Online news outlets and social media platforms have forever changed the ways in which cities’ reputations rise and fall. Quality of life studies, which once depended solely on quantifiable factors such as income, cost, public transportation, security or pollution indices, now include what marketeers see as frustratingly elusive concepts that revolve around branding.
At a basic level, this might include hashtags on Instagram that raise awareness of a city for potential tourists. At a more complex level, this could take the form of, for example, assurances of fair legislation surrounding the creation of businesses, something that foreign investors might take into account when considering their next international expansion.
Digital visibility has become key to development, and with that in mind the Center for China and Globalization, along with online Chinese news network Xinhuanet, have released a report on the global communications impact of Chinese cities.
“As cities throughout China seek to more fully realise the benefits of reform and increasing integration with the rest of the world, the creation and maintenance of an effective communications function is essential,” said Andy Mok, CGTN commentator on technology and geopolitics.
Evan Due, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia agreed. “The growth of China’s cities has transformed its economy, physical environment, and quality of life with highly developed infrastructure, public services, and digitization,” he said. He welcomed the publication of the report, adding “In today’s world of global tension and disruption, the stories and reflections of China’s different cities need to be told to build international understanding.”
Traditionally, communication from China tended to come from Beijing, and as such gave little sense of the cultural diversity across different regions of this vast country. Locally run online media outlets and social media platforms are gradually changing this model.
Predictably, perhaps, the cities with most online visibility are those with larger populations – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Wuhan. But other lesser known cities have also ranked well. The next six, in order of global communications penetration, are Tianjin, Xiamen, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenzhen and Dalian.
Together these ten represent 90 per cent of the online traffic for Chinese cities for a variety of topics. COVID-19 dominated the airwaves during 2020, but communication on issues such as environmental protection, economy and healthcare was also widespread.
The study found that social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounted for around 55 per cent of communications, while overseas mainstream media accounted for around 44 per cent.
Cultural and gastronomic issues have continued to resonate with Western audiences. Lesser known cities with specific cultural offerings showed a particularly impressive global reach. Foshan was hashtagged and seen around the globe for its colourful food, its traditional dance in lion costumes, Cantonese opera and Nanquan, a martial art.
Dongguan, Yantai and Zhongshan also made an unexpectedly strong showing thanks to their architecture, food, green spaces and festivals.
The report recommends that cities should build on this momentum with orchestrated and interactive campaigns that might, for example, leverage recent trends for live video and streaming to show cooking workshops, moving away from the reliance on text and images.
It also suggests drawing in opinion makers, influencers, media and organisations to present diverse aspects of a city in ways that will have maximum impact and create cultural bridges with the rest of the world, and to showcase the ways in which Chinese cities are becoming greener, for example, or more multilingual.
“China’s rapid urbanisation is well known around the world, but less well-known are the great steps taken to ensure that the growing cities are both economically productive and pleasantly livable,” says David Blair, an economist and former columnist for the China Daily. “Most Westerners have no idea of the high quality of life in China’s cities.”
Alistair Michie, secretary general of British East Asia Council, sees the report as a vital tool in boosting China’s reputation internationally. “As China rises in the world, then it becomes of paramount importance that there is deeper dialogue and understanding between China and all nations of the world.
That is why this initiative to support Chinese cities communicate more effectively with the world is so valuable.”
Experts from around the world commented on the report:
Alistair Michie, secretary general of British East Asia Council
“For over three decades I have studied communication both ways between China and the world. My motivation was the observation, as a non-Chinese person, that as China rises in the world, then it becomes of paramount importance that there is deeper dialogue and understanding between China and all nations of the world. That is why this initiative to support Chinese cities communicate more effectively with the world is so valuable.”
David Blair, an economist and former columnist for China Daily
“Most Westerners have no idea of the high quality of life in China’s cities. The widespread highly mistaken views that many foreigners have about the quality of life of most Chinese people is, unfortunately, a very dangerous issue for the future of the world. This report is a big step toward clearly understanding how this important mission is going.”
