China's ascendance in global politics and economy has heightened the interest of the mass media and the general public toward the country. Perceptions about China have fluctuated over the years and between the countries. In 2005, a BBC World Service survey of public opinion about China revealed that the respondents in most of the 22 polled countries viewed China's global presence and its economic power positively (Program on International Policy Attitude 2005). At the same time, China's growing military might was perceived negatively by 59% of the respondents. It is interesting to note that the younger respondents or those between 18 and 29 years old had more positive perceptions about the country compared to the older people.
A more recent poll conducted in 2011 registered a shift in public opinion (BBC 2011). The negative perceptions about China became stronger. However, the attitudes varied across the continents. The respondents in African and Latin American countries held the most positive perceptions about China. While there is no poll data available about the Malaysians' sentiments, the respondents in the polled Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, had strongly positive views about China.
The Chinese government realizes the need for an improved international image of the country in order to match it with China's increasing economic and political influence in the world. In recent years China has organized and hosted several high profile international events, such as the Olympic Games in 2008 and the World Expo in 2010. Simultaneously, the government has intensified its efforts to promote Chinese culture and language abroad through setting up and financing the Confucius Institutes. Currently, there are more than 300 Confucius Institutes all over the world, including one in Malaysia (Xinhua News Agency 2010). Several researchers have described these efforts as China's aspiration to enhance and exercise its 'soft power' (Ding and Saunders 2006, Hartig 2012, Huang and Ding 2006, Li and Worm 2011, Zhao and Huang 2010). 'Soft power' is a concept developed by Joseph Nye (1990) and it refers to the ability of a country to use its attraction rather than coercion to influence other countries' policies in order to achieve the desired results. Cultural attractiveness is regarded as one of the important elements in the concept of 'soft power'.
The efforts by authorities to enhance a country's soft power can be supported or thwarted by several factors that may influence people's perceptions about that country. Among them scholars recognize the socio-political climate, the economic situation, the mass media and popular culture (Bal-Tar 1997, Ding and Saunders 2006, Realo et al. 2009). For example, Bersick (2010) has noted that the German mass media perpetuates the negative and outdated stereotypes about China. He attributes this to the feelings of uncertainty over the future implications of the rise of China, especially in the wealthier countries. A study of the American mass media's coverage of China by Stepchenkova, Kirilenko and Morrison (2006) revealed that economic issues occupied the most prominent place. The researchers noted that a significant attention was given to the topics related to China's economic growth, the issues of technology transfer as well as to the cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries. The coverage of these topics in the American mass media was predominantly positive. On the other hand, the negative tone dominated in the articles devoted to the issues of human rights and politics in China. At the same time, the journalists and the political analysts held a neutral position while discussing China's Asian politics, the Chinese government and the country's labour market (Stepchenkova, Kirilenko and Morrison 2006).
As Huang and Ding (2006:24) have noted, assessing the effectiveness of soft power can be a 'tricky enterprise' due to the intangible qualities of culture and other aspects that constitute soft power. …