Influencing the Narrative

Quantifying Chinese public diplomacy in East Asia & the Pacific

Full Report: Influencing the Narrative
Interactive: China's Public Diplomacy Dashboard
Full Report: Ties That Bind

Beijing's public diplomacy overtures

Which instruments of public diplomacy does China wield in East Asia & the Pacific?

Media Diplomacy

Media partnerships, 2000-2017

From 2000 to 2017, Chinese media outlets brokered 73 partnerships with counterparts in EAP countries. These partnerships enable local media outlets to reprint or share content from China’s state-run newspapers. Many of these content-sharing partnerships tend to be with Chinese-language media owned or operated by the Chinese diaspora.

Geographically, the lion’s share of Beijing’s content-sharing partnerships target the fast-growing, populous economies of Southeast Asia, as well as high-income countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia that may be seen as strategic competitors. Small Pacific island states received little attention for partnerships, as did Mongolia and Vietnam.

Source: Influencing the Narrative.

Media interviews with China’s heads of state, 2002-2013

Beijing uses its senior leaders as information ambassadors, giving interviews or placing op-eds with EAP news outlets to promote a positive media narrative around China. Interview appearances in foreign media outlets by the highest echelon of Chinese officials are rare but repeated in certain EAP countries. Between 2002 and 2013, China's most senior officials gave 25 interviews with domestic media outlets in seven countries, weighted heavily toward high-income countries and fast-growing ASEAN economies, such as Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Vietnam.

Source: Influencing the Narrative.

Op-eds by China’s heads of state, 2013-2017

The Chinese government appears to treat guest op-eds by China’s heads of state as a consolation prize for countries it deems to be in its strategic second tier. Senior leaders placed 34 op-eds in the local media of twelve EAP countries between 2013 and 2017, but South Korea was the only big winner on both op-eds and interviews from the highest echelon of leadership. Mongolia, Laos, and Myanmar, by contrast, attracted substantial attention in terms of high-level op-eds, but not interviews.

Source: Influencing the Narrative.

Op-eds by China’s ambassadors, 2010-2017

Chinese ambassadors in EAP countries are also important and prolific contributors of op-eds, particularly in the less populous island nations of Samoa and Tonga and city-states like Singapore and Brunei. Over just a seven year period, Chinese ambassadors published 115 op-eds in EAP media outlets, and only three countries received no ambassador op-eds at all (Kiribati, Nauru, and the Philippines).

Guest op-eds may be more appealing to senior leaders and ambassadors than interviews for two reasons: (1) it is less time consuming to submit an op-ed, if it is largely prepared by staffers; and (2) it is also less risky, as they have more control over the topic and means of delivery in an op-ed than in a real-time interview.

Source: Influencing the Narrative.

State-sponsored press trips by journalists to China, 2002-2017

Press trips are a prime opportunity for Beijing to ingratiate itself with journalists from EAP countries by impressing them with China’s culture, people, wealth, and infrastructure. These junkets are elaborate affairs where journalists are treated to multi-course meals, cultural exhibitions, and visits to model development projects or cities as part of a tightly controlled program of events.

Between 2002-2017, Beijing arranged 82 press trips for EAP journalists to visit China.Many of these press trips (41 percent) were targeted toward journalists from open democracies that were also economic heavyweights such as South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Interestingly, Anglophone democracies like Australia and New Zealand did not receive similar attention in terms of journalist visits.

Source: Influencing the Narrative.

Student Exchange Diplomacy

Students inbound to China, 2002-2016

China has positioned itself as a premier destination for international students to complete their education, attracting a huge uptick in foreign students from 85,000 in 2002 to 442,000 students in 2016—a 420% change. The lion’s share of these international students are from EAP countries (41%), which is double or triple the representation from other regions.

Today’s top students may be tomorrow’s political leaders, intellectuals, and experts. Beijing employs several tactics to attract international students through scholarships, loosened visa requirements, and cooperative agreements. To further prime the pipeline of international students, the Chinese government arranges trips to China for school principals for other countries, as well as providing Chinese language teachers to work with university, secondary, and even primary school students to grow their interest in studying in China.

Source: Influencing the Narrative, Ties That Bind.

Chinese students in EAP countries, 2000-2017

Globally, the preponderance of Chinese students overseas gravitates toward higher education institutions in advanced economies, and the EAP region is no exception to this rule. More than 3.3 million Chinese students studied abroad in EAP countries between 2000 and 2017. Chinese students have an affinity for studying in the economically advanced, open democracies of the EAP region—Japan and Australia attract the highest numbers of Chinese students pursuing graduate and postgraduate degrees, followed by South Korea and New Zealand. Although Japan received the highest number of Chinese students, the volume of students has been declining since 2012.

