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Opinion

China's misunderstood soft power

As China tries to polish its image abroad, it resorts to censoring journalists, scholars and filmmakers.

Last updated: 15 Dec 2013 08:19
Helen Gao

Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.
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China tries to practice censorship not only at home but also abroad, writes the author [AP]

There was a time when China had more success convincing the world that it is serious about building its "soft power". It opened news bureaus in prime locations in world-class metropolises, vowing to establish a global media brand that rivals BBC and Al Jazeera. It dispatched thousands of teachers to distant continents, to staff the hundreds of government-funded Confucius Institutes that offer free Chinese-language classes to interested learners. It bankrolled billion-dollar projects in Central and Southeast Asia, while helping to upgrade transportation and energy infrastructure in Africa.

These efforts are still continuing, but the government's latest actions, against foreign media outlets, seem to be the strongest indicator yet of shifting priorities in its dealing with the world. In November, it denied a visa to American journalist Paul Mooney, who became the second correspondent, after Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera, to be forced out of the country in the past two years. Later in the month, it conducted unannounced inspections of Bloomberg's bureaus in Beijing and Shanghai, after media reports that Bloomberg spiked a story on the financial ties between a Chinese billionaire and government officials. Most recently, there is growing concern among two dozens of reporters at Bloomberg and the New York Times, that they might not receive visas from the Chinese government in time to continue their work in China next year.  

Such steps taken by the government, to punish foreign media for their China coverage, have raised international concern. They prompted US Vice President Joe Biden to warn of a possible American retaliation on his recent visit to China. Moreover, China's unrelenting attitude, Western observers argue, suggests that it is "losing interest in soft power". When the government confronts discourses it considers too threatening, it decides, as Evan Osnos in the New Yorker put it, that "being liked is less important than simply surviving."

Regulating critical discourses is part of China's strategy for soft power management, as are its efforts to ramp up its media presence overseas, and form economic ties with developing countries.

Indeed, the party's survival instinct has led to dramatic acts of defiance or silencing before, when it perceived challenges, either from home or abroad, to its right to rule. For example, it reacted heavy-handedly to Liu Xiaobo's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, or to its citizens' fizzled attempt to launch a "Jasmine Revolution" in 2011.

But there is something else to China's dogged endeavours to manipulate foreign discourses on China, which take place not only in the media sphere, but also in academia, entertainment, and a range of other fields. While the world sees these actions as undermining China's effort to build soft power, they may not, in fact, be as inconsistent with China's charm offensive abroad as they seem. Both strategies together shed light on Chinese leaders' particular view on how soft power should work, their approach in pushing it, and why they have not had much success making it appealing to the rest of the world.

The disciplined making of an image

China manages its soft power abroad by following the same logic it does when controlling its domestic discourses: It sees it as a force to be harnessed and shaped, a display of what they believe shows the country at its best. For this reason, the government's efforts have been largely comprised of image-building and disseminating propaganda, as well as economic largess across the world. From staging the most lavish Olympic Games in history, to doling out generous aid to developing countries, China's soft power efforts have been focused on the task to export. Unlike the West, which China has often accused [Zh] of exporting "the so-called universal values", what China is trying to export is often a government-sanctioned image of itself.

It is not a coincidence that the Chinese government's intimidation of China-based foreign media is also accompanied by measures to narrow the range of free expression at home. The communist party distrusts freewheeling discussions, either at home or abroad. It thus never made serious attempt to forge organic ties with the world, by encouraging multi-perspective discourses on China, the kind that actually helps the world understand China in more nuanced terms.

When Western media reports on the hidden wealth of top Chinese leaders - one of the touchiest topics in China - it's safe to say that the party's decision to censor them is largely driven by its fear of the threat such revelations pose on its fundamental legitimacy. But the government is also known to mete out warnings and punishments to foreigners who have committed lesser offenses. In most cases, they were making depictions or promulgating views of China that challenge the party's own narrative, or are simply deemed too unflattering.

Re-writing the script

In a now-famous case in the Sino-sphere in the West, a number of American scholars incited the wrath of the Chinese government after they co-authored a book on China's western province of Xinjiang. The region is home to around 10 million Uighurs, and frequent ethnic conflicts that just this past summer claimed over 100 lives. The scholars had picked a hot-button subject to tackle, but their book is intended more as a broad survey of the region than a politically charged narrative that raises sensitive questions. Still, 13 of the book's 15 authors received sanctions imposed by the Chinese government, either in the form of visa denials or pressure to adopt more China-friendly views in the future. Their exact offense was unclear. "Maybe because they wrote the book, our government thinks that they are not people that should be welcomed," Pan Zhiping, a Chinese scholar who wrote the introduction to the Chinese translation of the book, said to Bloomberg in 2011.

101 East - Inside Chollywood

The "Xinjiang 13" case is far from an isolated incident. Chinese government's meddling with foreign scholarship is a reality China academics across the world have always had to grapple with, said Perry Link, a professor of Chinese literature in a recent editorial. The same challenge is also confronted, to an increasing extent, by Western filmmakers who aspire to capitalise on China's cinema boom. Each year, China allows a fixed number of foreign films to play in its theatres, and Chinese filmmakers also partner with their foreign counterparts to co-produce a number of films to be released domestically. These are coveted opportunities, but accompanying them is an array of demands from Chinese censors that range from antagonising to absurd. In one case, the director for the US-China co-production "Women Warriors of the Yang Family" had to rewrite the script, for it had originally portrayed a beloved Chinese historic character in what the censors saw as inglorious light. In another case, the director for the Australia-China co-produced children's film "The Dragon Pearl" had to go through the same trouble, simply because Chinese authorities didn't like the film's depiction of the dragon.

China's censorship operation is carried out collectively by a number of government organs, and the considerations vary from case to case. What the examples above, and the government's most recent threats to foreign journalists both show is that for a party that does not tolerate domestic dissent, censoring is often a kneejerk reaction even when it encounters criticism from abroad. Regulating critical discourses is part of China's strategy for soft power management, as are its efforts to ramp up its media presence overseas, and form economic ties with developing countries.

China's attempts to censor the world are nothing new, as scholars and journalists have pointed out recently. It is now happening more frequently, both as a result of the government's growing fear of domestic instability, and its increasing confidence on the world stage. China hopes to apply its calculated, top-down approach to soft power to the world, and increasingly believes it can make the world comply. What it would actually accomplish, after stifling its civil society at home where true soft power could be born, is alienating its admirers and observers abroad, who are among the keenest to make the country known to the world.

Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

Follow her on Twitter: @Yuxin_Gao

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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