The Chinese communist government focuses heavily on developing soft power, which is basically the ability to influence outsiders to admire your culture in hopes that they will align with your decisions. At the recent World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, Chinese participants tried to push hard their country’s “soft power” in front of international visitors, revealing ignorance of the concept.
Exporting soft power
Chen Anni, the CEO of a Chinese comic company, seemed unhappy that American comics were getting the spotlight in China. “Why can China not have its own comics? Young people should have confidence in our own culture, and we have to answer President Xi’s call to use Chinese culture to influence others,” she said during a panel discussion (South China Morning Post). Executives from Marvel were present at the conference.
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At the end of the discussion, an indie adventure game was exhibited. The game’s protagonist sang a Chinese patriotic song. A company delegate was apparently taken aback that Chinese companies were ready to do anything to please the authority, even pushing a propaganda song in a game that was perceived as politically neutral.
The entire conference was filled with calls of Chinese jingoism and the need for exerting soft power. It is a perfect example of why the Chinese have not actually understood what soft power is. The company executives and Party officials seem to be under the impression that they can push their culture and ideas onto others. That is not soft power.
Imagine a person walking into an event with a cowboy hat tied to his left knee. If the audience gets infatuated by it and starts tying up cowboy hats on their knees, then that is called soft power. Basically, soft power makes the other person want to be like you. What the Chinese government is trying to do is exhibit its culture and ideology and forcibly say “be like us.”
This is kind of a shame since Chinese culture is so rich and has incredible soft power potential. But the involvement of the state in managing this cultural soft power nullifies its possibilities. “The more they push a sanitized version of China, the more they will see kickback from audiences [who have no appetite for censored, inauthentic stories that] only tell half the story,” Michael Keane, a professor of Chinese media at Curtin University in Australia, said to South China Morning Post.
At the conference, President Xi Jinping called for countries across the world to build a “shared future in cyberspace.” Given that Beijing has no intention to let people be free and wants to keep them under constant digital surveillance, the “shared future” Xi mentions only points to a scenario where people are kept under constant watch all the time. China is actively promoting the expansion of its digital surveillance system overseas.
“Some countries might be very keen on Chinese-style surveillance cameras, facial recognition and image processing tools … but they might not have any interest in social media monitoring… Any country with a relatively restless population or with particular security concerns and a growing shift towards authoritarianism would be interested,” Michael Richardson, a digital surveillance analyst, said to ABC.
Countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Serbia, Turkey, Pakistan, etc., have all entered into agreements with China for their “digital silk road” project. Since these countries tend to promote authoritarian policies, it is likely that any digital cooperation would involve the development of a multi-country policing system.