JR’s China Soft Power Summary, July 2012

This guest post comes to SinoMondiale via JustRecently

It’s frequently hard to believe for a nationalist that his or her country may not project as much “soft power” abroad as it would deserve, in the nationalist’s view. Besides, the idea that the inconceivable should be seen as a fact may amount to an insult. But that doesn’t help the task of making China “going towards the world”. Two goals – a certain degree of knowledge about the outside world, and a “mainstream opinion” that tolerates, but dislikes the status quo -, may currently define the propaganda mission.

Huanqiu Shibao, a paper that delicately doubles as a government mouthpiece and as an online gathering point for nationalist readers and commenters, is apparently trying to broaden its domestic readership’s horizon about international affairs, and to educate them into a direction of more tolerance for the world as it is. After all, Huanqiu Shibao is Chinese for, basically, Global Times.

Pretty much the Reader’s Digest way of the 1960s in its discourse with the domestic American public, Huanqiu Shibao tries to bring it home to its readers that not the entire globe would worship their country’s societal model – or its ideas on international relations – quite yet.China’s former ambassador to Vietnam, and Asia-Pacific Research Center director, Qi Jianguo, explained late in July why, against the apparent odds, there would be potential in Vietnamese-U.S. relations.

That’s not to suggest that Beijing wants to put up with the status quo. People’s Daily had harsh words of advice for the American hegemon of global opinion in July: play a more constructive role in the Asia-Pacific region (i. e. shut up about human rights), or get used to being marginalized.
This is, of course, advice to a domestic, rather than American audience. In its editorial on July 12, and reacting to U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton‘s speech on the human-rights issue in Ulan-Batar, People’s Daily continued a CCP propaganda leitmotif that suggests that human rights, especially American definitions of it, would be a dirty word, and an embarrassment to the global public.

Soft power may be dear to many Chinese bureaucrats, but it probably matters more to diplomats, than to military or economic planners. Some of the enthusiasm in the debate about it appears to have abated more than a year ago – and when  by official media a compilation of platitudes on how to disseminate soft power gets hailed as a “masterpiece” by official media (that happened in June), there may be reason to believe that originality is the last thing that matters for an intellectual’s advancement.

At the top of the political hierarchy, things are no different. Jiang Zemin became a must-read for Angela Merkel when Xi Jinping visited Berlin in October 2009. (At any rate, she had to feign interest while Xi made her familiar with the wisdom of what were Jiang’s latest two books at the time.) If you want to become party and state chairman in China, don’t speak your own views. Praise those of your patron instead. No audacity of hope, and hence no soft power either, in Xi Jinping’s case.

And don’t be surprised if any of Xi next international interlocutors get to read a Concise Chinese History Reader – if it happens, it will be because Jiang did it again (he wrote that concise history, or had it written). It would also suggest that Xi still needs Jiang’s patronage.

The Chinese concept of soft power emphasizes not only its role abroad, but its function at home, too. That said, it doesn’t even seem to work in places as close to – or at – home, as Hong Kong. Beijing’s patriotic concepts certainly have their “fans” there, but tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets on July 29th to protest against a planned “patriotic-education” curriculum. Opinion polls of recent months, concerning the central government’s (or CCP’s) image in Hong Kong, hadn’t been encouraging either.

Chinese intellectual debates meant for domestic use are frequently more interesting than those about image-building abroad. That a bit of it emerged in an internationally-read paper, the New York Times, doesn’t necessarily mean that foreigners were the actual target readership. Jiang Qing, a hardcore Confucian (by his own standards, and depending on what you think Confucianism is about), and Daniel A. Bell published an op-ed on the NYT’s online edition on July 10: “A Confucian Constitution for China”. Bizarre (and possibly funny) stuff from a foreign perspective. Bizarre, too, but also worrying stuff from a secular Chinese perspective. Worrying, because in the last resort, the only readership that really matters is Zhongnanhai.

But the apparent ideological competition for the CCP court’s attention may be worrying for Confucians, too: at least some of them appear to think of Confucianism as a participant in a global civilizational dialog, rather than as a state doctrine.

