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Exploring the Limits of Chinese Public Diplomacy in Iran

From the moment protests erupted in Iran over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in mid-September, many countries around the world, including the United States and most of the European Union, have denounced Tehran’s “violent crackdown” against the demonstrators. China, by contrast, has taken a more neutral stance, describing Tehran’s harsh response to the ongoing protests as “a domestic issue” and criticizing international condemnation of the Islamic Republic’s actions as  “interventionist.”

Keeping Quiet

Iran and China have long enjoyed a symbiotic media relationship. Without fail, Tehran has openly supported Beijing on the issues of Taiwan and Hong Kong, while remaining tight-lipped about the plight of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. In return, China’s state-controlled media outlets have turned a blind eye to the current events in Iran, remaining almost entirely silent about the mass demonstrations as they enter their third month.

Under pressure from U.S. sanctions designed to isolate the country economically, Iran has actively pursued a “Look to the East” foreign policy in the hope of defusing economic threats from Washington and diversifying its global partnerships. To that effect, bilateral ties between China and Iran—specifically their political support for one another—have blossomed in recent years. Over the last decade, China has invested heavily in promoting its image in the Middle East. For its part, Iran has also tried to deepen its relationship with China; reports of academic and cultural exchanges, including a growing number of Iranians willing to learn Chinese or travel to China to study, demonstrates the renewed emphasis Tehran places on sharing knowledge and human capital with China. The expansion of Mandarin Chinese courses has led to speculation that Chinese could help in the government’s efforts to “break the monopoly of English” in Iranian education.

The Chinese language is currently taught at two of Iran’s universities, the University of Tehran and the University of Mazandaran in northern Iran, in cooperation with the Confucius Institute—a Chinese state-run nonprofit organization tasked with promoting Chinese language and culture abroad. In September, over 400 applicants took part in the Chinese Proficiency Test held at the University of Tehran. Chang Hua, China’s ambassador to Iran, in his Twitter account described the test as an indication of Mandarin’s growing appeal among the next generation of Iranians.

Aspects of Chinese culture have also seen a growing following within Iran. Kung fu is highly popular, with approximately 200,000 Iranians practicing the Chinese martial art. Additionally, Iranians are fans of East Asian dramas, especially those from Japan and South Korea. While Chinese shows have historically been less popular among Iranian audiences compared to those of Beijing’s East Asian rivals, China’s ambassador to Iran stated in 2020 that Beijing would explore making Chinese television programs available to the Iranian public free of charge.

Bad Trades Breed Resentment

Despite the ever-increasing economic and geopolitical ties between Beijing and Tehran and a growing number of academic and cultural exchanges, as well as near-daily statements by Iranian officials and media outlets portraying China as a “reliable and trustworthy” partner, the Iranian public’s opinion of China has remained unfavorable. Indeed, it appears that the governments’ mutual goodwill campaigns have done little to shift Iranians’ views of the People’s Republic.

For more than a decade, inexpensive and low-quality Chinese consumer goods—ranging from vehicles to homeware—have flooded Iranian markets, putting local manufacturers and artisans out of business. Although commerce with China has also brought significant economic benefits—the average Iranians can afford goods that they would not have been able to under an autarkic system—Iranian businessmen and consumers alike have voiced persistent complaints about unfavorable terms of trade, shoddy products, and broken promises made under the shadow of a crippling U.S. sanctions regime. While acknowledging China’s growing military and economic might, many Iranians have associated China with censorship, the violent suppression of dissents, and a set of exploitative and self-serving policies. Domestic critics of Beijing also note that the country sided with the United States and its European allies at the UN over the issue of Iran’s nuclear program between 2006 and 2010. Chinese companies have also been involved in exploitative development projects that have severely harmed Iran’s environment.

To evade U.S. sanctions, Iran has provided China with immense quantities of heavily discounted oil. Instead of providing hard cash, however, China has paid for Iranian oil through the provision of cheap consumer items. The lopsided nature of the exchange, rendered even less favorable as Iran struggles to maintain its foreign reserves amid unprecedented foreign economic pressure and the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, has not been lost on many Iranians.

Rather than addressing their own shortcomings, the Iranian and Chinese governments have preferred to blame “negative Western propaganda” for the Iranian public’s antagonism toward China. “I have to say that the element of Western negative propaganda is there,” said Mohammad Bagher Forough, an international relations expert and research fellow at the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies in Germany. “So the [Iranian] government is not inaccurate. There is an incredible media information campaign war against China that is being waged in the West… numerous media outlets are producing anti-China news all the time.”

A case in point, Forough argues, is the 25-year strategic cooperation agreement that Iran signed with China in 2021. Although Iran has not revealed the text of the agreement, which covers political, economic, and military matters, the conclusion of the deal received strong coverage by foreign media, including Persian-language outlets overseas. Fact-based reporting on the pact soon gave way to many unsubstantiated claims, including the argument that Tehran was “selling out the country and its people” to China. Despite these spurious arguments, these views gained traction in Iran and were widely shared by many Iranians on social media. The pact’s signing even led to street protests within Iran.

Failing to Counter the Narrative

At first glance, Chinese diplomats may seem to have an easy job delivering their desired message to the Iranian audience, as they have Iranian  state media, including dozens of news agencies and websites at their disposal. . The Iranian government’s official IRNA news agency among others, often amplifies Chinese perspectives. China’s ambassador frequently visits IRNA, and his statements and commentaries on different themes ranging from China’s foreign policy to bilateral relations are regularly conveyed to the Iranian public. However, the extent to which these platforms and public relations opportunities can sway the public is open to debate.

