China’s hard task with soft power

China has a swagger in its step. Its rise both economically and geopolitically has steadily built momentum over the past 30 years. But behind its confidence and national pride lies an insecurity holding it back.

It recently claimed another scalp by leapfrogging Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.

More than 35,000 Chinese citizens in Libya (mostly workers in the construction and oil industries and their families) arrived back in Beijing in euphoric scenes. This achievement especially is nothing short of remarkable. Some waved tiny national flags, some hugged bouquets of flowers, and some choked back tears as they thanked the party and country with Cold War-esque language like “I love my motherland” (我爱我祖国).

HEADING HOME: 35,860 Chinese were evacuated from Libya.

China has gone all out to improve its image abroad with a promotional video shown in New York’s Times Square. The clip includes various celebrities including NBA superstar Yao Ming as well as ordinary people. It’s goal differs from other country promotional campaigns in that it doesn’t seek to drive tourism, rather respect and a better cultural understanding. All this makes up a concept known as “soft power” – a term I’m still trying to get my head around. My understanding is that like propaganda, it shares the goal of influencing opinion, albeit favoring attraction over coercion. Think along the lines of “winning hearts and minds”.

As old China hand and astute cultural commentator Kaiser Kuo put it on CCTV News (see 15’00), China is “going to the gym, it’s trying to quit smoking, it’s dressing better, it’s earning good money”. But he points out its shortfall lies in lacking a sense of humor, that self-effacing approach that invites you to take the piss out of yourself. This isn’t endemic of China’s laobaixing (老百姓)or ordinary people who have wit to rival any in the world. But it isn’t part of China’s image abroad, perhaps unsurprisingly given many of the country’s leadership grew up during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution when there was little to kid around about.

It’s all well and good to be the clean-living, well-dressed, articulate guy sipping your soda at the bar. But sometimes it’s better to roll up your sleeves, get a pint of draft and throw darts with the other lads if you want to fit in with the crowd. Who knows, you might even enjoy yourself.

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