China's Search for Glam Power

All of us Columbia kids who have taken LitHum know this quote: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” In international politics, we often find a similar situation to the one Austen was describing, but we might rewrite it instead to say: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a country newly endowed with riches and self confidence, must be in want of the swag to match.”

China has certainly acquired great riches in the past few decades, and signs of its increasing self-confidence are present everywhere, from belligerence in the South China Sea to intransigence on Syria. If we follow my altered Austen aphorism, the next thing China needs to feel like a truly “big” power is the respect and recognition that both Communist Party officials and ordinary citizens feel that China, as a rising superpower, deserves. What they desire is soft power – which is much more elusive and intangible than the hard power that comes with the possession of more money and more guns.

As I have argued in a previous column, China does not have the soft power necessary to become a major shaper of world trends in music, fashion, film, politics, or diplomacy. To put it simply, China isn’t cool. Angry Chinese netizens may put it a different way, saying that the West doesn’t respect China or that the outside world refuses to listen to China’s voice. However you put it, China has an image problem and an influence deficit. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government has already taken coordinated steps to raise China’s profile on the world stage.

The first and perhaps most visible step in China’s push to increase its profile in the world’s soft power market is the proliferation of Confucius Institutes across the world. The aim of these institutes is to promote Chinese “culture.” (I put the word “culture” in quotation marks is because it is a fuzzy word with no set meaning, and favorite of party mouthpieces when talking about soft power and China’s political system – promoting Chinese “culture” could mean anything from teaching calligraphy to interning dissidents.) With the number of people learning Chinese around the world increasing rapidly, Confucius Institutes the world over have thrived, and the PRC’s Office of Chinese Language Council International aims to establish 1,000 Confucius Institutes around the world by the year 2020.

The next phases actually have to do with the expansion of Chinese business interests and media into the world market. As some of CPR’s readers may already know, AMC Theatres was recently acquired by Wanda, a real estate giant owned by one of the richest men in China. With the acquisition, the long term hope is to give Chinese movies a larger share of the vast American film market. Along with being a profitable investment, this acquisition and the hopes that Chinese films may become more popular in America go along with China’s desire to increase soft power through “cultural” channels.

The jewel in the crown of the cultural push is the planned international expansion of CCTV (China Central Television) news stations into the United States, Africa, Europe, and eventually Latin America and Oceania, increasing its overseas staff tenfold by 2016. This move has been labeled a “cultural aircraft carrier” in China’s push to increase soft power and global influence. As with the other elements of the soft power push, the expansion of CCTV is meant to increase China’s profile and influence across the globe, as well as providing a narrative of world events which challenges the dominate Western media giants.

Naturally, any country that finds itself awash in cash and confidence will want its voice heard. And with China’s hyper-centralized bureaucracy, it is not surprising that this coordinated push was the result. The real question, in my opinion, is how influential Chinese state-controlled media can ever hope to be in an age of international competition. Even when working abroad and in English-speaking stations, CCTV reporters are expected not to be independent sources of opinions and objective facts, but rather conduits of party thought and mouthpieces for propaganda. Even as an avid China-watcher who watches CCTV News with gusto, I find it hard to believe that anyone outside of China will really buy a clearly party-sponsored view of world events.

Arnold Zeitlin, professor of journalism at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, put it best when he said: “To change China’s image it is necessary to alter Chinese policy and outlook.” We have yet to see how the media spending binge will turn out, but without fundamental changes to Chinese policies both at home and abroad, China’s attempt at a complete make-over will turn out to be about as effective as putting make-up on a pig.