Buoyed by its massive foreign-exchange reserve, China has spent billions of dollars to boost its soft power. Direct Chinese television broadcasts and Confucius Institutes around the world are aimed at winning the world’s respect. But a series of political scandals showing a total lack of regard for China’s rule of law have punctured claims about the Chinese system’s superiority. Chinese netizens’ claims that dissident Chen Guangcheng, who had escaped house arrest, was in “the 100 percent safe place” in China—the US embassy—sum up China’s challenge. In fact, the Chen incident represents a loss of face, reflecting a lack of trust by Chinese citizens in their own government.
As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and actions in China of late have been deafening. A quick survey of world newspaper opinion pages shows the damage to China’s soft power.
In February, Chongqing Vice Mayor Wang Lijun spent a mysterious 30 hours in the US Consulate in Chengdu and subsequently “left of his own volition,” according to the US State Department. Obviously he thought the US mission was the best place for his personal safety. Now in custody in Beijing, he faces treason charges and, apparently, assists in the investigation of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, who is suspected of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.
The Bo saga dominated headlines for weeks, with salacious details leaked, including massive amounts of money involved and the poison administered to Heywood, who, it’s alleged, wanted a bigger cut for laundering money. Chinese citizens treated the news as unusual only because it was public, which certainly does not boost China’s soft power based on Confucian morality.
Then, just as the Bo saga was beginning to run out of steam, came another sensational development: the escape from house arrest of blind legal-rights activist Chen, who managed to travel from Shandong to Beijing, before finding refuge inside the US Embassy. Chen left the embassy after six days, again of his own free will, according to both the Chinese and US governments. Only a few hours passed before he changed his mind and wanted to leave China with his family.
Like China, the United States does not welcome Chinese citizens seeking shelter in its diplomatic missions, whether they’re former police chiefs implicated in human rights abuses or dissidents mistreated by Chinese authorities.
After all, the United States has no means of sheltering dissidents for prolonged periods or spiriting them out of the country. Ongoing events show that the Chinese government’s often belligerent and extra-legal behavior to a large extent influences how China is perceived by the rest of the world. Such actions have a greater impact on Chinese soft power—or its lack thereof—than programs beamed by Xinhua or CCTV around the world, at a cost of billions of dollars.
Last October, China’s Communist leadership endorsed a decision to enhance the nation’s soft power. Even before, that, in 2010, China launched 24-hour global English TV news. In February, CCTV America, based in Washington, was launched. In addition, China has set up more than 320 Confucius Institutes around the world to promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture, at a cost of roughly $150 million a year as of three years ago.
Ongoing events in China play a much greater role in shaping how people view China than “new perspectives” or “alternative views” presented by spin doctors or professional western journalists on China’s payroll. Countering the Confucius Institutes spreading word about the virtues of family cohesion is the heartrending account of Chen’s family held hostage by the government.
In the Chen case, the United States crafted an agreement under which the Chinese government agreed to relocate the dissident and his family to another part of the country where he could enrol in a university to study law. Chen insisted that he wanted to leave the country as soon as possible, and stated he feared for his family’s safety in a phone call to an emergency US congressional hearing on his case.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman announced that Chen could also apply to study abroad.
This is unprecedented. If China carries out its part of the bargain, it could mean loosening of the grip that security authorities have had on the country in recent years, ostensibly for maintaining social stability.
Little of this is known to the Chinese public because of official censorship. However, while China can gag its own media with directives from the party’s propaganda department, it can do little about news reports from other countries. Despite China spending billions on public relations, editorial comments in the free media reflect what the world thinks of China.
Major western media, of course, have been unstinting. Referring to the fall of Bo Xilai, Businessweek called it “the most serious threat to the authority” of China’s Communist party since the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.
The Chinese government has insisted that the Bo case—including allegations that his wife committed murder—was no more than a “criminal case.”
Publications, in Asia and elsewhere, though wonder about China’s opaque power struggle, belying the image of a unified China preparing for orderly succession. Japan Times, in an April 30 editorial, commented on reports that Bo had wiretapped telephone conversations of President Hu Jintao and concluded that the former’s downfall “points to a possible power struggle at a time when China is preparing for leadership transition.” Hu, the party leader, is expected to step down later this year as part of a once-in-a-decade changeover.
In South Korea, the Joongang Daily, in a March 16 editorial, called for political reform, arguing that “China’s stable development is not its problem alone, as it is tied to the interests of the world.”
An editorial in the Korea Herald suggested: “The scandal represents absurdities of today’s China, where power is connected with money…. How the collective leadership will handle the Bo Xilai event will show whether the system in China is durable.”
Still in Asia, the China Post in Taiwan carried an editorial on the Bo case April 15 in which it called for “the institution of a truly independent judiciary that does not bow to the rich and powerful.”
In South Africa, one of China’s BRICS partners, The Star carried an opinion piece May 2 on Chen. Titled “A Chinese Puzzle,” the essay called the drama being played out at the US Embassy “a microcosm of a conflict between the two powers” and said the crisis “needs to be defused—but not at the expense of Chen’s new-found hope of freedom.”
For weeks, Germany’s Der Spiegel has asserted that China’s leaders “have been embroiled in a bitter power struggle that could jeopardize a carefully planned transition in the national leadership.” But because of censorship controls, “many Chinese have become so cynical that they don’t even trust the party media, such as state-run television, when they actually tell the truth….”
So, while Chinese censorship is successful, it only extends as far as the country’s borders. In other countries, the media is free to draw its own conclusions about China, based on what’s happening on the ground. If Beijing is serious about increasing its soft power, it must first change the way it treats its own people. But that might embolden critics to question one-party rule, which remains non-negotiable.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong–based journalist and writer whose book, Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family, was recently republished in paperback. (@FrankChing1 on Twitter). Rights:Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. YaleGlobal Online
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine