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Soft Superpowers

It's war by other means and culture is the Orient's weapon of mind-conquest

Soft Superpowers
Soft Superpowers
When Yu Yang, 21, sees Americans coming to watch Chinese movies and consuming Chinese culture she says she feels "very proud". "Culture is one of the best things China has to offer the world," she preens. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Lana Makhanik was ecstatic after she saw Monsoon Wedding at a little arthouse theatre off Harvard Square. "The colour, the vibrancy, the sheer joy of it all!" she gushed. "It makes me want to be Indian!"

Across the world, millions of Americans are revelling in the burst of creativity coming from China and India. As both nations reject the grim socialism of their past (China more than India) and open up their minds, borders and markets, a new generation of their artistes is expressing and explaining its experience to the world on its own terms. And an America redefining itself as a multicultural nation in a globalised world is soaking it all up.

Books by Nobelists Gao Xingjian and V.S. Naipaul crowd the shelves of bookstores everywhere. Films by directors Jiang Yimou and M. Night Shyamalan have been elevated to icon status by their contemporaries; and last year Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became the highest grossing non-English film of all time.

But even as culture czars and consumers celebrate India and China's dramatic re-entry into the popular imagination, they're unwittingly driving another dynamic. Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, calls it "soft power". As Nye defines it, soft power is the influence and attractiveness a nation acquires when others are drawn to its culture and ideas.

"In a global world with mass communication, soft power enables a nation to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction rather than coercion," says Nye who developed the concept. Until recently, soft power, or "public diplomacy" as it is euphemistically known, was largely an American weapon, and Washington wielded it as astutely as its 'hard'—military and financial—might.

Whatever its actions in the world, emblems such as Mickey Mouse, McDonald's and Levi's have presented the United States to the world as a nation easy to love. Adherents of Nye's theory claim that the Cold War was won as much by Radio Free Europe, Motown and Hollywood—which won admiration for America within Soviet states by dazzling their citizens with infectious music, shiny cars and overflowing supermarkets—as by President Ronald Reagan's 'Star Wars' programme.

In contrast, India and China were mired in domestic upheavals and a haze of 'bad PR', inhibiting their ability to be taken seriously on the world stage. But the liberalisation and reform of the '80s and '90s changed all that. "Closed societies cannot be creative. Even when things are not censored, there is the self-censorship born of fear. Openness has allowed young people to become more confident, individualistic. This is a big step forward," says Ha Jin, award-winning Boston-based author of the novels Waiting and Crazed.

Infused with a new sense of possibility, India and China's new artistes are not only attracting American audiences to their media, they are also influencing aspects of America's own culture. Albums such as Nitin Sawhney's Beyond Skin are inspiring rock bands to interlace their searing guitar riffs with raunchy Indian melodies. Directors such as Shekhar Kapur and John Woo are conjuring celluloid magic by marrying their indigenous instincts with Hollywood style.

Lu Ann Walthers, a senior editor at Pantheon Books, says America's captivation with Indian and Chinese culture is a natural corollary to living in a globalising world. "In the past, one could read excellent American books and never get any picture of the outside world. Now as the outside world is thrust into America's consciousness, Americans are puzzled by its complexities and reach for works that help explain it," says Walthers.

India-born Meera Nair (not the filmmaker), whose collection of short stories Video was intended as "an exploration of what happens when the West intrudes into the East", says she came to realise that when Americans read a book written by an Indian about how Indians see America, it changes their view of both cultures. "So a book about the intrusion of American culture into India itself becomes an intrusion of Indian culture into America," she says.

Artistically, this is heady stuff. But politically, the burst in India and China's soft power is entangled with some powerful geopolitical undercurrents. "We live in an information world and information depends on its credibility," Nye says. "Countries that are more credible are more likely to be believed and then followed."

This is something both India and China have come to understand—and for which they now compete. While the two countries' acquisition of soft power is a natural result of the creativity of their new artistes, there is also a conscious effort in Beijing and New Delhi, and the artistic communities they support, to export their products to America and beyond.

