Chinese Soft Power’s Perfect Storm

A civilization that sometimes claims 5000 years of history, and can easily claim 2000, made some of the world’s greatest inventions first, has become the second largest economy, and is set to have great influence – but then, the government denounces the one minority nation’s international figurehead as only sounding peaceful, and really being a “wolf,” arrests people who are already in the international spotlight and don’t seem to do much more than speak their minds,… and then, there is a stated drive to develop greater “soft power,” improve standing in the world’s opinion.

It’s easy to just claim that “they” are different, throw one’s hands up in exasperation and leave it at that. Almost as easy to point to some well-known of those differences and say that that’s it. The issue is also fertile ground for an attempt to look deeper.

One point that is often emphasized is that, even as there are complaints about being misunderstood, misrepresented, and mis-interpreted, the international public does not matter nearly as much as the national audience. Many of those same things that garner so much attention abroad will (of course) not be broadcast in-country, or only with the right spin – and as long as the world doesn’t give up on trade, realpolitik wins over any concern about soft power.

Still, there’s something missing. As long as the wealth gap is not too apparent and there is a chance to join the ranks of the rich (including without knowing somebody who knows somebody…), the citizenry’s focus will be on their own lives, not remote politics, anyways. So, why not allow some more leeway and garner the better reputation it would bring?

In a country stereotypically well-known for the importance of “face,” one would like to assume that it would be considered a good thing. One would also misunderstand. Part of the current conception of a good reputation, conflated with notions of harmony, appears to be that no one loudly challenges it. You are not only, or not necessarily, as good as you act, but as good as the others say you are. When you have a family member going around and talking to non-family about your dirty laundry, he has to be brought back in line, doesn’t he?

It doesn’t help that there may be a vestige of “middle kingdom”-think holding China as the pinnacle, together with an insecurity over national weakness. In fact, the two go together rather well: you must be weak (have a “weak culture,” as I’ve found it stated before) when your way of seeing and doing things is just *the* way, but the others don’t realize it…

That’s just the way we do it (and you don’t/can’t understand) is easily the most detrimental attitude I’ve found. Whether it’s teaching method, business culture, or politics, once you tell somebody that they do not or cannot understand, you give them no chance to prove otherwise, and excuse yourself from having to make any effort.

In all too many official announcements, the language clearly speaks to such an approach: it is a direct translation (and oftentimes somewhat faulty at that) of official talk, not tailored to the international audience. Making no effort to speak the language, going beyond the surface of the words and grammar, communication is likely to fail.

Chinese expats should be in a position to serve as a bridge, if they really learned enough about the outside world to understand how to talk there. They too are only too likely to encounter a “that’s the way we do it,” though. Maybe in an even worse way, because they are supposed to understand – even Gary Locke, as U.S. President Obama’s new ambassador to China, is supposed to understand China better, simply through his being Chinese by descent. Since you understand, you should understand how things are done: this way, not the foreign devil’s…

It doesn’t particularly help that any group of people who deem themselves in possession of the truth (and/or are in power and want to remain there), are only too likely to fall into a group-think where outside concerns are deemed irrelevant at best, and something to actively erase at worst. And since it’s for the best, “the truth,” it doesn’t much matter what methods you use.

Admittedly, it remains difficult for the outsider to understand – it always is difficult to know what somebody else is thinking. There may easily be some exaggerated reaction because hardliners are over-cautious, trying to nip any potential problems in the bud. It’s also happening in a more positive way, e.g. when inflation and housing prices – much graver concerns for the average person – are addressed and a shift of focus from mere GDP growth to wider concern signals further understanding of what people want.

The foreign knee-jerk reaction isn’t of much use, either. Sure, it feels comfortable to see preconceived notions validated, and when the other side makes it so easy to see them in a certain light, it’s not surprising when “martyrs are created” (as Richard Burger put it).

Progress, however, is only achieved when you learn to view initial reactions and interpretations with caution, and try to see beyond the surface of (what you think) is happening. This step beyond is difficult; it leads into terrain that is uncomfortable. Someone should take it, though.

4 thoughts on “Chinese Soft Power’s Perfect Storm

  1. Great post. You’ve hit the nail on the head with this one. China’s actions in international affairs lately do not seem like those of a mature state (with 5000 years of history) but like the new state that China really is (with 60 years of party rule). It’s handling of the arrest of Ai Weiwei in particular shows their duplicitous nature, telling the rest of the world that these actions are in full accordance with the law, and then hiding this arrest from their own people until they can decide how to spin the bad news.

    1. Thank you. “Duplicitous” it sure looks like, but that’s exactly the kind of thing that gets me so interested in these issues – I think from the inside perspective it may be seen rather differently. Then, calling it duplicitous shows that the frame of reference is a different one… but what is it that’s at work there? Either misunderstanding or disregard for outside perspectives, for sure, but inside views tend to be a bit more consistent. At least part of that, I think, is explained by the focus on and understanding of harmony…

  2. I have lost count how many times I have met someone in the West who insists, with utmost adamancy, that China’s presentation of itself is out of whack with its words to a degree that is, by “Western standards,” shameful.
    And I have often wondered just what standards they were talking about. Are they the standards by which one’s country invaded another on trumped-up info about WMDs? Or are they the standards by which they flexed their military muscle at anyone who was perceived to be inimical at the moment? It is a puzzling concept to anyone who has spent a sufficient percentage of their life in countries that have historically sustained a low income, and (consequently) have little voice on the international stage.

    @Tom:
    Am I correct to presume, in your reckoning, it is not “duplicitous” to run secret prisons abroad where foreign nationals can be held indefinitely without a trial, as long as it is done by an established Western power?
    And do us all a favor by laying off the facile characterization of countries as “mature” or “immature”; you are starting to sound like the country club doyenne who sticks her nose up in the air whenever the new member walks in.
    Better yet, why don’t you put your theory of China’s “immaturity” in front of a local audience and see whether you will get a chorus of agreement or (derisive) laughter. It will be a valiant effort of communication on your part.

    1. Language, please (at the risk of sounding like a schoolmaster ;-) )
      I can’t speak for Tom, but the characterization of China as immature was probably influenced simply by the pieces which argued that China was acting like a teenage boy who’s developed big muscles and an accompanying swagger, but didn’t quite know how to handle himself…

      Now, while I don’t appreciate when the language gets a bit too hostile, the argument that we simply tend to overlook what established countries are doing is a very worthwhile can of worms. (I think it may be going even deeper, into an implicit evolutionism in which – “naturally” – *we* are always at the top, whether that’s China, the US, or Europe.)
      Understanding starts with taking a good hard look at yourself, yes… The usual “you do that and want to lecture us?!?” is more than stale, though; somebody will have to take the step outside that merry-go-round of mutual accusations and actually do something different. It may not be a valiant stance in the way those are usually considered, but might actually be worthwhile.

And what's your take?