Why Is Chinese Soft Power Such a Hard Sell?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Jeremy Goldkorn:

Chairman Mao Zedong said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, and he knew a thing or two about power, both hard and soft. If you have enough guns, you have respect. Money is the same: if you have enough cash, you can buy guns, and respect.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are examples of the limits of such respect. Both countries are rich and in some ways very powerful, but people in other countries with no cultural connections don't look at Israel, or Saudi Arabia and think: “Gee, I want to live like that and watch their movies!”

(AFP/Getty Images)
Open for business since 1905, the Daguanlou movie theater in Beijing.

But we, the rest of us, everyone who is not American, we all want to watch American movies. I am from South Africa, and I’ll confidently represent the entire Third World and the rest of the First World assure you that it’s true. We don’t want to watch Israeli or Saudi or Chinese movies, nor buy Chinese sneakers. Nor, with the exception of a few eccentrics such as myself, do we want to live in Chinese cities. The Saudis and Israelis do not seem to care about this, but China does, hence the endless hand-wringing about soft power.

The essence of Joseph Nye’s articulation of of soft power is the power to attract, to co-opt and to seduce. China now has enough cash to open Confucius Institutes, fund movies, TV stations, and schools, open art zones, buy aircraft carriers and islands, but China has not made itself an attractive place to live or work or dream.

Until Chinese political leaders would rather their daughters went to Peking University over Harvard, until Chinese people would rather buy Mengniu infant milk formula over the equivalent brand from New Zealand, until Beijing and Shanghai become as pleasant to live in as New York and L.A., China will find its soft power ambitions thwarted.

As the ancient American saying has it, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig—doesn't matter how much you spend on the lipstick.


The reason China is having such problems with soft power is that it’s simply not something that can be ordered up on command by political leaders. Jeremy hits the nail on the head in calling it the power to attract; in a person, it’s akin to magnetism or charisma. And the reason the U.S. has it and China, Saudi Arabia, and Israel do not is not because U.S. political leaders came up with the right policies and leaders in the other countries didn’t. It’s something that has to come, if it comes at all, from the bottom up. Almost by definition, it’s something that governments are constitutionally incapable of promoting; China ends up looking like parents who desperately attempt to make their teenage children think they’re cool but always end up getting it wrong.
I was told, for example, about the recent opening of a Confucius Institute—the centerpiece of China’s official soft power project. The senior Chinese official present got up to talk … and talk, and talk, and talk. The speech was long, and the official’s English so poor as to be virtually incomprehensible to the audience. But of course the length of the speech, its content, and the identity of the speaker were all determined by internal Chinese political dynamics, not by considerations of where the speech was being given and who the audience was. And indeed, for it to be otherwise, China would in a sense have to stop being China. This is not something that inspires the desire to emulate.

Yesterday, Orville and I were flipping through an annual survey the public relations firm Edelman puts out about trust around the globe. Some telling numbers jumped out. Edelman found that companies headquartered in China were trusted by only 35% of informed publics (only 19% in developed countries) in comparison with companies whose headquarters are in places like Canada and Germany, which garnered trust ratings of 76% and 75% respectively. Also revealing: Chinese companies’ trust numbers have remained unchanged over the last five years. This despite the billions poured into new international news outfits, the piles of gold medals in Beijing and London, the kudzu-like spread of Confucius Institutes (a new one just opened at Columbia), sister cities, Zhang Yimou, Boao.

Do the rest of you think any of this makes a lasting difference to China’s reputation? Or is it all, as Jeremy says, lipstick?

Since 2008 the Chinese government increasingly has recognized the importance of its international image and building ‘soft power’ as part of the nation’s “comprehensive power” (综合国力, zònghé guólì). Since then, the various government and Communist Party agencies have been prioritizing this effort and pouring billions into various activities abroad—ramping up Chinese media presence overseas, cultural exhibitions, student exchanges, Confucius Institutes, corporate branding, and public diplomacy. This has been a global effort. In a short time, China has managed significantly to increase its “cultural footprint” overseas.

But, the question remains: is all the investment producing dividends? Thus far, the the answer must be “no.” China’s global public image is mixed at best, although there do exist “pockets of favorability” in Africa and Latin America—but even on these two continents, polling and anecdotal evidence indicates growing suspicions about China’s presence (mainly commercial and in the realm of energy and resource extraction) during the last 18 months. Elsewhere in the world, China’s image generally is mixed to poor and declining. This is probably a natural part of becoming a global power (critical views), but the czars of China’s “external propaganda” (对外宣传, duìwài xuānchuán) would be better served reflecting on the kinds of activities that give China a negative image abroad than simply investing in programs for cultural exchange. At the end of the day, if the “message” isn’t sellable, no well-resourced “messenger” can sell it.

So far none of the coverage of the media strategy for soft power has discussed what may be the fatal flaw in the government’s strategy—the media efforts are almost entirely focused on declining media like television, radio and print.

Not only has there been limited emphasis by the Chinese government on using the Internet to further soft power, but there also are major structural and cultural issues that make it extremely difficult for China to push its soft power agenda over the Internet. China has planned the soft power effort as a multi-decade effort, but the lack of effective products for the medium of future generations may doom the government’s efforts.

China is leveraging the media channels and distribution mechanisms it understands, and hiring, no doubt at great expense, Western old media hands as consultants. But as Google and Facebook and its more than 1 Billion users have shown, the future influencers globally are online. 

There are no domestic Chinese Internet firms that have a shot at developing the global impact of a Facebook, Google or even Twitter. First, the language barrier is a real issue; maybe the Confucius Institutes will eventually teach decent Chinese to millions, but that will take decades and even then there will still be vastly more people outside of China more capable of reading English than Chinese.

