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China’s hard, soft power

Frank Ching (Debate)
Filed on February 12, 2012

At a time when the rest of the world marvels at — or perhaps dreads — China’s rise, Beijing perceives a serious weakness in its own armour: the lack of soft power. For all its economic woes, the West still possesses ample soft power as evidenced by its cultural domination.

Behind China’s worries also lurk fears about regime stability. “The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status,” President Hu Jintao wrote in a January article. “The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.” China is taking this cultural war seriously, on both domestic and international fronts. Beginning January 1, two-thirds of entertainment programmes on China’s 34 satellite channels, including game shows, dating shows and celebrity talk shows, were deemed “vulgar” and cut, making way for programmes that “promote traditional virtues and socialist core values.”

Externally, China has set up more than 300 Confucius Institutes and more than 350 classrooms in 96 nations, many linked with universities, to teach Chinese language and culture. In 2010, China produced a promotional film, featuring such celebrities as basketball star Yao Ming and Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing, to polish its image.

China is spending billions to extend its reach to all corners of the world, primarily through the state-controlled Xinhua news agency — and its CNC World television news network since 2010 — as well as China Central Television (CCTV), which started broadcasting from its Washington hub this week. China’s approach only highlights the contradiction. Soft power almost by definition results from civil society. American culture, for example, is reflected by such products as Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola and blue jeans, none of which are government creations. The Chinese government is trying to create soft power while repressing major segments of civil society.

Moreover, China is out of sync with much of the rest of the world. It rejects the universal values of the West, such as democracy and human rights, but has nothing to replace them with other than appeal to traditional Confucian values.

The Communist party in October issued a lengthy document on deepening cultural structural reform and acknowledged the need to “move forward the construction of a socialist core value system.” However, aside from slogans like “the spirit of rejuvenating the country” and “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” it offered nothing concrete. China’s reputation for heavy-handed censorship is likely to hamper the growth of its overseas media organisations since few audiences tolerate propaganda.

The contradiction between China’s desire to enhance its influence while refusing to allow its own people rights and freedoms taken for granted elsewhere affects China’s position even in its own backyard. Since 1997, Hong Kong — handed back to China by Britain after a century and a half of colonial rule — has been a special administrative region, ostensibly enjoying a high degree of autonomy. Beijing has worked hard to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s seven million people. For example, in 2003, after Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut, returned from space, he was sent on a tour of the country. The first city he visited was Hong Kong. In 2007, marking the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, Beijing gave a pair of pandas to Hong Kong though the city already had two. And in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, equestrian events were held in Hong Kong.

Despite such wooing, many people in Hong Kong still do not welcome the association with China. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong found that twice as many people favoured the Hong Kong identity over being Chinese.

To strengthen patriotic sentiment in Hong Kong, Beijing has urged the introduction of “national education” into the curriculum. Hao, the Chinese official, blandly accepted that this was tantamount to brainwashing, but said it was something that all countries do.

Of course, Beijing is Hong Kong’s sovereign, in a position to throw its weight around when carrots like pandas and astronauts don’t do the trick. But if China wants to enhance its influence internationally through soft power, it must be sure that the velvet glove hides the iron fist inside.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and writer

© Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation





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