China Plays Hardball with Soft Power

Out with strongman Mao and in with svelte-suited diplomats and film personalities: Chinese leaders have learned the value of a warm smile and firm handshake

BY Jehangir Pocha

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Pirated translations of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People are available on most Chinese street corners, and it would appear Chinese Communist Party officials have picked up a few copies. Maoist China used to assert itself on the world stage by exporting revolution, waging wars, funding insurgents and broadcasting subversive propaganda across Asia. But today’s Chinese leaders have learned the value of a warm smile and firm handshake. Since “We couldn’t beat ‘em, let’s charm ‘em” appears to be Beijing’s new dictum, China’s new global ambassadors are not chiseled-faced “Red Guards” in fatigues, but svelte-suited diplomats, film personalities such as Wong Kar Wai and the amply bosomed Gong Li, designers such as Vivienne Tam, intellectuals such as Ha Jin, and billionaire businessmen.

This is partly natural. As China has opened its door and mind to the world, the once-stifled economic and artistic creativity of this ancient nation has grabbed the attention of people all over the world. But as Joshua Kurlantzick outlines in his disarmingly easy-to-read new book, Charm Offensive, the rollout of this new “China chic” has been as carefully choreographed by the Chinese government as a big-ticket Hollywood premiere. Beijing’s goal: the acquisition of what Harvard professor Joseph Nye, Jr. calls “soft power,” i.e. the influence a nation enjoys when its culture and ways become admired by others.

I studied under Nye in 1999 and he was already of the opinion that China and India would be the new “soft superpowers.” But even Nye must be surprised at how aggressively Beijing has moved. China’s motley soft power campaigners are aggressively traversing the developing world, offering to grow trade ties, build roads, schools and hospitals, mostly in a bid to gain access to much-needed raw materials and win friends at the United Nations. The campaigner’s first ports of call are usually capitals alienated or ignored by the Washington–places such as Iran, Sudan and Burma, where the Chinese eagerly take up the great power space once occupied by the United States. One of the most literal examples that Kurlantzick outlines in his book is Songkhla City in Thailand, a country currently out of favor with Washington because it is under military rule. There, the erstwhile American consulate has been taken over by a Chinese economic agency. In other countries such as France, India and Brazil, the Chinese attempt to create positive perceptions by setting up Mandarin language institutions and even Buddhist study centers, a particularly intriguing tactic since China remains officially atheist.

Over the four years I spent in Beijing from 2003 to March this year, it became increasingly obvious that the key desire of the Communist Party leadership is to articulate China’s growing power in a non-threatening way and to dampen the growing concern over what the Middle Kingdom’s resurgence will mean for the world economically, militarily, environmentally and culturally.

Kurlantzick seems uncomfortable with this, indeed with China’s entire current obsession of becoming a da guo, or great nation, which he fears will turn China into an “alternate pole” of power. But that’s a U.S.-centric point of view, short on independent merit. China’s quest for soft power is no more manipulative and no less mendacious than America’s own, which commenced after the onset of the Cold War, when rock ‘n’ roll, jazz and Hollywood were freely used by government-funded institutions such as Radio Free Asia to sell the American Dream and out-shout Soviet propaganda that promised just societies.

Indeed, many Westerners seem unable to tear themselves away from the working assumption that whatever China does is sinister, dubious and suspicious, even if their own countries do exactly the same thing. For example, in a recent book called China Shakes The World, James Kynge blasts Chinese officials for being too focused on fossil fuels and GDP growth–as if Washington’s or London’s priorities are any different.

Ironically, such perceptions are precisely why Beijing believes it needs to invest in soft power. After all, authoritarian and hard-nosed as Beijing might be, it has proved to be a rational actor on the global stage. It riles Beijing that this is seldom recognized, and an undercurrent of worry about “what China will eventually do” persists in many capitals. That’s why the core of China’s soft power campaign is built around the idea of “China’s Peaceful Rise,” a saccharine tagline conceived by Zhang Bijian, a close associate of Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Zhang’s line resonates in many nations, particularly where public perception of China has improved in direct proportion to the manner in which perceptions of the United States have deteriorated since President George W. Bush took office. Numerous recent surveys have found that citizens in many countries are growing accustomed to and comfortable with China’s growth, even if grave concerns of how the country will use its power remain. The oddest example of this is Cambodia, where a new-found adoration for China stands at odds with the gruesome role Beijing played in supporting the Khmer Rouge that killed 2.5 million Cambodians, about a quarter of the population.

This underlines the dark side of soft power. The “dazzle ‘em” approach is expressly designed to obscure more painful truths, such as China’s mercantilist trading policies and its continued arms sales to the Sudanese government, which is accused of genocide in the Darfur region. More significantly, China’s economic success is also fraying the notion that democracy is necessary for economic growth. For example, many in India take the dim-witted view that the country must surrender its democracy if it wants to develop like China. Kurlantzick covers this element of China’s soft power very succinctly. But here too he slips up in talking about how global perceptions of the United States’ own dark deeds are diluted by its own soft power. For example, misdirected American wrath over the 9/11 attacks that killed 3,000 people has resulted in the deaths of 300,000 Iraqi civilians that had nothing to do with terrorism. Yet America’s image continues to lend it immense global influence.

Where Charm Offensive also disappoints is its lightness of first-hand field reporting and heavy use of analysis based on secondary news sources. Though overall, the book provides a nice peek into one of the great forces changing our world, Kurlantzick’s hypothesis that China’s soft power somehow needs to be curtailed–he even devotes the end of the book to outlining how this can be done–seems a bit excessive. For one, soft power has serious limitations, as Nye himself says. Gong Li’s mammalian endowments and one-room school houses in Burma cannot entirely distract the world from China’s human and labor rights abuses. But more importantly, better a resurgent China hopped up on soft power than on what Mao would have called good old-fashioned hard power.

Jehangir Pocha is the Asia correspondent for In These Times.

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