Is China’s new communications worldview coming of age?

By David Bandurski — In China, the term “soft power” (软实力), coined by political scientist Joseph Nye in the late 1980s, took some time to gain traction. But since emerging in official party newspapers in late 2001, the idea — and the project — of “soft power” has become something of an obsession. This is true not only in the field of international relations but in the arena of journalism and mass communications as well.

The first use of “soft power” in China’s official party media came on November 15, 2001, in Guangming Daily, a newspaper published by the Central Propaganda Department.

The article in question celebrated China’s successful bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, and concluded:

In sum, the true nature of the “humanistic Olympics” [a term China used during its bid] is, while emphasizing the “hard power” of our country, to place a stronger emphasis on improving and raising our nation’s “soft power” . . .

Since that early use of “soft power” the term has had a much more prominent place in mainland news coverage. Here are what the numbers looked like through the end of last year:

soft power in the papers

[ABOVE: Appearance by article of the term “soft power” in mainland print publications 1998-2008. Source: WiseNews.]

“Soft power” development now seems to be an area of particular interest for communications scholars in China. As well it should be. China’s leaders are now talking seriously about the need to raise the voice of Chinese news media internationally as part of a kind of centralized “soft power” strategy.

They are staking big money on this strategy as well (a boon possibly for strategic thinkers from China’s journalism schools), all of it focused on central party media that can be trusted to mind their propaganda P’s and Q’s. “China’s voice,” after all, is a matter of strategic national importance. And China’s only legitimate voice, from the standpoint of the CCP, is the party’s.

When China’s top propaganda leader, politburo member Li Changchun (李长春), delivered a speech on the occasion of Journalist’s Day on November 8, he placed heavy emphasis on the need for news media to “coordinate overall national interests on both the domestic and international fronts” (统筹国内国际两个大局).

This signaled the further maturation of the party’s new thinking on its media policy for the era of digital global communications, for what we have called Control 2.0.

Gone is the old way of thinking strategically about communications and their control, in which the domestic and international spheres could be conveniently compartmentalized. In the era of globalized communications, the “external,” or duiwai (对外) has a potentially profound effect on the “internal,” or duinei (对内).

The CCP’s old information worldview might have looked something like this:

old communications world view

It might now look something more like this . . .

new information world view

. . . in which China’s internal communications concerns — so crucial to its concerns about stability and national security — are inextricably linked with its external communications concerns and strategies.

As Zheng Baowei (郑保卫), a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China and director of the university’s Research Center of Journalism and Social Development, argues in a recent piece of official scholarship published in CCP media journal China Journalist:

Experience shows that now the relationship between externally directed and internally directed communications, domestic and international communications, are reciprocal and mutually influential in nature. We truly have a situation in which “I am in you, and you are in me” (你中有我,我中有你), in which domestic problems can very easily bring an international reaction, and international problems can very easily have an effect domestically . . .

Professor Zheng also writes about a “butterfly effect” (蝴蝶效应) in global communications and public opinion, in which “the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in the Atlantic can potentially create a seismic wave in the Pacific.”

The news and communications aspect of China’s global “soft power” push is an important strategic attempt to grapple with the domestic and international challenges emerging in the age of globalized information.

China’s media “soft power” is emerging, of course, as a centralized strategy underpinned by hard media controls at home, by the monopolization and manipulation of information.

Nye talks about “soft power” as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion and payment.” The CCP’s vision of “soft power” looks rather more like “attractive coercion.”

This is visible in Zheng’s definition of “soft power” as “[a nation’s] news transmission capacity, cultural influence and capacity to channel public opinion” (“以信息传播力、文化影响力和舆论引导力为主的’软实力'”]. The focus here is on the CCP’s “discourse power” internationally, which is of course reinforced by its domestic monopolization of media and culture.

Strategic media and communications thinkers in China understand Nye’s notion of attraction in authoritarian terms, and their primary concern is with how to make news/propaganda that serves the CCP’s objectives more attractive to global audiences.

It is about marketing and re-packaging propaganda.

This is of course why, in Zheng’s (and other’s) formulation, concepts like “objectivity” and factual reporting must work as tools serving the higher goal of fashioning a more favorable image of China overseas.

Take, for example, this darkly humorous passage on the need to report objectively and “speak the truth through facts”:

By “speaking through facts” one can . . make the audience willingly submit to and accept the ideas and opinions conveyed by the disseminator.

