Blind Spots in China’s Soft Power

Lu Yiyi – The Straits Times

Copyright The Straits Times
Monday 9 July 2007
Much has been said about China’s soft power in recent years. From the establishment of Confucius Institutes spreading Chinese language teaching around the world to the increase of aid to Africa, China has been portrayed as being extremely skilful and effective in projecting soft power.
A new book on this subject — Charm Offensive by Joshua Kurlantzick of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – is even subtitled “How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming The World.”
Whether China’s soft power has reached world-transforming proportions may still be subject to debate, but clearly it is in no danger of being’ underestimated.
But is there any danger of it being overestimated? Analyses of China’s soft power tend to focus on its fast growth, with little mention of the gaps. And these are indeed many.
One particularly prominent gap is the absence of Chinese non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the international stag~, which deprives China of a crucial soft power tool, hampers its public diplomacy, weakens the credibility of the messages it seeks to send out, and reduces the amount of feedback Beijing receives on its soft power initiatives, limiting its ability to assess existing programmes and improve them.
A good’ illustration can be found in Africa. With the rapid expansion of China’s economic activities on the African continent in recent years, accusations of exploitative Chinese behaviour have mounted. Cheap Chinese imports are held responsible for the decline of local industries; Chinese companies are said to mistreat African employees; and Chinese immigrants are blamed for taking jobs away from locals.
On top of that, China is accused of propping up regimes that oppress their own people while African opposition politicians have successfully used attacks on China to gamer votes.
Traditionally, Chinese diplomacy in Africa has been strong in developing relations with the political elites but weak in engaging African civil society. Beijing’s lack of tools and experience in engaging the “African on the street” makes it ill-prepared to address the new problems associated with China’s heightened presence on the continent. This is a time when Chinese NGOs could play an indispensable role – prod ding Chinese companies to be more socially responsible, ensuring that Chinese aid money spent more efficiently, sensitising Chinese immigrants to local culture and customs, and helping Chinese government understand better the needs of ordinary Africans. If such organisations existed, that is. The lack of Chinese NGOs to mitigate some negative effects of the explosion of Chinese activity in Africa is an obvious gap in China’s soft power.
Another example of the limits of China’s soft power is the absence of Chinese non-governmental voices that are organized, well-measured and international, commenting on the hot issues plaguing Sino-Japanese relations.
There is much popular anger in China over the attitudes i right-wing Japanese towards war-time history, and Beijing has loudly condemned each visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and each denial of the Japanese army’s World War II atrocities by right-wing politicians.
However, China has had little success in winning international sympathy and support in its dispute with Japan over history. Every Chinese national knows about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. which 300,000 Chinese civilians were reportedly killed by the Japanese army, but only after ill publication of a best-selling boo by an American journalist i 1997 did the Western public learn about this “forgotten Holocaust of World War II”.
Although many Chinese women were enslaved as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers during the war, it was only through the efforts of South Korean, Filipino, Taiwanese and Western NGOs that the crimes again comfort women gained world-wide attention and pressure pile up on the Japanese government to issue an official apology.
China’s continued anger over Japan’s handling of their shared history may well be justified, but there is no Chinese NGO to tell an international audience the little-known facts about the sufferings of millions of Chinese people under Japanese occupation There is no Chinese NGO to explain to the international community, using language and methods familiar to them, why the Chinese seem hung up on things that happened long ago and why they seem to enjoy bashing Japan over its past quite so much.
With all the criticisms of Japan coming from either the Chinese government or blog postings and Internet chatroom discussions, their credibility has been severely challenged.
The Chinese government is vulnerable to accusations that it is exploiting history to deflect domestic political tensions and to try to out-manoeuvre Japan in present-day rivalries, while most Internet chattering is rightly dismissed as nothing more than wild nationalistic raving.
Until there are independent, internationally savvy Chinese NGOs operating abroad to serve as a bridge between the Chinese and other peoples, and to fill in the gaps left by China’s formal diplomacy, it is probably premature to give high scores to China’s soft power.
The writer is a research fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham

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