June 7, 2013 / 6:00 AM / 5 years ago

Addressing China’s ‘soft power deficit’

Xi Jinping (L) met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Feb. 14, 2012.  REUTERS/Jason Reed

As Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares for his landmark summit with President Barack Obama in California Friday and Saturday, the critical mission of improving China’s image in the world could well be uppermost in his mind.

The central challenge that Xi faces here is that China’s soft power – its ability to win the hearts and minds of other nations and influence their governments through attraction rather than coercion or payment – has lagged far behind its purposeful hard power built on its growing economic and military might.

This “soft power deficit” could prove a real headache for the new Chinese president, for there is increasing international concern, suspicion and even outright hostility as China’s international role expands. In the United States, for example, public favorability toward China fell by over one-fifth in one year recently – from 51 percent in 2011 to 40 percent in 2012, according to Pew Research Global Attitudes Project.

At a time of continued economic uncertainty in the United States, issues such as China’s alleged currency manipulation, the mammoth size of the U.S. trade deficit with China and the large U.S. financial debt held by China, not to mention alleged Chinese cybersecurity attacks on American businesses and government offices, has taken its toll on U.S. public opinion.

In Japan, meanwhile, public favorability toward China fell from 34 percent to 15 percent between 2012 and 2011, according to Pew. With Japanese distrust of China growing, Tokyo is actively strengthening its diplomatic alliances, particularly with Washington, as it seeks to balance Beijing’s growing economic and military strength.

In this context, Xi must rightly recognize the need for better diplomacy and strategic communications to enable stronger international understanding and appreciation of the country. His summit with Obama represents an unprecedented opportunity to begin the journey to repair China’s global reputation.

What must China do if it is to succeed in this journey during Xi’s presidency?

In the short term, the California meeting offers a first-class opportunity to restart a process of addressing growing foreign concerns about China’s intentions as a nascent super power. Here, Xi will need to double down on long-standing Chinese pledges of securing a harmonious, peaceful transition as China rises, and being a responsible stakeholder in the international system.

This will not be enough, however, to reassure some audiences. To this end, Xi reportedly has a far more audacious goal to fundamentally redevelop U.S.-China ties into a new type of cooperative – rather than antagonistic – great power relationship.

While this agenda now lacks definition, it could prove symbolically powerful for China. So a good starting point at the summit would be clearer commitments to develop stronger, joint U.S.-China positions on key issues, especially in Asia – particularly a peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear standoff.

Beyond this summit, there is a huge forward agenda for China to tackle that will require commitment to meaningful reform during Xi’s presidency. If this happens, China will be able to potentially secure significantly more dividends from the sizable sums of money it already spends on foreign charm offensives.

Addressing China’s ‘soft power deficit’

Perhaps the most difficult issue to be addressed in the Rancho Mirage, California, meeting is the sometimes yawning gap between China’s attractive culture and traditions and modern achievements such as its scientific progress (admired by many foreigners and a significant source of soft power), and the Communist regime’s domestic actions. One case in point was the stunning staging of the Olympics in 2008. The elaborate opening ceremonies celebrated both traditional and modern Chinese culture and society, while underlining Beijing’s clinical efficiency to stage major events – though foreigners can sometimes interpret this ominously.

Successful as those Olympics were, Beijing squandered much of the soft power dividends generated when it clamped down on the uprising and protests in Tibet and Xinjiang respectively. This counterproductive pattern of behaviour is by no means isolated. Beijing needs to recognize this to avoid what looks like a tendency to shoot itself in the foot going forward.

This requires commitment to political change, transparency and concrete steps towards democratization – and matching these words to deeds. Much of the international community is unlikely to welcome China as a peaceful, responsible world power if Beijing regularly clamps down on Chinese citizens seeking domestic reform, including political dissidents, lawyers, human rights activists and journalists.

A second issue to address is that, traditionally, there has been too little emphasis from China on public diplomacy efforts to reach out directly to foreign publics. Instead, Beijing has often placed emphasis, especially in Africa and the Middle East, on improving working relationships with strategically important governments through assistance programs that may not always serve the interest of local people.

Slideshow (2 Images)

This is now changing. China has rapidly developed public diplomacy skills and policies. But more change is urgently needed if hearts and minds are to be won across the world.

Perhaps the biggest reform necessary for Xi is reducing the role of the state, which still initiates most of China’s public diplomacy.

The central problem here is that the communications of Chinese state-driven public diplomacy often lack legitimacy and credibility. One solution is expanding the numbers of individuals and non-state groups – including from civil society networks, Chinese diaspora communities, student and academic groups and business networks – involved in public diplomacy.

While this may make Beijing anxious, it will only enhance Chinese soft power in the long term. To confirm this, Xi needs only look to the United States, a nation that long enjoyed one of the best reputations in the world and derived much of this high standing from its rich and vibrant civil society and private sector, which are much admired by many international stakeholders.

As these examples illustrate, Xi’s challenges ahead are wide-ranging and deep-seated, and will require far more than one summit to overcome. Indeed, enhancing China’s reputation is a generational task that will require not only sustained investment, but also significant reform, during Xi’s presidency.

PHOTO (Insert A): A view of “Unit 61398,” a secretive Chinese military unit, in the outskirts of Shanghai, February 19, 2013. This military unit is believed to be behind a series of hacking attacks around the globs,  REUTERS/Carlos Barria

PHOTO (Insert B): Crew members on the Chinese Navy frigate Huangshan wave to Chinese people welcoming them as they arrive in Valletta’s Grand Harbour March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

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