An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

Guardians of the Galaxy: Projecting Beijing’s soft power in the age of Trump

Asia New Zealand Foundation senior adviser (Research) Dr James To discusses how China is using people-to-people links, culture, technology, and the media to win over hearts and minds.

Most of us have grown up with, and perhaps have admired or even been inspired by, the icons, values, and principles that derive from decades of American art, music, cinema, television, literature, history and politics – think JFK, Disney, or Star Wars. We might marvel at the innovation that is coming out of Silicon Valley, or have been touched by the humanitarian rescue efforts of the USS Sampson following the earthquake in Kaikoura last year. This is what American soft power is all about.

But many of us are now re-thinking what the US represents, especially when we are receiving contested and confused signals depending on what news channel or Twitter feed we follow. And in the first few months of Donald Trump’s time in the Oval Office, we are seeing now more than ever, America’s claim to global leadership put at risk.

Stepping into the lime light is President Xi Jinping, gifted this golden opportunity to pitch his China Dream – a grand vision of the People’s Republic in the 21st century. In stark contrast to Trump, Xi offers a steady hand to solve the world’s problems by painting China as a shining beacon for globalization, trade and investment liberalization, a defender of climate change issues, and a steward of innovation and international cooperation.

This kind of messaging has already made an impact – UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres responded that it was “very reassuring to see China assuming such a clear leadership in multilateralism in today’s world”; and in April last year, it was reported that Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had recommended to his cabinet they read Xi’s book The Governance of China, “because it suits Thailand.”

Xi’s not just talking the talk – China has established its own alternatives to Western models for engaging in global geo-politics, international trade, and security: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the One Belt One Road initiative, the Xiangshan Forum (China’s Shangri-La Dialogue), and the Boao Forum (China’s Davos). In the current political climate, such initiatives have never looked more attractive in seeking to persuade CEOs, bankers, officials, and diplomats about China’s growing eminence.

But this message has to be pushed beyond the elite – for China to successfully assume its ‘rightful’ place in the world, influence on a comprehensive social scale is required. To achieve such a mandate, Xi works through China’s vast and well-resourced soft power apparatus, which is reaching further and deeper.

For the last several decades, China has sought to win hearts and minds through substantial people-to-people links, culture, technology, and the media. Most of us understand China’s outreach through the latter.

Beijing’s soft power traverses beyond its own tightly-controlled domestic media, to the majority of Chinese-language media around the world, and increasingly the English-language media to “properly tell the China story”. For example, last May, the China Daily took out an insert in the Dominion Post celebrating the bilateral relationship and spreading positive messages in cultural, trade, and gastronomic contexts – as well as an opinion piece on Beijing’s stance on the South China Sea. And we’re seeing more of these “commercial printing arrangements.” Similar inserts appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Washington Post, and the Daily Telegraph

In addition to print, agreements with Chinese media partners for sharing radio, video, and online content are increasingly common. And to ensure that the story is told in the right way, journalists and editors are offered trips to China. Chinese companies are also investing in American movie studios – Matt Damon’s starring role in The Great Wall is one example of what we’ll be seeing more of from Hollywood. The net result is that media is increasingly prone to adjusting their content so as to maintain a good relationship with Beijing.

What affect will this have on the way that China is portrayed? For New Zealanders, how will we come to understand China and its view of its place in the world? And how should we react to its growing influence?

Xi’s China Dream is just one outlook that should be better understood in the context of our wider relationship with China. As a democratic nation built upon the immigrant experience resulting in a truly multicultural social fabric, we should be open and receptive to as many perspectives as possible up and down the political, cultural, economic, and strategic spectrum. New Zealanders just need to be sure that they are indeed receiving a balanced and accurate view of what is going on around them.

And in the age of Trump, where a new world order gravitating around the Middle Kingdom might seem a palatable alternative to the shambolic side show coming out of Washington, Kiwis should be even more attentive to equipping themselves to engage with China in the bigger scheme of things.

Dr To has an academic background in Asian languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese), political science, and commerce. He has lectured in Northeast Asian foreign policy, and is an active researcher of the overseas Chinese diaspora. He was a co-chair of the Palmerston North branch of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, and is currently National Secretary of the New Zealand Chinese Association.

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20 March 2017