The concept of using soft power to promote China’s comprehensive national power both at abroad and at home is of recent origin. China may not subscribe entirely to the definition of soft power as propounded by Nye, the well known US Sinologist who first used the term, yet China’s main effort began in 2007 under President Hu Jintao. This has further intensified under President Xi Jinping. While the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] in a plenary wished to build China as “ a Socialist Cultural Super-power”; it was Xi who enunciated in 2014 the principle that “we should increase China’s soft power [wenhua ruan shili], give a Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world”. Based on the parameters set by the Chinese leaders themselves, how far have they been successful? And what are the main elements of Chinese soft power?
Although China’s economic prowess has impressed much of the world, yet we cannot overlook the fact that China’s repressive political system and sometimes its mercantilist approach to trade has tarnished its image. To overcome this obvious handicap, Chinese leaders, conscious of the strength of their economic achievements, have tried to cover this aspect by enhancing their economic profile with many new initiatives; some of which have been truly been breath-taking. Take for example, the concept of OBOR, the establishment of new financial institutions such as the AIIB and the BRICS Bank or the attempt at new style peripheral diplomacy—all have been backed with huge funding. Capitalisation of the AIIB is at US$50b, BRICS Bank at US$40b and US$40b for OBOR. If we total all of Beijing’s funding plans, they would equal to about US$ 1.25T by 2025. Thus the sheer scale of Beijing’s effort is unprecedented and easily dwarfs the US initiated Marshall Plan, even if we translate its figures to today’s spending dollar calculations. There is no doubt that these proposals have at their very core China’s own self- interest. As China’s economy slows down there is considerable over capacity in the steel an cement manufacturing industries. Therefore if China undertakes infrastructure projects as a part of OBOR, it is in a way utilising this over capacity.The idea is to inter-link the economies of peripheral countries with that of China to create inter-dependence.
Nevertheless, these proposals as a part of the Chinese effort to stimulate world economic and infrastructure development and to impress the world. Success is often the best demonstrator of soft power. Whenever Chinese leaders travel abroad, they sign large trade and investment deals, extend generous loans and dole out hefty aid packages. All major powers do it and China is no exception. Here then is an example where China asserts its soft power by leading by example and obtaining what it desires without coercion or the use of force.
The nerve centre for Chinese efforts is the State Council Information office [SCIO]. This office co-ordinates all efforts and has a large staff, a giant budget and a great deal of bureaucratic clout within the Chinese system. Every December it convenes a conference in which the SCIO outlines guide-lines for internal and external propaganda work. Its principal responsibilities are to generate “ideas” that can be propagated. Most of these can be accessed at the China Media Year Book. It should be noted that in China the term “propaganda” does not carry any negative connotations, but is considered a positive aspect of governmental work. China spends US$ 10b annually on external “propaganda” as opposed to the US, which has a budget of only US$ 666m for “public diplomacy” in fiscal 2014.
The SCIO often holds press conferences, publishes magazines, books and produces films. Recently both Stephen Spielburg and the Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma have decided to produce films jointly for the lucrative Chinese market. It has overseas publishing houses, such as the Foreign Languages press and newspapers such as the China Daily and the Global Times. It controls the internet content, including issuing licenses for web-sites.
Clearly the aim is to build a global media empire that can compete head to head with CNN, BBC, News Corp, Viacom etc. How is this being achieved?
Xinhua is one of the premier agencies in the dissemination of information. It employs about 3000 journalists, 400 of whom are posted abroad in 170 bureaus. Those posted abroad are fluent in English. Its radio and video content is constantly reviewed and updated. It has 80,000 institutional paying subscribers.
[b] CCTV has gone global with broadcasts in 6 languages. It has a 24 hour English news channel, with production facilities in Washington and Nairobi. CCTV is slated to become a global hub with some of the highest paid foreign anchors on its staff.
[c] China Radio International, formerly Radio Peking broadcasts 392 hours/day in 38 languages and maintains 27 overseas bureaus.
[d] Chinese Embassies abroad regularly issue press statements, take out full page ads, and Chinese Ambassadors now contribute Op-eds, articles to selected press outlets on important Chinese official statements.
[e] Close monitoring of what the foreign press is writing about China and Chinese policies is regularly undertaken. Recently NYT and Bloomberg suffered for writing about Chinese leaders and their business activities.
There is no doubt that the Chinese authorities have undertaken a major effort to push China's case by utilising all means that constitute soft power. Nevertheless, the major handicap that remains is that most foreign recipients do not consider the Chinese as having a "free" press, nor do they consider that the Chinese effort is anything but a governmental effort. Therefore the tag that this is mostly "propaganda" is hard to shake off; despite the huge funding and the stupendous effort that the Chinese have put in.