China’s efforts to project its image-building “soft power” began nearly a decade ago when then President Hu Jintao gave that goal priority at a Communist Party Congress.
Once he took power in late 2012, President Xi Jinping devoted even more attention to soft power, making it part of his vision of a rising China.
Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor, coined the phrase “soft power” in the late 1980s, and Chinese scholars advising China’s leaders have studied the concept carefully ever since.
In his book titled Soft Power, published in 2004, Nye described soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.”
For Beijing, this has meant using Chinese media to stress China’s attractiveness as a culture while avoiding the use of outright propaganda. State media have also been stressing China’s desire to negotiate peaceful, “win-win” solutions in international relations.
But China’s efforts to project a more positive image have hit a few snags since 2012.
As an article published on March 23 by The Economist magazine notes, “China’s soft-power strategy focuses mainly on promoting its culture and trying to give the impression that its foreign policy is, for such a big country, unusually benign.”
But The Economist cites polls showing that China still falls short in terms of gaining positive ratings in many places around the world.
In 2016 Portland Communications, a London-based public relations firm, conducted a survey of public attitudes toward 30 countries in which China ranked 28th, three places from the bottom.
In contrast, the United States and Britain came in with favorable ratings at the top of the list.
China goes global
Toward the end of last year Beijing rebranded its main overseas television outlet, until recently known as China Central Television, or CCTV. But the rebranding, or makeover, has several shortcomings, according to media experts.
In an apparent effort to show that it has modernized and gone global, Beijing stopped using the acronym CCTV, which is also used to refer to surveillance cameras. So the network came up with a new name: China Global News, or CGN.
One problem arose from the outset. CGN is difficult to remember. And it sounds vaguely like CNN.
More important perhaps, the makeover itself has had serious problems, according to foreign experts.
David Bandurski, the widely respected editor of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University, describes CGN’s new website as both unattractive and “ill conceived.”
It now appears that the rebranding was imposed top-down without the benefit of expert advice or a usability study.
CCTV Chinese gains but English falls short
Based on August 2016 data, CCTV News in Chinese is now available in 90.7 million cable-viewing households in the United States.
Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for Freedom House in Washington, D.C., says this means that Chinese-speaking households “pretty much anywhere in the United States” are able to watch CCTV, now known at CGN TV.
However, this doesn’t tell us how many among an estimated four to five million Chinese Americans are actually watching.
But a large proportion of Chinese-American households watch Chinese language television, and in many locations where no alternative station is available they are very likely to be watching CCTV.
Cook says, however, that “in the English-language sphere, it would appear that for the most part, many Americans are not attracted to or convinced by Chinese government propaganda, particularly when its state-run origins are evident.”
After studying CGN TV’s presence on social media, Cook concludes that the network’s presence on websites such as YouTube and Facebook is relatively small and pales in comparison with that of major U.S. television networks or the English-language programming of
New Tang Dynasty, a network run by Falun Gong, a spiritual movement which is banned in China.
Hard power versus soft power
In the meantime, China’s hard power has at times undermined the country’s soft-power.
In Southeast Asia, for example, China’s building of militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea has undercut its efforts to present itself as benign in that part of the world.
And something as simple as the bad behavior of Chinese tourists in Southeast Asia can affect attitudes as well.
But China appears to be outspending the West on global soft power, which includes television and radio broadcasts, online news, and social media, as well as scholarships and all-expenses-paid trips to China offered to foreign students and scholars.
China expert David Shambaugh of George Washington University has estimated that China now spends $10 billion a year on soft power. But some experts feel that in many places China is still not getting its money’s worth.
In an article written for the magazine Foreign Affairs nearly two years ago, in July 2015, Shambaugh concluded that in contrast with its economic and military might, China “suffers from a severe shortage of soft power.”
“While China’s economic prowess impresses much of the world, its repressive political system and mercantilist business practices tarnish its reputation, said Shambaugh.
That judgment appears to stand up fairly well today, although in some places such as Africa, China can safely boast of some significant gains.
China’s overseas impact
China’s soft power ratings appear to vary widely from continent to continent.
In Africa, CGN and the official Chinese news agency Xinhua have established good relations with governments and forged media partnerships across the continent.
This seems partly due to Chinese efforts to present African developments in a favorable light while countering what some African governments regard as negative reports on Africa carried by Western media – reports on corruption, disease, and looming famines, for example.
But few quantitative studies are available to precisely measure China’s impact in Africa. And that impact varies from country to country. In a continent with more than 50 nations, research in one of them might not apply to the others.
And although Chinese media have secured a wide-ranging presence in Africa, tension and local conflicts inevitably erupt from time to time.
Illegal Chinese miners in Ghana, local Chinese traders who compete with African retailers in Uganda, and Chinese boats poaching fish off the Western coast of Africa have all been sources of tension.
In a lengthy report on the Chinese working in Namibia appearing in the May 7 edition of The New York Times Magazine, Shanghai-based journalist Brook Larmer reported on the diverse sources of tension involving the many Chinese working in that West African country.
Those tensions have included a recent series of scandals involving Chinese nationals over tax evasion, money-laundering, and the poaching of endangered wildlife. But Larmer goes on to report that some of these issues have been effectively dealt with by Namibian officials, the Chinese embassy, and the country’s court system.
On yet another continent, Australia, China’s image-building appears to have been less successful.
At first glance, Beijing would appear to have a good chance of winning hearts and minds in Australia, partly through its strong trade and academic ties with the country.
But a debate unfavorable to China is under way in Australia at the moment over what is seen as Chinese government attempts to promote pro-Beijing views through the country’s Chinese-language media and through a local Chinese “patriotic association.”
In his 2007 book Charm Offensive; How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote that China might someday drive a wedge between America and its closest allies. He singled out Australia as an example.
Ten years later, China doesn’t appear to have succeeded in driving that wedge, but sometimes aggressive statements from Chinese media as well as from local Chinese-language media make it seem to be trying to do so. And such statements aren’t taken well by many Australians.
China seems to be particularly interested in getting Australia to drop its support of U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and to adopt a neutral stance toward China’s island-building there.
Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.