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Dragon on the dance floor

China's desire to hardsell soft power is inconsistent with its domestic realities. Joseph S Nye Jr writes.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2012 21:49 IST

China's president Hu Jintao greeted 2012 with an important essay warning that China was being battered by western culture: "We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernising and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration," he wrote, adding that "the international culture of the West is strong while we are weak."

Essentially, Hu was saying that China was under assault by western soft power and needed to fight back. Over the past decade, China's economic and military might has grown impressively, and this has frightened its neighbours into looking for allies to balance rising Chinese hard power. But if a country can also increase its soft power, its neighbours feel less need to seek balancing alliances. For example, Canada and Mexico don't seek alliances with China to balance American power the way Asian countries seek an American presence to balance China.

Already in 2007, Hu told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China needed to invest more in its soft power resources. Accordingly, China is spending billions of dollars on a charm offensive. The Chinese style emphasises high-profile gestures, such as rebuilding the Cambodian Parliament or Mozambique's foreign affairs ministry. The elaborately staged 2008 Beijing Olympics enhanced China's reputation. The Boao Forum for Asia on Hainan Island attracts nearly 2,000 Asian politicians and business leaders to what is billed as an 'Asian Davos'. And Chinese aid programmes to Africa and Latin America aren't limited by the institutional or human rights concerns that constrain western aid.

China has always had an attractive traditional culture, and now it has created several hundred Confucius Institutes around the world to teach its language and culture. The enrolment of foreign students in China has increased from 36,000 a decade ago to at least 240,000 in 2010, and while the Voice of America was cutting its Chinese broadcasts, China Radio International was increasing its broadcasts in English to 24 hours a day.

In 2009, Beijing announced plans to spend billions of dollars to develop global media giants to compete with Bloomberg, Time Warner and Viacom. China invested $8.9 billion in external publicity work, including a 24-hour Xinhua cable news channel designed to imitate Al Jazeera.

Beijing has also raised defences. It limits foreign films to only 20 per year, subsidises Chinese companies creating cultural products, and has restricted Chinese television shows that are imitations of western entertainment programs. But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment. A recent BBC poll shows that opinions of China's influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, but predominantly negative in the US and Europe, as well as in India, Japan and South Korea. A poll taken in Asia after the Beijing Olympics found that China's charm offensive had been ineffective.

What China seems not to appreciate is that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities. The 2008 Olympics were a success, but shortly afterwards, China's domestic crackdown in Tibet and Xinjiang, and on human rights activists, undercut its soft power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but was followed by the jailing of the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and the artist Ai Weiwei.

Now, in the aftermath of the West Asia revolutions, China is clamping down on the internet and jailing human rights lawyers, once again torpedoing its soft power campaign. The development of soft power need not be a zero sum game. All countries can gain from finding attraction in one anothers' cultures. But for China to succeed, it will need to unleash the talents of its civil society. Unfortunately, that does not seem about to happen soon.

Joseph S Nye Jr is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Power

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jan 18, 2012 21:44 IST