Source: Ties That Bind.

Chinese government scholarships, 2000-2018

Total scholarships

Mongolia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Myanmar—who initially sent lower numbers of students to China—were among the big winners in attracting these Chinese government-backed scholarships in absolute terms. The distinction between all international students studying in China versus those whose study was facilitated by Chinese scholarships is important, because the latter group represents the clearest exertion of effort by Beijing to influence foreign publics, as opposed to merely being a destination that attracts them.

Source: Influencing the Narrative.

Chinese government scholarships per capita, 2000-2018

Scholarships per 100,000 persons, ages 15-64

Although they received relatively few scholarships in absolute terms, it appears that Beijing pays outsized attention to small Pacific island states. When population is taken into account, Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji received the highest numbers of Chinese government scholarships per capita.

EAP students often view Chinese scholarships—which not only cover tuition fees, but also provide stipends to subsidize travel, housing, and living costs—as more generous than those offered by other countries. However, contrary to popular belief, we find that Chinese government scholarships were actually less generous than those provided by the US, UK, Japan, Australia, and other countries. After adjusting for purchasing power parity, Chinese scholarships carried roughly two-thirds of the value of most scholarships offered by other developed nations in relative terms.

Source: Influencing the Narrative, Ties That Bind.

Cultural Diplomacy

Confucius Institutes, 2004-2018

Beijing’s signature cultural diplomacy initiative, Confucius Institutes are managed by the Hanban, a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. Between 2004 and 2018, China established 98 Confucius Institutes in partnership with universities in 16 EAP countries across the region. Confucius Institutes provide an important entry point to both advertise Chinese study abroad opportunities, as well as overcome any perceived language barrier. Since many Chinese government scholarships require applicants to demonstrate Mandarin language proficiency, Beijing has opened up 260 HSK testing centers throughout the region. The locations of these active HSK centers are highly and positively correlated with the volume of inbound students from EAP countries studying in China.

In choosing where to deploy its Confucius Institutes, Beijing is strategic in using this public diplomacy in the countries that will be most open to its overtures:

  • Countries with a larger Chinese diaspora tend to receive more Confucius Institutes.
  • Countries that accept more Chinese firms, vote more often with Beijing in the UN General Assembly, and have fewer militarized disputes with China also receive more Confucius Institutes.

Source: Influencing the Narrative, Ties That Bind.

Financial Diplomacy

Chinese official finance with diplomatic intent, 2000-2016

USD billions, deflated to 2014 USD

The world’s second largest economy, China has made headlines for its deep pockets and apparent willingness to use its "power of its purse” as a tool of public diplomacy to improve relations with foreign leaders and citizens. In the East Asia and Pacific region alone, Beijing’s financial diplomacy comes with a hefty price tag: over US$48 billion committed between 2000-2016, according to our estimates.

This includes four categories of Chinese official finance that are likely most visible to citizens and leaders, such that they could effectively sway perceptions of China: infrastructure investments (US$45.8 billion), humanitarian aid (US$273 million), budget support (US$613 million), and debt relief (US$90 million).

To estimate China’s financial diplomacy footprint, AidData tracked two types of financing vehicles:

  • Official development assistance (ODA or “aid”), which meets OECD standards that the flow is highly concessional in its terms (i.e., including a grant element of at least 25%); and
  • Other official flows (OOF), which are less concessional and more commercially and representationally oriented.

Source: Ties That Bind.

Elite-to-Elite Diplomacy

Official visits, 2000-2015

China entertains more visiting dignitaries and elites each year than any other country, while its own leaders travel to receiving countries regularly. In cultivating these relationships, Beijing emphasizes the win-win nature of closer ties to China. In addition to being a ready supply of capital to finance the priority projects of elites, China may enhance the standing of a foreign leader by announcing Beijing’s support for their policies.

Beijing’s reliance on official visits has decreased in recent years, but elite-to-elite diplomacy still accounts for the lion’s share (90%) of its outreach with most of the smaller countries in the region. We also find that wealthier countries that represent high value market opportunities for Beijing also receive more official visits.

Source: Ties That Bind.

