Written by Graeme Smith.

As the game show If You Are The One proves, soft power may emanate from China despite the Chinese government. Although contestants are told to avoid mention of “politics, religion, sex, pornography, violence, international relations or the Chinese government”, there are few vectors of influence the Chinese leadership are less comfortable with. Contestants are often visibly inebriated, and while the show was reined in for being “vulgar”, over 100 episodes were recently cut from overseas distribution because a host, Ning Caishen, admitted to a meth habit. Yet this addictive show is the now most important window on China for Australia.

Barry Buzan rightly argued that China has a poor image abroad as a result of domestic repression, and that the CCP’s morbid fear of civil society constrains its efforts to project soft power. Yet two of the three problems he identifies – that the Chinese government does not have a good image to sell abroad and that its totalitarian traditions mean that the government doesn’t know how to get out of the way – don’t tally with our research into China’s engagement with the Pacific.

In the Pacific, China’s government does have an image that Pacific elites and many ordinary citizens are attracted to. Popular perceptions of China in the Pacific and Africa are undermined by concerns for democracy, but this is balanced by perceived strengths in alleviating poverty and “getting things done”. China’s substantial investment in infrastructure beyond its borders may be more about reducing domestic overcapacity than projecting soft power, but this aspect of China’s brand is appreciated.

A recent realisation within MOFCOM that roads, schools and hospitals are more appreciated by host countries (if not politicians) than lavish stadiums and government buildings will burnish China’s image further. Nor is China’s appeal limited to infrastructure. In our interviews, it became clear that while scholarships to study in China were less sought after than those for Australia and New Zealand, they were still desired. Less appeal isn’t no appeal. The number of scholarships—2000 for the Pacific—means that a cohort of China-connected Pacific Islanders will develop, as it has in Africa.

In much of the world Chinese soft power exists, but the Chinese state, rather than being in the way, is barely present. China’s embassies, due to restrictions on central government staffing numbers, are ghostly. The first concern of the handful of officials is pleasing their superiors in Beijing lest their next posting be even further out of the way that Nuku’alofa, not selling China to the locals. Their work, largely, is providing support for visiting business delegations. Far from China’s borders, it is companies engaging in infrastructure and mining projects, and countless business migrants who are the vectors of Chinese soft power.

Chinese construction companies, such as COVEC, have inadvertently burnished China’s image through their willingness to take on infrastructure projects in regions (such as the Highlands of PNG) where other contractors are reluctant to tread. COVEC is an SOE on paper, but central control is almost entirely absent from their branch in Port Moresby. Yet for locals these projects demonstrate a state—China—getting things done, building infrastructure and creating jobs where their own state does not reach. This feeds into existing stereotypes. As former Prime Minister Michael Somare opined to Al Jazeera:

Chinese are workaholics; they work from six o’clock in the morning, even at night, until they complete the task. Ask the Melanesians. We work when time permits us. When we feel that after ten o’clock when we are tired, we go and sit under a tree. Our work ethic has to be changed in this country; we have to work much harder.

The largest Chinese project in the Pacific, a nickel mine run by China Metallurgical Corporation, has struggled to sell China. Company management has come to realise that like other mining companies working in remote Papua New Guinea, in the eyes of the locals, they are the state. The state-owned flavour of company management means that its efforts mimic the Chinese state, from ham-fisted propaganda to popular acrobatic displays. Yet PNG staff have brought success, notably Mathew Yakai, whose press releases run unchanged in the national newspapers, and whose blog reveals much about the appeal of China to Pacific islanders. Local staff have even persuaded the company to partner with a local “spiritual development foundation” who regularly lead religious “crusades.”

Like the producers of If You Are The One, the group with the most influence on China’s brand in the Pacific is reviled by Chinese officials: migrants. A report commissioned by the Guangdong Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs in the wake of riots in the Solomon Islands revealed the depth of contempt felt by the state towards business migrants. Unlike other commentators, they blamed the unrest (which saw Honiara’s Chinatown burnt to the ground) squarely on recent arrivals from the Pearl River Delta, describing them as “such low quality that they have no ability to compete in China… They treat [locals] like slaves” and asking “If goods have export quality standards, should migrants also meet a quality standard?”

Yet this group of migrants, in the past the target of violence in Timor Leste, Tonga and Papua New Guinea, may provide an unanticipated boost to China’s soft power stocks. Younger, middle class Chinese are being drawn to the Pacific, lured by clean air and a slower pace of life. They understand social media and the value of building local networks. A recent post to the Facebook group Yumi Tok Stret in Vanuatu did more to defuse anger towards the Chinese community than any embassy missive could:

hi all members of YTS . I am a chinese , the most hated community in prot vila —- CHINESE.

I have joined YTS for a couple month jst to see local updates . I’m not sure if this is a good or bad idea for now because I can see how much U nivans hate Chinese . SIMPLY hate everything about chinese. For the record yes we have small eyes than nivans , ok u win . I understand that there’s no hates coming from nowhere . yes some chinese has done some really bad things while running their businesses here in Port Vila , like put expired tin food on sale , like underpay nivan workers, like selling crapy products . Thoes r all for money . thoes r all because GOV doesnt do its job to enforce the law . When gov can regulaly check on all businesses and give tough disciplines, no one would be that stupid to break the law .

This businessman and his friends fill their feeds with food and selfies, but also with their community relief work in the wake of Vanuatu’s all to frequent natural disasters. Once the oversized novelty cheque has been discovered, soft power cannot be far behind.

Graeme Smith is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne. He is co-editor of East Asia’s Demand for Energy, Minerals and Food (Routledge, 2015). Image by Hadi Zaher/Flickr