Beijing bids to offset negative press with global soft power initiative. But is its positive message abroad at odds with the reality at home? asks Michele Penna

On November 2, Xinhua News Agency issued its first digital interactive e-magazine in Arabic, called China Panorama. The new service will focus on in-depth financial reporting and will target Arab elites and professionals. Its aim is to provide a “better and deeper understanding of China and Chinese economy”. Xinhua will thus add another piece to its expanding media network, which already boasts 142 overseas branches.

In recent years, Chinese media have rapidly expanded their coverage and improved their products. State support has played an important role in financing operations. The New York Times has reported that in 2009 Beijing announced plans to spend billions of dollars to develop global media and invested $8.9 billion in external publicity.

China CCTV

Newscasters are seen in a studio of national broadcast CCTV's News Channel in Beijing, China. Pic: AP.

To understand why Beijing is keen on financing its media outlets, one has to look at China’s rise in the last 30 years. The The Chinese economy has been growing at breakneck speed and is now the world’s second largest. Its military strength has been rising fast, too, with double-digit increases in year-on-year spending. But the country’s appeal has not followed suit. On the contrary, the latter has actually declined: while the leftist youth around the world has long forgotten Maoist slogans, many Asian countries are now worried that Beijing may use its renewed strength against their interest (for example in the South China Sea dispute).

The Chinese government has realized the importance of reducing the gap between its hard and soft power and since 2007 has began to take soft power development as part of the national development strategy. In this sense, having a friendly media is the first step in building a narrative based on “peace”, “harmony” and “win-win situation” which can reassure others of China’s good intentions.

The authorities speak openly about this program. According to the People’s Daily, “China needs to take all kinds of measures to educate the world about China so they can love it.” Nor is a feeling of cultural competition absent. In January 2012, former President Hu Jintao stated that “we must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”

Various media are involved in the soft power push, including television stations such as CCTV and web-based CNTV, as well as newspapers like The China Daily and The Global Times. Many are available in English and open to international readers.

Entertainment plays a role, too. China’s movie market – which grew by more than 22 per cent in 2011 – is now the second biggest in the world and in May 2012 the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda bought AMC for $2.6 billion, creating the world’s biggest cinema chain.

Perhaps not surprisingly, though, Beijing is not a fan of mainstream social media. Websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are banned on the mainland and their Chinese equivalents – RenRen and Weibo – are used mainly inside the country and are closely monitored.

When it comes to languages, Chinese media products are increasingly sophisticated. China Network Television (CNTV), for one, provides news in Chinese, Arabic, English, French, Korean, Russian and Spanish.

The authorities’ strategy to make inroads abroad couples media expansion with the promotion of China’s ancient culture. The 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party discussed the topic in 2011 and came up with a guideline to improve the nation’s cultural soft power. According to the final statement, “China is facing a difficult task in protecting ‘cultural security’ and feeling the urgency of enhancing its soft power and the international influence of its own culture.

In February this year, the Ministry of culture announced a development plan to double the culture industry’s output by 2015. Authorities backed it with cash: in the first five months of 2012 the government has spent 18.5 billion USD in the cultural sector, up 28.2 percent year-on-year.

A particular beneficiary of the renewed interest in ancient traditions has been Confucianism, which was strongly condemned as counter-revolutionary during the Mao era, but has recently undergone a big revival. The philosopher’s ideas – including respect for authorities and morality – are being reinstated as principles for a fair society.

Perhaps the most evident tools of state-sponsored cultural expansion are the Confucius Institutes, organizations that provide lessons in Chinese language and culture around the world. According to China.org.cn, an official Party media, Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms had reached 691 by October 2010 and were scattered around 96 countries.

As these numbers seem to confirm, Beijing is trying to improve its image pretty much everywhere. According to a paper published by Georgetown University’s Institute For The Study Of Diplomacy, however, there are differences between China’s soft power aims in the United States, Europe and in developing countries: “in regions such as Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, where China has been particularly active, soft power initiatives tend to be tied to key resources, such as energy resources. Soft power initiatives are also aimed at persuading countries to re­nounce official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and hew to China’s ‘one China’ policy”.

In the West, instead, “China’s soft power efforts tend toward subtler and less specifically targeted efforts, such as producing international culture and history exhibits and participating in international events (such as the Olympics) while directly engaging foreign publics through lan­guage institutes and media”, says the research.

There is little doubt that China’s soft power reach is still limited as compared to that of the West, which remains the cultural center of the world. There is equally little doubt, however, that the Chinese government has made huge efforts to improve its position and that China’s credibility is on the rise. The question is: will it work in the end?

Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who first came up with the term “soft power”, is pessimistic. In two articles published on The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, he claims that the Chinese Communist Party will face difficulties in catching up with the West in terms of appeal because – to put it bluntly – it does not stick to what it preaches. He argues that internal repression of dissent hardly fits the benign image that officials strive to portray.

According to Professor Nye, “what China seems not to appreciate is that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities.” The fact that in China the word “harmonized” is used by netizens as a synonym for “censored” may signal that there is some truth behind his argument.