allegations.
There was a time when China was considered a potentially benevolent rising power. Nearly a generation ago, the communist country was welcomed into the capitalist-dominated WTO in Geneva. Now U.S. officials complain that China has taken advantage of the trade body and isn’t playing by its rules. That adds to the suspicion — even as Beijing insists it respects and abides by the rules-based international system.
In 2019, “we have seen a change in how the rest of the world sees China,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “From Xinjiang to Huawei to now Hong Kong: China is no longer seen as the rising benign giant, but it is being seen as, 'Whoops, we need to get worried about it.’”
But in some areas, like its efforts to fight climate change, China is scoring political points abroad — while Trump's policies on the environment have drawn widespread scorn.
China’s Communist Party has long believed in its monopoly on truth, history and narrative at home, Tsang said. Now, with “fake news” a buzzword, that belief may be ripe for export.
Chinese diplomats have claimed that China holds no political prisoners and insist the Xinjiang centers — which have been widely criticized for locking up Muslim Uighurs and others — were only there to provide “vocational” training and save them from religious radicalism.
“If Donald Trump can say anything he wants — whatever that happens to be, without too much regard to whether it’s factually correct or not — why would the Communist Party of China not feel that they've been vindicated?” he said. “Therefore, Xi Jinping's idea of seizing the narrative is the right thing: You don't have to get worried about facts.”
Chinese authorities have used advertising pitches, news conferences, TV and radio interviews, social media — including on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s new Twitter account — and other messaging to promote Beijing’s positions and push back against criticism.
Barely a day goes by without Chinese officials speaking out in some part of the globe: The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s web site lists 67 Chinese-language pages of statements, speeches, newspaper columns and other communications by Chinese diplomats and other officials since May alone. They blend tough talk, self-defense and self-congratulation.
China’s ambassador in Poland has decried “unilateralist” U.S. trade protection measures; its ambassador to South Africa claimed a U.S. “hidden political agenda” with its criticism about the Xinjiang centers — calling them “innovative.” One Chinese diplomat upbraided U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet over a recent column she wrote airing her concerns about the Hong Kong protests and the government response.
The Chinese ambassadors in Britain and Sweden have been particularly outspoken.
“China is not a country you can kick around,” Ambassador Liu Xiaoming told the BBC’s Hardtalk program last month, part of his one-man media blitz in London in recent weeks. He insisted no political prisoners are held in China, and faulted U.S. Vice President Mike Pence by name as a “China-basher” bent on “demonizing” the country.
China’s envoy in Stockholm, Gui Congyou, told Swedish tabloid Expressen that China will blacklist the Swedish culture minister for attending an award ceremony for Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish publisher based in Hong Kong who was imprisoned by China after printing books critical of the Chinese government.
The tabloid quoted the ambassador as saying that China offers “good wine for its friends, but shotguns for its enemies.”
Lee reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Kelvin Chan in London; Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Sylvie Corbet in Paris; Yanan Wang in Beijing; Elias Meseret in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Sonja Smith in Windhoek, Namibia; and Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed to this report.