China's Search for Soft Power

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 armor: 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 programs on China’s 34 satellite channels, including game shows, dating shows and celebrity talk shows, were deemed “vulgar” and cut, making way for programs 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 organizations since few audiences tolerate propaganda.

Viewers of an official Chinese channel will want to know whether its journalists cover Chinese developments – politically sensitive ones – objectively or whether they must toe the party line. Will CCTV or Xinhua report on the arrests, trials and disappearances of human rights activists? Will they comment on the case of lawyer Gao Zhisheng, sent to prison in Xinjiang for allegedly violating the terms of his parole, apparently while detained by security personnel for the last 20 months?

Such cases of the use of brute power give China a bad image overseas, and without changing its behavior, there is little likelihood that Beijing can enhance its soft power.

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 7 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 favored the Hong Kong identity over being Chinese.

The Chinese government was not pleased. Hao Tiechuan, spokesman for the central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, called the survey “unscientific” and “illogical.” Robert Chung, director of the university’s Public Opinion Program, which conducted the survey, became the target of vicious attacks in the pro-Beijing press.

Such surveys are not new. Chung has been conducting them regularly since 1997, reporting the ups and downs in terms of Hong Kong people’s identification with China. This time, Chung said, the sense of Hong Kong identity had reached a 10-year high, while identification with China had dropped to a 12-year low.

To understand why Hong Kong seems so resistant to China’s charms, Beijing could perhaps examine its own behavior. Last August, when Vice Premier Li Keqiang visited the University of Hong Kong, he was seated in the chancellor’s chair although he was a guest. Three students who attempted to approach him were thrown to the ground by the police. The furor that followed overshadowed Li’s attempts at promoting economic development.

Chung insisted that the polling was an academic exercise unrelated to politics and refused to be drawn into a debate with his critics, citing "Cultural Revolution-style curses and defamations.”

But his critics were unrelenting, accusing him of trying to incite Hong Kong people to deny that they’re Chinese, accepting “political dirty money” and being linked with a suspected British intelligence agent. Chung said he had never met the British official.

One commentator, Song Sio-chong, wrote in the China Daily that the results of the survey were unreliable, undesirable and dangerous. “Such a distorted survey should not enjoy the so-called academic freedom,” he concluded. “If the public interest is paramount, then academic nonsense is not sacrosanct.”

In the face of this onslaught against academic freedom, part and parcel of Hong Kong’s core values, the Hong Kong government must tread a fine line. Raymond Tam, secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, denied interference by Beijing, saying that “anyone can give opinions on various matters,” as if Beijing’s spokesman in Hong Kong was just another individual whose freedom of speech needs to be protected.

Tam went on to say that academic freedom is protected by the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and “is an important social value treasured by Hong Kong.” The government, he said, has been striving to maintain an environment “so that academics can conduct academic activities, such as research and survey, uninhibited.”

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 whose book, “Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family,” was recently republished in paperback. Follow on Twitter: @FrankChing1 This is reprinted with permission from the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.)