Category Archives: soft power

“China’s Real Soft Power: Chen Guangcheng”

Chen Guangcheng addressed the Council on Foreign Relations this morning, leading to this CFR blog post:

In his moving and often profound commentary on May 31 here at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chen revealed himself as an optimist and a Chinese patriot: optimistic about his own future and ability to travel back and forth between China and the rest of the world; optimistic about the inherent goodness of the Chinese people, who want to do the right thing; and optimistic that democracy—in one form or another—will emerge sooner rather than later in China.

Of course, part of Chen’s story underscores the dark side of contemporary Chinese political life: the extreme and pervasive levels of corruption and violence—who knew that a senior Shandong official blew up his mistress of thirteen years with a remote-control bomb?—the continued threats to the safety and well-being of Chen’s own family members who remain in China, and the utter system of lawlessness that pervades the local system of governance. Yet, Chen, in his remarks, never wavered in his belief that time was on the side of right.

For the most part, however, Chen, like many Chinese and outside observers, recognizes that change in China will be fundamentally a function of the Chinese people—the path they choose, and the steps they take. And here too, he is an optimist, noting that the ability of the Chinese people to disseminate information means that change will come quickly.

In the end, Chen accomplished in an hour of free speech what the billions of dollars behind China’s go-out media strategy have never achieved: a balanced and nuanced portrayal of this complex country that left his audience with not only a better understanding of China but also a greater admiration for the Chinese people themselves. Now it is just up to Beijing to live up to Chen’s faith.

Exactly right- although foreigners can play a supporting role for pro-reform forces in China, ultimately the move will have to be made by the Chinese themselves.

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“Confucius Institutes are not about Confucius”

If anyone is qualified to make that argument, it’s The Useless Tree. Following news that a number of CI scholars will need to leave the US to reapply for correct visas, The Useless Tree looks at exactly what the CI is, and why the Global Times editorials on the subject are nonsense:

They are not about Confucius. Rather, the PRC government has chosen to use the name of Confucius as a trademark of sorts for a global soft power branding project. The Institutes, most of which in the US are hosted by colleges or universities, focus on language learning, with a variety of other cultural activities: Lunar New Year parties: calligraphy; a little Peking Opera; etc. As far as I can tell – and I have been in conversation with many US academics who have CIs on their campuses (my college does not have one) – there is no systematic effort to engage with Confucian thought in any serious manner.

Indeed, I find no direct reference to Confucius the man and thinker on their English language web page; though there is a little video on Hai Rui, an upright bureaucrat from the Ming Dynasty (no mention is made of the fact that his story was central to the initiation of the Cultural Revolution in 1966). The Confucian-killer Qin Shihuangdi seems to get more attention there than Confucius himself. Bottom line: CIs are not the place to go if you want to learn about Confucianism.

And there are ironies here. The Chinese Communist Party, born of the anti-Confucian radicalism of the May 4th period and vehemently anti-Confucian up through the 1970s, is now reaching for The Master as a happy, avuncular image to adorn a most un-Confucian authoritarian-capitalist modernity.

In any event, to get back to the recent controversy…

About a week ago the US government issued a policy directive indicating that the visas for some Chinese nationals working at Confucius Institutes in the US might be invalid. The directive is specific and narrowly drawn: the issue involves Chinese nationals whose visa is sponsored by a college and university who then go on to teach in elementary or high schools. It is not an assault on CIs generally. Rather, it is an action to implement existing visa limitations that attached to foreign nationals at college and universities.

There is, however, a long-standing critique of CIs in the US, but is not so much a matter of cultural anxiety as it is a political question. CIs are CCP-sponsored institutions and their mission is to support the soft power of the PRC. The money that flows from the PRC to finance CIs has certain strings attached to it. You will not find an open debate about current political issues in Tibet or Xinjiang being sponsored by CIs. We all know that. The worry is that the political agenda expands further to limit academic freedom. US colleges and universities are very defensive about academic freedom. We don’t like political limitations on academic inquiry. And CIs naturally raise those questions. We should ask those questions and work to ensure that CIs do not violate academic freedom.