Journalists must learn to objectively, reliably and simply convey the facts they have seen and then imbed within these objective accounts the point they wish to explain, in order that when the audience receives the facts reported by the journalist they unknowingly accept various standpoints and viewpoints contained therein. This is the ideal to which news and communications must aspire, and it is one of the most important arts and techniques a news journalist must grasp.

China’s journalists should aspire, in other words, to think professionally and commercially about their role as propagandists.

Anyhow, it should also be pointed out that Zheng is a State Council expert under special government allowance. He is one of a number of communications scholars helping the CCP sharpen its thinking on its global information strategy. [More on the research objectives of his center here].

A more or less full translation of Zheng’s article in China Journalist follows:

Enhancing soft power, using ‘smart power’ to effect: thoughts on our country’s present strategy for external news transmission
China Journalist
By Zheng Baowei (郑保卫)
October 30, 2009

1. “Soft power,” “smart power” and news [or journalism] and communications

The concept of “soft power” comes from Joseph Nye, an American professor from Harvard University. He separates a country’s comprehensive national strength into “hard power” and “soft power.”

“Hard power” refers to the material conditions of a nation’s strength, including its military might, the strength of its economy and its technological prowess.

“Soft power” points to a nation’s influence in the areas of culture and ideology, including its capacity to transmit ideas and information (信息传播力), the influence of its culture, its capacity to channel [global] public opinion, and the level and capabilities it shows in its participation in international institutions.

The state and condition of a nation’s “soft power” decides and influences that country’s comprehensive strength [internationally] and has an important bearing on its existence and development.

In the news and communications sphere, the key to “soft power” competition lies in enhancing the information propagation force (信息传播力) and public opinion channeling capacity of news media, and through this means expanding the influence of news media themselves, ultimately reaching the objective of increasing the nation’s soft power.

The information propagation and public opinion channeling functions of the news media make them important methods and tools for increasing a nations “soft power.”

By reporting and commenting on the news, news media exert influence on the public and channel public opinion, which creates cohesiveness among the people, brings resolution and unity, joins forces for the building of the nation, and through these means manifests the strength and value of “soft power.”

Another concept from Joseph Nye is that of smart power. He says that a combination of soft power and hard power forms a national strategy called “smart power.” At America’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center called the Smart Power Commission has been established for the purpose of promoting the use of “smart power” in foreign policy planning in order to preserve America’s international image.

When Hilary Clinton was appointed Secretary of State, she moved quickly to employ this concept [of “smart power”] in the foreign policy arena. During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as she talked about the new foreign policy thinking and direction of the Obama administration, she said that America must make effective use of “smart power” in order to strengthen its foreign relations. This “smart power” encompassed foreign relations, economic, military, political, legal, cultural and other methods. She emphasized that “smart power” must be used as a bolster and support, and that foreign relations (and not military might) would be the centerpiece of American foreign policy in the future. This means that America sees “smart power” as the guiding force of its policies overseas in the future.

According to Joseph Nye, “smart power” should be separate from the “hard power” embodied in military, economic and technological strength. And it should be separate from the “soft power” embodied in [a nation’s] news transmission capacity, cultural influence and capacity to channel public opinion. It is a special sort of power resulting from the intertwining of “soft power” and “hard power.” [NOTE: In this passage Zhang defines “soft power” in uniquely Chinese terms, as: “以信息传播力、文化影响力和舆论引导力为主的“软实力”]. In this sense, we can understand “smart power” as an aiding intelligence (借助智慧) and technique by which [a country], through various means, can effectively exhibit and expand its vested power (or hard power) and its influence (or soft power).

The key to determining whether a nation has “smart power” or not lies in whether or not it is able to use various means in order to perfectly exercise, demonstrate and develop the reserves of hard and soft power it has at its disposal.

“Smart power” is both a technique and a kind of ability and capacity. Experience shows that it is insufficient for a nation to have only “strength” (hard power) and “influence” (soft power). It must also be able to apply this strength and influence cleverly, adeptly, and at the right time and place. Only through the adept use of “smart power” can one best one’s opponents and achieve success.

“Using smart power adeptly” (善用巧实力) in the area of news and communications means being skilled at using the right knowledge and techniques, and demonstrating and voicing through the medium of news and information your nation’s strength and influence. This means, at the same time, showing and realizing the transmission capacity and public opinion channeling capacity of the news media themselves. [NOTE: The assumption in this last sentence seems to be that news media work as a function of the state, and making these media strong and influential should itself be a core national strategy.] 同时要发挥和体现出传媒自身的信息传播力和舆论引导力 . . .

