Documenting Claims of China’s “Charm Diplomacy”

A recent essay on Chinese “soft power” written not by a US-trained academic, but from within China, provides a chance to find fissures between how and why China is using Western concepts of cultural power on the global stage.  (See Yang Danzhi, “Charm Diplomacy Bears Fruit,” China Daily, April 9, 2012).

The tendency is to read the China Daily as merely a state-controlled paper whose editorial line is relatively monolithic.  But Chinese op-eds — like policy directions, for that matter — are often cobbled together piece by piece, and it is individual academics who bring the issues forward into light, often with telling, revealing, or simply clumsy juxtapositions. Scholars who do not occupy the top chairs in Chinese think-tanks do not drive policy, but they way that they chose to interpret overall policy direction —and the prose that they churn out in that endeavor – can tell us more about the ideological and foreign policy terrain being surveyed in Beijing.

Yang Danzhi, a researcher in the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at (CASS[English]/中国社会科学研究院[Chinese]) provides grist for review today. Because I have not had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Yang, we can only gather a few facts from online ephemera: resume, previous output.  A dissertation, of course, would tell us much more, but with a handful of op-eds over the years, a series of views emerges which is very much in line with the kind of Huanqiu Shibao brand of nationalism.

Yang spent several years in Yunnan Province, on China’s Southwestern frontier, where the presence of India and Southeast Asia is felt far more palpably than in distant, dusty, and dry Peking.  Scholars from the periphery tend to sometimes be even more hardline.

The world looks very different from the China-Myanmar frontier — Photo by Jonah Kessel, courtesy

If more fodder is needed to pinpint the type – an all-purpose pundit with an emphasis on the southern hemisphere — this piece on Sino-Austrialian relations from 2010 is indicative of the tack taken: Australia is “confused” by China’s rise.”

Perhaps not too much should be expected from the scholars in Beijing who do not rise to the level of gravitas of Zhang Liangui, Lv Chao, or the Beida oracle Zhu Feng, particularly when one realizes that back in January 2011 they were writing nice things about North Korea’s impressive asymmetrical warfare capacities which hamstrung “great powers.”

From my somewhat-Chengdu-centric standpoint, Yang’s “Charm Diplomacy” piece is incongruous in the extreme.  Boosterism for one’s country is perhaps to be expected, but to wax rhapsodic about the bright and harmonious future of Sino-Indian cooperation during the BRICS meetings in India while the PLA press was churning out whole public dossiers on the coming conflict in what it calls “southern Tibet” would appear to indicate a certain blind spot.

Franz Bleeker is thanked for his comments on and contributions to this essay

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