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“Rigid thinking beggars China’s soft power”

David Bandurski at CMP has another take on the high-profile collapse of the Chinese soft power push:

Like the last wave of populist anti-Western sentiment to hit China back in 2008 (remember the “Cafferty Affair” and the controversy over the Olympic torch relay?), these recent remarks — including a number of editorials in state media — stem from a foundational sense of victimization at the hands of the West. And Western media, once again, are bearing the brunt of the attack.

This root sense of victimization is enforced in China through education and propaganda, for Party leaders an important part of building and maintaining legitimacy.

Since Chinese President Hu Jintao defined “soft power” development as a key national strategy in his political report to the 17th Party Congress in 2007 — and outlined the media “going out” strategy more explicitly in his June 2008 speech at People’s Daily — China has spent billions of dollars expanding its global “transmission capacity.” The basic premise: China is in the midst of a zero-sum “global struggle for public opinion”, and in order to grab its share, it must beef up its soft power arsenal. Otherwise, it will continue to be “victimized” by Western media.

It’s a soft power push conceived in the hardest of terms. Which also means, of course, that it’s a hard sell.

China has expanded and re-outfitted Xinhua News Agency bureaus worldwide, launched multi-language editions of China Daily as well as an English-language edition of the Global Times, linked to the Party’s official People’s Daily. And this year it launched CCTV America, a 24-hour international news channel broadcasting from Washington.

And yet today, almost exactly four years on from Hu Jintao’s June 2008 speech that offered his boldest strategic response to China’s international media woes, it seems China has little “soft power” to show for its global media deployments.

In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who introduced the idea of soft power to the world, said that China was “once again torpedoing its soft-power campaign” by failing to protect basic rights, and by strangling the emergence of a vital civil society that would otherwise showcase diverse, creative and attractive voices. “No amount of propaganda can hide the fact that blind human rights attorney Chen Guangcheng recently sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing,” Nye wrote.

Chinese strategizers have conceived of China’s soft power deficit as the country’s “third affliction,” the idea being that while China is now economically and militarily strong (having thrown those afflictions off) it is still demonized by a hateful West.

In fact, the narrative of victimization is itself one of the root maladies from which China’s soft power campaign suffers. The ideological conviction that Western media and culture must be the tools of Western political power blinds the pundits of Chinese soft power to the very mechanisms by which credibility and attractiveness are created.

The most salient symbol of China’s official failure to grasp the game rules of soft power and credibility is in fact Melissa Chan, the Al Jazeera correspondent China sent packing earlier this month.

By ejecting Chan and forcing the closure of Al Jazeera’s Beijing bureau, China has effectively admitted the impoverishment of its hopes of building a credible international news channel. Whatever its ambitions may be, it is determined to control the “voice” of China — as though it were not the product of the full complexity of China’s culture and ideas, but rather a megaphone to shout over the heads of international audiences.

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“China Soft-Power Watch: the Yang Rui ‘Foreign Bitch’ Factor”

It’s hard to even explain how ridiculous this story is to someone who hasn’t spent hours in China watching Dialogue, perhaps the closest thing to a functional news discussion show the entire country has. It’s in English, which means the government cares less about it, and foreign guests are (relatively) free to challenge the government line on the issues of the day. Yang Rui is the host, a cultured-sounding guy who looks quite reasonable compared to the average CCTV on-air employee. After this rant, however, it’s hard to imagine him getting many self-respecting foreign guests in the future:

The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can’t find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West. We kicked out that foreign bitch and closed Al-Jazeera’s Beijing bureau. We should shut up those who demonize China and send them packing.