The basic task of our nation’s news media as they are directed overseas (我国的对外新闻传播) is to allow the world understand China and to allow China’s voice to be conveyed to the world. In this process, the news media have the important mission of raising our nation’s soft power.

The news media can employ timely, accurate and comprehensive news reports that are at the same time vivid, visual and concrete to show the reform achievements, constructive accomplishments and history and culture of our country, as well as the thoughts and customs of our people — and through this means influence viewers overseas.

Aside from this, the news media can use our country’s efforts to achieve economic growth and cultural progress, its efforts to fight poverty, achieve sustainable growth, to create a harmonious society and to thoroughly build a well-off society — and they can use our country’s honest, friendly and responsible attitude toward the international community and its concern about world piece and development . . . to win the trust and approval of international society, creating a favorable national image of China and enhancing China’s international influence.

When the international community is in the midst of quarrel or conflict, particularly when there are dramatic changes in international affairs, the news media can use the means of news and public opinion to emit China’s voice, to make clear China’s position, point of view and value judgements, and as much as possible to earn approval for these points of view and opinions by international public opinion.

In recent years, as the international position of our nation has been raised and interaction with the outside world has grown, the world has paid much more attention to China. People of many nations wish to better understand China’s principles, viewpoints and policies concerning major international issues. They want to understand China’s major decisions and changes in the areas of politics, the economy, military affairs, foreign policy, technology and culture. They want to understand China’s vast territory, its ancient history and resplendent culture. They want to understand the lives, thoughts and customs of China’s rich and varied population. Taking this content is transmitting to overseas audiences in a timely, accurate and comprehensive manner is the important task of overseas directed news and information in our country.

2. Enhancing the soft power and smart power of our nation’s news media in overseas directed communications

It is the author’s view that in order to strengthen soft power and adeptly use smart power, the following strategies and methods must be adopted by our nation in the area of overseas directed news and information.

1. Coordination of our overall national interests on both the domestic and international fronts

Hu Jintao said in his speech during the visit to People’s Daily last year that: “Along with changes in the international situation, along with the steady expansion of our nation’s opening to the outside world, China is more and more intimately connected with the world. In order to accomplish the work of the party and the nation we must coordinate our overall national interests on both the domestic and international fronts (必须统筹国内国际两个大局). In running the newspapers [or media] our comrades must also coordinate our overall national interests on both the domestic and international fronts. I hope our comrades maintain solid footing at home as they turn to the world, steadily raising the quality and effectiveness of People’s Daily‘s international news reports.”

This [statement] arises out of a macro-strategic consideration for the coordination of our overall national interests on both the domestic and international fronts, and emphasizes that news work must also coordinate domestic and international aspects . . .

As new technologies have emerged of late, particularly the emergence of the internet and other new media, these have broken through the original temporal and spacial limitations of information exchange and cultural dialogue. They have also broken through the original regional barriers and political barriers on news, information and public opinion, causing news, information and public opinion to develop in the direction of globalization.

Any particular regional public opinion flashpoint can by means of new communication technologies be quickly conveyed to other regions in the world, which means the influence of public opinion has been internationalized (舆论影响的国际化). This is very much like the “butterfly effect” (蝴蝶效应) talked about in communications studies — the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in the Atlantic can potentially create a seismic wave in the Pacific.

Given such a situation, contact and interconnectedness between various nations economically, culturally and politically is growing closer by the day. The mutual influence and interpenetration of ideas and culture, ideologies and value systems has grown ever deeper. It has become easier and easier for people to become influenced by the cultural ideas and ideologies lurking behind news and information, and this has brought a diversification of the patterns of public opinion in society. Moreover, the public opinion environment in society has grown more complex. Therefore, from the standpoint of the nation, news and information and public opinion are no longer independent and unidirectional, but are rather, to some extent, whether directly or indirectly, influenced by external information and international public opinion.

In this sort of information environment and public opinion environment, the news media’s discourse power (话语权) in the area of externally directed news and information and its capacity to regulate public opinion (舆论调控能力) concern not just the information security (信息安全) of the nation but also have a profound impact on the national dignity and self-confidence of the domestic population.

This [state of affairs] demands that externally directed news and information is timely and effective in responding to various important information, public sentiments and public opinion both domestically and internationally, in an effort to channel them. As much as possible, [our state media] must seize the discourse power (掌握 … 话语权) for externally directed and international communications, expressing our nation’s voice in news reports on major international events.

