This weekend, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with U.S. President Barack Obama at Sunnylands estate in California for what has been called a “shirtsleeves summit." The unusually informal meeting was designed to allow the two leaders to freely discuss a broad range of topics, signaling that both Washington and Beijing have hopes for a closer partnership. The United States is not the only audience that Xi hopes to win over. During the last few years, Beijing’s efforts to improve its international standing have included not just various media and cultural campaigns but also vigorous diplomatic initiatives and billions of dollars in no-strings-attached aid to developing economies.

Western critics tend to focus on the media and cultural components of this push while ignoring the rest. At a time when anxious prognostications about China’s rise dominate media headlines, deriding China’s soft-power strategy -- in particular, its failure to grasp the global appeal of the free press and the free market -- has become a popular act of reassurance for Western academics and media analysts. For example, a bevy of notable China hands and media experts recently convened on ChinaFile, the online magazine of the Asia Society, to discuss why Chinese soft power is such a “hard sell.” Their discussions focused primarily on China’s inability to build brands and produce movies whose name recognition rivals that of their U.S. peers.

In fact, China’s failure to churn out globally marketable sneakers and pop stars is the source of no small amount of handwringing among Chinese cultural officials and young nationalists. Yet the actual strategic impact of such brand building is difficult to determine. There are plenty of young Chinese who see no contradiction between their loyalty to brands like Nike and KFC and their condemnation of U.S. foreign policy or their mistrust of Western media, which they view as heavily biased against China. Those who believe most passionately in the power of civil society cling tightly to the idea that its virtues are somehow transmitted through American movie stars and material goods. But if non-governmrny origin of U.S. cultural exports is what allows them to succeed globally, as many contend, this also makes them unlikely vehicles for the promotion of American interests.

The political scientist Joseph Nye, who first popularized the term “soft power” in the early 1990s, has been especially critical of state-centered soft power strategies, scoffing at the futility of China’s efforts in a recent column. He is wary of China’s push to open Confucius Institutes all over the world to teach its language and culture, along with foreign bureaus and editions of state-controlled media such as China Daily and CCTV to spread “brittle propaganda.” According to Nye, in soft power, credibility is everything. Countries such as China fail to understand that cultural exports originating from a controlling state will never rival the credibility of those born of a vibrant civil society. Indeed, could any but the freest of societies hope to produce credible, influential narratives like Ironman 3, which recently topped the Chinese box office? (The website of The New York Times, of course, remains blocked.)

It is easy to ridicule China’s media endeavors, such as the new U.S. edition of China Daily, in which coverage of China ranges from stolid agitprop to relentlessly upbeat agitprop. A recent article about all the fun and personal growth experienced by foreigners imprisoned in Guangzhou is titled “Prison journal spells out good news.” (According to the article, one Nigerian prisoner was “happy to receive ‘gifts’ such as the paper and pens provided by the prison administration for writing.”) Nye and other critics are right that few people raised on the free presses of developed Western democracies are likely to be won over by such propaganda. But the writing in these articles is hardly less stilted -- or the diplomatic agenda less transparent -- than in the daily Special English broadcasts of Voice of America. Similarly, the teachers staffing China’s Confucius Institutes are no less earnest than the young liberal arts graduates sent abroad to teach English and promote international understanding by the Peace Corps, a U.S. State Department program whose diplomatic logic is rarely questioned.

What all these analysts ignore is that China’s international efforts are not necessarily directed at Western, or even international, audiences. Regardless of their actual international reception, China’s media expansion, along with the hosting of international spectacles like the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 World Expo, sends an important signal to domestic audiences that Chinese leaders are working to build their brand as proactive, animated, rising global power, in contrast to the histories of colonial oppression and humiliation on which China’s nationalist youth are nurtured.

Moreover, in discussions of soft power, many fixate on China’s reputation in wealthy Western democracies. Nye cites polls about the international favorability ratings of various countries in making his argument that China has little to show for its international expenditures, except for pockets of success in Africa and Latin America. Yet according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which surveys around 20 countries a year, China polled more positively than the United States in Pakistan, Tunisia, Russia, Lebanon, Greece, Egypt, and Jordan in 2012; Indonesia and the Palestinian territories in 2011; and Argentina in 2010, the last time these countries were sampled.

