“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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