The subtleties – and limits – of China’s soft power


The Chinese government has been trying to sell the country itself as a brand—one that has the ability to attract people from other countries in the way that America does with its culture, products and values, The Economist reports:

A decade ago the Communist Party declared a new goal: to build “soft power”, as a complement to its rapidly growing economic and military strength. It spends some $10bn a year on the project, according to David Shambaugh of George Washington University—one of the most extravagant programmes of state-sponsored image-building the world has ever seen. Mr Shambaugh reckons that America spent less than $670m on its “public diplomacy” in 2014…… China’s soft-power push has made some gains. In global opinion polls respondents from Africa tend to be more positive about China than people from other regions. That is partly because of the money China has poured into the continent—in Angola every professional football match is staged in one of four, Chinese-built, stadiums. Younger people everywhere often view China more favourably than older people (see chart).

“But money has not bought China anything like the love it would like. A year before Mr Xi took over, just over half of Americans had positive impressions of China, according to the Pew Research Centre,” The Economist adds. “By the end of 2016 that share had fallen to 38% (see chart). Pew found a similar trend in other countries. In 14 out of 19 nations it polled between 2011 and 2013, views of China became less friendly.”

The limits of China’s soft power were on display in Australia this week.

A 19-gun welcome salute for Chinese premier Li Keqiang was fired over the heads of both protesters and supporters at Parliament House, AP reports:

Tibetan, East Turkestan and Falun Gong groups protesting China’s alleged human rights abuses assembled on the parliamentary lawn in Canberra, separated by barriers from Chinese supporters. “I don’t think Australia should compromise on our values,” ACT Tibetan Community president Sonam Choedon said.

The Economist

On the eve of Keqiang’s visit, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivered an unusually sharp warning to China on its need to move towards democracy, notes Human Rights Watch analyst Sophie Richardson.

“While non-democracies such as China can thrive when participating in the present system…[h]istory shows that the embrace of liberal democratic institutions is the most successful foundation for nations seeking economic prosperity and social stability,” Bishop said during a speech in Singapore on March 13.

Keqiang will be disappointed by reports that Australia has rejected Beijing’s push for an alignment of its A$5bn state infrastructure fund with Beijing’s New Silk Road strategy, over concerns it could damage relations with the US, The FT reports. The Chinese initiative, also known as One Belt One Road, envisages investing $4tn in port, road and rail projects overseas — and Beijing has been pressing Asia-Pacific economies to sign up to its vision.

Australia “should keep good relations with the United States, regardless of changes in US politics and leaders above all because of our common democratic values,” said Australian Labour MP Michael Danby (right), a member of the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy.

China has forced the world’s attention away from its religious repression. The Wall Street Journal notes:

A 24-year-old farmer set himself on fire this weekend in Tibet’s first reported self-immolation of the year, and approximately the 150th since 2009. Pema Gyaltsen intended to protest Chinese repression and call for the return of the exiled Dalai Lama. When relatives went to find him afterward at a local police station, they were beaten severely and detained overnight in harsh conditions. It remains unclear whether he has survived or succumbed to his wounds.

“This report, from Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan Service, is a reminder of the rough authoritarianism that still dominates life for millions of people in China, especially in remote areas with minority populations such as Xinjiang and Tibet,” the WSJ adds.

The Chinese government’s controls over religion have intensified under Xi Jinping, seeping into new areas of daily life and triggering growing resistance from believers, according to a recent report from Freedom House:

The Battle for China’s Spirit examines the evolution of the Communist Party’s policies of religious control and citizens’ responses to them since November 2012, in the first comprehensive analysis of its kind. It focuses on seven major religious groups that together account for over 350 million believers: Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Tibetan Buddhism, and Falun Gong.

“Many spiritual activities practiced freely around the world—from fasting during Ramadan to praying with one’s children or performing Falun Gong meditation exercises—are restricted and can be harshly punished in China,” said Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst at Freedom House and the report’s author. “The scale and severity of controls over religion, and the trajectory of both growing persecution and pushback, are affecting Chinese society and politics far beyond the realm of religious policy alone.”

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