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
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