China launched a new aircraft carrier as a show of military strength but still struggles with its soft power policies © PA Images
China launched a new aircraft carrier as a show of military strength but still struggles with its soft power policies © PA Images

China's soft power dealt with a heavy hand

26 April 2017

For shoppers around the world, the universal “Made in China” label has long been synonymous with cheap and sometimes unreliable goods.

More recently, however, the Chinese government has been spending billions trying to rebrand its image into one that can attract other countries the way the US did when it took the helm as the world’s superpower.

It is a policy China spends some $10bn a year on, according to The Economist, and is one of the most excessive programmes of state-sponsored image-building the world has ever seen.

Since 2004 China has established some 500 government-funded “Confucius Institutes” in 140 countries offering Chinese language, dance and cooking classes, according to Bloomberg.

Xinhua, a news service run by the Chinese government, advertises itself as a “new perspective” broadcast from its English-language channel. Between 2009 and 2011, it opened nearly 40 new foreign bureaus, bringing its total to 162 and doubling the number of correspondents based overseas.

China has also set its sights firmly on changing its image in the US and has advertised itself in Times Square since 2011. Last year, Xinhua used its billboard there to broadcast a video 120 times a day for two weeks defending China’s territorial ambitions over disputed rocks in the South China Sea, according to Reuters.

There has been a push for foreigners to take up some of its traditional customs by setting out to make Chinese New Year as popular as Christmas. In 2010, the government put on fewer than 100 New Year events in foreign countries. This year, it sponsored some 2,000 events in 140 countries to mark the year of the chicken.

The push has made gains in some countries, according to a Pew Research Centre opinion poll. Respondents from Africa tended to be more positive about China, partly because of the money China has invested into the continent recently. In Angola, every professional football match is staged in one of four Chinese-built stadiums.

China’s soft power policy was announced in 2007 as a complement to China’s rapidly growing economic and military strength. It would focus on improving its image and increasing its influence in the world by exporting its culture, education and ideology.

China’s then president Hu Jintao told the party that the country could not become a great power without creating favourable conditions before strengthening its economic position. Chinese academics say he was acutely aware that people in the West were deeply suspicious of the state’s authoritarian politics, which might stifle trade deals.

However, not all of the Chinese government’s forays into soft power activities have been successful. Telling China’s story as a rising superpower is a key part of its soft power policy, but it hit roadblocks this year when two major Hollywood entertainment deals collapsed.

Firstly, an investment in Paramount Pictures has yet to receive the first payment from a billion-dollar financing deal with partners Shanghai Film Group and Huahua Media, according to South China Morning Post

Then the owner of Dick Clark Productions, producer of the Golden Globes and other award telecasts, announced it had called off the proposed $1bn buyout by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group.

The Chinese-American co-production The Great Wall, with Matt Damon starring as the leading man and directed by Zhang Yimou, also failed at the US box office despite a $150m budget. Movie critics said that Western audiences had lost patience with the “steady parade of Chinese kung fu movies based in some ancient dynasty”. 

Some American legislators recently voiced concerns about Beijing’s influence in Hollywood, with 18 US members of Congress writing a public letter asking the Government Accountability Office to review existing rules that limit overseas investment in strategic US industries, according to the Financial Times

“Should the definition of national security be broadened to address concerns about propaganda and control of the media and soft power institutions?” it said.

It hasn’t helped that China’s soft power efforts have sometimes courted controversy and damaged its own end goal. At a European Chinese studies conference in 2014, the Chinese head of Confucius Institutes Worldwide ordered pages referring to a Taiwanese educational foundation to be ripped from each programme.

In February this year, an official at the Chinese embassy in London warned Durham University not to host a former Miss World contestant, who was born in China but represented Canada, who is a vocal critic of the party.

Analysts at Pew Research Centre argue that attempts at censorship such as these have only helped to reinforce Western misgivings about China’s politics and undermine its soft power goals.

What the Chinese describe as a soft power approach is not actually soft power at all, according to Tom Harper, doctoral researcher in politics at the University of Surry. Instead, the state’s efforts to forcefully spread a flattering image do not fit the classic definition of how soft power is exerted and will be seen as just a programme to get countries on board with specific goals.

So far, after spending billions in improving its image to the world, it seems China still has a lot to do if it wants the world to see it in a better light.

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