The European Union’s crises have damaged the positive image of the continent in China. The Brexit vote disrupted many Chinese commentators’ sympathetic view of the EU as a shining example of political continuity. Many Chinese media see the EU’s failure to deal with the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks as the result of a lack of unity and force. The EU should react to this image crisis, since it threatens to compromise its ability to act vis-à-vis a powerful player like China, say the authors of an analysis presented in Brussels on Tuesday (12 July).
In a paper titled “Questioning not the EU, but the ‘Western System’”, researchers Jasmin Gong, Bertram Lang, and Kristin Shi-Kupfer of the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), point out that Chinese state media in particular instrumentalize the difficult situation in Europe to denounce “Western values” as a whole. Chinese diplomats use crisis situations like the massive influx of refugees into the EU to refute criticism of the human rights situation or political repression in China.
The analysis, published as a part of the series MERICS China Monitor on Tuesday, is based on a quantitative review of about 75,000 articles published in party-state media like “People’s Daily”, market-oriented outlets like “Southern Weekly” as well as social media like Sina Blog or Sohu Blog. The researchers also scrutinized 300 opinion pieces on developments in the EU, such as the Greek debt crisis, the refugee crisis, the rise of right-wing populism, terrorist attacks in Europe, and the Brexit referendum. The resulting picture is mixed: Roughly a third of all analysed opinion articles (34%) portrayed the crises as challenges to EU unity. At the same time, most commentators expressed confidence that political stability could be maintained despite, for instance, a looming “Brexit”.
Analysis also revealed different takes on Europe in different types of media: party-state media tend to view the problems of dealing with the crises as proof of Europe being in a state of decay. In their analysis, European crises indicate the “weaknesses and falsehood of ‘Western values’”. This judgement falls in line with recent ambitions of the Chinese party state to denounce deficiencies of democratic systems and demonstrate the superiority of Chinese political concepts. Commentators of market-oriented and social media paint a more differentiated picture of the situation in Europe.
“The domestic media discourse is a better early indicator of potential changes in Chinese attitudes towards Europe than official diplomatic statements,” the MERICS researchers conclude. They advise EU policymakers to capitalize on the “persisting goodwill and genuine interest in Europe in non-official Chinese media” and take more efforts to “communicate an authentic and honest assessment” of Europe’s challenges.