Human Rights, Political Control Hit PRC Soft Power

According to a yearly survey published by the consultancy Portland and the University of Southern California, China now ranks 27th in the world for soft power, falling two places since last year. China has made soft power a key policy objective, devoting between $10bn and $12bn a year to improving its image in the world. Liu Zhen of the South China Morning Post assesses the reported dip in its competitiveness:

“China’s record in human rights and civil liberties reflects poorly among Western audiences,” the survey said, adding that “relatively low scores in competitiveness, ease of doing business, and rule of law diminish its attractiveness as a global business hub of choice”.

[…] “International attention concentrated on Xi’s decision to eliminate the two-term limit on the presidency,” it said.

Beijing’s “aggressive military expansion” had also undermined its efforts to build trust abroad, by promoting bilateral relations and through its “Belt and Road Initiative”, the survey said.

[…] “China has great potential to drive the global agenda forward, but increasing demands for authenticity means that its efforts must be congruent with its political and economic pursuits.” [Source]

On the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s China Power Podcast, Professor Stan Rosen of the University of Southern California details China’s soft power roadblock using its film industry as an analogy: its films cannot both adhere to China’s “socialist core values” and be popular internationally.

“One of the reasons, ironically, of why the U.S. is so strong and China is so weak, is that Hollywood films are completely separate from the American government. […] Soft power is inseparable in China from government actions.

[…] One of the reasons why American films are so successful and you can see how it’s separated from the government, if you look at the heroes, or the anti-heroes in American blockbuster films like Tony Stark in Iron Man, these are anti-heroes, going against the government. You can’t conceive of a Chinese film having an anti-hero. You have these patriotic films like the most recent Jackie Chan film Railroad Tigers where the enemy is the Japanese, they are treated in a cartoonish way, the heroes are all Chinese, that doesn’t enhance your soft power. If you’re willing to accept criticism of your own government and your own policies, then you’ll have a much better of job of gaining soft power.” [Source]

This alleged inability for critical self-assessment is cited as the main reasoning behind the wide disparity between Chinese and Asian youth opinion on China’s rise, according to Professor Zhai Yida of Shanghai Jiaotong University, in his paper in the Journal of Contemporary China:

Chinese youth optimistically believe that China’s rise will not threaten global order, which is different from the various concerns expressed among Asian youth […]. Only 13% of Chinese youth surveyed agree that China’s rise will threaten global order, while over half of respondents in other Asian societies expressed their concerns.

[…] Chinese youth tend to attribute negative evaluations of China among Asian youth to external reasons. Chinese young people view these negative evaluations as the results of Asian youth misunderstanding Chinese foreign policy, Western propaganda about China’s threat, objective conflicts of interest, and geopolitics. They have a China-centered worldview and criticize or blame their Asian counterparts for negative evaluations of China. There is nothing wrong with China in their eyes. [Source]

As a result, China has adopted alternative means of generating positive discourse abroad, and quell dissenting voices in its diaspora, notably via its disguised provision of free content to over 200 Chinese-language publications overseas, examined this week by Emily Feng at the Financial Times:

Since 2010, the UK-Chinese Times […] has partnered with the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist party. The result is that, as well as publishing an insert from the People’s Daily, the UK-Chinese Times runs dozens of articles identical to those printed by official Chinese media.

[…] Using third-party outlets to mask party content has become such a common tactic that party officials have even given it a name — “borrowing boats to go to sea”, meaning to use another’s resources to fulfil one’s goals.

Beijing’s increased global economic clout has put additional pressure on Chinese-language media abroad. In Canada, companies that depend on cultivating business relationships with the mainland also enforce compliance to China’s party line by dangling much-needed advertisement money in front of Chinese-language media. [Source]

China’s influence in Western media is well-documented, but the scope is truly worldwide, as Sam Geall and Robert Soutar note in their article on China and Latin American media for the Jamestown Foundation. Writing in The Journal for Democracy, Christopher Walker provides a wealth of global examples, elaborating on the recently introduced concept of “sharp power”—”sharp” in that it intends to penetrate or pierce through the natural vulnerabilities of democratic states’ free spheres of Culture, Academia, Media, and Publishing:

[T]he PRC’s influence operations aim to discourage challenges to its preferred self-presentation, as well as to its positions or standing. More specifically, the party-state likes to paint China as a benign force in the world. In order to look more appealing in democratic societies, the communist regime is not above clothing itself in the vestments of soft power. State-funded research centers, media outlets, people-to-people exchange programs, and the network of Confucius Institutes mimic civil society initiatives that in democracies function independently of government. Meanwhile, local partners and others in democracies are often unaware of how tightly China controls social groups, media, and political discourse.

[…] In early 2018, PRC authorities announced the creation of a new media and information super-network called the Voice of China. A release from Xinhua, the PRC’s official news agency, makes it clear that this information behemoth will operate under the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department. Its mission is promoting the “theories, political line, and policies of the Party,” and one of its tasks will be “to channel hot social topics.” [Source]

This “” can lead to self-censorship, as seen in 2017 with Cambridge University Press’ blocking of Chinese access to 315 articles from its China Quarterly journal at the request of Chinese authorities, or the publisher of Clive Hamilton’s book Silent Invasion pulling out, for fear of Chinese legal action. Furthermore, because is often pre-emptive, many examples are never publicized. It is therefore impossible to know the full reach of Chinese “sharp power.”
Though China’s influence in foreign media is widespread, in response to her investigation, Emily Feng and journalist Keith Zhai both note that its strength in shaping discourse may be overstated:

Elsewhere, Willy Wo-Lap Lam writes at the Jamestown Foundation that the motives behind Chinese influence abroad are many and varied, and countries are beginning to resist:

Along with numerous reports in the Western media about PRC efforts to buy cultural and political influence in the US, the EU, and Australia, the White House document speaks to increasing awareness of the hard edges of Chinese soft power projection: namely, gathering intelligence and pilfering IPR so as to speed up China’s transition to a full-fledged superpower. Espionage, illegal IPR acquisition, and influence peddling have become part and parcel of China’s soft power push. The result has been an unprecedented pushback from Western nations.

[…] From the beginning of its term the Trump White House has singled out Chinese multinationals—especially high-tech firms—accused of stealing IPR belonging to US tech companies. During the past year, however, Washington has also begun to address potential threats to American national security from groups such as PRC students and businesspeople. In Congressional testimony earlier this year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said his agency believed that a portion of PRC students and scholars in the United States could be functioning as spies.

[…] Canberra has also taken extraordinary measures to curb PRC lobbying—and PRC soft power projection in general—since the 2015 release of a documentary on PRC influence-peddling in Australia, produced by the Fairfax media group with the help of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), Australia’s equivalent of the US FBI. The piece exposed how PRC-born business moguls sought to influence Australia politics by making hefty donations to politicians from major parties. These businessmen, who in many cases had become naturalized Australian citizens, also supported pro-Beijing Chinese newspapers and the research of PRC-friendly academics. [Source]