It is easy to overlook China’s soft-power successes in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, but cultivating positive perceptions in poor, resource-rich countries is arguably more important for China’s immediate economic and political goals than impressing Western audiences with showmanship or cosmopolitan artifice. China’s dual identity as a former colonial victim and a presently rising power is used to much success in many parts of the world. Though tensions over China’s presence have emerged in certain African countries such as Zambia, China has made significant inroads in sub-Saharan countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, thanks to generous aid and appeals to developing-country solidarity.

According to David Shambaugh in his new book China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Chinese thinkers tend to view their own country as deficient in soft power, but see an important opportunity to make up ground in Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. In some ways, this is reminiscent of China’s strategy in the Olympics. China may have no hope of challenging the U.S. Dream Team in basketball anytime soon, but by funneling resources into sports that have failed to garner much popular attention in the West, it managed to walk away with the most gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. A calculated, state-centered approach -- the sort of approach that many see as the biggest impediment to the development of Chinese soft power -- upended what once looked to be an uncontestable run of Olympic dominance by the United States and its open sports system.

In the Middle East, a region where the United States has struggled to cultivate soft power in recent years, China has been especially successful, according to Dawn Murphy, a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton. “In general, the Arab street appears to be very positive about China,” Murphy told me. China’s anti-imperialist rhetoric and historic support of Arab political causes has earned it significant credibility in the region, despite its close relationship with Israel. Although China’s noninterventionist stance on Syria has upset some Arab officials, relations with the Arab world remain strong.

China is not just riding the coattails of recent history, however. Although its state news agency, Xinhua, may have little impact in the West (except as an easily quotable stand-in for the Communist Party), in countries such as Egypt, where national budgets are insufficient to support much foreign reporting, Xinhua wire copy accounts for a significant amount of China coverage. “That’s not just soft power,” Murphy said. “That’s controlling the discourse.” Indeed, although the Egyptian revolution initially seemed to draw inspiration from American civil society, President Mohamed Morsi, whose relations with the United States have since soured, chose China as the destination of his first official trip outside the Middle East.

While the United States has stumbled in the Middle East, China has managed to successfully navigate some serious diplomatic roadblocks there. According to Murphy, China has attempted to subdue concerns over the mistreatment and religious repression of its own Muslim populations through proactive outreach to Middle Eastern diplomats, especially in the wake of riots in 2009 involving ethnic Uighurs in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province. The issue does not appear to have greatly affected China’s favorability ratings in the Arab world. Meanwhile, in Turkey, where events in Xinjiang are watched carefully owing to the country’s close cultural and linguistic ties to China’s Uighurs, the proportion of the country that views the United States unfavorably (79 percent) is still higher than the proportion that thinks ill of China (59 percent). And Turkey is considered one of the United States’ most important allies in the Muslim world.

In China Goes Global, Shambaugh notes that “Whether China will become a global power or not, or is already one, it is already perceived as such by many around the world.” In a 2011 Pew study, in 11 of 21 countries polled, a majority of respondents believed China had replaced or eventually would replace the United States as the world’s dominant superpower. Although Shambaugh makes the case that China is deficient in soft power -- arguing that “perceptions sometimes belie reality” -- the ability to project an image of power and to draw the attention of the world is clearly an important form of soft power in itself.

Beyond the shirtsleves summit, this week also marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of China’s failed student uprisings, when images of tanks rolling down Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Peace captivated and angered much of the free world. There have been moving vigils and remembrances, of course, and numerous reminders that China keeps a tight lid on civil society, the supposed wellspring of soft power. But rather than hunkering down against criticisms inside Zhongnanhai, China’s confident new leader has been out in California enjoying the hospitality of a U.S. president, making a case for his increasingly prominent nation, and drawing the attention of the world. 

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