Written by James F. Paradise.
China’s soft power offensive has not been fully effective. One reason is that many outsiders find it difficult to buy into Chinese values because of political repression, cultural chauvinism and bad pollution in China. Another reason is that some activities in the military and economic spheres are starting to give China a bad reputation. This is creating a situation in which the hard power activities are starting to undermine the genuinely good soft power activities. That’s a serious problem for the Chinese government as it will make the quest for international friendship and support more difficult.
Many of the criticisms of China are overblown and have more to do with the diminishing power of the United States in the world than China itself. Creation of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for example, is more likely to be a good thing that helps overcome the shortfall of infrastructure finance in Asia than be a source of trouble as has often been suggested by the U.S. which tried to persuade its allies not to join the institution before offering its grudging “support” while remaining a non-member along with major powers Japan and Canada. Like other new institutions or initiatives that China is launching, which it typically bills as “open and inclusive” such as The Silk Road Economic Belt or the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the AIIB can be thought of as a kind of “soft balancing” instrument that will contribute to global public goods.
Similarly, many of the concerns about cultural and educational activities seem exaggerated. Rather than fretting about an insidious design of the Chinese to take over the world, many foreigners are happily studying Chinese at Confucius Institutes across the globe, enjoying Chinese concerts or art exhibits in North American or European cities or are busy making friends at Chinese universities while they are studying Chinese history or economics. Mainly those who worry about the “other” or are experiencing extreme psychological discomfort from changes in the international balance of power are getting worked up about the spread of Chinese culture.
More serious are some of the activities occurring in the hard power sphere. These include the creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, land reclamation activities in the South China Sea and the modernization of the Chinese military, which has included the addition of China’s first aircraft carrier to its arsenal. Articulating concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea, which also include the deployment of missile launchers and fighter jets on one disputed island, one U.S. admiral indicated that China might be trying to attain “hegemony in East Asia,” which is probably what it is trying to do.
Other concerns are being expressed by Western executives in China who claim that the Chinese business environment for international companies is becoming less hospitable because of things like “forced technology transfer,” anti-monopoly investigations and difficulties in obtaining business licenses for some activities. Descriptions of the anti-trust investigations include words like “aggressive” and “ruthless,” and note that foreign businesses say they are being targeted. Yet another area where concerns exist is with the expansion of Chinese companies overseas. There, they have been accused of resource exploitation, harsh working conditions, payment of low wages and failing to promote local workers to managerial positions, none of which are good for China’s international image. So bad have some of the activities been that China has even been accused of being “neo-colonialist,” an extraordinary description given China’s long solidarity with developing countries.
Whether or not China’s activities can be justified can in some cases be debated. One could argue, for example, that other countries have created ADIZ’s so China should be allowed to do so also or that other countries, such as Vietnam, have done land reclamation in the South China Sea so why shouldn’t China (at least this disclosure puts China’s actions in greater context)? And what is wrong with China vigorously enforcing its anti-monopoly law? Isn’t this something the U.S. should be doing more of? And don’t forget that China is a developing country in some respects and may need to protect its infant and strategic industries (provided doing so does not violate World Trade Organization law) in the same way that the U.S. and the United Kingdom did when they were in an earlier stage of their development before they “kicked away the ladder.” As for claims that Chinese companies are riding roughshod over the environment and their employees in developing countries, there may be some truth to that, but China is learning and trying to correct its mistakes. And anyhow, China is not the only country whose companies have sinned (or experienced problems) in foreign countries.
Regardless of whether one accepts these arguments, and much could be said on both sides of what are very complicated and nuanced issues, the fact is that some of China’s actions are generating fear and concern in some foreign countries. Evidence for this comes from a Pew Research Centre survey that found in 2015 54 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China and only 38 percent had a favorable view, a reversal from 2012, the year Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, when 40 percent of Americans had a unfavorable view and 40 percent a favorable view. Among the issues that Americans were concerned about to the extent that they rated them as very serious or somewhat serious were cyberattacks from China (86 percent), China’s policies on human rights (85 percent) and China’s growing military power (82 percent). Other advanced industrialized countries where unfavorable views outnumbered favourable views included Spain, Italy, Canada, Germany and Japan. Fairly, however, it should be noted that many countries in the world had more favorable than unfavorable views of China, including developed country Australia and even Malaysia and the Philippines with whom it is locked in a dispute over the ownership of South China Sea islands. “On balance, global views of China are positive,” Pew Research Center wrote in its 2014 report.
Indications of problems in the Chinese business environment are found in the 2016 China Business Climate Survey Report of The American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China that found that 77 percent of survey member respondents felt that foreign businesses in China were “less welcome than before” while only 23 percent felt they were “more welcome than before.” Among the major business challenges identified by survey respondents were “inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws” and “obtaining required licenses.”
To overcome these anxieties, China needs to take confidence-building actions. On the international side, one thing that it should do is to ensure that it lives up to its “win-win” rhetoric. This would go a long way to allaying fears of Chinese economic aggression and exploitation, and might even enable a more cooperative approach to dealing with thorny Asian island disputes. A second thing that it should do is to provide more global public goods. Provision of more development finance through new multilateral institutions of its creation or support and activities to combat international maritime piracy are steps in the right direction, but there is still a sense that China’s interventions are highly selective and not always well-integrated with multilateral mechanisms. That has given China an image as a “free rider” on some issues and not fully a team player.
A third thing that China should do is to stop bullying countries with whom it disagrees on some matters and taking the position “my way or the highway.” Countries that have suffered China’s wrath or threats, and in some cases diplomatic repercussions, have included the UK, after Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama, Norway, after the Oslo-based Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and South Korea, whose main opposition political party interim chairman was told by China’s ambassador to the country in February 2016 – after North Korea had done its fourth nuclear test and put a satellite into orbit through a rocket launch – that deployment of the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system “could destroy” relations between Beijing and Seoul, which had been very good.
Hard-edged statements such as this do not serve China well, nor do the hardball politics that try to deny to foreign powers the right to express opinions on humans rights issues, as they call into question the narrative of China’s peaceful rise and make it appear that Beijing is inflexible and unconstructive which on many issues it is not as it proved when it signed on to United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea in March 2016 and made the very sensible suggestion that a peace treaty be concluded to end the Korean War.
On the domestic side as well, China needs to make changes. The main change that it should make is to stop persecuting or imprisoning those with dissenting views or legitimate grievances. Doing this would go a long way to improving China’s image and creating a healthier political system as measured by things such as protection of political rights and civil liberties that Freedom House scores and governance standards such as “voice and accountability,” “political stability and absence of violence/terrorism” and “rule of law” that the World Bank measures through it’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators.” Another thing that China could do is to tone down the military discussion and imagery, which as anyone who has watched Chinese television knows, is quite pervasive, which is a problem because it feeds Chinese nationalism which is not a friend of soft power.
Making some of these changes will not be easy for China as China has its own political traditions dating back thousands of years and its own national interests that on some issues, especially ones which it regards as “core,” diverge from those of others. Not making them, however, will mean that some foreigners will find unappealing – and even objectionable – some Chinese practices and that its hard power activities will “crowd out” its legitimate soft power activities which will make it harder for China to win the hearts and minds of people around the world. This does not mean that China has to do things “the Western way.” But it does mean that when China does things its way, it has to improve on the West on matters such as environmental protection, respect for human rights and so on. This is a formula for great success; only time will tell whether China is the benevolent and enlightened power that it often presents itself as.
James F. Paradise is an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Wonju, South Korea. Image credit: CC by European External Action Service/Flickr.