China’s velvet glove conceals an iron fist

But Beijing's growing global charm and wealth can’t hide a continuing lack of freedom.

Beijing’s communist mandarins are facing an acute dilemma as they strive to position China as a global power.

Their nation’s phenomenal growth has made it the second-largest economy in the world. But such status is clouded by an abysmal human rights record. Can China continue to prosper without political freedom for its people?

The image problem is compounded by a swashbuckling foreign policy in Asia that has neighboring states like India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan cringing.

How much appetite for reform?

Recently there were unusual murmurings in high places as 23 distinguished Chinese personages signed an open letter calling for free speech in their country. This followed Fareed Zakaria’s interview on CNN with China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in which the premier himself supported the concept of free speech. The premier’s remarks were censored in China, however, by his own government. Beijing’s furious response last month to the Nobel Peace Prize award to imprisoned Chinese democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo also suggests there is little appetite for reform in the current political hierarchy.

Indeed, policy moderation is unlikely during this period of transition within China’s Communist Party. Vice President Xi Jinping emerged from a recent party conclave as on track to succeed President Hu Jintao in 2012 as Communist Party head and as president in 2013. Mr. Xi is a party stalwart with little to distinguish him except that his wife is a popular Chinese folk singer. Meanwhile Mr. Liu is serving an 11-year prison sentence, his wife has been harassed by security forces, and sympathizers have been roughed up.

Charm diplomacy

Ironically, China has launched an ambitious program of charm diplomacy to boost its image abroad even as such government actions have the potential to undermine it. Once it was known as “panda diplomacy,” as when President Nixon was presented with a pair of the cuddly black-and-white bears in 1972. But the bears are now more fiercely protected and persuasion is by electronic means.

Today China’s projection of “soft power” involves a $7 billion international radio and TV broadcasting campaign. In funding, languages reached, frequencies used, and hours on the air, it already outpaces the two other major international broadcasters: Voice of America (VOA) and the BBC World Service. Both are facing cutbacks in their services.

The Chinese media offensive includes two English-language TV channels and expansion of their international broadcasting bureaus from an existing 19 to 56.

This is accompanied by a campaign that envisions the establishment of hundreds of Chinese cultural centers around the world, 60 in the United States alone, to spread Chinese culture, language, and information.

A firm hand on media

It includes the wooing of foreign journalists and foreign embassy press officers based in Beijing. In October, the government’s International Press Center moved into a new tower of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At its opening, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun said foreign journalists in China now enjoy a “more open and lenient environment” for reporting. China has offered such cooperation before, notably during the 2008 Olympic Games. However, visiting reporters were then handed a 263-page manual dictating where they could travel, and limiting the hiring of Chinese assistants to government-vetted personnel. China also uses various techniques to control its domestic media.

Meanwhile China’s confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku Islands and its general aggressiveness in the South and East China seas has roused concern among countries in the area. The US has pushed back, asserting its right to free passage and presence.

As one senior statesman from the area told me: “We Southeast Asian nations must play a balancing role between China and America. Neither must dominate.” There was no misunderstanding which one he felt to be more dangerous.

John Hughes, a former director of the VOA, writes a biweekly column.

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