Triumphalism and the Inconvenient Truth: Correcting Inflated National Self-Images in a Rising Power

Collective narcissism is a common and well-documented phenomenon, and given the Chinese Communist Party’s strong control of public messaging and discourse, it should come as no surprise that the vast majority of the Chinese public overestimates their nation’s popularity worldwide. The Chinese media selectively publishes international news stories that reflect positively on China; the few foreign social media influencers popular on Chinese social media constantly praise life and their sense of freedom living in China; and the nation’s most popular documentary, “Bravo, My Country!” casts China as a global beneficiary. But there is a mismatch. According to an international survey by Pew in 2020, 73% percent of global respondents had a negative perception of China. These misperceptions about national image can be dangerous, intensifying international conflict or even leading to wars. Dr. Haifeng Huang, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Merced, posits in his paper “Triumphalism and the Inconvenient Truth: Correcting Inflated National Self-Images in a Rising Power” that these misconceptions can be remedied at least in part by simply telling those affected the true figures.

In order to investigate this issue, Dr. Huang conducted two surveys with a total sample size of 5000 respondents. These surveys asked Chinese participants to estimate the results of previous international surveys on topics such as the percent of Taiwanese or Hongkongers favoring Chinese reunification, international approval of Chinese executive leadership, and the average IMBD rating of the domestic hit documentary “Bravo, My Country!” In each case, the actual result of the original, international surveys showed unfavorable responses, but the Chinese respondents to Dr. Huang’s surveys tended to estimate favorable ones. 97.5% of Dr. Huang’s respondents overestimated China’s global popularity on average, and 61.2% of his respondents overestimated it in all 6 of his questions. In short, Dr. Huang’s survey confirmed that the Chinese public does have an inflated image of China’s reputation world-wide.

Upon completing the survey, respondents were randomly assigned to a treatment group or a control group, and those in the treatment group were shown the real-life results of the surveys they were asked to estimate. All respondents in both groups were then asked to answer a series of outlook questions. These questions regarded both an internal outlook for China (Are you satisfied with China’s current situation? Do you trust the government? Is the Chinese model of governance worth emulating?) as well as an external outlook (Do you think the Belt and Road initiative is good for the world? Do you think China can reunify?). Those in the treatment group had a slim but significantly less positive outlook on these questions. Dr. Huang then conducted a second-wave study two to three weeks later consisting of the same estimation questions, along with two new questions. Those who were in the original treatment group still tended to overestimate global opinions, including on the new questions, but to a much lesser degree than those in the control group.

Dr. Huang’s research builds on existing theories in international relations: while it has been long known that incorrect national images can instigate conflict, we now have micro-level data about how these beliefs can arise and perhaps how they might be corrected. These beliefs arise when information is only selectively accessible to the public, and therefore misrepresents the truth. Furthermore, this information is easy to believe in authoritarian nation that legitimately is a rising power. Yet, when people who have formed these inaccurate beliefs are shown accurate and credible data, their perceptions can durably change at least somewhat to better reflect reality. While it remains to be seen if the Chinese Communist Party will loosen its control on media and discourse, it may be wise to do it sooner rather than later. In Dr. Huang’s eyes, the nation has blinded itself by prematurely announcing its rise, and this blinding may prove dangerous.

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