A Tale of 2 Diplomats: China’s Soft Power Conundrum

 
 

In the past couple of weeks, two foreign ministers have captured the Chinese public imagination. In a widely circulated video clip on the popular Chinese social media WeChat, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Adel Al-Jubeir, is shown rebuking a Western journalist’s question about the “inherent” connection between the Islamic State (ISIS) and Islam. Another story involves Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s response to a Canadian journalist’s questions about China’s human rights. Both foreign ministers faced tricky questions from Western media (though in Wang Yi’s case, the questions were actually directed at his Canadian counterpart, Stéphane Dion), but that’s probably where their similarities end. The focus of Chinese social media is on the stark contrast between the two foreign ministers’ handling of their respective situations.

The Saudi top diplomat calmly, methodically, but firmly rejected the assumption that ISIS is essentially Islamic. Backed with evidence, he tore apart the logic of the journalist’s proposition in a language easily understood by his Western audience. On the other hand, Wang, during a joint press conference with his Canadian counterpart, accused the journalist of “bias and prejudice” and asked whether she had ever been to China. He was visibly displeased. His rhetorical answers probably did not go down well in the Western media, or for that matter, even among some of the Chinese audience back home.

This episode epitomizes one of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing China today. We may call it the “clash of discourses.” Sure, the South China Sea disputes, the U.S. pivot to Asia, and the North Korea nuclear crisis will continue to give China headaches, but it is the discursive differences between China and the proverbial West that will define their relationships for years to come.

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In the Western discourses on China’s rise, there exist two recurring themes: threat and opportunity. The booming Chinese economy has been perceived primarily as opportunity in many Western capitals, as well as in numerous multinationals’ boardrooms. Yet, the “opportunity” scenario, alongside the hope that an economically prosperous China will soon become a politically democratic China, has proved to be a false promise for many in the West. Unable to meet those hopes and expectations, China’s continued rise has generated much anxiety among populist politicians, strategic analysts, as well as the mass media in the West. To them, the apparently more certain scenario of China as a threat now makes more sense. The South China Sea disputes have been reported primarily through this lens. And to sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement to Congress, U.S. President Barack Obama himself also resorted to invoking the specter of China re-writing the international rules. The questions asked by Canadian journalist Amanda Connolly are thus not evidence of personal bias and prejudice, but have roots in these hugely influential Western discourses about China’s rise.

As China’s foreign minister, Wang is certainly no stranger to these discourses. His less than diplomatic reaction, rightly or wrongly, evinces a sense of frustration: as China becomes more powerful economically and plays a more important role in global affairs, it has not received a proportionate increase in respect. This frustration is not his alone, as his tough stance was also applauded in China. This incident is just a vivid example of the clash of two discourses, which is likely to become more intense.

China has long sensed that the international balance of discursive power is not in its favor. In recent years, it has stepped up the efforts to tell its stories by, among other things, encouraging the growth of “high-end” think tanks, promoting the Confucius Institutes abroad, and even running lift-outs in Australia’s Fairfax media. Yet so far these efforts have borne only limited fruit.

One reason is that very few Chinese leaders understand that discourses are more than just a “shouting match.” The peculiar nature of discourse means that it is not simply a plot organized by some individual journalists or even media outlets, but is deeply associated with social identity. How the West talks about China is a reflection not of personal bias or prejudice, but of how the West sees itself. So Wang’s outburst toward Connolly is largely misguided. The journalist is merely a product of the Western discourses. In this sense, getting China’s message across in the West is a lot harder than many Chinese leaders have anticipated.

There is another problem with Beijing’s half-hearted soft power diplomacy. While China has increasingly warmed to the ideas of soft power and the power of discourse (huayu quan in Chinese), the idea that hard power remains a trump card dies hard, even among sophisticated Chinese international relations scholars. Many Chinese scholars I have talked with believe that China should concentrate on developing hard power, assuming that with sufficient hard power eventually comes soft power.

Another inconsistency is evident in China’s “Confucius Institute” drive. One Western visitor once told a Chinese scholar at China Foreign Affairs University that China’s international promotion of Confucian values was fine, but the problem was that China itself did not seem to take those values seriously. Good point — how could you expect others to accept something you yourself don’t hold dear?

The discourse issue comes back to the question of what kind of self-image China wants to project to the outside world. A society that continues to fear the hard power of the state, as the Lei Yang case affirms, probably cannot convincingly convey a soft image abroad. . As China is tipped to soon become a high-income country, it should begin to lift its domestic expectations beyond lifting people out of poverty, however remarkable that achievement is.

The famous Chinese Communist Party historian Zhang Baijia once said that China has tended to change the world through changing itself. Perhaps this should also apply if China wants to change its international image — even though that in itself will not guarantee a quick shift in how Western discourses frame China.

Chengxin Pan is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University and is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for International Strategic Studies at Peking University. His book Knowledge, Desire and Power in Global Politics: Western Representations of China’s Rise (Edward Elgar, 2012) has just been translated into Chinese and published by Social Sciences Academic Press. The views expressed here are his own.

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