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.
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.
“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?
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”