Authoritarian soft power not drawing many converts


When the Philippines’ tough-guy President Rodrigo Duterte announced in Beijing last week that “America has lost” and that he was “separating” from the United States to align with a rising China, it could only have been music to his hosts’ ears, Howard LaFranchi writes for The Christian Science Monitor:

China and Russia have been seeking to expand their influence for years – especially as America has withdrawn somewhat from its leading role…. This shift is happening as the global systems established by the West face unusual headwinds.

“After 70 years of a world order that has been built by the West on the architecture of Western values, it is certainly striking… how much liberalism is on the retreat – everywhere,” says a senior European diplomat with extensive experience in international affairs but who requested anonymity to more freely discuss the topic.

“Clearly we are in a period of struggle between democratic governance and a more authoritarian vision of rule both nationally and internationally,” says Stefan Halper of the University of Cambridge. “People feel that their culture and identity are under threat, they sense that governing systems are no longer working, and they want some strong response to that.”

Russia, China and Iran have expanded authoritarian soft power in the areas of information, communications technology, ideas and culture where the advanced democracies had been thought to have had a natural advantage, rights, notes Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Soft-power strategy

“It isn’t the fires in the world that are scary, it’s the lack of firemen, as the two pillars of the Western-order fire station, the US and the European Union, are in decline,” says John Hulsman, a longtime US foreign policy analyst.

The spread of Chinese language and culture through Confucius Institutes and other efforts around the world has been part of Beijing’s soft-power strategy for the past decade, notes Yale professor Jing Tsu, who is writing a book on how China has transformed the Chinese language into a global technology. Beijing is now taking this mission into the digital realm, he writes for The New York Times.

The acquisition of AMC Entertainment, the second-largest cinema chain in the US, by Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, has attracted scrutiny from US lawmakers concerned that he is providing the Chinese government a platform to promote communist ideologies, The Guardian reports.

“Expanding China’s cultural influence and cultural soft power around the world is a goal of the party,” says Michael Forsythe, a Hong Kong-based New York Times journalist who has spent years investigating the billionaire’s business dealings. “I don’t think anybody would dispute that. And he is certainly doing that. It’s pretty clear that is what he is doing.”

China used the recent G20 Hangzhou Summit to project its soft power, writes Dr. Simon Shen, Director of Global Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noting that the regime enhanced its reputation amongst developing countries through the viral video on how Obama and his crew were treated on the tarmac of Hangzhou Airport.

The decision by the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand to cancel a meeting with Hong Kong’s elder statesman, founder of the democratic movement Martin Lee, and former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, was shameful – and that is putting it diplomatically, rights activist Benedict Rogers writes for The Huffington Post:

Britain’s David Cameron and George Osborne went way overboard in their fawning subservience to China, as the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s report, titled “The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016”, detailed. Theresa May indicated a new caution, though in the end she bowed to pressure and approved Hinkley Point, a sad day for Britain. Canada’s Justin Trudeau is like a desperate teenage lover slobbering over his uninterested girlfriend. Vancouver even put up Chinese Communist flags to prove Justin’s undying love. How low can one go?

Nevertheless, China is not one of those regimes, like Iran, whose commitment to a world-changing ideology causes it to pursue foreign policies that are damaging to its own security, argues Columbia University’s Andrew J. Nathan. Instead, the Middle Kingdom of today is a realist power, concerned with regime survival, territorial integrity, and protecting access to resources and markets, he writes for The National Interest.

In any case, the “authoritarian market state” has not drawn many converts, says Halper, a life fellow of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge:

Even as Duterte was in Beijing, a national survey in the Philippines found that 76 percent of adults have “much trust” in the US while only 22 percent have “much trust” in China.

“Yes, the West as we know it has collapsed. Indeed, 500 years of the West ordering the world is at an end, and that sounds terrible,” Hulsman adds. But “the good thing in all of this” is that “all these powers we have to work with are broadly on our side.”


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