Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

China’s image: Softly softly does it [Straits Times]


Here’s a concise article detailing some of the reach of Chinese global mindshare today. Chinese public diplomacy (公共外交)  has been an area of interest for a while now. As a media student it is always intriguing to see just how far ideas can be implanted in people’s minds without the need for the primacy of first-hand experience.

Whilst the idea of soft power is a relatively new term coined by Joseph Nye, I think the Chinese have always been good at power projection without the need for military might. It is not an idea new to them.

Their tributary systems of old allowed them to extend their empires around Asia by means of having smaller kingdoms pay homage to the elaborate image of a more advanced civilization. They are simply updating their reach by mastering new media using existing cultural capital spanning millennia of recorded history. I am intrigued by this ‘new’ idea of smart power this article suggests – more reading to do!

Also extremely pertinent – ‘China’s ‘smile diplomacy’ might resonate more [with its own people] if it clamped down on abuses of power by local governments’. After all, nothing beats the primacy of word of mouth from the very people who live in China.

– – –

China’s image: Softly softly does it
Source – Straits Times, published February 12, 2011

FRESH from a bid to woo Americans with Chinese soft power during President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the United States, Beijing has unveiled a 17-minute film chronicling the country’s development, traditions and its people. This is all to the good. In recent years, China’s leaders have come to realise that, like other major powers, the country needs to get its own message out to secure its share of good press and positive perceptions. And China has a lot to offer in this area. The 2008 Beijing Olympics and last year’s Shanghai World Expo were showpieces of China’s arrival on the global stage. Currently, there are close to 300 Confucius Institutes in 88 countries, disseminating Chinese culture around the world.

But arguably, the film is as much about producing positives as nullifying some negatives. In 2004, China observer David Shambaugh said the country was a good neighbour and constructive partner. In the past year, however, Chinese assertiveness over territorial disputes with Japan and some Asean countries has fuelled widespread concerns over its rise. In a Pew Global Attitudes Project poll last year, only a third of respondents from South Korea and India viewed China favourably. A Malaysian journalist put it succinctly at a Beijing press conference: On the one hand, Asians stand in awe of Beijing’s cultural heritage and the intrinsic magnetism of its economy; and on the other, China’s growing muscularity evokes a different set of emotions altogether.

There is also a fine line between projecting soft power and propaganda. Xinhua calls the film a part of the country’s ‘public diplomacy campaign’. But sceptics were quick to point out that the film’s feel-good factor largely focuses on people who have benefited directly from three decades of economic reform. In the long run, China’s ‘smile diplomacy’ might resonate more if it clamped down on abuses of power by local governments.

It is worth stressing that no one should have a quibble about China’s military development. China needs to amass the military assets appropriate for defending its expanding sphere of influence. But it needs to do better at explaining the whys and wherefores of such development, especially since it has caused worry across the region. As the veteran Singaporean diplomat Tommy Koh notes, the world expects Beijing to carry a greater global burden, since it has benefited enormously from the rules-based international system.

It is early days yet, but China too will learn that ‘smart power’ – as Joseph Nye, the Harvard University creator of the concept of ‘soft power’, puts it – consists of the effective combination of both hard and soft power.

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Filed under: Beijing Consensus, Chinese Model, Communications, Influence, International Relations, Mapping Feelings, Nationalism, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Soft Power, Strategy, The Chinese Identity, The construction of Chinese and Non-Chinese identities

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