Wednesday, February 18, 2009

China pushes 'soft power'

By Dune Lawrence - Bloomberg News - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

BEIJING: The U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has touted her approach to diplomacy as "smart power." That's nothing new for China, which has employed economic, political and cultural persuasion under President Hu Jintao to build its image as a responsible world leader.

Now, China's gains as a regional partner and potential counter to U.S. influence are threatened by a slowdown in growth that may reduce its economic clout. At the same time, President Barack Obama's pledge to reverse Bush-era policies that diminished America's authority creates added competition for China's "soft power" - a phrase coined by the Harvard professor Joseph Nye.

The changes may expose China's Communist government to more scrutiny as the country's leaders launch a reported 45 billion yuan, or $6.6 billion, program to expand the reach and impact of its state-run media.

"If you want to promote something, you have to make sure the thing you're promoting is acceptable to other countries," says Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. "Soft power means other parties accept your values."

While China has clocked nearly 10 percent annual growth for three decades and is now the world's third-largest economy, the influence its money can buy has been offset by distrust among some nations of its political system.

Hu's "peaceful development" strategy - the pillar of foreign policy since he took power in 2003 - reflects an attempt to overcome lingering image problems created by the Tiananmen Square crackdown on student demonstrators in 1989. It's also meant to neutralize perceptions of China as a military threat, spurred by territorial aggression in the South China Sea in the 1990s and defense spending that rose an average of 15.9 percent a year between 1998 and 2007, according to the Chinese government.

In the past six years, China has helped drive multilateral negotiations to reduce nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran; and promoted itself in Africa with a promise in 2006 to provide $5 billion in loans and credits and to double development aid by this year. In Southeast Asia, it is working to create a free-trade zone that would eliminate levies covering 93 percent of its imports from the region.

Hu, 66, has also focused on cultural soft power, telling party leaders in an October 2007 speech that it is "a factor of growing significance in the competition in overall national strength."

The government has established 295 Confucius Institutes in 78 countries to teach Chinese history and language, and it spent an estimated $70 billion to stage the 2008 Summer Olympics, which attracted a record 4.7 billion television viewers worldwide.

China's new place at the global table is underscored by the appointments of Margaret Chan of Hong Kong as head of the World Health Organization in 2006 and Justin Lin, originally of Taiwan, as chief economist of the World Bank last year: They are the first Chinese to hold top positions in such prominent international organizations.

Still, positive views of China's influence have slipped 6 percentage points in the past year, according to a BBC World Service survey of public opinion in 21 countries released Feb. 6. China's positive rating fell to 39 percent, while its negative rating rose seven points to 40 percent.

Meanwhile, views of the United States as a positive influence increased to 40 percent from 35 percent in the poll, conducted after Obama's election between Nov. 21, 2008, and Feb. 1, 2009. America's negative rating declined to 43 percent from 47 percent. The margin of error varied by country.

Obama, 47, has promised to reverse the decline in America's image with a policy overhaul that includes closing the Guantánamo Bay detainee prison and renewed leadership on climate change.

The new president "has dramatized the basic values in the American dream that were somewhat tarnished over the past eight years," Nye, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, said in an e-mail. "That in itself has done a lot for American soft power, but it will have to be followed up with policies that are successful."

The most pressing problem for both countries now is the global financial crisis, which at first seemed a boon to China by exposing the failures of Western liberal capitalism, according to Nye. Now it weighs on the country's previously unsinkable upward trend.

Growth may fall to 6.7 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, from 13 percent in 2007 and 9 percent last year. More than 20 million people have lost their jobs and represent a threat of unrest as exports contract and prices in the property market slump.

The government's goal of preserving social stability may encourage repression of even legitimate complaints and public gatherings, creating potential human-rights abuses that attract international criticism. Earlier this month, at least 13 people were hurt in a clash of more than 2,000 in southwestern China after officials banned a traditional holiday dance, citing safety concerns.

Beijing casts critics of its human-rights record - which includes reported arrests of dissidents promoting Tibetan independence and persecution of certain religious groups - as ignorant and biased, a situation its latest soft-power initiative seems designed to address.

The government plans to hand out $6.6 billion to Xinhua, the official state news agency, and China Central Television, or CCTV, to expand abroad, The South China Morning Post of Hong Kong reported last month.

CCTV will start Russian and Arabic channels this year to supplement English, Spanish and French programming. Xinhua will add to its more than 100 foreign bureaus, and China will get its second official English-language daily, Agence France-Presse reported Jan. 14.

"Enhancing our communication capacity domestically and internationally is of direct consequence to our nation's international influence and international position," said Li Changchun, a member of the Communist Party's top ruling body, in a December speech.

Cheng Li, research director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is skeptical about the project's success.

"This is part of China's efforts to change its image, but in my view it's really more in terms of format rather than substance," he says. "The real substance is, you change China's own human rights record at a faster pace."