The Beijing skyline. SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons.

Over the past two years, China’s central government has pressed provinces and cities to join the national push for more effective external propaganda, which it sees as essential to building the country’s international soft power. This week, it unveiled one of the first mechanisms to measure and track progress on this strategic goal — an annual ranking to measure the relative success of cities in building their image abroad. 

The “China Cities International Influence Report 2023” (中国城市国际传播影响力报告),  announced on Monday, claims to take a global perspective, “synthesizing media reports and internet user responses” to determine how effective various Chinese cities have been in communicating internationally. It was jointly created by a think-tank affiliated by the official China Daily newspaper, under the State Council, and the journalism and communication departments of both Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

In practice, researchers compiling the report seem to have taken a relatively basic measure of presence across traditional media, internet and social media. How often are cities mentioned in mainstream news reports outside China? How often do social media users mention a given city in comments, and how often are these liked or shared? The result is predictable. Beijing and Shanghai top the rankings, with Hangzhou and Shenzhen following in the third and fourth places. 

If there is any surprise in the report, it might be that Chongqing, China’s most populous city and a leader of inland commerce, just manages to make the Top Ten. The municipality has been one of the most active in pushing its image and that of China externally through its Chongqing International Communication Center (重庆国际传播中心), which operates the external communication platform iChongqing.

Chongqing was one of the earliest out of the gate with an “international communication center,” or ICC, putting out a call for foreign talent in February 2021 — months before Xi Jinping’s address to a collective session of the CCP Politburo that was meant to recalibrate China’s approach to external propaganda. 

China’s provincial and city-level international communication centers, or ICCs, are spearheading efforts promoted by the leadership since 2018 — but accelerating since the May 2021 Politburo session — to “innovate” foreign-directed propaganda under a new province-focused strategy. This allows the leadership to capitalize on the resources of powerful commercial media groups at the provincial level, and also to take advantage of richer story resources — as Xi Jinping has made “telling China’s story well” the heart of the country’s external push for propaganda and soft power. 

To date, provincial-level ICCs have been established in 26 provinces and municipalities across China, and the number of city-level ICCs is steadily rising. 

Your Partner, China Daily

The involvement of the China Daily in the new ranking procedure is another feature of how the ICC push has unfolded. As the Chinese government’s flagship external media outlet, published through the State Council Information Office — the same office as the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department — China Daily is a critical and well-funded layer of the country’s international communication array. It seems to be serving as a media partner for many newly-created ICCs, particularly at the city level, where there may be less media savvy, and fewer resources, to handle external communication. 

As the local Weifang Bohai International Communication Center (潍坊渤海国际传播中心) was launched late last month in Shandong province, China Daily took part in the launch ceremony as a partner, and signed a related framework agreement with the propaganda office of Weifang city. The media group has also signed such framework agreements for international communication with various official think-tanks and cultural institutions, suggesting that it is being tasked with directing broader external propaganda efforts — and is perhaps also capitalizing commercially on this policy from the top. 

In May last year, China Daily signed a similar agreement with the city of Wuhan and its Changjiang International Communication Center (CICC), which involved working closely with the city’s state-run Wuhan Media Group (武汉广播电视台), which administers the ICC under the local propaganda office, on various external promotion activities, including an account called “Wuhan Plus,” which has a special sub-domain on the China Daily website.

The social media brand currently has 2 million followers on Facebook,  more than 2,000 subscribers on YouTube, and more than 43,000 followers on Twitter. None of these accounts are labeled as being state-affiliated. 

As the annual city influence rankings were released this week, Wuhan came in right at the middle of the Top 10, at number five. The website of the city government quickly pounced on the news as a point that needed publicizing: "Number Five! Wuhan Makes the List of Internationally Influential Chinese Cities," read the enthusiastic headline.

David Bandurski

CMP Director

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