Flip side to China's censorship at home: more PR in America

Even as China cracks down on dissidents and the Internet, Beijing ramps up efforts to sway opinion in the US and elsewhere.

While China practices harsh media control at home, it has embarked on a major campaign abroad to present itself as a modernizing and open nation.

Its confrontation with Google and tightened control of the Internet, including recent attempts to block Facebook and Twitter, are testimony to the ruling regime’s fear that a free flow of information could undermine its autocratic communist foundation and lead to dreaded democracy.

At the same time, it is mobilizing extensive “soft power,” to convince neighboring countries in Asia, and the world at large, that it is an increasingly modern and powerful – but benign – nation that deserves respect but should engender no fear.

“Soft power” is a combination of economic and humanitarian aid, cultural exchanges, people-to-people communication, and vigorous media campaigning.

An example of the ambitious character of the Chinese government campaign is the establishment of 60 Chinese cultural centers, called “Confucius Centers” in the United States, primarily at institutions of learning. Earlier this year, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar raised with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton the disparity between the number of these Chinese public diplomacy centers in the US, versus the number of similar American centers planned for China.

The State Department has sought budget funds for “8 to 10 such centers of public diplomacy” in the entire world. Senator Lugar has led the charge in Congress for the US to “get back in the game” of public diplomacy. Secretary Clinton explained that while the Chinese government covers each center’s cost ($1 million to launch and $200,000 a year to run), the US government could not match those figures.

The Beijing government is also spending an estimated $7 billion to expand its international radio and TV foreign-language broadcasting effort, along with its Xinhua news agency and its flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily.

The broadcasting effort would presumably challenge US government broadcasting systems like the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, as well as the British BBC.

As China has emerged as an industrial giant, its media has grown, too, leading to commercialization and competition.

But the government has remained worried about the kind of freedom that might lead to its downfall. It therefore uses different kinds of intimidation to maintain control.

One of the most frequent punishments cited by the Council on Foreign Relations is the firing or demotion of journalists who publish “objectionable” articles. Other measures include libel actions, fines, closure of news publications, and sometimes imprisonment of journalists. The government also uses a variety of means to prevent unwelcome stories from slipping through government information firewalls on the Internet.

The US suspects that sources in China are involved in hacking into computer systems like the ones controlling the US electric power grid. Some security experts contend the Chinese have planted “logic bombs” that could paralyze sensitive US infrastructure. They also say that the US has retaliated by planting “logic bombs” in key Chinese systems. Thus, two powerful nations may have engineered a system of mutual Internet destruction, rather like the cold-war-era doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

It is a mildly encouraging thesis, which if true, suggests that in times of tension the two sides would engage in peaceful dialogue rather than possibly fatal confrontation.

Much of China’s dramatic growth is due to the remarkable industry and genius of its people. There can be no doubt that communism, which has proved so stifling a system of government throughout the world, will ultimately be succeeded by a democratic system in China.

China’s progress has been achieved in spite of communism, not because of it. But great nations and empires flourish on openness and the assimilation of ideas and inventiveness from outside their borders. China’s flow of information should be two-way, not one.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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