JR’s Soft Power Summary

In what I anticipate will be an ongoing feature to strengthen the cultural diplomacy and Chinese “soft power” profile on this site, SinoMondiale will be carrying some periodic summaries of related work by JustRecently, whose weblog, as can be seen from even a casual glance at his handiwork just today, is one of the most detailed and active sites for analysis of the mechanics and rhetoric of China’s soft power strategy today. — Adam Cathcart

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Back to the 1950s? Weibo and the Patriotic Journalist


Huanqiu Shibao returns to the 1950s: Reprinting Korean War posters, March 26, 2012

Back to the 1950s? Weibo and the Patriotic Journalist

by Adam Cathcart, with Franz Bleeker

Had Chinese journalists been equipped with Weibo feeds in the early 1950s, what might they have said?  Like the slashing calligraphy of a big-character poster, a Weibo post has every potential at its disposal: It can commemorate injustices visited upon the dead, threaten violence upon the state’s presumed enemies, and proclaim the author’s pithy ideological correctness.

For Chinese journalists and intellectuals of the 1950s, the microblog medium surely would have offered an ideal method through which to demonstrate what necessarily had to be publicly demonstrated: support, among other things, for the new government’s campaigns to police and purge China of the human legacies of imperialism.

In the context of Beijing’s present campaign to regulate and police China’s polyglot foreign population, a recollection of the early 1950s might, seem a bit of a stretch.  Few foreigners today are being publicly beaten or humiliated, and none sentenced to death.  Using China’s own metrics for the expansion of human rights, this should count as a sign of progress.

When one reads a careful translation of the now-notorious May 16, microblog post by Yang Rui, the prominent CCTV-English television host, one might be forgiven for having flashbacks to the movement to “suppress counterrevolutionaries.”

The historical resonance of Yang’s inflammatory comments – not to mention their almost precise echoing of themes in the North Korean media – escaped the notice of most commentators.  What was noticed was the fact that Yang’s post was intended to lay down a line of supportive fire for the government in debates about incidents in May involving foreigners.

If it remains unclear if Yang’s post was an act of great virtuosity or stupidity, it might bear recalling that the ability of a state journalist to augment one’s usefulness to the state via an act of calculated provocation in a year of political transition is not entirely easy.

  Like his famous counterpart Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, Yang Rui is nothing if not a establishment “intellectual,” a man whose vocation is to aid the state in promoting a matrix of lively but rarely challenging domestic propaganda and at least the internal image of international prestige.

Might it be possible, however, to view Yang Rui’s actions in a less cynical light, through the prism not of the bullied and bullying propagandist, but instead through the historical prism of embattled Chinese nationalism? Whatever the state incentive structure, Chinese journalists can easily slip upon themselves the mantle of nation, and do so with the most sanguine language. It might bear recalling that in week in question, Yang Rui’s outburst was competing with a Xinhua reporter who had picked up and boated all the way out to an island off of the Philippine coast to plant a Chinese flag.

Yang Rui’s Competition: A Chinese Journalist Plants a Flag in the South China Sea, May 10, 2012

In line with such patriotic writers and television journalists, Yang Rui has thousands of predecessors, men and women with a cause.  One in particular bears noting: Wang Yunsheng (王芸生), born in Tianjin in 1901.

Like Yang Rui, Wang Yunsheng had spent significant time abroad (in Japan, rather than England), and often leveraged that experience as a means of augmenting his credibility in the Chinese marketplace of ideas. Long before the television era, Wang’s influence during the War of Resistance was radiated outward through the typeface of the Dagongbao, the respected daily paper.

Wang Yunsheng in Chongqing before his offices were bombed, 1940

His editorial offices in Chongqing having been bombed by the Japanese, Wang stayed on in the ersatz capital in 1946, met Mao Zedong and did his part to attack the enemies and false allies of China – who at the time included Harry Truman, Josef Stalin, and the miraculously undead Japanese militarist Hideki Tojo. Offered a paid trip to Japan by General Douglas MacArthur, Wang accepted the invitation, rubbed shoulders with Japanese colleagues, returned to Shanghai and proceeded to savage American occupation policy as an independent voice. He was an intrepid soul in intrepid times.

The problem with being a critical soul, however, is that times can change; to be a good journalist in China, one has to be a chameleon as well. In Wang’s case, his unfiltered attacks on Stalin and extensive contacts with Americans during the war morphed into career problems after 1949, when the CCP took over the Dagongbao.  His authoritative book on Japan had to be heavily revised for reissue during the Anti-Rightist Campaign; Wang’s insufficiently Marxist analysis of Japanese imperialism brought him a great deal of pain.  Tweets, it seems, can be deleted, but a book is forever. Wang Yunsheng managed to survive the Cultural Revolution and died just as Yang Rui was preparing to enter university in Jilin in 1980.

