Where does soft power begin?

As we edge closer to the 18th National Congress of the CCP, we can expect hard news to enter a new cycle of tightening at every level in China. No local leader wants “negative news” to erupt on their turf, especially now. So the soldiers of “news and propaganda work” will be working overtime to ensure the most “harmonious” environment possible for this crucial leadership transition.

On the policy side, we can see hints of this anticipated tightening in a “movement” unveiled earlier this month to combat various forms of media corruption, including “news extortion” and “paid-for news.” The campaign, coordinated by the Central Propaganda Department, cites specifically the need to “create a favorable climate for the successful opening of the Party’s 18th National Congress.”

This campaign almost certainly signals the generalized tightening on hard news and investigative reporting, not just a renewed determination to grapple with poor ethics in the news profession.

But while keeping bad news under wraps is an obvious priority for Party and government leaders, something we’ve seen play out for decades in China, there have been slight changes to the tone of media control as well, particularly over the past three to five years.

Leaders, particularly at the national level, seem far more sensitive now to the international impact of domestic stories than they have been in the past. And many seem to understand that in this age of rapid, decentralized sharing of information, it is difficult to separate domestic public opinion (and the project of information control) from the issues of foreign news coverage, China’s international image and — yes, here comes that magic word now so cherished by Chinese leaders — soft power.


[ABOVE: A poster for the state-financed propaganda film The Founding of a Republic, which hoped to make the Party's line not just palatable but popular and profitable.]

Last week, the Party’s official People’s Daily ran an interesting piece exhorting Party cadres at the “grassroots level” — those officials at the bottom rungs of the power bureaucracy — to be mindful of the international implications of their handling of local incidents. The bottom line was that local leaders must recognize that their decisions about how to handle a “sudden-breaking incident” on their turf could impact China’s international image and the country’s ability to engage on global issues.

What I find most interesting about the People’s Daily piece is how it exhibits a more open and proactive attitude toward news stories — the idea, for example, that facts and transparency, and not just cover-up, are crucial — while it argues that “China’s voice” must be uniform and harmonious, which of course implies centralized control of the message (the “main theme,” as the Party calls it).

The most critical question facing China’s “soft power” is the question of whether “China’s voice” is diverse and multifaceted, or whether it is the product of government-engineered uniformity. Are we talking about “China’s voices” or about “China’s voice”?

The People’s Daily piece obviously answers for the latter. China has a single voice, one that is “full and accurate” in the sense that it is in line with the Party’s priorities — but is not messy or strident.

The concluding paragraph of the People’s Daily piece refers to a speech given in Hong Kong by the Chinese writer Lu Xun in the early 20th century. In that speech, “Silent China” (无声的中国), Lu Xun bemoans the silence not of “China” per se, but of the Chinese people, who have not had the means to articulate their own views partly because of the dominance of an official discourse in classical Chinese.

Lu Xun never talks about “China’s voice”, or zhongguo shengyin (中国声音). He talks about “the voice of the Chinese people themselves”, or zhongguoren ziji de shengyin (中国人自己的声音).

A vast gulf opens between “China’s voice” as conceived by China’s leadership today and the “popular Chinese voices” that Lu Xun called for. And that gulf explains, I would argue further, the most elementary of all problems facing China’s real “soft power”. “China’s voice” as modulated by the Chinese Communist Party can only be a limited voice, subjected to an unspoken political violence, and that invites a mistrust that ultimately undermines China’s soft power efforts.

To put it more simply, official soft power is soft power in which the individual “person”, or ren (人), is eliminated. It is “China’s voice”, or zhongguo shengyin (中国声音), as opposed to “Chinese voices”, or zhongguoren de shengyin (中国的声音).


[ABOVE: Did Lu Xun, one of the leading lights of modern Chinese literature, speak the secret of China's soft power?]

Before we move on to the People’s Daily article, let’s consider the following portion from Lu Xun’s “Silent China”:

The youth can first turn China into a China with voices. They can speak with boldness, having the courage to move forward, forgetting all gains and losses, shoving aside the ancients, giving expression to their own truest words. The truth, naturally, is not easy. For example, in our comportment, it is difficult to be truthful. When I give a speech like this, this isn’t my true demeanor. Because when I conduct myself before my friends and my children, this is not my way. But still we can say things of relative truth, give expression to voices of relative truth. Only with voices of truth can we touch the people of China and the people of the world; we must have true voices, for only then can we live together in the world with the people of the world.