Evan Due, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Asian Research, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia
“In today’s world of global tension and disruption, the stories and reflections of China’s different cities need to be told to build international understanding. This report no doubt has special value in its final edited form for international readers who are interested in China’s urbanization and how different tiers of cities reflect opportunities in China.”
Harvey Dozing, Senior Consultant of the National Image Communication Research Center of Tsinghua University
“With the publication of this study, scholars, policymakers and interested others for whom it is valuable tool, can see just how far Chinese cities have come, and how far, and where, they still have to go in terms of city-branding and telling China’s story better. With so many incredible Chinese cities that have morphed from ugly ducklings to beautiful swans, the competition for attracting eyeballs in our attention economy can be brutal. The Report and List provide a rich source of data for “threading the needle” and suggest a way forward on the road to success.”
Tatiana Prazeres, former senior advisor to the Director General of the World Trade Organization and Secretary of Foreign Trade of Brazil
“It is probably fair to say that most foreigners still know very little about Chinese cities. At best, their knowledge is often limited to some big-name cities. Such limited knowledge represents however an opportunity. That “blank canvas” provides a chance for cities to influence their global perception in a more effective manner. With that, city-level officials are in a better position to align their international communication efforts with specific policy objectives. If it is important for Chinese cities to go global, a well-grounded methodology to assess the impact of their communication strategies is extremely useful. CCGCII offers a very good contribution to that effect.”
Edgar Perez, an international consultant affiliated with the Ponemon Institute, Gerson Lehrman Group and Guidepoint Global Advisors
“This Study provides a groundbreaking evaluation of global communications impact initiatives undertaken by one hundred Chinese cities. Each and all of the other cities included in the ranking can certainly identify cultural “mirrors” to enhance their communications efforts in light of the hypercompetitive scenario for global cities vying for the world’s attention. In this regard, the report’ scientific theoretical framework for studying communication strategies brings much needed guidance and clarity to city leaders in the mainland.”
Laurence Brahm, an international lawyer, political-economist, author and winner of many international film awards
“The success of China’s urban development lies in a combination of both planning and market. With China’s national policy of Ecological Civilization, cities are being overhauled to become ecological cities with infrastructure that is smart, green and blue. Unfortunately, the lack of communication to international audiences makes Chinese cities less known to the outside world. How to change the situation? This study helps to explore ways of improving Chinese cities’ image. The Report would be a guidance for foreigners who would like to travel or do business in China, and a tool for Chinese authorities to enlarge Chinese cities’ fame.”
Andy Mok, CGTN commentator on technology and geopolitics
“As cities throughout China seek to more fully realize the benefits of reform and increasing integration with the rest of the world, the creation and maintenance of an effective communications function is essential. An important first step involves the regular review of reports like this because they provide an independent and comprehensive comparison for Chinese cities so their efforts can be linked to objective results. However, while this report is necessary, it is only a first step.”
Wenshan Jia, Distinguished Professor of Communication at Shandong University and Dean of Global Engagement Academy Shandong University (Weihai)
“The report is well designed in terms of theoretical framework, construction of the cities’ international communication influence index, and research methodology. The use of big data and the scientific processing and interpretation of this report are also commendable. This makes the report highly credible in terms of its research outcomes. For me personally, the recommendation section of this report is the most valuable, providing very practical suggestions on how Chinese cities can enhance their international image in the new era. Finally, I suggest that Chinese cities can explore their unique resources sufficiently and develop an international exchange path that fits their characteristics.”
Ali Shirvani, Researcher at the Middle East Institute of Northwestern University (Xi'an)
“China has rendered a very successful and multidimensional model of keeping the Chinese identity and simultaneously turning international. This model is a potential need of other countries and cities to achieve through more effective communications with China's sample cities. Many countries and their capital cities seek to use such a model to keep their identities and go international. As a suggestion, Chinese top cities may use more active sisterhood and brotherhood communications with twin foreign cities and elaborate individual and regional connections, a broader picture to smoothly introduce a true Chinese global identity.”
To download the full report, click on the following link: euronews.com/download/CCGCII_EN.pdf
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