The ‘foreign bitch’ in this case is Melissa Chan, whose expulsion from China is one of the saddest stories for Chinese journalism in recent memory. Maybe Yang is just mad that a foreigner of Chinese ancestry and appearance has contributed far more to Chinese journalism than he ever will? James Fallows on the incident:

Many foreigners who have been on the show know the experience I had during my few appearances, early in my time in China. When you’re on the set before the show begins, there is a lot of light and non-dogmatic chat with the hosts and the other guest(s). But once the show begins, the tone often shifts, with an opening question from the host on the lines of: “To our guest James Fallows, I must ask: do you not agree that the United States is being unfair and unreasonable in the demands it is making of the Chinese government? Especially considering its many failures at home and its relative decline in standing in the world?” Then once the show is over, it’s light, easy, non-agitprop chat again.

The first time this happened to me, I was startled. But as soon as I thought about it I realized: this is the tightrope you walk inside a state-controlled news network. To the show’s credit, it allows the foreigners to reply in kind and and to challenge the terms of the question. And often it broadcasts the show live, with limited real-time control on what a guest might say. (On the other hand, since it’s in English, the audience inside China is limited.) I was on the show three or four times, usually during US-China meetings or controversies. I found the whole experience educational, as part of my ongoing “this is China” immersion, but eventually I decided this was not a sensible venue for me. I know that many foreigners in China have considered doing anthropological studies, or satiric novels, about the kind of “foreign experts” that CCTV is most comfortable having as frequent return visitors on the show.

On his Sina Weibo account, Dialogue host Yang Rui let loose with an anti-foreigner rant so extreme that on first reading I was sure it had to be a parody. Only it wasn’t. It’s as if you heard a Stephen Colbert “in character” riff on his show — and then suddenly realized he wasn’t kidding. To put it further in context, it’s as if a well-known figure whose trademark was urbane earnestness — again let’s say Ted Koppel, or Charlie Rose — let rip with a David Duke-style diatribe and evidently meant it.

Again, I thought at first this was an urbane Chinese cosmopolite, mocking nativist Chinese attitudes, Colbert-style. That it was serious is … worth reflection.

This is the man whose face China is using to present itself to the world… a virulent anti-foreigner racist? Cool! This whole thing is a soft-power train wreck.

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“What Is the Chinese Dream?”

A nice read from James Fallows:

When I first arrived in China, I wrote the one and only “I’ve just arrived, and here is what I’m wondering” article that journalistic convention permits each writer on first immersion in a country. Among the questions I said I wanted to answer was, What is the Chinese dream?

Nearly six years later, I realize that it’s a silly or meaningless question, since for the foreseeable future the country’s ambitions will be fully satisfied by allowing hundreds of millions of people to realize their individual and family dreams. Grandparents who can live in reasonable health and security to an old age? Great. Students whose education makes the most of their abilities and who have the chance to do their best around the world? Better still. After China’s centuries of seeming to move backward as a society and its more recent decades of tragedy and turmoil, the simple bourgeois comforts are much of what the modern Chinese miracle could and should provide.

At an individual level, and as an accumulation of daily interactions over the years, my experience is of the great permeability of Chinese culture. People are easy to meet, to get to know, to laugh or argue with. And in its vastness, today’s China contains people who belong to a variety of universalist faiths, including Islam, Christianity, Baha’i, and Buddhism. But in its international dealings as well as in most of its domestic operations, today’s China gives more weight to duties and ethics based on personal relations than on abstract principles of how people in general should be treated. It is too pat to put the ethical system the way one Chinese friend did: “Everything for my family and friends; nothing for anyone else.” But a variant of these sentiments goes through many aspects of Chinese life.

Early in my stay in Shanghai I was amused to see that the first occupant of an elevator would instantly push the “close door” button. Then, for a while, I was annoyed; ultimately I acclimated. When my wife and I had been away from China for several months and returned for a stay, my wife saw a charming young boy walking with his mother on a street in a little enclosed neighborhood. He was eating a bag of potato chips.