The difficult experience of Wang Yunsheng and whole generation of Chinese journalists is a quiet undercurrent to China’s contemporary media landscape.  The lessons learned during the original takeover of China’s press structures in the late 1940s, the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, and having been yanked back from the edge of full-scale change in 1989 have been learned at no small cost.  Perhaps this is why Yang Rui is no Deng Tuo.  Yang, after all, has learned to align himself not so much with a specific set of policies and cultural debates as with the master narrative of “China’s rise,” its raw power and influence.

In the aftermath of Yang’s Weibo explosion, critics went digging through the rest of his online oeuvre. However, no one seems to have mentioned  his interview with “Zhongguo Guangbo Yingshi”, a magazine published by SARFT – in which, Yang explained his own role in 2008:

Q: Behind every outstanding program, its producers may have tough times, and there may be setbacks in the process. How do you overcome difficulties or crisis?

Yang: When things aren’t the way one wants them to be, personally, I remind myself more frequently that I’m no longer just representing myself, but that I’m an image spokesperson of the country, that my ideological level must match with my image on the screen, that I should, as far as possible, be indifferent to worldly rewards, and remain aware of the overall picture.

Later, speaking for a full hour about himself and China’s image on a counterpart talk show hosted by Sultan M. Ali in Pakistan, Yang provided more or less the most complete example to date:

When you talk about my own image, it’s not about myself, really. My name, my image, are a symbol of a country on the rise, and our rapid integration into the rest of the world has generated so many debates as to the global and [...] implications whether we pose any threat to our neighboring countries or the existing international economic and political order. Certainly we have different values and a different social system. But does it mean that we would have zero tolerance for differences, or the other way round? This is a question I keep asking in hundreds of editions of dialogues that I have with elites, politicians, policy makers from around the whole world. I never take myself as a an anchor in that sense, because China needs to have a dialogue.

A dialogue on the basis of China’s economic strength and growing global might seems rather preferable to a rhetorical redux of the paranoid campaigns of the early People’s Republic.  The extent to which Chinese journalists and television personalities are able to balance their patriotic legacy against the bruises hidden by the flag may dictate how far China is ultimately able to rise.

Adam Cathcart is Assistant Professor of History at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington; Franz Bleeker, who provided indispensible input for this essay, is an independent sinologist and translator in Bremen, Germany. 

Documenting Claims of China’s “Charm Diplomacy”

A recent essay on Chinese “soft power” written not by a US-trained academic, but from within China, provides a chance to find fissures between how and why China is using Western concepts of cultural power on the global stage.  (See Yang Danzhi, “Charm Diplomacy Bears Fruit,” China Daily, April 9, 2012).

The tendency is to read the China Daily as merely a state-controlled paper whose editorial line is relatively monolithic.  But Chinese op-eds — like policy directions, for that matter — are often cobbled together piece by piece, and it is individual academics who bring the issues forward into light, often with telling, revealing, or simply clumsy juxtapositions. Scholars who do not occupy the top chairs in Chinese think-tanks do not drive policy, but they way that they chose to interpret overall policy direction —and the prose that they churn out in that endeavor – can tell us more about the ideological and foreign policy terrain being surveyed in Beijing.

Yang Danzhi, a researcher in the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at (CASS[English]/中国社会科学研究院[Chinese]) provides grist for review today. Because I have not had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Yang, we can only gather a few facts from online ephemera: resume, previous output.  A dissertation, of course, would tell us much more, but with a handful of op-eds over the years, a series of views emerges which is very much in line with the kind of Huanqiu Shibao brand of nationalism.

Yang spent several years in Yunnan Province, on China’s Southwestern frontier, where the presence of India and Southeast Asia is felt far more palpably than in distant, dusty, and dry Peking.  Scholars from the periphery tend to sometimes be even more hardline.

The world looks very different from the China-Myanmar frontier — Photo by Jonah Kessel, courtesy Danwei.org

If more fodder is needed to pinpint the type – an all-purpose pundit with an emphasis on the southern hemisphere — this piece on Sino-Austrialian relations from 2010 is indicative of the tack taken: Australia is “confused” by China’s rise.”

Perhaps not too much should be expected from the scholars in Beijing who do not rise to the level of gravitas of Zhang Liangui, Lv Chao, or the Beida oracle Zhu Feng, particularly when one realizes that back in January 2011 they were writing nice things about North Korea’s impressive asymmetrical warfare capacities which hamstrung “great powers.”

