Tom Doctoroff is one of the industry’s top commentators on China, and has written a number of books on marketing to a country of a billion-plus people.

In this interview, the Asia Pacific CEO of JWT talks to Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks about how China is portrayed in the foreign press, the state of the country’s image and how brand China could be repositioned.

How would you say China is currently portrayed by the media overseas?

On the whole, the coverage is very negative, although the portrayal of China as a nation is mixed. There is admiration for the scale of China’s economic ambitions and its rise in prominence on the world stage, but Chinese people are presented as part of an uncivilised society. 

China is portrayed as a country where individual interests are not institutionally protected, where there is a lack of a reliable welfare net and where corruption is rife – all of which are rooted in a degree of truth.

However, what most Western media tends to overlook is the fact that that the structure of Chinese society is fundamentally different. The role of the individual in China is devoted to the clan. The individual does not exist independently to his or her obligations and responsibilities to other people. That means that the dedication and warmth that people express to those they know and love is not often seen in public.

Now the interesting thing is that if you ask most Chinese people, are Westerners are selfish, they’ll say yes. And they can point to, say, the high divorce rate and the break up of the family unit as proof – due to the lack of alignment in how those societies are structured.

China is a Confucian society. There’s a conflict between regimentation and rules, and the urge to surge. There’s a dragon in the heart of Chinese people, and the aggressiveness you see manifests itself in an uncivil headline.

Why is it that Chinese people are portrayed just as badly – or worse – in the Hong Kong or Singaporean press, where the majority of people are ethnically Chinese, as in the Western press?

It could be Freud’s reaction formation, where we see certain things in ourselves that we are afraid of, and exhibit aggression towards those things – there, but for the grace of God, go I.
But all of the elements of aggressiveness and a lack of civic institution exist in all modern incarnations of modern China, from Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan to Chinatown in San Francisco. These cultures are not necessarily becoming more Western. None have a Western bottom-up sense of democracy, and still have a very patriarchal view of society.

How would you describe the state of brand China right now?

Very weak. No matter where you go in the world, there is not a lot of affection for China. There is a growing sense of fear and suspicion. This is something that the government, in whatever corner office the tourist bureau works from, can never get its head around.

People go to China because of its history and to be part of an incredible growth story. But overall the desire to visit China is weak. There is a general perception that China is grey; it is not a warm, welcoming place, and it is depersonalised. The Chinese people, so foreigners often think, are robots. The heart of the Chinese people never comes through in media coverage.

There is also the perception that China is very aggressive in advancing its interests at any cost, that it has big operatic ambitions without taking any delight in detail. But nonetheless, there is the sense among foreigners that China is exciting and dynamic.

What is China doing to change the perception of itself?

Not much. I would suspect that efforts are at best minor and fractionated, but that’s the way it is. The communist government views itself as legitmate in being patriarchal – that it has a divine mandate to forge order from chaos, and this exists on plane above the people. So in order for decision makers to take a consumer driven view of the China experience, they need to shift the mindset. But it’s difficult, and could go against how the Chinese view themselves. I could think of a strategy, but it’s not something that could come out of the machine.

If you had a brief to rebrand China, what would you do?

The drama of China is about the presentness of the past. China has a glorious history that is rich and multifaceted. China has to be positioned with its heritage in the future, rather than trapped in the past. The humour, the liveliness, the joy of China - flowers scatted on a concrete field. That’s the story of the country that needs to be told. I would definitely avoid dragon dancing!

How is the perception among foreigners affecting the fortunes of Chinese brands overseas?

Of course, it hurts them. But in reality there are very few Chinese brands overseas right now. And I think they’re not succeeding abroad because they’re not ready to succeed.

Chinese brands taking over the world is a Western fixation – and it’s not true. They’re not ready to flourish, at least not at a price premium. Chinese brands are distributed widely in developing economies, where their basic value is sound and they are seen as trustworthy. But that perception does not exist in the West yet.

How do you feel the perception of China has changed in recent years?

It’s gone from negative to equally negative – country bumpkin to ruthless dragon.
In Hong Kong, mainland Chinese have been referred to as locusts, and it will be a long time before that perception turns positive.

Don’t get me wrong. Most Hong Kong people are very proud of their Chineseness. There is a genuine love and affinity for Chinese culture and society – just not as a geo-political entity.

China will evolve, but only slowly. For at least another two-three decades China will continue to be an emerging economy. And only once China has cemented its position as a modern country with a modern economy, will the bias against mainland Chinese start to reverse.