Beijing is expanding efforts to enhance its soft power. Events at home illustrate why such moves are headed for trouble.
In a little noticed event on New Year’s Day, China inaugurated its first non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of soft power—China Public Diplomacy Association (CPDA). Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi attended and spoke at the unveiling ceremony for the group, which elected as its president Li Zhaoxing, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's National People's Congress. Addressing the group after the vote, Li told its members that the CPDA would mobilize and coordinate “social resources and civilian efforts” towards the goal of "promoting China's soft power."
In some ways, China’s desire to strengthen its soft power capabilities seems entirely logical. After all, ancient Chinese leaders masterfully wielded soft power. And as China’s economic power has risen in recent years, the Chinese government has adopted various measures to enhance China’s soft power, such as establishing global news services (most recently, China Daily’s Africa Weekly) and Confucius Institutes across the world. Outside of China some have spoken of a Beijing Consensus that is supposedly supplementing the Washington Consensus in terms of the most favored political-economic model.
Yet even as China inaugurated its first organization dedicated to enhancing Beijing’s soft power, a number of disparate events in China were illustrating why the CCP’s charm offensive is doomed to fail.
For example, in recent weeks the Chinese government has redoubled its efforts to censor the internet. After social media users in China exposed a series of scandals involving low-level government officials, the CCP adopted new regulations that require internet service providers to quickly delete “illegal” posts and turn over the evidence to government officials. Additionally, after trying to require citizens to use their real names on social media sites like Weibo, the new regulations require citizens to use their real identities when signing up with an internet provider. More secretly, according to many inside China, authorities have been strengthening the great firewall to prevent users from employing various methods in order to gain access to a growing number of sites that are banned.
China is hardly the only government concerned about the political instability unfettered internet access can generate. In fact, last month China joined 89 countries in supporting a United Nations telecommunications treaty that over 20 nations opposed over fears that it would open the door to greater government control over cyberspace. But while China’s suppression of information may resonate with political elites in authoritarian states, the world is living in the information age and attempts to restrict the flow of information for political reasons will not endear China to the global masses that soft power seeks to attract.
China’s internet policies also conflict with the stated goals of its soft power offensive in more concrete ways as well. For example, one of the primary goals of the CPDA is to increase the number of people-to-people exchanges with other countries. However, if the CCP is successful in preventing users from accessing popular sites like Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, and the New York Times, it is likely to discourage foreigners from living or studying abroad in China. Similarly, blocking access to these sites inhibits communication between Chinese and foreigners over cyberspace.
Along with tighter restrictions on the Internet, Chinese authorities have also increased their scrutiny on media outlets, both domestic and foreign. Domestically, the CCP ushered in the New Year by closing down the fiercely liberal magazine, Yanhuang Chunqiu, ostensibly because its registration had been invalid since August 2010. Then, on Friday, 51 prominent journalists issued an open letter demanding the resignation of Tuo Zhen, the Communist Party’s propaganda chief in Guangdong Province, who they accused of “raping” the Southern Weekly’s editorial page when he allegedly altered its annual New Year’s Greeting right as it went to press, and without the knowledge or consent of the editor. The journalists were later joined by over two dozen prominent academics from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan who published their own open letter calling for Tuo's resignation.
Southern Weekly (also referred to as Southern Weekend) is a highly regarded reform-minded Guangdong newspaper, and its annual New Year’s Greeting has traditionally pushed the bounds of acceptable political discussion in China. This year’s editorial originally parodied Xi Jinping’s "Chinese Dream" by calling for the realization of the “dream of constitutionalism in China” where civil rights and the rule-of-law are respected and upheld. After Tuo’s changes, the editorial expressed gratitude to the Communist Party for helping the country achieve the Chinese Dream. According to David Bandurski, editor of China Media Project,"This kind of direct hands-on interference is really something new” and extreme even by China's strict regulation of domestic media. Indeed, after the government tried to silence the growing outrage over Tuo's actions, including by shutting down Southern Weekly staff members' personal Weibo accounts, the entire editorial staff at the newspaper decided to stage a strike, marking the first time in over two decades that the editorial staff of a major Chinese newspaper has gone on strike over government censorship, according to the South China Morning Post.
