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All Out: China Turns on the Charm

A former United States ambassador to Thailand tells of being asked to contribute to a local university in Bangkok that wanted to set up an “America corner” in its library—nothing more than a computer station and a few shelves of informational material. During the Cold War such a project would have been funded by the U.S. Information Agency. But the USIA closed its doors eleven years ago and now such requests must travel through the bureaucratic badlands of the State Department. Because of the ambassador’s persistence, funding ultimately came through. When he arrived for a small ceremonial unveiling, however, he found that the modest corner endowed by the United States was dwarfed by the Chinese government’s donation—a new building, fully staffed, to house one of its Confucius Institutes.

While U.S. public diplomacy since September 11, 2001, has focused on countering terrorism and the radicalization of the Muslim world, a job increasingly supervised by the Pentagon, China has been moving ahead methodically with its own ambitious global agenda. Aiming to promote their own model of governance, in opposition to that of the United States and the West, the Chinese have invested heavily in making friends and influencing competitors. Extravaganzas such as the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai Expo—the largest world expo ever, which opened recently—are only the most visible manifestations of a public diplomacy offensive being waged with determination and creativity on a number of fronts, including inside the United States itself.

During a hearing earlier this year, Senator Richard Lugar, ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointedly asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to account for the fact that China has been able to open sixty cultural centers at the University of Minnesota and other schools across the country while the United States has no comparable institutions in China. Clinton told him that the United States does not have the money to do what the Chinese are doing: “On the Confucius centers, the Chinese government provides each center with a million dollars to launch, plus they cover operating expenses that exceed $200,000 per year. We don’t have that kind of money in the budget.”

 

W hile the United States struggles to get back in the public diplomacy game after going to sleep in the aftermath of its victory in the Cold War (the State Department has requested $15 million for 2011 to open eight to ten cultural centers around the entire world), the Chinese by comparison have been waging a cultural blitzkrieg. Once a blunt propaganda instrument broadcasting only the statements of Chinese leaders defending Chinese policy, China Radio International now emphasizes cultural and informational broadcasting. There are two hundred and eighty-two Confucius Institutes scattered around the globe, all controlled from Beijing by the Office of Chinese Language Council International. China also has its own version of the Peace Corps, run by the China Young Volunteers Association, which sends young Chinese to do development work in countries with friendly governments, like Laos, Ethiopia, and Myanmar. Chinese diplomats are also being upgraded for their country expertise. Instead of being rotated out every two years like most U.S. embassy personnel, they are encouraged to return three or four times to high-priority countries like Cambodia or Myanmar. As a consequence they are able to develop extensive networks among the political, business, and cultural elites—in additional to developing fluency in the local language—as they make their way to ambassadorships. The Chinese are also among the world’s most aggressive users of student exchange programs. The Institute of International Education reports that the number of Chinese students studying in the United States, for instance, keeps rising dramatically, from eighty thousand in 2008 to more than ninety-eight thousand in 2009.

The overall strategy that guides these programs has a clear objective: allowing Chinese influence to flow out, while preventing information and ideas from flowing back in to “contaminate” China. As Stefan Halper puts it in his new book, The Beijing Consensus, “Eschewing confrontation, China’s true challenge arises in a separate realm, namely, Beijing’s transformative, leading role in the rise of a Chinese brand of capitalism and a Chinese conception of the international community, both opposed to and substantially different from their Western version.”

The Chinese government began to take the idea of “smart power” seriously years before the Obama administration made it an official premise of U.S. foreign policy. Unlike the American variety, however, Chinese “smart power” diplomacy does not shift investment from the projection of military power to foreign aid and public diplomacy, but deploys both of these at once—strategically, aggressively, and with increasing sophistication. As China has moved to extend its military influence from Asia, where it has dominated in a regional way, to parts of Africa, India, the Middle East, and beyond, it has also worked to convince the world that peaceful development is at the heart of its foreign policy.

According to Rumi Aoyama, Chinese public diplomacy has five components: “Publicizing China’s assertions to the outside world, forming a desirable image of the state, issuing rebuttals to distorted overseas reports about China, improving the international environment surrounding China, and exerting influence on the policy decisions of foreign countries.” This simple set of priorities has an admirable clarity that entirely eludes comparable efforts by the United States.

