In 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping set out the aims of Chinese soft power in this way: “To give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s messages to the world”.
“To be portrayed as a civilised place featuring a rich history, with good government and developed economy, cultural prosperity and diversity and beautiful mountains and rivers.”
The Chinese leadership, starting with President Hu Jintao in 2007, understands that if China is to become a truly global power then it needs soft power.
It’s a recognition that for nations to be powerful they need more than economic might and military threat.
They have to have soft power — the ability to coax and persuade other countries that their culture and values are desirable. That’s the key difference with hard power. It’s not coercive, and it’s determined by its ability to appeal and attract.
After commissioning research on China’s international image in the late 2000s the Chinese leadership identified “the threat theory”, that much of the Western world sees China as distinctly unfriendly.
Since then, the government has been trying to refashion its image overseas and has poured $10 billion into promoting Chinese traditional culture and language.
They’ve set up 500 Confucius institutes in 140 countries to do so. They’re building a global movie-making business to take on Hollywood, recasting stories with the Chinese as the good guys. And they’ve massively increased the reach of their state media outlets CCTV and the China Daily to an international audience.
Australia has been fertile ground for China’s soft power. Fourteen Confucius Institutes have been established at Australian universities, and 60 schools around Australia have introduced Confucius classrooms.
Chinese food, and the nation’s ancient and grand culture have been selling points, as well as the contemporary narrative of its economic miracle of lifting half a billion people out of poverty in just three decades.
Increasing perception that donations come with conditions
The Four Corners revelations this week that China is attempting to interfere in Australia’s democratic processes and is trying to stifle freedom of speech have gone a long way to undoing this work. In fact it has all the hallmarks of hard power.
For many Australians, it has just enforced an image that the Chinese Government is heavy-handed and has little respect for Australian values and culture.
The perception is hardening that Chinese donations to Australian universities, or the generous funding given over to scholarships, comes with conditions — that the lack of human rights in China or the independence of Taiwan or Tibet cannot be discussed.
The man who invented the notion of soft power and inspired the Chinese top leadership to take up the cause, Joseph Nye of Harvard University, says using force or giving money to coerce is a fundamental flaw of the Chinese attempts at soft power.
At a recent lecture at Peking University Professor Nye said this:
“China has limits with soft power. One is its increasing nationalism and its conflicts with neighbours over the South China Sea. It’s hard to attract people and countries to you when you’re in disputes with them.”
“The other factor is the desire to have tight party control over civil society. If you try to control people you deprive yourself of the richness and diversity.”
“So it becomes more difficult to be attractive, it’s not enough to just set up a Confucius Institute in another country”.
Perhaps the Chinese don’t fully understand the true nature of soft power. At the moment it seems to be used as a platform for nationalistic propaganda directed by the Chinese Communist Party.
Behind closed doors there’s probably fury and outrage at the allegations in the Four Corners report and how it has damaged China’s soft power attempts in Australia.
The only public comment the Government has made is to say “the report was groundless and extremely irresponsible” and that “China is committed to friendly exchanges on basis of mutual respect and benefit”.
The way the Chinese conduct their affairs in Australia is unlikely to change. They seem to be exporting their template of how business and politics is done in China to Australia’s shores.
By Matthew Carney