青年们先可以将中国变成一个有声的中国。大胆地说话,勇敢地进行,忘掉了一切利害,推开了古人,将自己的真心的话发表出来。——真,自然是不容易的。譬如态度,就不容易真,讲演时候就不是我的真态度,因为我对朋友,孩子说话时候的态度是不这样的。——但总可以说些较真的话,发些较真的声音。只有真的声音,才能感动中国的人和世界的人;必须有了真的声音,才能和世界的人同在世界上生活。

Those words, it seems to me, speak to the heart of China’s soft power. For Lu Xun, the voice of a nation is the sum of that country’s voices, spoken not from the heart of political power, but from the heart of the individual.

But let’s leave it there and move on to the People’s Daily piece, which is translated in full below.

The Government Must Consider the International Implications When Dealing With Domestic Issues
People’s Daily
June 21, 2012

In recent years, China, now the nation with the world’s second-largest economy, has constructively engaged the international community on both a government-to-government basis and a citizen-to-citizen basis, whether this has meant involvement in the six-party talks or grappling with the global financial crisis, the [global expansion of] Confucius Institutes or the promotion of national propaganda films (国家形象片). China has worked actively to tell China’s story, making “China’s voice” resound.

This “chorus” has resounded not just through the central Party, our foreign affairs departments and the official news media, but has involved another crucial mass group — our leaders at the grassroots level.

Think, for example, of the deputy mayor of Wuhu in Anhui province, who was photographed taking his daughter to school on a bicycle. That photo was “wildly shared” by internet users, who chattered about how he showed the down-to-earth nature of the Chinese cadre.

Then there is the example of a woman in Ankang, Shaanxi province, who was seven months pregnant and forced to have an abortion. How can you calculate the kind of adverse impact a story like that has on China’s international image?

The question then becomes: in the midst of an ever more resounding “China’s voice”, how can we become part of the melody and avoid becoming contributing noise and cacophony. This is something that now tests cadres at every level.

This, what we will call the “ability to engage public opinion” (舆论贯通能力), is a crucial part of the “world view” of those who govern. There is little question that epoch-making changes in technology have meant that information has broken through the boundaries between nations and between media. Everything is now a single interconnected platform. And these deep changes in the [global] public opinion environment can now have negative implications. Two ounces can be weighed up to a thousand pounds, and a single mouse dropping can spoil the whole batch of soup.

Against this backdrop, where is the key to the “ability to engage public opinion”?

Faced with complex changes in the public opinion environment, the first thing many people might think of is how they can “say the right thing”, how they can improve their ability to use the microphone in their hand, or how they can make their voice more readily heard.

This so-called “ability to engage public opinion” should first and foremost be about the capacity to negotiate the contrasts between public opinion and reality — and not just the ability to utilize public opinion sphere and command discursive power. For those who lead, what is most critical is how to support the conceptual through pragmatic steps, using facts to win understanding, using action to preserve one’s image [and that of the Party]. It should not be just about ways of dealing with the media, of reining the media in, or simply about handling all aspects of any given sudden-breaking incident.

We have a number of informative examples we can draw from. In the midst of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, timely and effective relief efforts and open and transparent reporting substantially raised China’s international image as a country with a deep respect for human life. Also, the Chinese government’s large-scale evacuation of personnel from Libya ahead of that country’s civil war was hailed as a success that reflected well on China’s international image.

We often say that actions speak louder than words, and that secondary public opinion is determined by primary conduct. This is because the facts ultimately win out over rhetoric. If leaders at various levels want to join the great harmony of “China’s voice,” and contribute to lifting the volume of harmony, they must concern themselves with more than just how the newspapers tell the story, how the television stations report it, or how it plays out online. It is more important to use good governance to write China’s melody across the great land of China, raising from the foundations the transmission capacity and influence of “China’s voice.”

Central party leaders have repeatedly emphasized that local leaders must consider the “international impact” of “domestic issues” as they handle them. If a local government unit does not plan with a clear sense of both the domestic and international [dimensions], if there is no sense of the “pre-positioning of public opinion” before actions are taken, it will be difficult to make “China’s voice” clear on the crowded canvas of international public opinion. And it will be very difficult to exhibit a full and accurate image of China.

Not only is there a need to raise discursive awareness, but even more is there a need to follow the main objective of governing for the people, to uphold the concept of governing the country according to the law, to hold to the principle of democratic politics, in order to increase the “favorable views” held by the people, and to strengthen “China’s voice”. There is a need to form a [positive] image of China through the steadily lifting the “prosperity index” of the people.

Eighty-five years ago, in a speech in Hong Kong called “Silent China,” Lu Xun called for for the “transformation of China into a China with a voice.” From the “silent China” of that era to today’s “China with a voice”, and now as we consider “how China should speak,” we have moved steadily through history, resolving issues as we go. If Lu Xun’s prescription back in his time was to “do away with ancient Chinese and survive”, what answer should leaders throughout China give today?

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