Home » Economy » China got a “deficit”

China got a “deficit”

These days, the word "surplus" is often associated with China.  China runs a huge surplus on its international trade.  As a result, it also holds the world's largest foreign exchange reserves, at staggering  $3.3 trillion (as of April 2012).  With its fast growing economy, everything seems to run in China's favor.  Not completely.   As Joseph Nye Jr. explains below, China runs a soft power deficit.

China is spending billions of dollars to increase its soft power. Its aid programs to Africa and Latin America are not limited by the institutional or human rights concerns that constrain Western aid. The Chinese style emphasizes high-profile gestures, such as building stadiums. Meanwhile, the elaborately staged 2008 Beijing Olympics enhanced China's reputation abroad, and the 2010 Shanghai Expo attracted more than 70 million visitors.

China has also created several hundred Confucius Institutes around the world to teach its language and culture. The enrollment of foreign students in China increased to 240,000 last year from just 36,000 a decade ago, and China Radio International now broadcasts in English around the clock. In 2009-10, Beijing invested $8.9 billion in external publicity work, including 24-hour cable news channels.

But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment. A recent BBC poll shows that opinions of China's influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, but predominantly negative in the United States, everywhere in Europe, as well as in India, Japan and South Korea.

Great powers try to use culture and narrative to create soft power that promotes their national interests, but it's not an easy sell when the message is inconsistent with their domestic realities. As I told the university students, in an Information Age in which credibility is the scarcest resource, the best propaganda is not propaganda.

The 2008 Olympics was a success abroad, but shortly afterward China's domestic crackdown on human rights activists undercut its soft-power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but it was followed by the jailing of Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo. His empty chair at the Oslo ceremony was a powerful symbol. And for all the efforts to turn Xinhua and China Central Television into competitors for CNN and the BBC, there is little international audience for brittle propaganda.

Pang Zhongying, a former Chinese diplomat who teaches at Renmin University, says this reflects "a poverty of thought" in China today. When Zhang Yimou, the acclaimed director, was asked why his films were always set in the past, he replied that films about contemporary China would be "neutered by the censors."

I read the students a recent statement by Ai Weiwei, the acclaimed Chinese artist who's suffered from state harassment. He warned that censorship is undermining creativity. "It's putting this nation behind in the world's competition in the coming decades. You can't create generations just to labor at [electronics manufacturer] Foxconn. Everyone wants an iPhone but it would be impossible to design an iPhone in China because it's not a product; it's an understanding of human nature."



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *