Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye Jr. grades China’s efforts to spend heavily on its soft power resources over the past five years, arguing that it has “had a limited return on its investment.” From The Wall Street Journal:
Great powers try to use culture and narrative to create soft power that promotes their national interests, but it’s not an easy sell when the message is inconsistent with their domestic realities. As I told the university students, in an Information Age in which credibility is the scarcest resource, the best propaganda is not propaganda.
The 2008 Olympics was a success abroad, but shortly afterward China’s domestic crackdown on human rights activists undercut its soft-power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but it was followed by the jailing of Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo. His empty chair at the Oslo ceremony was a powerful symbol. And for all the efforts to turn Xinhua and China Central Television into competitors for CNN and the BBC, there is little international audience for brittle propaganda.
Now, in the aftermath of the Middle East revolutions, China is clamping down on the Internet and jailing human rights lawyers, once again torpedoing its soft-power campaign. No amount of propaganda can hide the fact that blind human rights attorney Chen Guangcheng recently sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Update: In an article in Yale Global, Frank Ching similarly writes about how the recent scandals involving former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng have undermined China’s soft power efforts. From the introduction to his article:
China invests billions on Confucius Institutes and CCTV broadcasts to spread Chinese language, culture and perspectives on world news. But China’s harsh authoritarian rule, exposed by a few incidents or individuals attracting global attention, can undermine efforts to build soft power through a stream of crafted messages, reports journalist Frank Ching. Recent events highlight internal struggles and absence of the rule of law: a brief stay at the US Consulate of a former Chongqing deputy mayor and police chief; abrupt removal of the Chongqing party secretary in March and investigation of his wife for the murder of a British businessman; and then the escape of a blind legal-rights activist from house arrest, who also turned to the US Embassy for refuge. China insists that the incidents are internal matters and blasts US interference. Censorship attempts only suggest infighting behind the public face of order and stability, undermining China’s effort to win global respect.
See also previous CDT coverage of Chinese soft power.