Exchange Diplomacy

Sister cities established, as of 2016

Sister cities “twin” a Chinese city, town, or province with a foreign counterpart. China has brokered over 2,500 sister city arrangements since the first in 1973. Agreements typically focus on increasing trade relations, sponsoring cultural festivals and exhibitions, as well as knowledge sharing and capacity building

More than one third of China’s sister cities are in the EAP region, which has seen a 115% surge in these friendship arrangements, from 440 in 2000 to 947 in 2016. Sister cities are an example of Beijing’s exchange diplomacy which it uses to cultivate relationships with local-level officials and business leaders. China disproportionately targets its sister cities program to advanced economies in the region, particularly countries that accept more Chinese firms.

Source: Ties That Bind.

About Influencing the Narrative

Chinese leaders have mobilized an impressive array of government agencies, media outlets, and educational institutions at home and abroad as a megaphone to tell China’s story to the world. Influencing the Narrative offers new, comprehensive detail on the nature and impact of these informational diplomacy and student exchange activities in a region important to China's strategic interests: East Asia and the Pacific (EAP).

This report takes a data-driven approach to address one overarching question: How does Beijing use informational diplomacy and student exchange to advance its national interests among its closest neighbors in the EAP region? To answer it, AidData collected quantitative data on China’s overtures to 25 EAP countries between 2000 and 2019, which we analyze to understand which tools Beijing uses to mobilize media and students to promote its preferred narrative.

Selections of data from this report and Ties That Bind are now available through AidData’s China’s Public Diplomacy Dashboard. Users can create custom data sets, maps and graphs, as well as filter based on the type of public diplomacy, recipient countries, and time period of interest. In addition to data on informational diplomacy and student exchange activities, the dashboard also contains data on visits between government and military officials (elite-to-elite diplomacy), sister cities (exchange diplomacy), and Chinese government spending with diplomatic intent (financial diplomacy).

How was the data collected?

Data on Chinese informational diplomacy and student exchange activities was collected for this report from a range of quantitative sources:

  • Information on media partnerships; interviews and op-eds from Chinese senior leaders and ambassadors; journalist visits to China; China's media footprint across radio, TV, and print; Chinese new media's social media engagement; and the tone and content of reporting on China in EAP countries was sourced variously from: the China Foreign Affairs Yearbooks; Chinese Embassy websites' news sections; Emily Feng in the Financial Times (2018); the websites of major television service providers in EAP countries; the websites of China Daily, People’s Daily, and Xinhua; China Daily’s Media Profile Reports; the World Radio Map; Twitter's API; Facebook; GDELT; and Factiva.
  • Information on government-sponsored scholarships to study in China; EAP students studying in China; Chinese students studying abroad; Confucius Institutes; and Chinese language testing centers was sourced variously from: the China Foreign Affairs Yearbooks; Chinese Embassy websites' news sections; the websites of scholarship providers; China Scholarship Council annual reports; the UNESCO-UIS database; and the Hanban website and Annual Reports.

About Ties That Bind

Ties That Bind quantifies four aspects of China's public diplomacy—financial, cultural, exchange, and elite-to-elite—across 25 countries to determine how it is received by foreign publics and leaders and whether it is meeting Beijing’s objectives. AidData collaborated with the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) China Power Project to collect this first-of-its kind data on China's public diplomacy efforts in East Asia and the Pacific from 2000-2016.

In partnership with AidData, CSIS, and ASPI, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore co-hosted a conference to launch the report on June 26th, 2018. Four panel discussions and a lunch keynote, all featuring experts from around the world, dove deeper into the reach and influence of Chinese public diplomacy and the policy implications for countries across the Asia-Pacific. Visit the event page to watch the conference recordings.


Influencing the Narrative and Ties That Bind were conducted with generous support from the United States Department of State. These reports' findings and conclusions are those of their authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of funder and partner organizations.

How was the data collected?

Data on Chinese financial, cultural, exchange, and elite-to-elite diplomacy activities was collected for this report from a range of quantitative and qualitative sources:

  • Projects qualifying as financial diplomacy were drawn from AidData's Global Chinese Official Finance Dataset, 2000-2014, Version 1.0, with AidData's TUFF (Tracking Underrreported Financial Flows) methodology applied to extend coverage through 2016.
  • Information on Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, sister cities, cultural centers and events, and official visits was sourced variously from: the China Foreign Affairs Yearbooks; the China International Friendship City Association; data provided by Xiang and Huang (2015); and supplemental targeted Internet searches.
  • In addition to quantitative data, on-the-ground insights were captured from over 70 government officials, civil society and private sector leaders, academics, journalists, and foreign diplomats in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Fiji, and from interviews with public diplomacy scholars and practitioners.

For more information on our methodology and sources, please see the ReadMe file that accompanies the dataset.

Alex Wooley

Director of Partnerships and Communications