By Geoff Raby
Published on 17 July 2019 on Australian Financial Review
Last week the US Pace Gallery announced it was closing its flagship contemporary art gallery in the famous 798 art space and expanding at home. Also last week, police squads and bulldozers moved in to demolish several more of Beijing’s spontaneously formed art villages.
This is a far cry from the years before the Beijing ’08 Olympics where China’s soft power was surging. Then a buzz of excitement around Chinese contemporary arts, cinema and rock music attracted local Chinese and foreigners to Beijing. Many came to be part of this new fresh creative force that was building momentum. It was the New York of the 1950s or London in the 1960s.
Political red lines were dissolving. The opportunities and potential seemed boundless. The Communist Party seemed to be loosening its control. Political boundaries began to be extended with the rights lawyers’ movement, spread of NGOs and environmental activism.
Today, China’s soft power is non-existent. China has missed its chance to have voice and influence internationally without money or weapons. China’s problem with soft power has again been on display on the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks.
Soft power is a way of getting people to follow you because they are attracted to you and wish to be like you. The concept is mostly associated with Harvard international relations professor, Joseph Nye.
It is usually defined by what it is not: military hard power, nor something in between described as "sharp" power – peddling influence, bribery, preferment. Nye says, “the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies”. Updating for the social media age, Nye suggests that “the best propaganda is not propaganda” because “credibility is the scarcest resource”.
China’s state-sponsored efforts have had little impact on influencing favourable views of China abroad. Attempts at projecting soft power are little more than elaborate, expensive, propaganda. When judged by the billions spent on promoting China’s image abroad, this would be among the most wasteful of China’s state investments. Therein lies China’s problem – it has to serve the Party’s narrative.
Results from the Pew Research Centre 2018 poll of 25 countries found a median of 45 per cent had a favourable view of China, while 43 per cent had an unfavourable view. The Lowy Insititue's latest survey showed similar results for Australia. Most countries holding favourable views were in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. In the US, only 38 per cent held a favourable view down from 44 per cent in 2017, while just under half held unfavourable views. Another Pew poll, from 2017, and with a Trump presidency, still showed a 58 per cent favourable view of the US and only a 26 per cent unfavourable view.
China’s problem with soft power stems from its authoritarian system of political and social organisation. Under President Xi Jinping, greater ideological guidance has been introduced across cultural fields, while monitoring, restricting and seeking to shape social media have increased.
Authoritarian systems achieve a high-level of social and cultural control by having ill-defined boundaries or “red lines” that have a chilling effect on creativity. Over the past 10 years, dullness and conformity have been creeping back into cultural spheres, just as more money and technological wizardry are being applied. Several years ago, President Xi warned against designing “strange” looking buildings. Since then, Beijing’s new architecture, as impressive as it may be for its sheer scale – another authoritarian touch – is all straight lines and rigid symmetry.
China’s economic development over the past 30 years commands and deserves the world’s admiration and respect. It largely has done that. China’s soft power should thus be much greater than it is. While naturally and understandably many people would want – and do – aspire to China’s level of development, and all the benefits that go with it, from nutrition, health, safety, sanitation, education and opportunity, many also do not want to be like China. That is China’s conundrum.
China has invested heavily in a global media network through CGTV. It’s non-Chinese audience, however, could be guessed to be relatively small, as would be the case for the numerous Beijing funded newspapers, journals and websites directed at international audiences. Ultimately, content must pass through the prism of the propaganda authorities, not that of the marketing people. The constraint is structural, embedded in the nature of the political system.
A decade ago, Confucius Institutes must have seemed like an inspired idea to those in Beijing worrying about how to build China’s soft power. They were embraced with alacrity by universities around the world.
Today, if anything, Confucius Institutes might be seen as counter-productive. They had always been contentious with some academics concerned about academic freedom. Funded by the Chinese government, the whole gamut of sensitive issues from Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and human rights would be off limits. These institutes have also been involved in applying pressure on university administrations to follow Beijing’s line.
Historically, China has had immense soft power in its arts – painting, calligraphy, ceramics, poetry, music, food and much more.
US based Human Rights Watch has now called on universities not to accept and to close existing Confucius Institutes. A number of US universities, including Chicago, are reported to have closed theirs.
Human Rights Watch has also proposed a 12-point code of conduct aimed at “Resisting Chinese government efforts to undermine academic freedom abroad”. One of which is to “reject Confucius Institutes”.
The engagement of agents of influence, bribery, co-opting patriotic students, is sharp power. That these are the main instruments at hand for the Chinese state operating in Australia suggests that China’s soft power is badly wanting.
Historically, China has had immense soft power in its arts – painting, calligraphy, ceramics, poetry, music, food and much more. This soft power, this attractiveness to foreigners, is age-old but it is does not belong to the Communist Party. It is inherent in Chinese traditional culture. It is authentic. It is not propaganda.
Australia should for its own cultural enrichment embrace Chinese traditional soft power and contemporary arts. It need not fear state-sponsored intimidation, propaganda and attempts to interfere with academic freedom. Australia’s institutions are strong and its people sensible enough to resist.