As the boy finished the last chip, he simply let the bag drop from his hand, onto the sidewalk in his neighborhood. His mother briefly glanced over to see the bag’s fall and kept on walking and talking with her son about something else. The instant seemed not to register, since the sidewalk where their bag sat was in no sense “theirs.” Of course, moments like this happen all around the world. At that moment in China it struck me as an illustration of the reality that the consciousness of a “general” public interest is underdeveloped, compared with interest that affects individual families in the here and now — and the country relative to other parts of the world.

From the Chinese government’s point of view, soft power has so far boiled down to using money to win other people’s goodwill or acquiescence. Chinese-built roads in Africa and Latin America; Chinese investment and interaction in Europe and the United States. The public-opinion elements of the soft-power campaign have often backfired, since they have been crudely propagandistic in the fashion of the government’s internal news management.

Even before the bad publicity China suffered with the jailing of Liu Xiaobo and the Jasmine crackdowns, a scholar from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Johan Lagerkvist, argued that China would likely lose more and more international support unless the government fundamentally reconceived its connections with the rest of the world. “China’s internal stability/security and survival of the Communist Party will always be more important to China’s leaders than the image it projects for outside consumption,” he contended. A choice between maintaining domestic order and pleasing outside critics was no choice at all.

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“China’s Soft Power Mission”

RealClearWorld weighs in on why Hong Kongers have been drifting away from Chinese identity:

To understand why Hong Kong seems so resistant to China’s charms, Beijing could perhaps examine its own behavior. Last August, when Vice Premier Li Keqiang visited the University of Hong Kong, he was seated in the chancellor’s chair although he was a guest. Three students who attempted to approach him were thrown to the ground by the police. The furor that followed overshadowed Li’s attempts at promoting economic development.

Chung insisted that the polling was an academic exercise unrelated to politics and refused to be drawn into a debate with his critics, citing “Cultural Revolution-style curses and defamations.”

One commentator, Song Sio-chong, wrote in the China Daily that the results of the survey were unreliable, undesirable and dangerous. “Such a distorted survey should not enjoy the so-called academic freedom,” he concluded. “If the public interest is paramount, then academic nonsense is not sacrosanct.”

In the face of this onslaught against academic freedom, part and parcel of Hong Kong’s core values, the Hong Kong government must tread a fine line. Raymond Tam, secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, denied interference by Beijing, saying that “anyone can give opinions on various matters,” as if Beijing’s spokesman in Hong Kong was just another individual whose freedom of speech needs to be protected.

Tam went on to say that academic freedom is protected by the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and “is an important social value treasured by Hong Kong.” The government, he said, has been striving to maintain an environment “so that academics can conduct academic activities, such as research and survey, uninhibited.”

To strengthen patriotic sentiment in Hong Kong, Beijing has urged the introduction of “national education” into the curriculum. Hao, the Chinese official, blandly accepted that this was tantamount to brainwashing, but said it was something that all countries do

Based on the impact of patriotic education in Tibet, I can’t imagine Hong Kong would really be drawn any closer by that, and might actually get pushed farther away.

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“Why China Is Weak on Soft Power”

Joseph Nye, the man behind the term ‘soft power,’ explains why China just can’t seem to build any in an NYT piece here. His conclusion:

But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment. A recent BBC poll shows that opinions of China’s influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, but predominantly negative in the United States and Europe, as well as in India, Japan and South Korea. A poll taken in Asia after the Beijing Olympics found that China’s charm offensive had been ineffective.

What China seems not to appreciate is that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities.

The 2008 Olympics were a success, but shortly afterwards, China’s domestic crackdown in Tibet and Xianjiang, and on human rights activists, undercut its soft power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but was followed by the jailing of the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and the artist Ai Weiwei. And for all the efforts to turn Xinhua and China Central Television into competitors for CNN and the BBC, there is little international audience for brittle propaganda.

Now, in the aftermath of the Middle East revolutions, China is clamping down on the Internet and jailing human rights lawyers, once again torpedoing its soft power campaign.

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Filed under culture, propaganda, soft power