Second, none of the top Chinese Internet firms—Baidu, Tencent, Sina, Sohu, Shanda, Netease—have either the DNA or the credibility to succeed materially in major overseas markets. In most markets they will face the same kinds of difficulties that Western Internet firms face in China. They may gain share, especially in gaming, in parts of the developing world, but not in any significant way that would have a meaningful impact on the overall soft power goals.

China’s soft power push is likely a boon to Western media consultants, cable channel and radio station owners, and advertising sales people, but currently the strategy may be flawed to the extent that worries about China’s media soft power efforts are overblown.

Can you really win hearts and minds of current and future generations when you are known as a country that blocks Facebook, Google, Youtube and Twitter?

[Adapted from Can China Successfully Build Soft Power Without A Global Internet Strategy? ] 

I appreciate Bill’s two cents.  Indeed, let’s talk about the Internet—the medium of now and of the future. I spent years writing about Hollywood’s push into China and, recently, sensed that what each visiting studio executive really was interested in was online video gaming, not mucking about with obtuse Chinese censors and old-school theatrical distribution contracts on an uneven playing field. Sure, a Hollywood title on the marquee of a brand new second-tier city multiplex was great (censored or no), but being able to reach third-tier twentysomthing consumers uncensored and via the Internet, well, that would be priming the pump for the future, the real mother lode.

Playing devil’s advocate, I offer this observation: last week, at a Columbia Business School event I moderated in New York about the state of play in the Chinese social media landscape, the new head of North American business development for WeChat, the voice and text social media delivery platform of Tencent, China’s largest Internet company (and one partly owned by Naspers of Jeremy’s homeland, South Africa), laid out as clear a vision of a strategy for penetrating the U.S. market as has been articulated in English thus far by anybody from inside the Shenzhen-based company its spokeswoman described as historically “press shy.” 

To a standing-room-only crowd of about 100, mostly ethnically Chinese MBA guests, the WeChat spokeswoman said plainly that Tencent would would not—as was rumored—tax its users in China by imposing a proposed Chinese government fee, one floated online in recent weeks as a test-balloon remedy to bolster revenue lost by the Chinese state-run telecommunications companies now beginning to realize that Hong Kong-listed Tencent and its WeChat service might be positioned to undercut their core business.  (Increasingly, WeChat’s voice and video messages can and are being used instead of telephone calls and, what’s more, they're free.) 

Now, back to soft power.  Bill Bishop says that no Chinese domestic Internet firm is likely to have, any time soon, a shot at cracking the global market. I would tend to agree, but not, as Bill says, because of the language barrier, among other reasons. 

Pressed as she was by the Columbia MBAs, the Tencent/WeChat spokeswoman didn’t give a straight answer about Tencent’s vision for its business in America.  What exactly would Tencent and WeChat be doing in the U.S. relative to, or in comparison with, Facebook and Twitter? It sounded to me and, dare I say to many members of the largely Chinese audience with whom I spoke afterwards, that WeChat is planning on trying to migrate its China business model to the U.S.  The trouble is that Tencent/WeChat’s China model seems to be defined by an ability to operate a giant social network of message exchange that official censors in Beijing appear less displeased with than they are with, say, weibo. (How else could they be confident they’d avoid the propose dtax?) Due to the set up of weibo, the generic term (singular and plural) for "microblogs" operated by Chinese companies such as web portals Sina, Sohu and Netease—and even by the Chinese Communist Party flagship newspaper the People’s Daily—users can share whole, dynamic online conversations about, say, human rights or sex with tens of millions of viewers at once...until the censors swoop down, that is. Which, often, is quickly. Despite the censors, weibo, for now, is the preferred social network of Chinese people interested in spreading information, sometimes sensitive in nature, far and wide and lightning quick.  WeChat, on the other hand, seems to me to be trying to meet the aspirations of China's upwardly mobile, it's MBAs, shall we say, by appealling to their reason and asking them to use a more exclusive network, one on which they’ll be less likely to rock the boat, having, as they do, more to lose if their online messages upset social stability.  

But can a Chinese Internet company whose very culture is to operate comfortably with the idea that ideas themselves are not for everybody survive in a country like the U.S. where ideas are free for every single body? There seemed to me last week at Columbia to be a sense of great doubt in the roomful of Chinese MBAs about WeChat's chances in America, despite the fact that most of the (largely bilingual) guests in the room raised their hands to say they were users of the platform.  How, I wondered, could a company whose public relations department never in roughly five years of calling from my prior base in Beijing once returned my emails or phone calls with substantive answers to my questions, expect to survive in as transparent and competitive a business environment as exists the U.S.? 

Well, putting out a spokeswoman—I'll spare her public mention of her name just yet—is a good start and I applauded her bravery for facing down the sharp crowd of Columbia entrepreneurs. Nearly every question at the end of the Chinese social media panel I hosted was for the Tencent/WeChat rep, despite there being five other guests there with me in the spotlight. And she didn't blink and she spoke plainly, if not always with the greatest detail.  That, cynically spoken, is the beginning of the inkling of soft power.

If recent studies show that only six percent of consumers in the U.S. can name even a single Chinese brand, and China remains, as Edelman’s survey points out, among the least-trusted nations on Earth, then putting up some effort to speak openly and on the record about your work in the Chinese and now global Internet space is an important start. In the American spirit of welcoming competition and innovation, I hope Bill’s wrong and that Tencent manages to take my fortysomething understanding of the potential of social media to the next level and offers my bilingual and bilterare eight-year-old daughter a global Chinese alternative to the current quiver of social media offerings grown here in America, which, by many accounts are less dynamic by far than their Chinese counterparts—after one discounts for censorship, of course.

Ah, but there’s the rub—why do my daughter and her friends and I need Chinese social media at all when we've got a free press to tell us what’s going on in the world?