JR’s China Soft Power Summary, July 2012

This guest post comes to SinoMondiale via JustRecently

It’s frequently hard to believe for a nationalist that his or her country may not project as much “soft power” abroad as it would deserve, in the nationalist’s view. Besides, the idea that the inconceivable should be seen as a fact may amount to an insult. But that doesn’t help the task of making China “going towards the world”. Two goals – a certain degree of knowledge about the outside world, and a “mainstream opinion” that tolerates, but dislikes the status quo -, may currently define the propaganda mission.

Huanqiu Shibao, a paper that delicately doubles as a government mouthpiece and as an online gathering point for nationalist readers and commenters, is apparently trying to broaden its domestic readership’s horizon about international affairs, and to educate them into a direction of more tolerance for the world as it is. After all, Huanqiu Shibao is Chinese for, basically, Global Times.

Pretty much the Reader’s Digest way of the 1960s in its discourse with the domestic American public, Huanqiu Shibao tries to bring it home to its readers that not the entire globe would worship their country’s societal model – or its ideas on international relations – quite yet.China’s former ambassador to Vietnam, and Asia-Pacific Research Center director, Qi Jianguo, explained late in July why, against the apparent odds, there would be potential in Vietnamese-U.S. relations.

That’s not to suggest that Beijing wants to put up with the status quo. People’s Daily had harsh words of advice for the American hegemon of global opinion in July: play a more constructive role in the Asia-Pacific region (i. e. shut up about human rights), or get used to being marginalized.
This is, of course, advice to a domestic, rather than American audience. In its editorial on July 12, and reacting to U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton‘s speech on the human-rights issue in Ulan-Batar, People’s Daily continued a CCP propaganda leitmotif that suggests that human rights, especially American definitions of it, would be a dirty word, and an embarrassment to the global public.

Soft power may be dear to many Chinese bureaucrats, but it probably matters more to diplomats, than to military or economic planners. Some of the enthusiasm in the debate about it appears to have abated more than a year ago – and when  by official media a compilation of platitudes on how to disseminate soft power gets hailed as a “masterpiece” by official media (that happened in June), there may be reason to believe that originality is the last thing that matters for an intellectual’s advancement.

At the top of the political hierarchy, things are no different. Jiang Zemin became a must-read for Angela Merkel when Xi Jinping visited Berlin in October 2009. (At any rate, she had to feign interest while Xi made her familiar with the wisdom of what were Jiang’s latest two books at the time.) If you want to become party and state chairman in China, don’t speak your own views. Praise those of your patron instead. No audacity of hope, and hence no soft power either, in Xi Jinping’s case.

And don’t be surprised if any of Xi next international interlocutors get to read a Concise Chinese History Reader – if it happens, it will be because Jiang did it again (he wrote that concise history, or had it written). It would also suggest that Xi still needs Jiang’s patronage.

The Chinese concept of soft power emphasizes not only its role abroad, but its function at home, too. That said, it doesn’t even seem to work in places as close to – or at – home, as Hong Kong. Beijing’s patriotic concepts certainly have their “fans” there, but tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets on July 29th to protest against a planned “patriotic-education” curriculum. Opinion polls of recent months, concerning the central government’s (or CCP’s) image in Hong Kong, hadn’t been encouraging either.

Chinese intellectual debates meant for domestic use are frequently more interesting than those about image-building abroad. That a bit of it emerged in an internationally-read paper, the New York Times, doesn’t necessarily mean that foreigners were the actual target readership. Jiang Qing, a hardcore Confucian (by his own standards, and depending on what you think Confucianism is about), and Daniel A. Bell published an op-ed on the NYT’s online edition on July 10: “A Confucian Constitution for China”. Bizarre (and possibly funny) stuff from a foreign perspective. Bizarre, too, but also worrying stuff from a secular Chinese perspective. Worrying, because in the last resort, the only readership that really matters is Zhongnanhai.

But the apparent ideological competition for the CCP court’s attention may be worrying for Confucians, too: at least some of them appear to think of Confucianism as a participant in a global civilizational dialog, rather than as a state doctrine.

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