The media as a vehicle for China’s soft power



The developing world will shape the future, led by China – but this will still take some time and will be a complicated process.  This is the opinion of Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. He spoke at the international conference “Communicating Soft Power: Contrasting Perspectives from India and China” held at Westminster University in London on 9 and 10 September.  The conference debated the concept of ‘soft power’ developed by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, and how the notion of ‘soft power’ can be used to describe the way China and India use the media to communicate their growing influence in geopolitics. In Nye’s conception, ‘soft power’ is the means through which countries exert influence in the global arena through attraction and persuasion rather than through coercion or force.

Jacques questioned the usefulness of the concept of ‘soft power’, as it doesn’t explain how soft power is related to hard power like economic clout or military might. He however pointed out that the fact that China has taken 600 million people out of poverty is already a strong message to the rest of the world and raises prospects for other continents like Africa to emulate. However, China remains on the whole a poor country and is also largely unfamiliar to a world that has been shaped by British and American culture for the last 200 years. Because of the history of colonization and global hegemony exercised from the West – for instance through Hollywood film – the world is more familiar with Western culture, and knowledge of China is still ‘extraordinarily slim’ Jacques said. ‘The way we try and understand China is always through a Western prism, but we cannot make sense of China in that way. China comes through a different history of civilization. It has a civilizational history, not a nation-state background like most Western states.’

Dawood Azami from the BBC World Service in  London agreed that world power is shifting from one set of actors to another set of actors. In this shift, we will see a ‘battle of narratives’ being played out, as different stories are being told of the shifts in geopolitical power. The media’s role will be instrumental in these power contests. Azami pointed out that globally, access to new media technologies has increased in recent decades. This means that audiences can access information more easily, and big powers are already engaged in an information war. Azami cited Hilary Clinton, USA Secretary of State, who referred to the television channels Russia Today and CCTV when warning that the US should guard against ‘losing the information war’. The rise of Chinese media (including newspapers) is taking place at a time when Western media is shrinking. The challenge however for Chinese media is to establish credibility internationally and reach its intended audiences.  The BBC’s global credibility, according to Azami, is based on the fact that the channel can ‘bite the hand that feeds it’ – in other words, the BBC can freely criticize the government that funds it. This is not the case with CCTV, and therefore the channel lacks the same credibility among global audiences and the ability to use the media for ‘soft power’.

Agnes Chung-yan Tse from the  University of Hong Kong also pointed to challenges that China still has to face in order to make its ‘Charm Offensive’ appealing to global audiences. According to her, China has thus far not been successful in downplaying its ‘China Threat’ image, despite its efforts to exert influence globally via its media like China Daily, CCTV, Xinhua and other channels. To improve its global image, China should combat corruption in the homeland, ensure food safety and build safe housing structures,  so that can they get receive more positive reporting in West that would lead to greater ‘soft power’ for China. According to Tse, China should also respect socio-economic rights in developing countries and maintain a policy of non-interference if it wants its soft power initiatives to succeed.

The editor of the website Chinadialogue, Isabel Hilton gave a historical perspective on how China used propaganda films in the past to spread its message, but said that these films were unappealing and only appealed to audience who were already committed to the cause. When former Chinese president Hu Jintao put the issue of soft power on the agenda in 2006, China needed acceptance in the world for economic reasons. The 2008 Olympics were a ‘gift to soft power that went horribly wrong’, Hilton said.  Tibet revolted, there were food contamination scandal, algae blooms in the sailing venue and air pollution that made the headlines in Western media for negative reasons. The Chinese government then concluded that they needed to set up its own global media network and expanding print publications like China Daily to counter the perceived negative bias about the country in Western media. According to Hilton, China has had a limited return on its investment thus far – soft power does not work through top-down schemes that are likely to be interpreted by foreigners as propaganda. She says that the involvement of Chinese civil society  in public diplomacy efforts is too limited. The Internet also contributed to the Chinese government losing control of the media agenda at home. Chinese have via social media become creators of content rather than passive receivers of content. Unlike the diversity of perspectives from India, which makes its soft power successful, the Chinese political system prevents this diversity to emerge in online discussions, Hilton said. Instead a ‘rectification campaign’ to counter rumor mongering on internet has been launched. According to Hilton, calls for the Chinese government to form an ‘internet army’ to counter false or unfavourable content online, are appealing to an old-fashioned terminology and outdated methodology that won’t be successful in excercising soft power. global audiences associate names like the artist Ai Weiwei or the Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo with Chinese creativity – however these associations reflect badly on Chinese state. In order for China to successfully exert soft power through media globally,  it therefore needs to open up and display greater transparency in order for global audiences to buy into its exercise of soft power through the media.







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