China still on back foot in soft power battlefield

Source:Global Times Published: 2011-3-11 9:03:00

Illustration: Liu Rui

By Cao Jie

The BBC World Service has pronounced that it would stop its Chinese-language broadcast services soon, as a result of government-imposed cuts. The Voice of America will also close its Chinese-language broadcasts.

These were even regarded as a sign that the UK and US were weakening their publicity aimed at China. With the financial constraints imposed by debt crisis, they could no longer afford to spend so much while gaining relatively little. In contrast, China, now the second largest economy in the world, is stepping up its soft power spending.

Yet the BBC is still capable of producing sophisticated documentaries about China's rise that stir up concerns among ordinary people. Take The Chinese Are Coming, a series of recent documentaries which examined the impact of China's increasing presence in Africa and South America. It found that the locals there have numerous complaints and worries toward Chinese, with few appreciating their presence.

It is highly unlikely to hear Western recognition of increasing Chinese economic power as a factor that elicits applause. The central focus is still the negative impact Chinese growth is supposedly having.

"It is Chinese demand for fuel and mines that leads to the severe felling of Brazilian trees." These small points are effective, because they touch on concerns people have in their ordinary lives.

Conceivably, China is still badly disadvantaged on the battlefield of soft power, and the Western countries show no real signs of slowing down the spread of their cultural influence and global publicity. Sometimes the negative reports that adversely affect China's global image derives from Western arrogance, but also exploits from China's inability to verbally and conceptually influence others on spreading a system of values that is in favor of its interest.

Despite efforts to expand, China's foreign-language media attracts tiny audiences globally. And China has been slow and halting in using the power of social media to promote its own image.

There are some optimistic arguments that China is not likely to be stuck permanently in a disadvantaged position in the soft power competition.


The history of the Cold War shows that the competitors in soft power battleground shift positions from time to time.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first intercontinental missile and the first man-made satellite, which convinced some Europeans that the Soviet Union had overtaken the US scientifically and that science was greatly respected in their culture.

The credibility of the Soviet Union in Europe was destroyed when they invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring of 1968. But the same nightmare also applies to the US. The US has successfully achieved an international notoriety in recent years by its unilateral invasion of Iraq and the worldwide financial crisis.

Against this backdrop, China can gain advantage by highlighting its path as an example of peaceful emergence.

This is exactly what China needs to do next. China prefers a peaceful rise with economic prosperity rather than growing itself at the cost of harming others to achieve a self-important hegemony, as the US did in the past. This should be more appealing to other developing countries.

But in order to make the statement clear, China's soft power policy should be updated frequently according to the changing map of global politics.

As heralded by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent speech on the Internet as a tool for US policy and democratic change, media and communication technologies is a vital change that China faces in the competition of modernized soft power.

The West is already mastering this technology, thanks to Facebook and Twitter. China has to learn fast and tell stories well, or it will lost its position on this battlefield.

The author is a UK-based media commentator.

Posted in: Viewpoint

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