There is no doubt that the rise of China, both economically and militarily, has caused considerable disquiet amongst its neighbors as well as further afield. The Chinese leadership is aware of this phenomenon and that is the reason why President Xi Jinping, on assuming power in 2012, announced that "we should increase China's soft power, find a good narrative and better communicate to the world". The real question remains on how to translate the President's wishes into reality, for removing apprehensions that exist in the minds of other people, fed consistently by a western controlled media, is easier said then done. But the Chinese have not erred for lack of trying. What then constitutes the main elements of the Chinese effort? And have they succeeded?
The nerve center for the Chinese effort is the State Council Information office [SCIO]. This office co-ordinates all efforts and has a large staff, a giant budget and a great deal of bureaucratic clout within the Chinese system. Every December, the SCIO convenes a conference in which it outlines the guide-lines for internal and external "propaganda" work. Its principal responsibility is to generate "ideas". Most of the ideas that it generates can be accessed at the China Media Year Book, published annually. It should be noted that in China, the term “propaganda” does not carry any negative connotations, but is considered a positive aspect of governmental work. China spends about US$ 10b annually on external “propaganda” as opposed to the US, which had a budget of only US$ 666m for “public diplomacy” in fiscal 2014.
The SCIO often holds press conferences, publishes magazines, books and produces films. Recently, both the well known US film personality, Stephen Spielburg and the Chinese entrepreneur, Jack Ma have decided to produce films jointly for the lucrative Chinese market. The SCIO has overseas publishing houses, such as the Foreign Languages Press and newspapers such as the China Daily and the Global Times that cater to foreign audiences. It controls the internet content, including issuing licenses for web-sites.
The Chinese however realize that without a world wide media empire their efforts may not fructify. Therefore every has been made to convert existing media outlets into world class entities. Take Xinhua, for example. At present Xinhua, the leading Chinese news agency,
employs about 3000 journalists, of which about 400 are posted abroad in 170 bureaus located in different countries. Xinhua has a very large subscribers list and of this about 80,000 are institutional paying subscribers. To supplement Xinhua' efforts, CCTV has gone global with broadcasts in 6 languages. It has a 24 hour English News Channel, with production facilities located in Washington and Nairobi. CCTV is emerging as a global hub and it has hired some of the highest paid foreign anchors on its staff. Similarly China Radio International, formerly known as Radio Peking, broadcasts 392 hours per day in 38 different languages and maintains 27 overseas bureaus. All this is designed to compete with CNN, BBC, Reuters and a host of other international news agencies.
At the same time, Chinese Embassies abroad regularly issue press statements, take out full page advertisements in newspapers and Chinese Ambassadors now regularly contribute to op-eds and personally write articles in the local press.
Another area that the Chinese have tried to influence to create a positive narrative for themselves is through the medium of "think-tanks" and "track-2 diplomacy". Several institutions have been created. These include China's answer to the Davos Forum, the
Boao Forum for Asia. Several others such as the China Development Forum, the Beijing Forum, Tsinghua University World Peace Forum, the World Forum on Chinese Studies play crucial roles in promoting Chinese interests.
The Chinese also organize the global "think- tank" summits on an annual basis, where several prominent "think-tanks" around the world are encouraged to send representatives.
China's own "think-tanks" such as the CCP’s International Department's —China Center for Contemporary World Affairs; the Foreign Ministry's—Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs; the PLA's—Chinese Institute of International Strategic Studies are not only well funded, but put across China’s point of view consistently and clearly. Another method is to invite foreign strategic scholars and thinkers and initiate them into Chinese thinking on various subjects that are important to China. Hospitality is often fairly lavish.
But despite of all these efforts, China's image does not seem to be moving in the positive direction. In 2014 the BBC held a world-wide poll, where the results indicated that positive views about China had declined by 14% over the same period last year. The same poll indicated that about 49% of the respondents viewed China negatively. But this poll can be misleading, for the views about China differ from those in Latin America, to those in Africa, to those in Asia from those that are more negatively inclined in the US or in Europe.
But the central message is: respect and admiration cannot be bought; it has to be earned!