Phil Seib of the USC Centre on Public Diplomacy has published an interesting blog on Chinese soft power (http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/index.php/newswire/cpdblog_detail/the_first_soft-power_superpower/). I share Phil's assessment of China's exercise of soft power and its public diplomacy strategy.
Phil's posting comes at the end of a very interesting week which I think clearly reveals a degree of confusion in Beijing about what soft power is, how it works and what the government would like to achieve by exercising it.
We witnessed a minor victory for China in persuading the US State Department to reverse a ruling on accreditation that would have had serious consequences for the work of the Confucius Institutes. Needless to say the major Chinese newspapers were extremely vocal in protest (though the escape of Chen Guangcheng's brother, Chen Guangfu, received no coverage). It is interesting to consider whether this reversal (as it was described by the Chinese media) by the State Department represents the impact of hard power on soft power in that traditional diplomatic institutions are engaged in dispute about the architecture of their soft power strategies(?) There is clearly an interaction taking place here that deserves further consideration. I have not found much coverage of this event in the American media and would welcome from my State-side friends any comments on whether and how this has been reported.
At the same time, China was extremely critical of the publication in the US of the State Department's annual report on human rights which singled out human rights abuses in the PRC. China's State Council Information Office almost immediately hit back by publishing its own Human Rights Record of the United States in 2011. More information is available here http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-05/26/content_15391823.htm. While of course China is both entitled and correct to point out the double standards in US discourse, to do so in response to the publication of the US's report reveals the PRC's insecurity and lack of confisence in its growing stature; the reactive and defensive nature of China's ppublic diplomacy; and perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that China has still not learned that being able to tolerate (even if you cannot accept) international criticism is a major asset in soft power terms.
The final interesting development over the last week was the visit by 51 ambassadors and ministers from 49 countries to the Publicity Department. Not surprisingly the official Chinese media reported how the visitors had enjoyed their visit, had asked many interesting questions and learned a lot (see http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2012-05/25/content_15383436.htm). Of course diplomats would not say anything else in fear of insulting their hosts. What is important here is that the visit took place at all: the Publicity Department is the English name for the Propaganda Bureau of the Communist Party which is located in an unmarked building next to the seat of power in Beijing, Zhongnanhai. This seems to be another step in China's determination to convert (at least for foreign audiences) propaganda into public diplomacy.
By far the best description of the structure and inner working of the Propaganda Bureau/Publicity Department is Anne-Marie Brady's Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (2009).