Amidst these modern trends of political multipolarity, economic integration and the globalization of information and communications, our nation must strengthen links and exchanges with the rest of the world, obtaining the optimal external environment for the building of a favorable national image.

The requires that the news media in our country actively grab the discourse power in externally directed and international news and information, and that they be adept at employing the most superb news and communication techniques and arts of public opinion channeling (舆论引导艺术) in order to positively, actively and effectively (积极/主动/有效) influence international public opinion, preserving the national interest and raising national influence.

Experience shows that now the relationship between externally directed and internally directed communications, domestic and international communications, are reciprocal and mutually influential in nature. We truly have a situation in which “I am in you, and you are in me” (你中有我,我中有你), in which domestic problems can very easily bring an international reaction, and international problems can very easily have an effect domestically . . .

2. Grasping the mood and demands of overseas audiences

“People oriented” (以人为本) is a new government concept introduced at the 16th National Congress [in 2002], and its core idea is that all work must consider the “human” factor, that we must take the “human” as the starting point and center of all work.

In news work the objective of “people orientation” is about the need to be “audience oriented,” taking the interests and demands of the audience as the starting point and end goal. The most basic standard and demand testing the results of news and communications is whether the audience accepts it or not, welcomes it or not, is satisfied or not.

Externally directed news and communications must have a thorough respect for the audience’s psychology of reading and accepted habits. All news content selection must be grounded in the interests and demands of overseas audiences.

To this end, we must strengthen research into overseas audiences, seeking to truly understand what information they would like to know and how kind of help they wish to receive; what they like and don’t like; what they are interested in and not interested in. And relying on this [knowledge] we must organize news reports, providing various necessary services.

Owing to cultural gaps, and differences in ideology and value systems, as well as differences in media concepts and habits, overseas audiences will have special demands toward our news and communications. If we cannot transmit clearly oriented content according to the interests and demands of overseas audiences, then naturally we will be avoided and excluded by them and will find it difficult to achieve our goals and results in news communication.

Therefore, overseas directed news communication must thoroughly consider the interests and real demands of overseas audiences. We must be adept at using factual reports that are concrete, visual, animated and lively, and that overseas audiences can enjoy, in order to achieve our communication objectives. As much as possible, we need to provide in a truthful, comprehensive, timely and active manner the information they hope to obtain about various aspects of China, not binding ourselves hand and foot by artificially creating “forbidden zones.”

Experience shows that in the context of globalized information exchange and the internet, artificial blocks on the transmission of content and delays in news reporting serve only to place one in a defensive position.

3. Openness of information must be timely, thorough, transparent and effective

When major and/or sudden-breaking incidents occurred in China in the past, particularly incidents concerning sensitive internal issues, our nation’s news media would respond slowly and hesitantly, and during this process of vacillation would lose the active advantage. In some cases, in consideration of various concerns, we would resort to outright suppression [of the story], presenting the active advantage to others in information release and public opinion channeling. There have been numerous cases in point. [NOTE: The handling of unrest in Tibet in 2008 would here be seen as a classic case of what the author is referring to. And low and behold, the Tibet example follows right on below.]

In the case of the “March 14 Incident” in Lhasa [Tibet] last year, delays and lack of information transparency by our nation’s news media — [NOTE: As a result, naturally, of propaganda controls] — generated the passive posture that followed. In contrast, during this year’s “July 5 Incident” in Urumqi [Xinjiang] our nation’s news media issued reports within hours. The response was rapid, the reports timely, information transparent, and in this way we achieved the active advantage and won a favorable result.

Overseas directed communications must give special care to techniques and art. They must be adept at employing smart power. They must achieve “clever exercise of power.” [NOTE: Here, “clever exercise of power” (巧使力), is a synonym of “smart power” (巧实力)].

The overseas communication concept summed up by our country’s British ambassador, Fu Ying (傅莹), deserves consideration and reference. She sums it up as: “Speak early, speak a lot, and speak clearly” (早说话,多说话,说明白话). As a diplomat who has spent a lot of time overseas, and who has had direct contact with people overseas, Fu Ying is familiar with the public opinion environment in the West. The [communication] concept and method she lays out is the product of personal experience.

