China’s Efforts to Win Hearts and Minds Abroad Falter

As part of a special series on Chinese investment in Africa for the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Kaiman reports on efforts by StarTimes, a Beijing-based media and telecommunications firm, to build up Kenya’s broadcast infrastructure while also transmitting Chinese propaganda into Kenyan homes:

StarTimes signals a change in tack, one that highlights the depth and complexity of Beijing’s efforts to win hearts and minds — with much of that effort now being directed at Africa, one of the world’s great emerging media markets.

As a digital infrastructure provider, StarTimes is helping African states transition from analog television — a technology akin to FM radio, rife with snow, static and dropped signals — to digital, which ensures high-quality image and sound. As a pay-TV company, it is stacking its networks with pro-China broadcasts.

As both, it is materially improving the lives of countless Africans, then making China’s role in those improvements impossible to ignore.

“There’s a huge ideological element” to StarTimes’ African operations, said Dani Madrid-Morales, a doctoral fellow at the City University of Hong Kong who has researched the company. “It’s a huge effort to get Africans to understand China. Even the selection of TV shows is very carefully done. It’s very specific shows that showcase an urban China, a growing China, a noncontroversial view of China.” [Source]

See also Kaiman’s report on Chinese investment in railroads in Ethiopia.

In the recently released Soft Power 30 index, China ranked 25th, up three positions from last year. In recent years, the Chinese government has made a coordinated effort to improve China’s image globally by investing huge amount of money and other resources into their own media outreach while also exerting influence and sometimes pressure on foreign media, cultural productions, publishing houses, and academia.

But as Chinese investment increases in developing countries, such efforts have met with mixed results. In Kaiman’s report above, he notes that Kenyan audiences have not easily taken to Chinese cultural content. In the Diplomat, Patrik K. Meyer argues that if the government wants to improve the image of China abroad, they need to focus on interpersonal relationships between Chinese living overseas and the local populations:

Interpersonal relations between Chinese citizens in foreign countries and the local populations are increasingly fundamental to generate and preserve China’s soft power, owing to the large number of Chinese projects and businesses using Chinese labor in developing countries. When western countries establish projects in developing countries, they only send a few of their own citizens to the host country, mostly employed in managerial positions, resulting in very limited interactions with the local citizens. Unlike western countries, China sends large numbers of blue-collar workers to host countries (a contentious issue in itself), who interact extensively with the local population, both on and off the construction sites where they work.

As a result, Chinese white-collar and blue-collar workers become China’s unwitting sociocultural ambassadors and play a fundamental role in building or—more importantly—potentially undermining China’s soft power. So far, it seems that Beijing has underestimated the crucial role that interpersonal relations between its citizens and the local populations play in building and maintaining China’s image and influence. Arguably, poor interpersonal relations are undermining China’s efforts, resulting in host country populations viewing China and the Chinese with dislike, suspicion and even fear.

This is the case in numerous developing countries, primarily in Central and Southeast Asia, as well as in Africa. In a previous article “Could Han Chauvinism Turn the ‘Chinese Dream’ into a ‘Chinese Nightmare’?,” I discussed the increasing interpersonal tensions and disputes between Chinese businessmen and the local populations in Central Asian countries that resulted from ignoring local traditions and values. As a result, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks feel anxious about the increasing Chinese presence and influence in their respective countries.

[…] While Beijing has successfully established robust relations with governments in developing countries, it has, however, failed to guide its citizens in building respectful and constructive interpersonal relations. This has resulted in host communities becoming increasingly anxious about China’s intentions to the point that there have been numerous violent attacks against Chinese citizens and property. Recent cases include the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan and the killing of two Chinese citizens in Pakistan. [Source]

In a South China Morning Post editorial about the Soft Power 30, editors write that China’s soft power will not be effective as long as domestic policies continue to focus on control:

The other way of looking at it is to identify factors that account for China not ranking higher, and lowest among Asian countries, led by Japan in sixth place. The human rights issue and censorship come readily to mind, with another index author, former British Council head Martin Davidson, noting that China’s projection of soft power challenged the concept of universal human rights in favour of socialist values including equality, development and harmony.

Beijing may have good reasons for tightening control from time to time in the interests of social stability, but it needs to be mindful of how this can backfire on the projection of soft power. This is about persuading and influencing people, not about control, which undermines credibility in trying to spread influence. [Source]

Read more about China’s soft power efforts in a CDT interview with the International Forum for Democratic Studies’ Shanthi Kalathil. See also an NED forum, Understanding China’s Soft Power, featuring Freedom House’s Sarah Cook, University of Canterbury’s Anne-Marie Brady, Council on Foreign Relations’ Joshua Kurlantzick, and others.