The globalization of Chinese propaganda: monetizing soft power initiatives


The Vatican and China are planning a first-ever exchange of artworks, as the two states forge ahead with soft diplomacy amid a stalemate in negotiations to heal decades of diplomatic estrangement, AP reports:

The head of the government’s China Culture Industrial Investment Fund, Zhu Jiancheng, told a Vatican news conference that he hoped the exchanges would reinforce friendship, build mutual trust and “contribute to the normalization of diplomatic relations.”

The investment fund is a Chinese government and Communist Party vehicle for monetizing soft power initiatives in media, culture and exhibitions. Its shareholders include the Bank of China, the Ministry of Finance and China International Television Corporation, which operate under orders from China’s Cabinet, the State Council, and the ruling party’s Central Committee led by President Xi Jinping.

Credit: Wikimedia

The decision this month to delay a book, “Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State” (above) has set off a national uproar, highlighting the tensions between Australia’s growing economic dependence on China and its fears of falling under the political control of the rising Asian superpower, the New York Times reports:

Critics have drawn parallels to decisions this year by high-profile academic publishers in Europe to withhold articles from readers in China that might anger the Communist Party. But the case has struck a particularly sensitive nerve in Australia, where the book’s delay is the latest in a series of incidents that have raised concerns about what many here see as the threat from China to freedom of expression.

“The decision by Allen & Unwin to stall publication of this book almost proves the point that there’s an undue level of Chinese influence in Australia,” said Prof. Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University. “Australia is a bellwether,” he said. “If dissent can be stifled here, then it can be stifled anywhere.”

“This is the first case, I believe, where a major Western publisher has decided to censor material critical of China in its home country,” Mr. Hamilton said in an interview. “Many people are deeply offended by this attack on free speech, and people see a basic value that defines Australia being undermined.” “The book shows in great detail the problem of Chinese influence in Australia is much deeper than we thought,” he added.

A leading member of the World Movement for Democracy, Labor MP Michael Danby (right) has warned of China’s rise in “hard power”, praising the “push-back by Australia’s democratic system” against soft power initiatives.

The controversy has drawn attention to the Chinese Communist Party’s “united front” work, which President Xi Jinping has called a “magic weapon” for expanding Beijing’s influence overseas.

United front work internationally serves two primary purposes: to understand what is happening amongst overseas Chinese and to use them to further Beijing’s objectives, said Gerry Groot, a Chinese studies scholar at The University of Adelaide who has extensively studied the trend.

Ethnic Chinese in positions of influence overseas are particularly valuable. “They hope to be able to use those sort of representatives directly or indirectly to help promote positions which are useful to China or to the Communist Party,” Prof. Groot said. “They hope that ethnic Chinese will be much more sympathetic to Chinese positions and be able to persuade audiences in other countries of the validity of those positions.”

Chinese efforts to influence Australian higher education run in parallel with a steady intensification of “ideological education” in the PRC, together with attempts to shape how China is seen by the world through Confucius Institutes, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), and other “soft power” bodies, notes Jonathan Benney, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at Monash University.

In order to understand Beijing’s efforts to expand its international influence it is necessary to examine the power of propaganda in China’s domestic political system, Kingsley Edney argues in The Globalization of Chinese Propaganda: International Power and Domestic Political Cohesion.

It’s wrong to assume that China’s rise is only about its economy, says Hugh White, an ANU professor of strategic studies. “One thing Xi Jinping has to do to legitimize the Chinese Communist Party is not just keep the economy growing, but assert its place in the world,” he says.

China is using its economic muscle to expand its influence and undermine democracy, often employing what the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig call “sharp power.”

China is also strategically growing its use of soft power in other fast-growing markets — namely African economies, analyst Dale Mathias writes for The Hill.

Yet the authoritarian political system of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.), however, ensures that China’s institutional and ideation influence will remain largely unwelcome beyond its borders, argues Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. China’s state-regulated culture has limited appeal within its own borders and no audience beyond them, while foreigners rightly view Party media as propaganda organs, he writes for ChinaFile:

China’s conceptual problem with soft power is more profound and paradoxical. Because the Party believes that only authoritarian governance can provide domestic stability and economic development, it has adopted and become acculturated to secretive, repressive modes of governance and styles of communication. When China employs these domestic practices on the global stage, it repulses foreign audiences—even those that welcome Chinese investment. The Party understands this, but cannot adopt a casual tone or engage in open dialogue abroad while retaining hardline policies at home.

China is spending more than US $10 billion per year in a soft power push, according to analyst David Shambaugh:

Programs include academic exchanges and promotion of language and culture. Among the most visible efforts are Confucius Institutes, government-affiliated teaching and research centres often housed in colleges and universities worldwide. Confucius Classrooms are a similar initiative for primary and secondary schools. There are now 1,579 Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms in operation.

Nevertheless, China was ranked last in Soft Power 30: 2015, the first comprehensive report of the top 30 countries in the world in terms of soft power. It is compiled by the Portland Consulting Group and the University of Southern California Centre on Public Diplomacy, the Straits Times adds.

“China has been making major efforts to increase its ability to influence others without force or coercion,” said Harvard Professor Joseph Nye.

“But as long as the government fans the flames of nationalism and holds tight the reins of party control, China’s soft power will remain limited.”

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