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Chinese enterprises’ global image construction needs to shift focus

LI JIDONG | 2019-12-12 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Workers from the State Grid Corporation of China construct power lines for Belo Monte UHVDC Bipole II in Brazil, the longest distance and largest capacity ultrahigh-voltage direct current system in South America. Major Latin American countries have a positive impression of Chinese enterprises, with 73% of respondents saying they feel good about Chinese firms, according to a recent survey. Photo: CHINA DAILY


In a national conference on publicity and ideological work in August 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping underscored the importance of “better introducing China to the world.” He stressed that we should “improve our ability to engage in international communication so as to tell China’s stories well, make the voice of China heard, and present a true, multi-dimensional, and panoramic view of China to the world.”
That said, overseas Chinese enterprises present an important way for the world to learn about China. Therefore, it is urgent for Chinese enterprises to set up a good image, which not only meets their need to “go global,” but also falls under the purview of external communication and the promotion of China’s brand in the new era. In this light, building a discourse system that connects China and the world is a top priority, because discourse is not merely a practice of conveying the message, but also a practice of explaining, forming and constructing the world.
Bias in discourse 
Why have Chinese enterprises made contributions to the prosperity of the world, and to regional growth and development, but not earned corresponding reputations? In some cases, there is much misunderstanding. One of the important reasons is that the discourse covering the image construction of overseas Chinese enterprises tends to focus too much on economic success, lacking comprehensive and systematic discourse.
China’s International Communication Power, a report published by the research team of the National Center for Communication Innovation Studies at Communication University of China, found that in the past four years the neutral and positive economic image of Chinese enterprises has attracted much attention, helping them participate in the international market and the building of international brands. 
First of all, the adjectives that have been frequently used to describe overseas Chinese enterprises in the past four years include “new,” “largest,” “global,” “financial” and so on, presenting a prominent and stable economic attribute and overall image in the eyes of the global English media. “Global” and “international” reflects that Chinese enterprises have been actively participating in the process of globalization. The word “financial” confirms the identity of Chinese enterprises as contributors to the world economy. The “biggest” and “top” represent the scale and competitiveness of Chinese enterprises in international market competition. 
Second, in the past two years, words related to high and new technology such as “mobile,” “online,” “social,” “electronic,” “automotive” and so on have made headlines due to global attention to the fields of information transmission, software and information services in China. 
In addition, “Asian” and country-related words have also become high-frequency, which reflects how Chinese enterprises are accelerating the globalization layout and that the localization trend is more evident under the background of the Belt and Road initiative. 
There are also other positive adjectives about Chinese companies, such as “advanced,” “leading” and “best.”
By the end of 2018, China had become the second largest country in the world in terms of economy, trade in services, utilization of foreign investment, and outbound investment, while becoming No. 1 in trade in goods, foreign exchange reserves and manufacturing. China’s rapid economic growth and its contribution to global development have made its role on the international stage increasingly important. 
Since the reform and opening up, Chinese enterprises have gradually embarked on the road of international operation of independent research and development seeking innovative breakthroughs, taking advantage of China’s labor force, land and other cost advantages to undertake global manufacturing. As of now, China has integrated into the international division of labor system in an all-around way, transforming from a follower and a pursuer to an equal partner and even sometimes a leader. 
According to the 2018 Global Innovation Index released by the World Intellectual Property Organization and other organizations, China has made the list of the world’s 20 most innovative economies for the first time. The ranking showed that China has the second largest number of science and technology clusters and is making rapid progress on clean energy technologies.
According to the Chinese Enterprises Global Image Survey Report, a series initiated by the Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies, overseas respondents hold a complex view toward Chinese enterprises. Most of the respondents in the developing world have a favorable perception of China’s economic development, thinking that China’s economy is in rapid and stable development and that it contributes to global and regional economic growth. 
In contrast, respondents from developed countries either do not think much of or do not have favorable comments on Chinese enterprises. 
However, what they all have in common is that people overseas are very alert to the challenges posed by Chinese companies, fearing the adverse impact of Chinese companies on the survival and development of local enterprises and the disruption of the local industrial chain. 
In addition, when the overseas image of Chinese enterprises is comprehensively evaluated from the perspectives of responsibility, fairness, trust and success, respondents give the highest rating on the success of Chinese enterprises and the lowest on responsibility.
In sum, bias in discourse prevails in Chinese enterprises’ global image construction, because most of the English news reporting focuses on economic factors, highlighting rapid economic development and science and technology advancement, but often ignoring Chinese enterprises’ cooperative and friendly behavior. As a result, there is a disconnect in enterprise action, narration and corporate identity, leaving only an economic impression on people overseas.
Why it happens
The causes of such a discourse bias in Chinese enterprises’ global image could be summarized as follows. The external excommunication of Chinese enterprises is still trapped in the business, capital and economic development logic of the wave of neoliberal globalization, overlooking the communication of social responsibility, common interests and humanistic care. 
Over the years, Chinese companies have tried to emphasize economic development and cooperation to avoid ideological differences with a low profile, resulting in a one-sided image of Chinese companies and a poor reputation. Chinese companies themselves tend to focus more on economic contribution in their reports on overseas projects and less on responding to the demands of local people, creating the impression that the interests of diverse stakeholders are not valued. 
Though Chinese enterprises posit themselves as friendly international partners, the interpretation of their motivation for cooperation is often carried out from the economic perspective, ignoring their cooperative and responsible behavior. As a result, Chinese enterprises’ global image has not changed the one-sided emphasis on economic success, so it is easy for overseas people to question, be wary of and even reject them.
Since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008, the world economy has been greatly affected by the sluggish growth of developed economies and the spread of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe. During this period, the Chinese economy has not only maintained a sound momentum, but also actively contributed to easing the crisis, restoring the world economic order, and upholding openness and cooperation in the process of globalization. 
It is against this background that the “China responsibility theory” has become the leading public opinion in the international community. In fact, the discourse of China responsibility theory is deceptive and concealing. It seems to require China to assume more responsibilities and play a bigger role in a cooperative manner. However, its essence is that of Western countries trying to make China maintain the Western-dominated international system and make up for the consequences caused by the neoliberal economy. These value judgments based on Western perspectives ultimately affect overseas people’s perception and attitude toward Chinese enterprises through the agenda setting of Western media.
In short, the most critical problem at present is the lack of a discourse system based on Chinese practice. Most of the time, we duplicate Western theory to explain China’s reality and describe China’s practice in Western concepts, but in fact China’s experience aids developing countries toward modernization. To those who hope to speed up development and maintain their independence, China provides a new approach, solving human problems with Chinese wisdom and models.
Building a better discourse system
Therefore, it is necessary for Chinese enterprise global image construction to find a discourse system that breaks through Western-centrism, realizes the discourse transformation based on Chinese practice, and makes expression with Chinese characteristics become a familiar tune in the international community.
As President Xi has pointed out, to tell China’s story, we need to apply China’s theories to explain China’s practices, use China’s practices to condense China’s theories, display China’s thoughts clearly, and put forward China’s propositions loudly. 
To improve Chinese enterprises’ global image, we need a unified stance on expression, action and identity, so as to better convey the message of communication, negotiation, equality, cooperation, win-win and success as well as to build a more moral, responsible, fair and trustworthy image. 
Li Jidong is deputy director of the National Center for Communication Innovation Studies at Communication University of China.
​edited by YANG XUE