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China: Challenging Western Soft Power

The architect of China’s modernization, Deng Xiaoping, had said that with the opening of windows fresh breeze will come in but along with it, some insects will also enter. This, he said, in the context of the reform and opening up policy and creating “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as the new ideology. Deng did not have a smooth run in formulating and implementing those basic polices on which China functions today. He faced formidable opposition but had equal support if not more from some of the top leaders of the country who suffered under Mao Zedong and the Gang of four during the cultural revolution.

Immediately after the Mao era it was the urgent question of reconstructing the economy which was wrecked by leftist campaigns. It was the west, mainly the US and Western Europe where the technology was as well as the money was available. To attract them China had to implement some significant changes. Practicing ideology was softened with “socialism with Chinese characteristic” that is, China’s interpretation Marxism and Socialism as per its requirements to rebound to the global platform. China had ample manpower and intellectual capability. The task was to harness and develop them. Foreign language, especially English followed by French and German was the bridge to the intellectual and financial vault of the USA and Europe.

The Chinese leaders were aware of the risk to ideology, political system and culture. Deng Xiaoping was convinced that the that the 1989 students protests was engineered by the USA’s CIA. The American efforts to bring democracy to China was enduring, but mostly using soft power intelligence operation named Peaceful Evolution. That is how the Soviet Union was dismembered.

But the Beijing leadership decided on a calculated risk. They invited foreign teachers to teach English and other important languages to Chinese officials and students. Travel to the west for students, researchers and professionals was eased. China benefitted enormously and has now become the second largest economy in the world and a formidable military power.

Having acquired this global status, China or at least an important section of the communist party leadership, have decided to counter the western narrative and create a global consensus that accepts the Chinese way at least as much as the western influence.

There are two parts to the new political action, which can be classified as an open soft power warfare. First is the impact of western influence permeating through the Chinese society and how to counter it. A new campaign, though not very pronounced as yet. Officials who have studied or trained abroad were sharply attacked for their views that promote westernization in China.

The hyperactive Global Times (August 22), a subsidiary of China’s No.1 official newspapers, the People’s Daily, while appreciating influx of western thought in the 1980s which become the engine of reform and opening up, opined that the Chinese society needs to selectively apply imported ideology. The article made a very significant point which might encourage more discussions on how to deal with the western narrative internally. Emphasising that western model cannot fit China, it called for a new enlightenment and called on great thinkers and opinion leaders to initiate it.

This kind of reasonable suggestions are also countered by hardliners who feel their responsibility is demolish liberals. The Chief Editor of the same Global Times, Hu Xijin recently wrote in his Weibo blog that the liberals had become a tool in the hands of the American, who want to topple China. Needless to say that responses tore into the Xijin, but Hu is a man who believes in spitting venom against liberals. He, obviously, is a propagandist for hardliners.

Historically, China has been an isolationist because of its cultural and ideological influence. Even some of the leaders of the 1911 democratic revolution against feudalism which set the stage for the communist party, had opined that western political thoughts were incongruous to China – ‘a fur coat is beautiful, but adopting westernization in China would be like wearing a fur coat in the height of summer’.

At that time there was no concept of a globalized world. Today, the Chinese leaders and citizens know globalization is imperative and is a reality without which China cannot be what it wants to be. Although Mao Zedong’s ideology of “continuous revolution” with its destructive results was buried by Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues, arguments and serious tussles with power involved has never stopped.

Mao Zedong and some of his colleagues, especially Premier Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping among them, always saw relations the United States as the opening gambit, mid-play with exchange of pawns, and the end game for China attaining its decreed place under the sun. That is why Mao never invaded Hong Kong which he could have done easily. Hong Kong was kept as a window to the west – especially, the USA and the U.K.

It appears a decision has been taken in Beijing to up the tempo of China’s political, ideological, cultural and linguistic soft power abroad to compete with the western narrative.

The Party Central Committees journal Quishi (June, 2012) carried an article on the urgent task to engineer Chinese language to instill ‘power behind one’s words’. The responsibility of the Quishi is to spread the party’s theories and policies. According to this article China’s comprehensive national strength has made it a power of high consequence in the world, but the authority of its voice lags far behind. It finds the global influence still still remains with the west led by the USA.

The Chinese Communist Party propaganda machine led by Li Changchun, standing committee member of the politburo and propaganda Chief are planning a surge to bring the positives of Chinese culture, ideology and politics to the world to counter the western domination. How to do it is the question.

The Chinese experts find that they have successfully used the vocabulary, both political and social, inside the country. The task now was to present the superiority of the Chinese system though attractive presentations to entice the foreign community to trust in what the Chinese establishment propagates. The first serious programme abroad was launched through establishment of Confucius Institutes across the world generally attached to educational institutions. There are around 326 Confucius Institutes in 90 countries across the world, spread in a particular plan. Over 70 of them are located in the USA, 17 in Russia and South Korea each, 12 in Japan, 14 each in France and Germany, 13 in U.K. Pakistan has only one, and India two. The targeted countries tell a story of their importance to China’s concern. Developing countries are also included with much smaller representations as these countries have not yet acquired a soft power of culture and influence of consequence.

The Confucius Institutes are in many ways comparable to Britain’s British Council, France’s Alliance Françoise, USA’s American Centers, Germany’s Goethe-Institute and others. The difference, however, is that the Confucius Institutes, though non-profit organizations, are directly linked to the Chinese government and the party. Most importantly the institute is linked with the United Front Work Department (UFWD). It is no secret that the UFWD is responsible to work with non-communist political parties including the Dalai Lama and such groups to form a united front with China as the core against countries Beijing consider as enemies and competitors. The UFWD, like the International Department of the Communist Party also engages soft espionage. There have been instances when experts from China were brought to those institutes abroad to lecture on political issues instead of teaching language and culture.

On the face of it, the Chinese educational and cultural surge abroad cannot be faulted. The knowledge of the Chinese language in most countries including India is lacking, making it difficult to understand China. But when China uses this instrument for operation mind control, the problem starts.

Soft power grows gradually. It offers art, culture, science and technology, humour and pleasantries of life. Human rights, respect for freedom of thought, speech and expression other than Macdonald’s and Kentuky fried chicken are of universal values. Law and justice underpin the soft power not only on the western narratives but also for countries like India.

The question is how will China endeavour to make its voice heard, respected and adopted when the values its system exercises contradict the largely prevalent practices mentioned above.

If China tries to make its system where freedom is stifled and persecuted, and justice delivered according to political directions, acceptable in other countries, it is a dangerous proposition. When Chinese officials claims that their country is ruled by law, it is farcical.

The Chinese Communist Party is severely under severe stress. One section says the country must reform politically for the party to survive. Another section believes any liberty will destroy the party. Will taking counter westernization abroad help the Chinese no changers? It is doubtful. But what is more certain is that the world will be facing a new warfare. India will be vulnerable if this challenge is not understood clearly. There is no need for elaboration.

(The writer, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi;

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