According to the author’s understanding, “speak early” means speaking at the first available moment after an event has occurred. It means speak at the beginning, at the point when people are anxious for information and to understand the situation. If at such a moment you clam up and keep silent, this suggests contempt for the public’s right to know and indicates a disregard for the effect speaking can have.

From the standpoint of news and communications, this so-called “speak early” is about “reporting early and timely reporting” . . .

So-called “speak a lot” points to the need to speak regularly, with initiative and repeatedly. You need to make people feel your sincerity and candidness, to understand that you are willing to have candid dialogue and interaction, and that you will not intentionally bury or avoid something.

In the context of news and communications, this “speak a lot” means “reporting a lot, and reporting thoroughly,” that through the whole process during which the news event is occurring and being handled, the news media issue regular reports following changes and developments, giving the audience a comprehensive understanding of the situation . . .

To “speak clearly” is about speaking accurately, directly and clearly, allowing people to understand what you are saying and your true thoughts so that ambiguities do not emerge.

In the context of news and communications, “speaking clearly” is about “reporting accurately and clearly,” making clear the sequence of events in a news story and paying attention to truth, accuracy and relevant background information . . .

For overseas audiences, bringing them to understand what you are saying requires also attention to the use of language they can understand in their own linguistic context and broadcast concepts and formulated opinions that are generally accepted. Only in this way can you ensure that they can understand your speech and listen to what you have to say.

Analyzing overseas audiences, we understand that the reasons are complicated as to why they harbor an attitude of rejection and exclusion toward Chinese news and communications, creating misunderstanding and estrangement. But some general reasons are as follows:

One kind of person is antagonistic, and this sort of person always has an interest in blackening China’s image and spreading the “China Threat Theory” and such things.

Another kind of person is arrogant, and this sort of person always harbors an unaccountable sense of racial superiority, believing that China cannot do good and refusing to acknowledge the progress China has made.

Another kind of person suffers from prejudice, and this sort of person does not believe China can possibly do so well, and doubts China’s development and progress.

Another kind of person is conventional [or adheres to limited concepts], and this sort of person, having been influenced by cultural traditions and communication concepts (such as those in Western countries who hold that “the worst tidings are the best news”), believes the news media should expose problems and should not speak words of praise and encouragement.

Most people are simply ignorant, the principal problem being that they don’t sufficiently understand China, and that there are gaps and inaccuracies in the information they are exposed to. In these people’s eyes China is still the China of the past — women with bound feet, people dressed in cheongsams, impoverished and ignorant.

The above-mentioned factors take their toll on the effect of our nation’s overseas directed communications, and they present us with an extremely serious issue — how can our overseas directed communications make it through and reach their mark?

Only by thoroughly meeting the demands of overseas audiences and providing information they can accept can our nation’s news media make them better see and understand China and remove misunderstandings about our country.

4. Being adept at using the facts to speak (善于用事实说话)

Based upon our past experiences, the most effective method in getting audiences to quickly accept news and communications and to achieve maximum effect is to be adept at using the facts to speak.

According to basic human psychology, people accept with general ease facts that are specific, lively and inherently convincing. They tend not to accept messages that are hard and preachy, empty or dicey, stiff or inflexible or slogan-like in nature. This is because they prefer to understand the facts and come to their own conclusions rather than listen to posturing and postulation.

“Facts achieve victory over eloquence” (事实胜于雄辩). In prevailing over audiences, and particularly over overseas audiences, the most convincing things are without a doubt those real objective facts. Therefore, when news media are carrying out overseas directed news and communications they must uphold the principle of “speaking through facts,” using specific, lively, visual and convincing examples and models to arouse and guide the audience.

By “speaking through facts” one can . . make the audience willingly submit to and accept the ideas and opinions conveyed by the disseminator.

Journalists must learn to objectively, reliably and simply convey the facts they have seen and then imbed within these objective accounts the point they wish to explain, in order that when the audience receives the facts reported by the journalist they unknowingly accept various standpoints and viewpoints contained therein. This is the ideal to which news and communications must aspire, and it is one of the most important arts and techniques a news journalist must grasp.

Zhao Qizheng (赵启正), head of the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University of China, former head of the Information Office of the State Council, former head of the external affairs committee of the CPPCC, and one of our nation’s best known communications experts, not only introduced that communication concept of “explaining China to the world” (向世界说明中国), but also much experience with “speaking through facts.”

