Is China Squandering its Soft Power Investments?

Following a series of damaging stories this year, notably the ousting of Bo Xilai and escape of Chen Guangcheng, The Atlantic’s Damien Ma argues that “for all the financial muscle thrown behind shaping its global image, Beijing may have squandered more soft power in the last few months than it has accrued in years“:

… The collective global attention paid to the world’s number-two economy has increased drastically in the media and within policy circles. Call it the “post-Olympics effect.” The triumphalism of the 2008 Beijing Games and the ensuing collapse of the global economy dramatically altered the extent and scope to which the world focused on China. Just a little over three years later, a “China story” is bound to splash across the front page of major U.S. papers week after week. The breadth and detail of coverage have increased significantly too. Many more Americans now likely know that there’s a gargantuan Chinese city called Chongqing and that its leader is in serious trouble. And many more will have heard of Vice President Xi Jinping. In 2002, how many people knew who Hu Jintao was or what a politburo standing committee was?

It is a given that this level of attention will persist. What is not clear is how China will ultimately adapt. While it’s theoretically positive for American public knowledge about China to grow, for Beijing, such endless attention is highly uncomfortable and unwelcome. What’s more, some of that attention carries the expectation that China should behave more like a top-two power. Even before the recent slew of political and human rights troubles, Beijing spurned the idea that it must play a more expansive global role, especially if that meant big distractions from the home front. In light of recent events, China may have had a point: The image it has projected lately is not of a country that is strutting onto the world stage confidently and unencumbered.

Two important components of China’s soft power plan are its network of Confucius Institutes—see The China Beat for two posts on the University of Kentucky’s—and its overseas expansion of state media organisations. The Guardian reported on Monday that China Daily is soon to launch an African edition:

The African operation of the state-run China Daily will generate a range of Africa-specific content. It is to be based in Johannesburg, South Africa, with another office pencilled in for Nairobi, Kenya, reports said.

The aim is to promote China’s interests in Africa, particularly mineral exploitation and easy immigration policies, and to counter what is seen in some countries as a negative reputation, a source said. “This is a massive thing,” the source said. “China sees Africa as the ultimate source of the minerals it needs for economic growth ….”

It is not clear how widely China Daily’s African edition will be published or who its target readership is. “I don’t think that is the priority now,” the source added. “This is a symbolic move. They are working it out as they go along ….”

Although the paper is state-owned, Gao said the paper had an independent editorial policy and its editorial board members were not government officials. “We do run reports criticising government and suggesting measures on how it should improve.”

While commentary on China’s soft power drive and global image tends to be unfavourable, a BBC World Service survey [PDF] suggested that Beijing’s efforts may in fact be bearing fruit. Responses from 22 countries suggested that positive views of China have jumped over the past twelve months, continuing the trend of the two previous years. Favourable impressions of China are spreading faster than those of any other country, and at the current rate will overtake those of the UK, Canada and Germany to take second place behind Japan next year. The survey finds China, like the US, to be relatively polarising, but shows negative impressions dropping as sharply as positive views are rising.

The poll … finds that views of China have improved significantly over the last year, in both the developing and industrialised world, and that the country has now overtaken both the EU and the US ….

Germany, the most positively regarded nation last year, has seen its positive ratings drop from 60 to 56 per cent. This puts Germany in second place behind Japan, which is now rated most positively—by 58 per cent on average, up two points from last year. Canada (rated positively by 53%) and the UK (by 51%) are the third and fourth most positively viewed countries.

Positive views of China rose from 46 to 50 per cent on average. They jumped particularly sharply in the UK (up 19 points), as well as in Australia, Canada, and Germany (all up 18 points). These gains follow modest rises between 2010 and 2011.