Tea Leaf Nation
The Solution to Beijing’s Soft-Power Deficit Is Staring it in the Face
The Communist Party needs to get out of the way and let China's diverse and charismatic people be themselves.
China and the United States are engaged in a long-term strategic competition, each seeking to shape the security architecture of Asia and to bring the world’s values and standards in line with its own. This requires that other nations see American or Chinese goals as legitimate and admire American or Chinese cultures and institutions — in other words, it requires soft power.
The United States has soft power in abundance, while China has almost none. The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro showed the world a new generation of charismatic Chinese stars and provided the latest reminder that China’s soft power deficit doesn’t stem from a lack of talent. The problem is that Beijing still doesn’t understand that governments cannot manage or manufacture vibrant cultures.
It’s not for lack of trying; Beijing has invested heavily in soft power through academic centers abroad called Confucius Institutes, as well as state-run media ventures like the China Central Television studio in Washington, which produces a 24-hour English news channel, and an electronic billboard on Times Square owned by state-run Xinhua News Service. Chinese universities, think tanks, and public diplomats are also charged with building soft power and winning global support for China’s policies. Despite these efforts, views of Beijing’s intentions range from skeptical to hostile, and not just in the West. Even in Confucian countries like Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam, China is viewed as a threat.
Chinese officials’ overseas behavior reinforces the perception that China has become self-righteous and abrasive. In June, Foreign Minister Wang Yi chastised a Canadian reporter who asked about human rights in Ottawa and the “rudeness” of the Chinese team that advanced President Xi Jinping’s trip to the U.K. last October prompted a rare public critique from Queen Elizabeth in May. Anyone who has worked with official Chinese delegations at international meetings or competitions, including the Olympics, knows that China’s insistence on being respected can result in a public style that is usually humorless and often bellicose.
What are viewers to make, then, of China’s playful 2016 Olympians, who won over Chinese and international fans through personality, rather than professions of loyalty to the Motherland?
Swimmer Fu Yuanhui, who took bronze in the women’s 100 meter backstroke, became a soft power star through unguarded admissions that she was astounded at her fast time, had harbored doubts about whether she could achieve it, and — in comments that broke a long-standing taboo — was menstruating. When a Chinese diver proposed to his girlfriend, silver medalist diver He Zi, while she stood on the champion’s rostrum, he faced criticism from some quarters for turning a celebration of female athletic victory into an assertion of male entitlement. What made the proposal a breakthrough, however, was that the couple treated the occasion as a personal rather than a national triumph. Meanwhile, China’s women’s volleyball players became the stars of the games for Chinese viewers not because they won the gold medal, but because they were charming, confident individuals. In Hong Kong, where a growing percentage of the population rejects Chinese governance and Chinese identity, a celebration featuring the twelve “golden girls” reportedly sold out within hours.
In other words, the patriotic automatons of China’s recent athletic past are gone. Anyone still in doubt should watch the video of Chinese volleyball captain Hui Ruoqi and her teammates singing on their bus after the games. Even China’s bad-boy swimmer, Sun Yang, who traded jibes with an Australian swimmer over Sun’s past doping and who awkwardly failed in an attempted to throw his cap into the audience after he won gold, contributed to China’s Personality Olympics by proving a Chinese champion can be as brash as any Westerner. How un-Confucian. Good for him.
Thanks to these individuals, the Olympics gave China its best soft-power moments since Xi came to power in late 2012 and launched an aggressive foreign policy, an anti-corruption campaign, and a brutal ideological crackdown. In Rio, the world saw personable young Chinese men and women who defied the image of angry nationalism that China projects in the Western Pacific. Their spontaneous performances, tellingly, were undirected by the Chinese state; Beijing’s ministries of culture and propaganda contributed nothing to their appeal.
In fact, governments rarely create soft power. Beijing’s 2008 Olympics were widely deemed an athletic, administrative, and aesthetic success, but when it became more assertive in the Western Pacific one year later, China’s Olympic glory did nothing to lower its neighbors’ threat perceptions. China’s record of cultural diplomacy is equally dismal. China was the guest of honor at the 2015 Bookexpo America forum in Manhattan, but the parade of authors dispatched by Beijing (whom few in America read) were overshadowed by demonstrators decrying Beijing’s censorship of literature and imprisonment of many writers of conscience. China’s sponsorship of annual concerts at the Kennedy Center, its weekly insertions of the state-run China Daily into the pages of the Washington Post, and the occasional birth of cuddly pandas in the National Zoo have done nothing to slow the worsening of American opinion toward the country. China’s cultural commissars have failed to produce a single masterpiece since the People’s Republic was founded 67 years ago, but they soldier grimly on, wondering why festivals and films aren’t winning China more friends.
Since Xi became Communist Party General Secretary in November 2012, cultural, academic, and media repression have deepened by the month. Universities have been told to reduce use of foreign textbooks because they are vectors for poisonous ideas, filmmakers and other creators have been told their art must serve socialism and transmit “positive energy,” and media outlets have been informed that they are all “surnamed Party,” which means they are part of the party family and must take direction from its patriarch.
Xi’s China has painted itself into a corner: it cannot have the soft power it needs (or train innovative students, or lead the knowledge economy — the list goes on) unless talented Chinese are free to heed their personal muses, consciences, and judgments. But in Xi’s eyes, granting that freedom to individual citizens would end of the leadership of the Communist Party in short order. That is why Xi has classified “universal values,” including constitutionalism and freedom of the press, as an existential threat to China on par with sedition and terrorism. Xi’s critics often depict his political attack on Western, liberal, and modern values as self-serving and paranoid. But from Xi’s point of view, development of modern liberal institutions, freedom for thinkers and the creative classes — even a society of freely associating, charismatic individuals — would be fatal to the party’s conception of order.
As long as order and hard power remain top priorities for Beijing, China’s soft power programs will continue to fail. For a few weeks in Rio, however, Chinese athletes revealed the fault lines between China’s increasingly modern citizenry and their pre-modern government. They offered a tantalizing glimpse of what China might look like if the party reflected the spirit of the people more fully. The way things are going under Xi, we may get not get another glimpse of that spirit until the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. But the performance of the Chinese in Rio suggests Beijing could, in fact, enjoy considerable soft power if it would quit cultural management altogether and let China’s athletes, writers, filmmakers, designers — and everyone else — do what comes naturally. The talent is there. Unshackled from politics, Chinese individuals could make China a cultural giant once again.
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