 

I ncreasing the appeal and the reach of its media is a key element of the Chinese strategy. In January of 2009, the South China Morning Post reported that Beijing had announced a new “global media drive” with the intention of creating a network of overseas bureaus to show the face of modern China to the world. In this as in its other public diplomacy efforts, China is attempting to combat its low image ratings. (Despite the overall improvement in public global attitudes, in only twenty-three of the countries surveyed by the Pew research poll in 2008 did majorities express favorable views of China.) The Chinese leadership has pledged an eye-popping $6.8 billion for this endeavor. By comparison, the United States currently spends about $750 million annually on international broadcasting; similar U.K. funding for the BBC World Service runs about $400 million.

In May, China’s Xinhua news agency announced the launch of a global English-language television channel, as part of a push to counter the dominance of Western news outlets, especially CNN and the BBC. Trial broadcasts have allegedly started already, and the station aims to be fully operational by July. The new channel, produced by the China Network Corporation (CNC), will be available via satellite, cable, Internet, and cell phone, and its content will include news, business, and lifestyle programs. In the words of the news agency’s president, “CNC will offer an alternative source of information for a global audience and aims to promote peace and development by interpreting the world in a global perspective.”

Additionally, China’s decade-old, government-run English-language channel, CCTV-9, has also gotten a facelift. Now known as CCTV News, it will have new programming available in one hundred countries. China also funds a number of print outlets. Launched in 1993, the Chinese- and English-language daily Global Times , whose stated aim is to “better convey a good image of China to the world,” now has a circulation of one million and forty-two thousand. The People’s Daily appears in Arabic, Russian, French, Japanese, English, and Spanish, and has a circulation of three million. It also acts as an umbrella for ten other newspapers and six magazines.

China Radio International has steadily been growing its shortwave frequencies as those of the United States broadcasters have declined. In 2000, China had one hundred and fifty-two shortwave frequencies; the United States had two hundred and sixty-three. In 2009, China’s number had grown to two hundred and ninety-three and the United States’ had declined to two hundred and five. Shortwave, of course, is particularly effective in the developing world, where there is little access to more advanced media like computers and cell phones. This is also true of countries where the government has a strong hold on broadcasting and Internet, shortwave being the most difficult medium to jam.

 

C hina’s public diplomacy strategy has also relied more and more on digital technology. The Chinese central government employs at least two hundred and eighty thousand people to troll the Internet and insert material to make the government look good. Many more work as Internet volunteers—from retired officials to college students in the Communist Youth League who aspire to become party members.

China’s new “Internet news coordination bureau” is part of a tangle of agencies that have cropped up in recent years to monitor the country’s exploding number of Web users, which now stands at an estimated four hundred million, about one-third the entire Chinese population. The new censorship bureau is under the auspices of the State Council Information Office, “which acts as a leading daily enforcer over news-related content on the Web,” as the New York Times put it in a recent article. Needless to say, this is a job of mind-blowing magnitude. The vast sea of Internet sites, from blogs to chat rooms to bulletin boards and on and on have made total control of the flow of information virtually impossible. Chinese users in search of information are getting increasingly sophisticated in their use of circumvention tools, such as proxy servers and virtual private networks.

The Chinese government routinely blocks access to Twitter and Facebook and targets Chinese Web sites for information deemed subversive. The case of Google China, which suffered a major cyber attack in January and has since begun to rethink its Chinese presence, shows the perils U.S. companies face when doing business in China. The Chinese government is promoting its own local alternatives to Google, Sina.com and QQ.com, as well as the Web site of the Communist Party newspaper, People’s Daily .

 

C hina’s public diplomacy is a seamless extension of China’s global ambitions for resources and influence. The Western model is increasingly perceived by the Chinese leadership as fatally flawed. Particularly as the world economic crisis takes its toll, the Chinese are making the argument that its state capitalism, the Beijing Consensus, is the way of the future. Obviously this argument has resonance: receptive governments in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia want Chinese investment and trade, and the fact that it is delivered without any annoying sermons about democratic reforms or privatization makes it all the more attractive.

Nevertheless, as deeply engaged in the information battle of the twenty-first century as China is, and as sophisticated as its public diplomacy operations have become, and as determined as the leadership is to advance the Beijing Consensus on economic development internationally, the effort to control the flow of information within China and the attempt to steal Google technology reveal an essential weakness of the Communist regime.

The question for the future is whether China’s audacious gamble—advancing an ambitious public information campaign abroad while denying crucial information to its own people—can succeed.

Helle C. Dale is the Heritage Foundation’s Senior Fellow in Public Diplomacy studies.

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