From my somewhat-Chengdu-centric standpoint, Yang’s “Charm Diplomacy” piece is incongruous in the extreme.  Boosterism for one’s country is perhaps to be expected, but to wax rhapsodic about the bright and harmonious future of Sino-Indian cooperation during the BRICS meetings in India while the PLA press was churning out whole public dossiers on the coming conflict in what it calls “southern Tibet” would appear to indicate a certain blind spot.

Franz Bleeker is thanked for his comments on and contributions to this essay

Cultural Power Battle Threads

From the May Fourth Generation to Today

- The Telegraph reports in alarmist fashion about Hu Jintao warning, as the newspaper headline puts it, of “cultural warfare from the West”

- A closer examination of the story indicates that Hu Jintao’s “battle cry,” above, was a speech given on October 18, 2011, that was republished yesterday in the preemminent journal for CCP theory, Qiushi (Seeking Truth / 求是).

In fact most of the speech is not at all about the West, but the need for more powerful socialist culture.  However, the key detonating sentences in this long and rather boring speech are, after a discourse on China’s rising soft power, as follows:

同时,我们必须清醒地看到,国际敌对势力正在加紧对我国实施西化、分化战略图谋,思想文化领域是他们进行长期渗透的重点领域。我们要深刻认识意识形态领域斗争的严重性和复杂性,警钟长鸣、警惕长存,采取有力措施加以防范和应对. At the same time [that we develop our cultural industries and gain international advantage thereby], we must see with utmost clarity that hostile international forces are currently stepping up the implementation of Westernization in China, attempting to do so via in a variety of strategies; their long-term focus is on infiltration [渗透/shentou] in the ideological and cultural fields. We should thoroughly understand the seriousness and complexity of this ideological struggle, remaining vigilant (lit. “always keep the bell ringing“), ever alert, and taking effective measures to prevent and respond to [the challenge of cultural infiltration].

The full text of the article is available in rough English via Google Translate here.

- My own evidentiary contribution to the discourse on Hu Jintao’s retrograde and conservative tendencies with regard his extensive work in “socialist culture” are described in this essay about some materials I found about Hu Jintao in East German archives in 2009.

- As usual, with reference to cultural diplomacy and the soft power discourse, JustRecently is already well ahead of the curve.  His website has the most extensive open-source translation available of the Party’s “cultural document”, a document which stemmed out of the same meetings at which Hu Jintao weighed in above.

- In reading headlines about Hu Jintao’s fear of Western “infiltration,” I think it’s important to note that there are far more nuanced Chinese examinations of soft power out there.  PRC scholar He Zengke published a rather wide-ranging article this past December 23 in a reformist journal surveying French and German modes of exerting soft power, noting:

France was one of the first countries to understand the role of cultural soft power. Napoleon once said that a pen was equal to 1,000 Mauser rifles*), and a former French minister of culture said that culture and the economy are one and the same battleground. French people believe that a cultural mission can take the place of a country’s military power.[9] In 1883, France established the Alliance Française to promote French culture. Starting in 1959, France began to define the “First Five-Year Plan for the Expansion of French Cultural Activities”, and afterwards, 25- and 35-year plans etc. were gradually developed. From the total amounts spent and per capita, France belongs to the first-ranking countries worldwide.[10] From that, it can be seen that France attaches great importance to the development and use of soft power.

法国是最早懂得文化软实力的地位和作用的国家之一。拿破仑曾经说过,一支笔等于1000支毛瑟枪。法国前文化部长曾经说过:文化和经济是同一场战斗。 法国人认为,文化使命可以代替国家武力。[9]1883年法国就建立了法语联盟,在世界各地讲授法语,推广法国文化。从1959年起,法国开始制定“关于 在国外扩张和恢复法国文化活动的第一个五年计划”(1959-1963),后来又陆续制定了“二五”、“三五”计划等。法国的国际文化交流支出从总数和人 均来看都居于世界第一的位置。[10]由此可见法国对发展和运用文化软实力的高度重视。[Translation here by JustRecently]

He’s essay reminds us again:

-For all the huffing and puffing about Confucius Institutes, the “hanban” is still behind such institutions as the Alliance Française when it comes to enrollments and influence globally, a fact which I reported in July 2010 (from a cafe in Seoul, awash in K-pop, WiFi signals, kimchee and bubble tea) via a translation of a Huanqiu Shibao interview with the Hanban head.

- Finally, the magazine Monocle (which I fittingly tend to read in international airports; this one was in Tokyo) recently did some comprehensive “soft power ratings” in which the US was #1 but France not far behind.  China, by the way, was #17.