When, for example, he delivered a talk during “Chinese culture week” in Paris on September 2, 1999, while summing up China’s changes over the past century, he used many fact and figures. He used facts and figures on China’s annual GDP growth of around 9.2 percent over 20 years to explain the major changes brought on by economic reforms in China. In introducing changes to the situation for women in China over the past century, he contrasted a photo of a foot-bound woman at the outset of the 20th century with a photo of China’s World Cup-winning women’s soccer team. These [facts] were visual, lively, impactful and convincing, and they were used to great effect.

[Posted by David Bandurski, November 12, 2009, 9:58am HK]

7 Comments to “Is China’s new communications worldview coming of age?”

  1. On the subject of bridge individuals, when I was covering Taiwan back in 1991, Ma Ying-jeou (then chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council) was one of the most commonly seen faces in the media, because he was one of the few government officials who understood that it was possible and even desirable to put out one’s message. At that time, there were still KMT party committees in large Taiwan enterprises, and there weren’t even full direct elections. They had only just kicked out the ‘old thieves’ from the National Assembly, who had constituencies in mainland China. He was the first, in my view, in Taiwan, to really get soft power. In style, he also bridged the gap between dangnei/dangwei, the two sides of the strait, and guonei/guowai. He was probably the best PR job the KMT had at a time when there were still political dissidents in prison and the government hadn’t yet overturned its position on the 2-28 massacre. I’m guessing that his influence in soft power terms, at a crucial juncture in the island’s history, was widespread and long-lasting.

  2. William says:

    ““So we must wait to discover them and to protect them” – begs the question: protect them from whom”

    Hehe…most likely, protect them from over-“guidance”, I suppose.

    Another paradox in this media strategy that Zheng Bowei proposed: I’d agree that it’s crucial to understand the demands of the audience, and to be timely and thorough. Also, I’d agree that the line between domestic and international is now blurred, media-wise. But, when major news events and conflicts arise, this is precisely when savvy media professionals seem to lose control over message, and people higher up in the political food chain seem to take direct control. In other words, in times of contentious conflict (the Tibet issue last year comes to mind), this is exactly when China could use bridge-individuals or relatively credible official PR people to make timely responses the most, but it’s also a time of tightened message discipline that I suspect would be made at levels completely out of control of PR professionals (ie. the Standing Committee of the Politburo). Similarly, in these tense situations, the rules of engagement are dramatically different for domestic and international audiences, and the demands of the audiences would also differ considerably, leaving a PR professional unable to communicate effectively to both.

    James Fallows once speculated about bad PR, and thought that the answer might have something to do with control in the hierarchy:

    “Many Chinese who have seen the world are very canny about it, and have just the skills government spokesmen lack—for instance, understanding the root of foreign concerns and addressing them not with special pleading (“This is China…”) but on their own terms. Worldly Chinese demonstrate this every day in the businesses, universities, and nongovernmental organizations where they generally work. But the closer Chinese officials are to centers of political power, the less they know what they don’t know about the world.”

    I don’t know if they’ll be able to solve this PR problem without fixing some the structural problems in the government’s political system and in the domestic media control apparatus. I’d be interested to hear what other people think.

    I do however, wonder to what extent it will even matter though. For decades the US has often been portrayed as an aloof, arrogant, giant, and I’m not sure to what extent negative public opinion about the US actually translated into tangible problems. Even in the worst case scenario (the first half of the Bush administration) most tangible hits to American interests were caused by other countries reacting to Bush’s stated goal of unilaterally acting in the international system without regards to international law or the interests of other countries. Once he basically stopped acting in that way and went back to diplomacy in normal ways (roughly Bush’s second term), countries stopped trying to overtly ally against the US, and most arraignments seemed to go back to normal- even if the US’s worldwide reputation remained terribly damaged. (Of course, I might be wrong about this characterization).

    Similarly, I think we’ve witnessed an unprecedented rise in China’s relative power in the last two or three years. This is based on mainly on economics, geo-politics, and military influence. China’s “popularity” in world opinion polls has stayed relatively stable, or has dipped a little over the past few years. I think this shows that power and popular opinion are really not directly linked. Also, with the so-called “rise of the rest” or rise of the “second world” – all the countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa that are making great progress in development, I think the importance of soft power will be even less important.

    From another point of view, you could also argue that in the past (when it was hard to learn about foreign countries without going there) public diplomacy was an important way to present one’s country to a foreign audience. Now, with the Internet, anyone can get lots of info about other countries from tons of different perspectives. Anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world can access the hundreds of websites and blogs dedicated to China. In this type of media environment, I’m not sure how effective a state-led media campaign will be in controlling the discourse in a particular country. Although, I suppose it could be effective in countries in which most people don’t speak Chinese or English, and the Chinese government could then invest a lot of money into the media markets and help mold public opinion.

