In what appears to be a sudden turnaround, Chinese President Xi Jinping has urged his officials to create a trustworthy, kind and respectable image for the country. This is in stark contrast to Beijing’s harsh rhetoric or “wolf warrior diplomacy” seen in recent years. In fact, increasingly aggressive postures – led mainly by young officials and diplomats – have become the hallmark of the Xi administration. And seen against the backdrop of China’s openly aggressive foreign policy, it’s not surprising. So why Xi’s sudden desire to create an image of China more Kung Fu Panda and less fire-breathing red dragon?
Xi in fact said it was crucial for China to improve its ability to spread its messages globally in order to present a “true, three-dimensional and complete” picture of the country. Essentially, China needed to develop an internal voice commensurate with its national strength and global status. In other words, what Xi is actually saying is that China – unlike the United States – lacks adequate soft power. And since Beijing began to see itself as Washington’s equal, it wants to have the same influence on the international community.
After all, international influence cannot simply be increased through old-world commercialism or economic diplomacy. All the benefits of the latter can be easily erased by political changes or bilateral disagreements. American soft power is so effective precisely because the United States has been able to position itself as the leader of global democracy and freedom. It is these ideals that add power and reach to America’s influence around the world. The question that must be asked of China is therefore: does it really have a civilizational ideal for the world that the international community can adhere to? The answer today is quite simply no. This is not to say that Chinese civilization does not have a civilizational ideal for the world. The idea that all of humanity must become a community of common destiny to end all suffering – as embodied in the concept of Tian Xia (天下) – is definitely something to achieve. But there is a big question mark over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) serving as the vehicle to realize Tian Xia. For, the main goal of the CCP in one-party China is to ensure its own longevity. In fact, this has been the very goal of Xi’s internal policies and reforms since he took the reins of the party-state in 2012.
But Chinese soft power cannot be dictated by one party. This is because it is impossible for the CCP to represent all of Chinese civilization and culture. And this is where Chinese soft power will fall short of its true potential. The democratic ideals that underpin American soft power do not come from the Republican or Democratic parties. They originate from the American people and encompass all American political institutions. Therefore, in terms of soft power, the CCP has certainly hit a wall. Even if he tries to soften his image, his own political constraints will conflict with this exercise.
For example, how can the CCP harness the full creative potential of its people when the Chinese authorities constantly target content, ideas, individuals and groups that are not necessarily in line with the party’s vision? How can China show the world a “kind” face as it argues with its neighbors along its land and sea borders? As it is, China’s stock in the world is now at an all-time low – countries might accept Chinese aid, but they are increasingly wary of Beijing. To remedy this, the CCP must question itself and reassess its main goals and future prospects.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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