Scandal Erodes China’s Soft Power

Hidden power struggles, repression, belie unified regime that can deliver reforms

By Frank Ching Created: May 6, 2012 Last Updated: May 9, 2012
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Protesters demanding the release of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng hold signs and pray in front of the White House on May 4. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/GettyImages)

Protesters demanding the release of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng hold signs and pray in front of the White House on May 4. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/GettyImages)

Buoyed by its massive foreign exchange reserve, China has spent billions of dollars to boost its soft power. Direct Chinese television broadcasts and Confucius Institutes around the world are aimed at winning the world’s respect. But a series of political scandals showing a total lack of regard for China’s rule of law have punctured claims about the Chinese system’s superiority.

Chinese netizens’ claims that dissident Chen Guangcheng, who had escaped house arrest, was in “the 100 percent safe place” in China—the U.S. Embassy—sum up China’s challenge. In fact, the Chen incident represents a loss of face, reflecting a lack of trust by Chinese citizens in their own government.

Actions speak louder than words, and actions in China of late have been deafening.

As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and actions in China of late have been deafening. A quick survey of world newspaper opinion pages shows the damage to China’s soft power.

In February, Chongqing Deputy Mayor Wang Lijun spent a mysterious 30 hours in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and subsequently “left of his own volition,” according to the U.S. State Department. Obviously he thought the U.S. mission was the best place for his personal safety. Now in custody in Beijing, he faces treason charges and, apparently, assists in the investigation of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, who is suspected of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.

The Bo saga dominated headlines for weeks, with salacious details leaked, including massive amounts of money involved and the poison administered to Heywood, who, it’s alleged, wanted a bigger cut for laundering money. Chinese citizens treated the news as unusual only because it was public, which certainly does not boost China’s soft power based on Confucian morality.

Chen Incident

Then, just as the Bo saga was beginning to run out of steam, came another sensational development: the escape from house arrest of blind legal rights activist Chen, who managed to travel from Shandong to Beijing, before finding refuge inside the U.S. Embassy. Chen left the embassy after six days, again of his own free will, according to both the Chinese and U.S. governments. Only a few hours passed before he changed his mind and wanted to leave China with his family.

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Like China, the United States does not welcome Chinese citizens seeking shelter in its diplomatic missions, whether they’re former police chiefs implicated in human rights abuses or dissidents mistreated by Chinese authorities.

After all, the United States has no means of sheltering dissidents for prolonged periods or spiriting them out of the country. Ongoing events show that the Chinese regime’s often belligerent and extra-legal behavior to a large extent influences how China is perceived by the rest of the world. Such actions have a greater impact on Chinese soft power—or its lack thereof—than programs beamed by Xinhua or CCTV around the world, at a cost of billions of dollars.

Last October, China’s communist leadership endorsed a decision to enhance the nation’s soft power. Even before, that, in 2010, China launched 24-hour global English TV news. In February, CCTV America, based in Washington, was launched.

In addition, China has set up more than 320 Confucius Institutes around the world to promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture, at a cost of roughly $150 million a year as of three years ago.

Ongoing events in China play a much greater role in shaping how people view China than “new perspectives” or “alternative views” presented by spin doctors or professional Western journalists on China’s payroll. Countering the Confucius Institutes spreading word about the virtues of family cohesion is the heartrending account of Chen’s family held hostage by the regime.

In the Chen case, the United States crafted an agreement under which Chinese authorities agreed to relocate the dissident and his family to another part of the country where he could enroll in a university to study law. Chen insisted that he wanted to leave the country as soon as possible, and stated he feared for his family’s safety in a phone call to an emergency U.S. congressional hearing on his case.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman announced that Chen could also apply to study abroad.

This is unprecedented. If China carries out its part of the bargain, it could mean loosening of the grip that security authorities have had on the country in recent years, ostensibly for maintaining social stability.

Little of this is known to the Chinese public because of official censorship. However, while China can gag its own media with directives from the Party’s propaganda department, it can do little about news reports from other countries. Despite China spending billions on public relations, editorial comments in the free media reflect what the world thinks of China.

  • Carlos De Souza

    When did the Chinese EVER have “soft power” ??  As far as I know, all that they have been able to demonstrate is BRUTE POWER.  Period. 


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