China’s public, or soft-power, diplomacy has traditionally consisted of “people’s diplomacy,” meaning the cultivation of people friendly to China within other countries. Under this method, China would nurture people sympathetic to its ideas within a country and use these figures to exert influence on the country’s upper echelons or political leadership.
This modus operandi, however, belongs to the realm of socialist revolutionary diplomacy; while its legacy is still evident in some aspects of Chinese diplomacy, it is no longer the central pillar of China’s soft-power diplomacy. Indeed, an analysis of recent developments suggests that China’s soft-power diplomacy has at least four strands:
The first is “quiet diplomacy” designed to convey the message that China, as a major power, does not pose a threat to surrounding countries. In the late 1970s, for example, when Deng Xiaoping steered China down the road to modernization, there was growing anxiety around the world about what kind of country China might become.
Deng coined the term xiaokang (modest comfort) to signify that he wanted to make China a society in which everyone could be moderately well-off and to convey the image that China would not necessarily pursue a path of national wealth and military power.
The frequent use in recent times of the term heping jueqi (peaceful rise) is also related to China’s soft-power diplomacy. This expression is designed to plant in people’s minds the notion that China wishes to become a major power not by hardline means that push others away but by peaceful means that promote friendship with other countries. China created this soft image to counter arguments that it represents a threat to other nations. This is one aspect of China’s recent public diplomacy.
As China emerges as a major power, its desire to present itself as a responsible, upstanding nation has come to form the second strand of its public diplomacy. An example of this is China’s determined public relations campaign to highlight its efforts to tackle environmental and food-safety issues, which is intended to show that China is fulfilling its responsibilities as a major power.
China’s enthusiastic transmission of Chinese culture through the establishment of Confucius Institutes around the world is another manifestation of its efforts to showcase its cultural sophistication and reassure people that its drive to gain major-power status is based not simply on military and economic might but also on sound foundations of tradition and culture.
In other words, China is attempting to project to the world the image of a Westernized, modernized country.
Campaigns to persuade citizens to adopt the custom of forming an orderly line when waiting for a bus and to dissuade them from spitting on the street can be considered part of an effort to ensure that China’s image as a Westernized, modernized country is not tarnished in the buildup to the Beijing Olympics.
The third characteristic of China’s public diplomacy is the country’s linking of diplomacy’s external and internal effects. The opera “First Emperor” is a case in point. Backed by the Chinese government, this production had the external effects of highlighting China’s cultural sophistication to the world and providing Chinese musicians and performers with a stage to showcase their talents.
At the same time, one cannot help but assume that the government also wanted the production to have a domestic political impact — namely, that the praise from abroad for a production by Chinese people would help to restore Chinese pride.
The fourth aspect of China’s public diplomacy that cannot be ignored is that this diplomacy is connected with the issue of the legitimacy of China’s socialist government and of the Communist Party. China counters Western countries’ assertions about the importance of the ideas of democracy and human rights, for example, with its doctrine of noninterference in countries’ internal affairs. This is part of China’s public diplomacy.
At the same time, as an extension of its idea of heping yanbian (peaceful evolution), China has developed the theory that Western attempts to foist the concepts of democracy and human rights upon it reveal the West’s strategic goal of regime change in China. Using this theory, China is trying to make the case that Western countries’ espousal of democracy and human rights reflects not simply their desire to share universal values but also their strategic objectives.
China’s frequent raising of historical issues in its relations with Japan is also a part of its public diplomacy. It is true, of course, that Japan’s past aggression provokes strong feelings among the Chinese populace and that, to some extent, the Chinese government has no choice but to reflect these feelings by making questions of historical perception a diplomatic and political issue. Transcending this factor, however, the raising of historical issues intersects with questions concerning the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy and basic perception of history.
China’s battle against Japanese invasion enables the Chinese government to highlight — more symbolically and more clearly than any other episode — the narrative of how the Communist Party overcame semi-colonial rule, resisted Western aggression, and built a new China.
Raising these issues gives China an advantage in bilateral negotiations by putting Japan on the defensive and, in relations with third countries, enables China to frame Japan as the aggressor or culprit and itself as the victim. Many observers are convinced that China uses historical issues in this way to further its strategic goals.
As we have seen, China is now highly adept at using a range of public diplomacy tools. This is in the long tradition of Chinese diplomacy, as well as a reflection of socialist ideology. It also constitutes a new face of Chinese diplomacy as the country assumes major-power status.
Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is Japan Foundation president.
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