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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.

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China’s rapid economic development is an inspiration to many Africans, says Mr. Satchu. “The Chinese are selling themselves as having experienced catch-up and offering to help African governments do the same,” he says.

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Chinese firms are also preparing to bid on high-speed railroads in California and elsewhere in the United States.

Americans are familiar with some Chinese cultural icons. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) was a blockbuster movie, and Houston Rockets basketball star Yao Ming is a household name. But China lacks a Hollywood or a US-style TV industry.

Part of the problem, suggests Pang Zhongying, of Beijing’s Renmin Univer­sity, is that English, unlike Chinese, is an international language. Even with the creation of more than 200 Confucius Institutes around the world teaching Chinese, “I don’t think China can overcome this difficulty in the short term.”

At the same time, says François Godement, director of the Asia Centre in Paris, however admired Chinese culture may be, “it is less easily translatable to other cultures.

Political control issues

Adding to the government’s difficulties is its insistence on controlling all expressions of contemporary Chinese culture.

Beijing squandered an opportunity at last year’s Frankfurt book fair, which showcased Chinese literature, by pressing for a ban on exiled writers. Press coverage focused not on Chinese authors but on Beijing’s heavy hand.

This desire for complete political control, says Professor Godement, means that “they don’t give creators the freedom to create works that would project soft power.”

“There is a huge gap between the official Chinese judgment and that of outsiders,” adds Professor Pang. “There are many intellectuals in China, but a good intellectual is not necessarily an officially recognized one.”

The government has opted instead to pursue public diplomacy, or “overseas propaganda,” as it is known here.

Rarely does a month pass without a visit to Beijing by media managers and journalists from one developing country or another. But this is not the same as projecting soft power, Mr. Shambaugh notes.

“China has a huge soft power deficit,” says Pang. “The current Chinese model solves problems, of course, but it is also part of the problem. People outside China will pick China’s virtues, but try to avoid its disadvantages. We should learn from such natural choices, from the impression that China can only build roads and schools. That is a problem we must address.”

IN PICTURES: Shanghai World Expo 2010

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