China also continued its campaign against foreign journalists and news organizations last week when Chris Buckley, an Australian-national and China correspondent for the New York Times, was forced to leave the country because Beijing wouldn’t renew his visa. Following Buckley’s departure the New York Times said its China bureau chief, Philip P. Pan—author of Out of Mao’s Shadow—has been waiting since March to receive his own credentials.
Beijing later claimed Buckley hadn’t submitted the proper paperwork, but his case follows on the heels of Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan’s expulsion from the country and the Washington Post’s Andrew Higgins finally ending his three-year quest to gain reentry into China, which failed even after the newspaper enlisted the help of Henry Kissinger. Thus, the more plausible explanation for Buckley’s inability to renew his visa is that Beijing is retaliating against foreign journalists because of the extraordinary reporting organizations like the New York Times have been doing on politically taboo subjects in China, such as stories on the enormous amount of wealth the families of senior leaders have accumulated. This reporting is also why the websites of the New York Times and Bloomberg News are no longer accessible in China, and why reporters from these organizations weren’t able to attend the unveiling of the Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress in November.
Finally, the CCP’s soft power offensive is doomed to fail because of its ability to tolerate (much less cultivate) “cultural ambassadors.” In the realm of soft power, a county’s entertainers, artists, and intellectuals are some of its strongest assets. One needs only to look to South Korean rapper Psy, and the “flash mobs” he’s inspired in places as varied as Jakarta, Bangkok, Sydney, Dhaka, Mumbai, Dubai, American college campuses and shopping malls, Taipei, Hong Kong, and, yes, the Chinese mainland.
A country as large and dynamic as China undoubtedly has many potential worldwide celebrities. And yet, as a China Daily op-ed points out, China “is still far from making a product like Gangnam Style. China does export a large amount of cultural products every year, but few of them become popular abroad.”
The major reason China fails to export its cultural products, as Peng Kan, the author of the op-ed rightly notes, is that “Government organizations and enterprises are the main force behind the exports….But these organizations and enterprises… cannot promote satires like Gangnam Style through official communication channel. But cultural products without entertainment value rarely become popular in overseas markets.”
Indeed, it’s telling that China’s most popular non-governmental figures abroad are all opponents of the CCP. One such individual is democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo, who celebrated his 57th birthday on December 28th and the 3rd anniversary of being sentenced to an 11-year prison term on December 25th. This sentence only increased Liu’s international stature where he has been celebrated widely and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 (which the CCP responded to by placing his wife under house arrest). Indeed Liu’s international renowned was on display last month when 134 Nobel laureates sent Xi Jinping a letter urging him to release Liu.
Eclipsing Liu in popularity at least in the West, however, is Ai Weiwei, the famous Chinese artist and dissident. Ai Weiwei’s remarkable artistic talent made him famous in some circles, initially including the CCP and across the globe before his turn to social activism. It is undeniable, however, that much of his popularity has come from his courageous and witty challenge to Communist Party rule in China. It is this charismatic political dissent that explains why documentaries of him win at Sundance, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times interviews him while visiting China, and his “Gangam Style” parody becomes an instant You Tube sensation, despite the fact that its underlying political message is lost on almost all its viewers.
China is hardly alone in making dissidents it persecutes famous internationally. In fact, this problem is practically inherent in authoritarian states (just ask Vladimir Putin). There’s a nearly universal tendency for people to sympathize with an “underdog” who is courageously battling a powerful force like a government, which is why a Tunisian street vendor setting himself on fire can spark uprisings throughout the Arab world, and David and Goliath is one of the most recognizable stories from Jewish and Christian religious texts.
But this fact does not make Liu and Ai Weiwei any less damaging to the CCP’s ability to project soft power. Symbolic figures like Liu and Ai Weiwei ingrain into people’s minds the perception that the CCP is synonymous with injustice. And hardly any emotion is as universally held as the righteousness of justice, however one defines it.
On a more primeval basis, people are attracted to confidence, and attempts to suppress information and dissidents creates the perception that, despite all its power and remarkable achievements, the CCP remains at its core fearful and paranoid. Few people are attracted to, much less want to emulate, those they consider fearful or paranoid. Which is why, despite China’s ancient history of soft power, and the soft power individuals like Ai Weiwei command, modern China’s soft power will remain limited under the current political leadership.
Zachary Keck is assistant editor of The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.