  3. Kingsley says:

    I think you are right about the core paradox. These bridge-individuals will of course have a disproportionate amount of influence on cross-cultural relations, especially where there is a language barrier, but yes, they must be credible. Yu’s final sentence – “So we must wait to discover them and to protect them” – begs the question: protect them from whom?

  4. William says:

    Kingsley, thanks for the reply. Here’s a brief reply to your reply:

    1) I think your characterization of current IR trends (mix of Western realism, Chinese Marxism and traditional Chinese thinking (Warring States etc)) is probably fairly accurate. Although, as you said, I’m sure there are a lots of scholars who are also experts on soft power and all sorts of transnational issues.

    2) I think the issue is indeed the ability to “change the discourse”, but to some degree, I’m skeptical that this can happen. If one accepts that public perceptions are not totally unimportant, but also that under most circumstances, policy is made by a combination of China wonks, business associations, security and financial analysts, activists…etc. to what extent are these people familiar with Chinese discourse, policy concerns and genuine interests? I would argue that the majority, at least in the US, are familiar enough with China to understand the Chinese point of view, so to speak, and many are already quite familiar with Chinese narratives. (Of course, being aware of another country’s historical and political narratives and agreeing with it are two different matters, as even many Chinese IR profs who had lived in the US for several years have pointed out to me.) But to be fair, to the extent discourse and narratives do matter, I suppose it would be foolish of a government not to try to influence them as much as they can.

    3) Yu Qiuyu had an interesting piece talking about how “bridge-individuals” could be effective communicators between audiences, and Roland Soong has had similar ideas:

    Yu Qiuyu wrote:

    “At the broadest level, cultural communication must choose a format of presentation that is internationally persuasive. Tagore brought Indian culture to the mainstream of western culture. Hemingway allowed European culture to be accepted in the US. In ancient China, Xuanzang, Jianzhen (Ganjin), Zhu Shunshui, Matteo Ricci, John Adam Schall von Bell, and Xu Guangqi were this kind of bridge individual. In modern China, Hu Shi, Zhao Yuanren, and Lin Yutang were perhaps that kind of individual, but unfortunately the chaos of war unavoidably snapped the use of those cultural ties. The China of today has Yao Ming, Lang Lang, and several internationally-recognized movie actors who play a truly active role in those cultural ties. I trust that from this day on, cross-cultural communication will no longer primarily be accomplished through national-level speech and government activities; rather, it will develop centered around these captivating bridge-individuals. These bridge-individuals will perhaps be artists, athletes, scholars, philanthropists, or theologians, but the majority will not be officials. So we must wait to discover them and to protect them.”

    With that in mind, it seems to me that the issue of creating enough “bridge people” is crucial, and being a credible “bridge-individual” is the key. Whether a state-led person will be seen as credible is an issue, but perhaps as importantly, a state-led person may not have the freedom to speak openly and candidly enough to make compelling arguments for China’s legitimate interests. For example, the so-called “China Threat” theory can be fairly persuasively argued against, (see, for example, Steven Chan’s “China, the US and Power-transition Theory: A Critique”), but the person must be independent enough to speak frankly, and the person must be able to understand the other culture well enough to take some of the core, legitimate concerns seriously.

    4) As just mentioned, if this public-diplomacy is conducted with the underlying assumptions that foreign audiences simply don’t “understand China” and that all conflict and tension stems from an ignorant misunderstanding, then I don’t see much hope for it.

    In any case, I suppose the core paradox is that China really isn’t really getting it’s legitimate message about its society and politics out well enough to the world, but at the same time, a state-run attempt to fix things through a massive media conglomerate or state-led public diplomacy seems like a dubious and wasteful solution. Of course, I may be wrong.

  5. Kingsley says:

    Thanks for this translation David. The issues you are talking about are so close to my own research area it’s scary!

    William: Really good points. I’ll have a go at briefly responding to them:

    1) I think you’re right that most of the discussion around Chinese foreign policy seems relatively realist to someone trained in Western IR theory, although Chinese IR is mostly (according to Gerald Chan, I think) a mix of Western realism, Chinese Marxism and traditional Chinese thinking (Warring States etc). It certainly seems to be very focused on power, but in terms of “Comprehensive National Power” (综合国力) rather than just “hard power”. CNP includes both hard and soft elements and, if I understand the concept correctly, needs to be developed in a balanced way if it is to be effective. Recently, there has been more attention paid to the underdeveloped side of CNP – the soft power stuff.

