At the 2016 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech touched a relatively softer note. He wanted to position China as an environment-friendly beacon of globalisation and free trade.
China senses an opportunity to push through its story due to the global chaos and uncertainty caused by President Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit in the European Union. China is courting everyone now -- from Philippines to Japan to Manila.
As China continues to gain economic strength at home and flexes its muscles abroad (from Africa to the Quad), it needs to tell a better story. As per a Financial Times study
, soft power has become one of the most frequently used phrases amongst the Chinese power elite. Scholars argue that “there are two arms races happening in Asia today: one for the military capabilities and another for weapons of ‘soft power’.
China’s success in the use of soft power can be seen especially in two areas: tourism and international student arrivals. China managed to get well over 100 million foreign tourists in 2015. In the same year, the number of international students in China stood at 3,97,635.
China employs a multi-pronged strategy to strengthen the soft power, besides the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo.
- Online: According to media reports, Beijing has built up a dedicated army of volunteers, mostly young men, to push its online narrative. President Xi told the delegates at the party’s 19th congress last October: “Tell the China story well and build China’s soft power”. There are a host of initiatives in play such as the Party Youth League’s “Volunteer Campaign to Civilise the Internet”. While, earlier, the online army worked for Rmb0.50 per post, now many are volunteering for free. Some call themselves “little pinks” inspired by the colour of a popular online nationalist forum.
- Hollywood: Nothing tells a story like a film does. China encouraged its private industry to make significant investments in the Hollywood. According to Aynne Kokas, fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre and the author of Hollywood Made in China, “you would be hard pressed to find a producer in Hollywood willing to make a film that portrays China negatively”. Though in recent times the capital outflow to Hollywood have been cut back, the China leverage still remains steady in LA.
- Football: Sports commands serious mindshare and football is the only truly global sport. President Xi has even called for a “football revolution”. Chinese tycoons have invested more than $2.5bn over the past three years in 20 European clubs, including the Manchester City and the AC Milan. In 2015, the President had unveiled an ambitious agenda to turn China into a football superpower matching his overall vision for the “great rejuvenation” of China.
- Panda: The cute bamboo consuming black and white bears are a serious business. They are on offer for loan to zoos across the western world. For example, two animals were loaned to a zoo in Berlin for the next 15 years at an annual cost of $1million. Chancellor Merkel labeled it as “symbolic of relations between our two countries”. This was less about the panda and more about Germany being a possible alternative to the US as the leader of the liberal order. According to Joseph Nye, “they add an enormous amount to the country’s soft power.” The Chinese media consider it as one of the most “powerful weapons” in the country’s soft power. The panda has also shared frame with Michelle Obama, Justin Trudeau and Bill Clinton. According to The Financial Times, through social media, “state media pump out countless videos of cute panda antics in an attempt to make China look soft”. Currently, there are 70 pandas in 20 countries with many more in the pipeline.
United Front Work Department
- Confucius Institutes: Devised in 2004, China has started the “Confucius Institutes” to promote Chinese culture internationally. The institute has added more than 350 centres at universities across the world. In addition, the Confucius Institute has added 430 “classrooms” affiliated with secondary schools in 103 countries. Seven thousand teachers are recruited every year from Chinese universities and sent abroad to impart Chinese language and culture for two-year stints. Now it is estimated that more than 100 million foreigners are learning Mandarin worldwide.
At 135 Fuyou Street, Beijing, resides a largely anonymous compound that serves up as the war room for China’s global soft power push. The secretive United Front Work Department (UFWD)
was called a “magic weapon” by Mao Zedong. Since then, the UFWD has grown in stature. It has assumed paramount importance under President Xi’s tenure. Under him, more than 40,000 people have been added
to the cadre. Its aims
include winning support for China’s political agenda, gathering overseas influence and gaining critical information. Its website
provides very little information into its workings and its agenda. There are nine departments or bureaux to cover the entire expanse of work.
Following is the list of nine bureaux:
- Parties work bureau -- deals with China’s 8 non-communist political parties
- Minorities and religions bureau -- deals with the 55 official national minorities
- Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and overseas liaison bureau -- responsible for these regions and for the 60m strong Chinese diaspora spread across more than 180 countries
- Cadre bureau -- focused on nurturing cadre and workers
- Economics bureau -- focuses on poverty alleviation in left behind regions especially the north-east
- Non-party members -- to cultivate support amongst intellectuals who have no party affiliation
- Tibet bureau – to suppress the separatist movement, undermine the Dalai Lama and influencing the narrative abroad about Tibet
- New social classes bureau - to create unity amongst the middle class
- Xinjiang bureau – to cultivate loyalty and suppress separatism amongst the minorities such as Uighurs, Kazakhs and Tajiks
The United Front Work Department is also trying to capture from Tibet the process of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. It has created a database of more than 1300 approved “living Buddhas” inside Tibet who will be called upon when the time comes to approve the Beijing’s choice. The department also works on the diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Most Chinese embassies include staff working on United Front Work Department projects.
The most important focus point for the United Front Work Department remains winning the Chinese diaspora. In Australia, for example, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association serves the political purpose of its embassy there. There are increasing numbers of political candidates of Chinese origin in the western world. In Canada, the number has jumped to 10 elected (from 44 candidates) in 2006 from 6 elected (from 25) in 2003. In 2010, it compelled the Canadian Director of National Intelligence to warn about “agents of influence” for foreign nations, hinting at China. In New Zealand, lawmaker Jian Yang (of Chinese origin) was investigated
for the time (more than a decade) he spent at military colleges in China. He has served on New Zealand’s foreign affairs and defence committees.
Long arm of China
The west worry about the “long arm of China”. There are allegations of subverting politicians, the media and universities abroad. The strategy has a singular focus -- to convince the western audience about the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist party. Florida senator Marco Rubio considers these attempts “pervasive”. According to David Shambaugh, the Director of the China Policy Programme at the George Washington University, China spends between $10bn and $12bn a year on such efforts. Leading academic publishing houses the world over are also experiencing
the Chinese hard touch. The private sector gets entangled. For example, when South Korea deployed a missile-defence shield, the country’s chain Lotte suddenly found itself with fire-code violations in its China stores. China is entitled to build its soft power, as every nation is. However, its various successes get diminished due to the government’s heavy push of soft power. Soft power needs a soft touch and organic development.
The concept of soft power is an artifact of the post-Cold War world. Every major nation in the world has invested in it and continues to do so. Soft power can help a country win friends and gain influence. It is best suited for the information age.
So, it is no surprise that China has an elaborate soft power agenda. China’s importance continues to grow in the world. This is a source of great joy and pride for Chinese both at home and abroad. There is a narrative of re-birth, especially after the humiliation and dark years of the 19th century Opium Wars.
Certain limitations, however, remain. For soft power to work, a country’s narrative cannot be inconsistent with its conduct. Whether China succeeds or not in its design, only time will tell. However, other nations need to take notice and start preparing a strategy of their own to face the Chinese push.
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