This report made me think again about China's investment in, and aid to developing countries which are considered features of China's soft power strategy.
One of the best books on China I have read in 2012 is Deborah Brautigam's The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2009; 2011) which connects with my own work on China's public diplomacy and soft power (although it never explicitly discusses either in depth). Brautigam's analysis offers a penetrating critique of popular perceptions of China as a wholly benevolent power offering the not only an alternative "model" of development, but also investment and unconditional aid that is said to be welcome throughout Africa.
Brautigam demonstrates that China's foreign aid 'has become one tool in a range of economic instruments adeptly managed by China's state leaders to boost China's exports and its own development' (p.25). After noting how China's engagement with Africa has contributed to the continent's development, she then asks: 'Should we be critical of China's claim that its aid should foster mutual benefit ...? Shouldn't aid from such a powerhouse be mainly altruistic ...? (ibid.). Brautigam thinks the 'short answer to this is no' (ibid,), and this is where China's public diplomacy creeps into the analysis.
One of the unique characteristics of China's approach to public diplomacy is the concern with reaching both international and domestic audiences: the Chinese themselves are a principal target of the government's public diplomacy programme. This is understandable given the problems associated with the introduction of market capitalist practices (extremes of poverty, unemployment etc.) and, more importantly, the decline of ideology - communism - to legitimise the government's decisions and mobilise the people around a developmental agenda. Now, the authority of the Communist Party depends more than ever on its performance and the delivery of its economic promises. This helps explain the clear shift from complete dependence on old style propaganda campaigns to public diplomacy strategies that might encourage support (of the party and its policies) from the people.
Brautigam's analysis adds a new dimension to this description of China's public diplomacy by discussing 'expectations' (ibid.) of both domestic audiences and the international community (including the recipients of aid). Such 'engagement that is frankly about the benefits for China as well as the recipient ... avoids the paternalism that has come to characterize aid from the West.'
It also avoids the hypocrisy that inevitably accompanies aid when the aspect of mutual benefit is papered over. For example, the US Agency for International Development routinely justifies its budge requests to Congress by showing the high percentage of aid that comes back as benefits for America. At the same time, it tries to convince NGO critics that aid is really about reducing poverty (ibid.)
Note that I am not making any judgement here about the validity of China's claims: Brautigam evaluates China's aid far better than I ever could. Rather, I wish to draw attention to China's claim itself, for mutual benefit is a powerful theme to communicate to domestic audiences, while the apparent transparency of motivations and the urge to avoid western-style paternalism ('hypocrisy') appeals to recipients. This communication aspect of China's aid programme can help explain its attraction and success. It is captured in the words of an African ambassador in the US who told Brautigam "China gives Africans more respect than they get from the West." His fellow African Ambassadors in the group with Brautigam 'nodded vigorously in agreement' (p.68). As Huang and Ding (2006: 24) have noted, 'A country's economic clout reinforces its soft power if others are attracted to it for reasons beyond trade, market access or job opportunities.' It would appear that the Ambassador's sentiments suggest that this strategy is working.
Brautigam, D. (2009/2011), The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Huang, Y.Z & S. Ding (2006), 'Dragon's Belly: An analysis of China's soft power,' East Asia, Vol.24 (4)