China’s ambassador, Chang Hua, addressed the difficulties both sides face during one of his routine visits to IRNA in August, where he expressed hope that the agency could help “defuse negative propaganda by Western media about bilateral cooperation between the two countries.” In the same vein, Forough blames the Iranian government’s failure to properly counter “negative propaganda” emanating from the West. “It is because of the Iranian government’s almost complete mismanagement and failure in the narrative battle,” he said, that the Iranian people distrust China. “Iran has lost the battle of narratives… the Iranian government’s media suffer from a lack of trust. Those who even follow news analysis and reports appearing on government media view them with suspicion. At the same time, many have turned to satellite news channels whose coverage is not necessarily friendly to Iran and China. This is hurting China.”

While anti-China sentiment among Iranians may be blamed in part on Western propaganda, Beijing must ask whether it has done enough to build a positive image of China among the Iranian people. Hongda Fan, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute at the Shanghai International Studies University, says, “At present, China’s Middle East diplomacy has come to a period of debate and possible changes…As for Iran specifically, I agree that the actual relationship between the two countries is far [worse] than the official propaganda. I think there is still a very big problem in the mutual understanding between the two countries.”

China’s ties to Iran still leave Beijing with much to be desired. Iran hosts only two branches of the Confucius Institute; by comparison, there are five in Pakistan, four in Turkey, and an impressive 21 in France. When it comes to academic exchanges, the situation is not much better. Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, China reportedly welcomed 492,185 foreign students in 2018, out of whom 317,200 were from Belt and Road Initiative countries. However, the share of Iranian students in the latter group remains meager. According to Iranian media, about 1,800 Iranian students study in China. Six times more Iranians study in the United States, and the Chinese government allocates only one scholarship fund to those interested to continue their studies at the post graduate levelthere.

The Perils of Pretending

In the past, Chinese diplomats tended to keep a lower profile and remain moderate in their interactions with the outside world. However, after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have become far more strident and assertive in their defense of the Chinese government. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, Beijing’s public image deteriorated, leading to a rise in anti-China sentiment worldwide including in Iran. Perhaps the behavior that attracted the most attention was the bitter exchange between Iran’s health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur and Chang Hua regarding COVID-19 data. The clash intensified frustration in Iran at China’s “cover-up” of the initial outbreak of the disease. Though the Iranian official was forced to issue an apology to the ambassador, China’s “misleading” COVID-19 data has left a lasting impact on the Iranian public.

Although Twitter and Facebook are among the social media platforms blocked in China and Iran, China’s ambassador to Iran has built a following of over 25,000 on Twitter—many of them fake, suspicious, or anonymous personas. The ambassador has often engaged with the accounts that post pro-China messages, though their names and profile photos belie their phony nature. The ambassador is also well-known among online users for allegedly blocking hundreds of users—among them celebrities, activists, and journalists—especially those who criticize his tweets or China in general. It deserves a mention that among Twitter accounts followed by the ambassador, there is no account from Iran’s reform camp or any other elements critical of the Iranian government. The ambassador, along with the Chinese embassy’s official Instagram account (launched in 2021), posts messages in Farsi, English, and Chinese. These include often purely rhetorical messages to blast the U.S. and Western “hypocrisy” as well as reports of mutual visits, exchanges between ruling conservative politicians and intellectuals, and reports of general cooperation between China and Iran.

China’s record shows that Beijing seems less concerned with human rights and domestic political issues of Middle Eastern countries including Iran than about developing economic relations with them. “Clearly, the Chinese embassy’s management of its official social network accounts speaks volumes about the disconnect between Beijing’s amateurish attempt to establish a public presence in the country and the prevalent sentiments of Iranian society,” says Jacopo Scita, a policy fellow at the Bourse and Bazaar Foundation in London. This overly cautious and nonpolitical approach among others has generated distrust of Chinese politicians. China’s social media presence has also come off as incredibly tone-deaf. During the widespread unrest stemming from the death of Mahsa Amini and subsequent internet blackouts throughout Iran, China’s ambassador has pretended it is business as usual; social media posts show Mr. Chang meeting officials and intellectuals.

One reason that China might not feel the need to prioritize investment in public diplomacy is that it already enjoys the full backing of the regime and state media in Tehran, effectively assuring it that negative views among the population cannot undermine its strategic goals in Iran.

“I believe [China’s struggle] can be mainly attributed to a lack of China’s interest in and ability to develop a functional and efficient public diplomacy strategy in Iran and a general prioritization of high politics over engaging the Iranian public,” Scita told the author. “On one side, this reflects the Chinese political elites’ limited knowledge of Iranian society and the scarce incentive to accelerate the learning path. On the other, Beijing is generally more comfortable dealing with high politics – a more predictable arena where they do not have to manage public discontent.”

Professor Fan appeared to agree. “China needs to recognize the political and social diversity of Iran, especially the diversity of Iranian society. If China doesn’t realize this and just works on a single group in Iran, I don’t think China’s diplomatic efforts will have good results,” Fan cautioned.

Given China’s huge investment commitments in Iran, Beijing must listen to the diverse perspectives offered by the Iranian people and engage more directly with them in a bid to repair its image and strengthen its standing among the citizenry. This struggle is likely to be an uphill battle for the Chinese soft power machine in the coming years.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist, researcher and media consultant based in Tehran. Formerly he was the chief editor and producer at PressTV website, the Iranian state-owned English news, and documentary network (2015-2019). He was also a political editor at the Financial Tribune (2014-2015) and the Tehran Times (2010-2014). Hashemi is an alumnus of the ‘Heinz- Kühn Foundation’ in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. His work and commentary have been featured in Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, the Middle East Eye, The Wire as well as Iranian media outlets, among others.

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