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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.