China losing soft power edge ahead of G20 summit



Until late last month Xi Jinping was looking forward to easy “soft power” victories at this week’s meetings with Angela Merkel in Berlin and the G20 summit in Hamburg — the latest opportunities for China to shine on a global stage, The FT reports:

But news that the country’s most famous political prisoner [Liu Xiaobo, right] is gravely ill has thrown a spanner in the works, exposing the deep gulf that remains between Beijing and Berlin, while lingering trade and economic disputes continue to complicate Sino-EU relations.

“For Beijing the goal is to present itself as a generous, co-operative and friendly power,” says Sebastian Heilmann, president of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “However, the two countries continue to have completely different understandings of basic political order, rule of law and civil society.”

Xi is likely to keep a low profile in Hamburg, suggested Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank.

“While China would like to gradually ramp up the idea of its global leadership, it would be better in Hamburg to keep the attention on Trump and Putin and the aftermath of Brexit,” he told The New York Times.

Recent developments have “facilitated China’s aims in Europe…[and] China’s narrative of being the new defender of multilateralism and especially global free trade,,” said Angela Stanzel, an Asia scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “And it fits into the Chinese idea of creating an alternative leadership to the United States.”

China’s cross-border efforts to promote authoritarian politics are another impediment to its soft power ambitions, observers suggest.

Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a borrowed place [see above] contains some of the most moving pieces you will read about how Hong Kong has changed in the last 20 years. The launch of the book of essays, fiction, poems and cartoons by PEN Hong Kong also turned out to be a test of this city’s tolerance of dissent, The South China Morning Post reports:

The Asia Society Hong Kong Center was the original venue for the launch and readings by contributors but it had one condition: that Joshua Wong Chi-fung, one of the contributors, did not speak at the event. The executive committee of PEN Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation supporting literature and freedom of expression, voted to hold the event elsewhere instead of accepting a demand to exclude the Occupy movement student leader.

“PEN Hong Kong believes building a strong community means generating conversation, not stifling it,” said Jason Y. Ng, President of PEN Hong Kong.

China’s projection of hard power is also at odds with its soft power aspirations [detailed in a recent publication from the National Endowment for Democracy, right], says Harvard University’s Joseph Nye.

“China has limits with soft power. One is its increasing nationalism and its conflicts with neighbors over the South China Sea. It’s hard to attract people and countries to you when you’re in disputes with them,” he said in a recent lecture at Beijing University.

“The other factor is the desire to have tight party control over civil society. If you try to control people you deprive yourself of the richness and diversity,” he added. “So it becomes more difficult to be attractive, it’s not enough to just set up a Confucius Institute in another country.”

But Beijing’s soft power is making inroads in Africa, at least judging by its ability to attract students, an example of “new dynamics [that] might be shaping geopolitics on the continent, according to Michigan State University’s Victoria Breeze and Nathan Moore:

For the Chinese government, providing education to Africans is an extension of China’s soft power — cultivating the next generation of African scholars and elites. The experience that these students get in China can translate into a willingness to work with China and view China’s internal or external policies favorably in the future.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email