It has begun
This post is not arguing that the Chinese state is crumbling, that an economic collapse is imminent, or that China’s rise is over. To the contrary, the Chinese Party-state is very much in the driver’s seat. It is diligently monitoring developments in Chinese economy and society, intent at not overlooking any rocking of the state ship. This, however, comes at great costs to the internal security budget and China’s image abroad. I am purely looking at China’s attractiveness as a world power, model, and shaper of values and goodwill.
You may recall how many journalists and analysts hailed Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States in January — full of the trappings worthy of a wannabe world leader - as the most important Sino-US meeting in years. During the visit a state-orchestrated Chinese campaign designed to persuade Americans that China’s rise will be beneficial and peaceful was also launched. The “China experience” advertisement was displayed in New York City’s Times Square. It showcased Chinese achievements in sports, the business world and space research. Yet, it seems hard to convince Americans that China’s rise is a non-threatening enterprise. A January 2011 poll conducted by the Pew Institute puts China as the greatest threat to the United States—followed by North Korea and Iran.
If the mood vis-à-vis China is despondent in the USA, polling figures from the poorest part of the world seem upbeat. With the exception of perhaps South Africa and Zambia, in sub-Saharan Africa there is little need for Madison Avenue style billboards persuading ordinary people that China is good for them. In another Pew study from Spring 2010, 86 percent of informants in Kenya and 76 percent of those in Nigeria are favorably disposed to China. Could it be any different? According to the latest World Bank forecast, economic growth for Africa is projected at 5.3 percent in 2011. To some extent this growth is rooted in the Chinese industry’s buying of natural resources, investments, and loans coming from Chinese state owned banks and companies. Yet anecdotal evidence point to looming problems in Sino-African relations that may alter public opinion vis-à-vis China in Africa. And even if China will start to outsource manufacturing capacity to African countries that will contribute to more employment, better infrastructure, and higher living standards – I have doubts about the attractiveness of the Chinese way of life to Africans.
Building soft power
Soft power is a quite amorphous and scientifically somewhat vague concept. It’s become popular and easy to use by one and all. Basically it seems to be anything that’s is not military hard power. The inventor of the successful concept of soft power, Joseph Nye, thinks that China is doing the right thing for a rapidly rising power. It has to convince the outside world that it need to fear China’s rise, and direct the attention of others away from its growing hard power. However, it’s hard to build and difficult to implement as a policy within a system consisting of such diverse and contradictory interests as Chinese officialdom. How do you craft an entertainment industry like Hollywood and Bollywood , and a message industry such as Madison Avenue to serve your country and – your state — in a short time? Arguably, these cultural institutions take time to build, and they are usually more solid if they are organically constructed by the market, rather than by power hungry politicians. Cultural institutes such as the British Council, the Spanish Cervantes Institute, and China’s booming venture of Confucius institutes have, comparatively speaking, a marginal impact. Yet, policymakers and not so few analysts love the term – as it may lend some analytical credence and inspiration to their daily work. And as colleagues at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Linus Hagstrom, Johan Eriksson, Ludvig Norman have argued, soft power is both a political and a scientific concept. Nowadays, perhaps even more a political and popular culture concept. (1) It goes without saying that some policymakers, such as former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a true believer in hard power, don’t like it. Many Chinese analysts and policy-makers have embraced the concept wholeheartedly, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Chinese international relations experts are realists at heart. In recent years, Chinese academic journals have been flooded with articles analyzing China’s soft power. It fits just too well with building the image of China’s “peaceful rise” and China’s purported desire to build a “harmonious world.” In his speech to the 17th Communist Party Congress in 2007, President Hu Jintao mentioned that China needs to strengthen its soft power. One of China’s most renowned political scientists, Professor Yan Xuetong of Qinghua University, confidently wrote in an article in Contemporary International Relations (No.1, 2008) that China would surpass the United States in terms of its soft power in 3 to 5 years. It may seem ridiculous now, but it’s important to note that his argument was made during the US led “war on terror,” before the Lhasa riots in Tibet in 2008, the subsequent hard-line turn in Chinese domestic politics, and a more assertive posture in international relations.
The reasons for the collapse of Chinese soft power
What are the reasons undergirding the decline of Chinese soft power? I would like to suggest five fundamental reasons. There are quite a few sub-reasons. I am sure you can come up with a few of your own.
* A new Chinese assertiveness vis-à-vis neighbors Japan, South Korea, India, and ASEAN countries in its foreign policy behavior during 2010 indicated a new posture, or rather an older Chinese stance predating the previously skillful regional diplomacy of “good neighborliness.” With the statement that the South China Sea was a “core interest” area of China on par with Taiwan and Tibet, the good neighbor atmosphere deteriorated fast, prompting ASEAN countries so seek US support for their security arrangements – in the light of China’s potentially ”unpeaceful rise.” Needless to say, this new assertiveness of China has not gone unnoticed in other parts of the world.
* Few people are viewing China as their favorite country to escape or migrate to. Many students in developing countries appreciate the chance to study (if provided with scholarships) at Chinese universities. And many businessmen flock to Chinese Embassies to get visas, some settle down in China for longer periods of time. But for how many people around the world is China the number one country of choice to emigrate to, with an intention to integrate and become a Chinese citizen?
* Foreigners know that China’s political system is undemocratic and all sorts of power abuse and human rights atrocities are common. And contrary to some beliefs, these views are common in the developing countries of the global South as well. No soft power program in the world can cloak or positively defend the defects of the Chinese political system. Yet, even if these defects were ameliorated in earnest and rule of law was actually implemented beyond lofty Communist Party rhetoric, suspicion and disbelief would still linger.
* 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. Pouring money into Chinese equivalents to CNN and Al-Jazeera won’t help as long as these two pillars remain bottom-line for all reform initiatives. Moreover, the hardliners in the Chinese media system, especially in the Central Propaganda Department have marginalized the soft liners. This has led to a backlash against an at times visible trend toward more objective information, which is qualitatively different from raw propaganda.
* The stability-overrides-everything principle will eventually erode soft power among important elite groups inside China too. Foreign businesses, expats, Chinese scholars, domestic businesses, and young Internet users will complain that the Chinese government’s Internet censorship is going too far. Recently, the filtering of emails, SMS, and blocking of VPN-services used by many companies, foreigners, and Chinese academics to get around the Great Chinese firewall of censorship have become a huge irritant. The zero tolerance of any voices susceptible to political mobilization and organizing slows Internet connections and crucial information sharing between foreign and Chinese markets and people. And this in a period when Chinese social protest is not likely to erupt on a scale like that in North Africa and the Middle East.
Imagine the scope and crack-down if social protests and movements would get some serious momentum.
(1) Linus Hagström, ”Japanese soft power: A counter-narrative on Japan’s “demise”? Unpublished paper (2011). See also Johan Eriksson, and Ludvig Norman (2011) “Political utilisation of scholarly ideas: The ‘clash of civilisations’ vs. ‘soft power’ in US foreign policy,” Review of International Studies 37: 417–36. See also Mikael Weissmann who’s engaged in the project Chinese soft power diplomacy towards ASEAN: The impact on regional peace and security at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, http://bit.ly/dETqgD.