"China seeks to project itself in the United States because cultural respect is very important for it, as it becomes a big power," says Ha Jin. "(Like India) it has hired public relations people to do all kinds of projects to improve its image."

But while Beijing promotes the export of selected films and books, it also heavily censors many artistes. Ironically, much of the soft power that could accrue to China through the novels and films Chinese artistes produce is diluted by the government's attempts to squelch works it sees as subversive. But Nye says a substantial dimension of China's attractiveness and soft power also comes from its economic success. This, he says, has won the grudging respect of the West, and has inspired developing nations to want to emulate China. Towards that end, China has welcomed the increased visibility that has come from its artistes and with the hosting of events such as the 2008 Olympics.

India has been even more aggressive, and its objective is even narrower—to influence other nations, particularly America, with a view to winning friendship, investment and political support in its rivalry with Pakistan. B.K. Agnihotri, the controversial 'ambassador-at-large' in the US and the BJP's pointsman for the NRI community, recently held a series of training sessions in the US where he exhorted NRIs to "train in propaganda".

The most vivid illustration of India's use of soft power as a tool of foreign policy came recently in Afghanistan, where India was eager to regain popularity after years of pro-Pakistani Taliban rule. When the then foreign minister Jaswant Singh visited Kabul, his plane was not packed with supplies of food, medicines or arms, but with tapes of Bollywood movies and music that were quickly distributed across the city.

Increasingly, such orchestrated use of popular media and public events by governments is eroding the fine line that used to separate propaganda and soft power. While this is nothing new—Hitler used the 1933 Olympics to showcase a new Germany and the Allies made imaginative propaganda out of films like Casablanca and Henry V—artistes such as Ha Jin say the process of using art for politics is "a kind of violation".

But other artistes are increasingly supporting the direct state actions New Delhi and Beijing are taking to build up their soft power. America's perceived "cultural hegemony" rankles many foreign artistes. "There is a kind of national pride, mixed with personal pride, mixed with literary pride, mixed with community pride," says Ha Jin. "People want to be considered world-class."

Eileen Chow, an associate professor of Asian studies at Harvard University, says "there is now an unabashed nationalism (in China and India) that believes the US media has misrepresented their nations. Many artistes feel they must combat this". It's not easy. Despite its stated commitment to free information and open markets, the US guards access to its citizens' hearts. For instance, by law, only US citizens can own broadcasting businesses in the US.

But with technological breakthroughs and globalisation, more foreign influences are seeping into America. Just as China and India acquired their own nuclear weapons as a way of standing up to the US nuclear dominance, both nations now want to acquire their own soft power. And the repercussions of India and China exploding into the American cultural imagination could be as significant as the explosions that blasted them into the nuclear club, although they will play out more subtly and over a longer period of time.

Washington seems disconcerted by the increasing dilution of its own soft power. A report by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, an influential think-tank in Washington DC, says the growth of foreign media "threatens America's fundamental interests. Over time, this can erode our power abroad". The report also calls "a new public communications strategy to pre-empt rising anti-American sentiments and negative perceptions".

This probably explains Washington's aggressive media management of the war in Iraq where the US media centre in Doha and embedded journalists simply passed 'cleansed' information on to the world. The embarrassment Al Jazeera caused this cosy setup has led the American political class to call for an increase in funding to such public diplomacy initiatives as the Voice of America. When President Bush appointed a former advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, one of her first acts was to launch a new radio station in the Middle East, called Radio Sawa, or Radio Together.

America is also demanding that countries open their markets to its media. China is under pressure to allow the import of more American movies and India is being called upon to open up its print media and publishing industry.

Like consumer marketers competing for a slice of public mindshare, Washington, Beijing and New Delhi are competing to win the global citizen's heart and mind. Superficially, this may not seem an altogether bad thing. The battle for minds may be insidious, but at least it's not gory. Yet, as the US founding fathers warned, the good judgement of citizens is essential to their freedoms. As public perceptions are increasingly manipulated, there is a risk of misjudging what's actual and what is artifice, making citizens less vigilant and less aware of how politics is actually playing out on the global stage.

(The author is the China correspondent for In These Times magazine and a contributor to several international publications such as the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle.)

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