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On eve of Shanghai Expo 2010, China finds 'soft power' an elusive goal

Chinese authorities have seized on the Shanghai Expo 2010 – the largest in history – as another chance to enhance 'soft power' that is generated by the spread of cultures, values, diplomacy, and trade. The expo opens this weekend.

By Staff Writer / April 29, 2010

The China Pavilion is seen during the light testing at the Shanghai World Expo site in Shanghai December 30, 2009. Shanghai unveils to the world on Friday its multi-billion dollar World Expo.



Shanghai, China

At the heart of the Shanghai World Expo stands the host nation’s pavilion, a giant latticed crown painted crimson. Packed with exhibits portraying daily Chinese life, China’s ethnic diversity, and the standard bearers of Chinese philosophy, the display shows China’s friendliest face to the world.

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Hard on the heels of the Beijing Olympics, the authorities here have seized on the Expo – the largest in history – as another chance to improve the rising giant’s international image. Learning how to win friends and influence people is a task to which the government has attached the highest priority in recent years.

It appears, however, to be failing. A BBC poll released in April found that only one-third of respondents in 14 countries believe China is a positive influence, down from one-half just five years ago.

China's Shanghai Expo 2010 – by the numbers

IN PICTURES: Shanghai World Expo 2010

“The government is putting a lot of resources and a lot of attention into boosting China’s ‘soft power,’ but they’ve got a lot of problems with the message,” says David Shambaugh, head of the China Policy Program at George Washington University in Washington. “The core aspects of their system” – such as one-party rule, media censorship, and suppression of critics – “are just not appealing to outsiders.”

Chinese policymakers and academics are increasingly fascinated by “soft power,” whereby nations coopt foreign governments and citizens through the spread of their cultures, values, diplomacy, and trade, rather than coerce them by military might.

Frustrated by Western domination of global media, from entertainment to news, and by what it sees as unfair coverage, China has launched a $6.6 billion campaign to tell its own story to the world by building its own media empires.

Li Changchun, the ruling Communist Party’s top ideology official, was blunt in a 2008 speech: “Whichever nation’s communications capacity is the strongest, it is that nation whose culture and core values spread far and wide ... that has the most power to influence the world,” he said.

Is the message convincing?

But this is not enough, says Li Xiguang, head of the International Center for Communications Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Even the best-paid messengers need a convincing message.

“The United States has built its soft power by making its value and political system … universal values,” he says. “China will not beat the US in soft power until we have a better and newer form of democracy, freedom, and human rights.”

China has had some success in projecting soft power in developing countries, especially in Africa. “Wherever you go in Africa, roads are being built, and the people building them are Chinese,” says Aly Khan Satchu, a financial analyst in Nairobi. “China expresses its soft power through building infrastructure.”