    2) Yes, this is a tricky one. Perhaps in some recent areas – I am thinking in particular of Australian government decisions that have blocked Chinese investment in Australian resource companies – public opinion may have been a factor in preventing China from getting what it wanted, or at least the events have been perceived that way in China. I think Key expressed it well when he wrote that public opinion doesn’t determine foreign policy but rather channels it, placing limits on policy via a “system of dikes”. But I don’t think this is just a matter of changing the inputs into the decision-making process, but actually changing the broader discourse about China in (mainly) the West. Whether you think this matters or not probably depends on where you sit in relation to constructivist approaches to IR.

    3) Yes, and we can see that the Chinese interpretation of soft power is somewhat different from Nye’s (as David pointed out). The major emphasis in China has been on the media and culture, with the political values side of Nye’s formulation completely ignored. Thus the major investments in expanding the international media and promoting Chinese culture. The potential problems with this kind of state-led soft power are pretty clear though.

    4) Yes, perhaps Zheng needs to consider more seriously his own advice about “grasping the mood and demands of overseas audiences”.


  6. David says:


    All great comments and questions. I wish I had time to respond cogently to them, but I’ll just have to leave them there and hope others offer their own insights.


  7. William says:

    Very interesting post.

    Here are a few random thoughts that have been floating around my head in relation to “soft power” and China’s new international media push.

    1) In my limited experience in Chinese academia and in talking to Chinese IR thinkers, they tend to overwhelmingly fall into the “realist” camp, and most reject many liberal foreign policy ideas, and they tend to downplay soft transnational issues, or things like “soft power”. If it is indeed true that prevailing Chinese foreign policy thinking tends to be dominated by different forms of realism and issues related to hard power, then how exactly did this whole “soft power” push come about, and what do they actually think they can accomplish if it succeeds?

    2) To what extent does domestic opinion really even matter in the formulation of foreign policy in most countries, especially as it relates to China? I think you could argue that back in the 1990’s, right after Tiananmen and going through the whole human rights/MFN debates, domestic opinion was fairly important. However, these days, it seems to me that domestic opinion about China is of relatively little importance (at least in the US) and most policy is made through a combination of China wonks, professional business interests and lobbies, and security analysts and so on. China simply hasn’t really been a major issue in most congressional or presidential elections in a long time, and even when it does appear, it’s usually not even close to being the top issue. Congresspeople might get pressed over a few hot button topics from activists (torture, the death penalty, abortion), but this hardly represents the mainstream, and I doubt China could change hardcore activists’ minds about anything anyway. Granted, the role of public opinion might be slightly more important in other countries, but even most EU countries unwillingness to really press on human rights seems to indicate that public opinion isn’t at the forefront of concerns for many European politicians. Perhaps in the developing world opinion about China and its influence may be more prominent, but I think they’d be even more likely to be swayed by economic deals and trade.

    If what I’m saying arguing here is more or less accurate (that domestic popular opinion plays a relatively minor role in foreign policy formulation in most countries) then why are they spending so much money on this and what do they think they can achieve? As a case in point, both the Tibet protest/riots and this year’s Xinjiang riots were two high profile events that many netizens felt that they got a raw deal in the “Western” press. Even if you accept that the press coverage was highly biased, what exactly did China lose in terms of policy? The reaction from almost every government was extremely minimal.

    3) In my understanding, “soft power” many comes from a society’s civil society produces culture, and the attraction it has to others. The PRC of course has the advantage of being the inheritors to Confucius, Mencius, Lao Zi, and all of China’s historic glory. But beyond this, what does modern Chinese culture have to attract foreign audiences (in terms of novels, music or popular movies)? To what extent does a highly “guided” media culture that stifles creativity put Chinese civil society at a disadvantage?

    4) How effective will this outreach be if they think all Westerners are either antagonistic, arrogant, prejudiced, conventional, ignorant. This doesn’t seem to match the reality of current discourse about China in the US (“they own all our debt! They’re producing the technology of the future…”).

    Anyway, I hope my comments don’t come off as too harsh. I’m just fairly skeptical of the importance of “soft power” in general, and it seems to me that the way in which China is planning to go about it, will almost certainly be a huge waste of money.

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