Not just brick and mortar, China is working on minds too. Billions of dollars have been spent on setting up Confucius institutes the world over.
It’s Christmas time. If world leaders play secret Santa, here’s the gift that should go to the Chinese— a copy of Dale Carnegie’s all time bestseller — How to Win Friends And Influence people. Because China is failing miserably at it. It wants to be seen as Santa Claus. It is often perceived as the Grinch. Not for want of trying though. According to one report China spends 10 billion dollars every year to boost its image, its soft power. The return on investment has been sub-optimal, much like the BRI.
The Chinese approach is cultural. They even have a word for it. Huairou. Meaning "pacifying and winning the hearts of foreigners through tributary trade.” They always come bearing gifts. But no amount of spending has been able to erase the suspicion in the minds of the recepients. The figures are telling.
China has pledged to invest 1.3 trillion dollars in the BRI as part of Xi Jinping’s vision of collective prosperity. Many countries have witnessed rapid infrastructure growth. Beijing claims to have generated 300,000 jobs for locals. Yet the optimism over development is giving way to concern. Most of these countries have failed to safeguard themselves against the trap of Chinese debt. Chinese investment is becoming a serious political and electoral issue in countries which have signed up for this modern Silk Route.
Not just brick and mortar, China is working on minds too. Billions of dollars have been spent on setting up Confucius institutes the world over. These provide courses in Mandarin language, calligraphy, even cooking. More than 500 such institutes are funded by the Chinese Ministry of Education. And yet China hasn’t been able to burnish its image. These cultural outposts have only attracted controversy.
Which brings us to the media. China is betting big on international media. From the Global Times to CGTN, state funded networks are churning out Chinese propaganda in six languages including English, French, Russian and Spanish with offices in 70 countries. The state run Xinhua news agency plans to have 200 foreign bureaus by 2020. China Radio International airs close to 400 hours of programming every day in more than 3 dozen languages. Now Chinese bureaucrats have taken Twitter by storm, trolling world leaders in their language and style. The Chinese film industry is racing Hollywood — America’s unofficial but most effective propaganda machine.
China has even enlisted pandas in the noble cause of fixing the national narrative. They’re used as temporary “gifts” to special friends in the Chinese checkers of foreign policy.
It’s been a long, sustained drive. More than two decades in the making, but first spoken about only in 2007. At the 17th Party Congress, President Hu Jintao linked “the rejuvenation of China with the country’s ability to project soft power.” Seven years later, in 2014, Xi Jinping said, “we should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world.”
And yet, the struggle to project China in better light continues. Xinjiang and Hong Kong don’t help. Neither do the dwindling economies of countries buried under Chinese debt. But the problem is deeper. Civil society is not free in China. Public participation means the public backing government initiatives without questioning the outcomes. Free trade means giving China free access to your markets while being blocked from the Chinese market. Income inequality is massive. Environmental pollution remains a blot. The government’s claims of corrective measures cannot be independently verified, you have to take their word for it. China’s position on the Favourability Index in most countries remains appallingly low when viewed against the investment it makes there. The lack of sincere political reform, a repressive regime and arbitrary regulations to strengthen the cult of the President do not cover China in glory.
Soft power comes with co-opting, not coercing. You shape preferences through collective good, not cheque-book diplomacy. America, for all its high-handedness and self-serving foreign policy, remains a country where institutions are strong, where the President can be put in the dock, every day. If China wants to replace America as a global leader and wield soft power, it will have to shed some of its selfishness and prove its credentials as a country that can genuinely and transparently benefit others.
Money can only buy you silence, not respect. If China continues to want Sabka Saath and Apna Vikas, it will never earn Sabka Vishwas.
(Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)