Tuesday, 29 May 2012

An interesting few days in Chinese soft power

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).   


  1. Ingrid d Hooghe30 May 2012 at 18:51

    Hi Gary, insomnia has resulted in a nice post. One factor explaining China's overall 'mixed bag' of public diplomacy actions is the fact that different actors at different political levels have different interests and a different understanding of the goals and tools of public diplomacy.

    1. Many thanks Ingrid. Yes, I understand exactly what you are saying, and this approach is adding an extra and exciting dimension to my research, especially regarding Taiwan. I am reading James Q. Wilson's study of Bureaucracy which is truly fascinating and extremely valuable.

  2. Hi Gary. When exactly did China change the name propaganda department into publicity department? I remember Joshua Kurlantzick used 'pulicity department' to refer to 宣传部(the Prapaganda Bureau of the Communist Party)in his book--Charm offensive: how China's soft power is transforming the world--published in 2007. Does it mean the English name has been officially changed not just recently?
    And the Chinese word 宣传 has no derogative meaning as the word'prapaganda'has in English. it's just a neutral word.

  3. Hello anonymous. I am quite certain that the name change occurred in 2004. Check out Anne-Marie Brady's masterpiece, Marketing Dictatorship, for more details. And yes you are right, propaganda does not have a derogatory meaning in Chinese; in fact, I subscribe to the school of thought that propaganda is a neutral concept, a means of persuasion, and that it is the end to which the propaganda works which must determine our moral judgement of it. We are still too close to the British propaganda in WWI, Nazi propaganda and the totalitarian propaganda of Stalin, Mao and others which clouds our judgement of it. Many thanks for your comments.