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How China is trying to export its soft power

William Yang Taipei
April 5, 2018

In recent months, China's Communist Party has been setting up an international soft power network, while consolidating domestic media to shore up its image at home. William Yang reports from Taipei.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at China Central Television CCTV
Image: picture alliance/ZUMA Press/M. Zhancheng

China's growing attempts to amplify its influence overseas were amplified after the ruling Communist Party announced its plan to impose stricter surveillance on all media content in March.

This consolidation aims to make all broadcast media serve as China's mouthpiece, allowing the Communist Party to have a streamlined institution to project its ideal image abroad.

This move came after Chinese President Xi Jinping laid out a vision during a speech last December that Beijing is ready to "provide more opportunities for the world through our development."

Analysts have recently said that the series of moves adds up to the Communist Parties consolidation of its efforts to expand strategies designed to influence foreign governments and major global institutions like the United Nations.

As China grows into an economic and political world power, it is accompanied by an increasing need to frame a dominant image domestically to prove this to Chinese citizens.

"What we are seeing [under Xi Jinping] is the expansion of influence abroad in the last five years," said Sarah Cook, senior research analyst for East Asia at the Washington-based think tank Freedom House.

Read more: Will China's regulator reshuffle turn all state media into propaganda?

China has been advancing its agenda at the UN by curtailing human rights advocacy efforts. For example, China and Russia led a group of countries to block the secretary-general's request to fund a key human rights unit within his office.

This case is part of a larger trend with Beijing and the Kremlin gaining more influence in international forums like the UN.

According to Merriden Varrall, Director of the East Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, since China feels it is being forced by other countries to comply to standards that it argues aren't universal, the recent soft power push is a sign that Beijing wants the issue of human rights to take a back seat on the international agenda.

"Some would see this as being quite convenient given where China sits on international measures of human rights," Varrall told DW.

The 'United Front'

China largely relies on the operation of the so-called United Front Work Department to cultivate support and grow influence overseas.

Through a range of carefully orchestrated movements, the United Front is entrusted with the mission to "unite all forces that can be united" worldwide while establishing a "iron Great Wall" to prevent opponents abroad from interfering.

As Xi highlights the significant role played by the United Front in the Communist Party, several members of the United Front have risen through the ranks inside the party.

The Financial Times recently reported that Beijing has also designated works related to the United Front to Chinese embassies across the world, setting up a streamlined operation that allows China to advance its agenda.

However, analyst Cook points out that other countries have become more aware of China' soft power influence operations. Bodies like the United Front and cultural institutes like the Confucius Institute have come under scrutiny.

Even though awareness about the United Front's agenda is growing, western countries still face the challenge of determining the appropriate countermeasures to threats from Beijing in a democratic setting.

"I think the main challenge is how do [western governments] respond to genuine threat to freedom but do it in a way that's compatible with democratic values," Cook said.

Read more: Soft power - China's expanding role in the Middle East

A retreat of 'western' values?

China's rise to success has been dubbed the "China Model," referring to an authoritarian capitalism that Beijing has been actively promoting in developing countries.

In a report published by the Brookings Institute in Washington, non-resident fellow Yun Sun highlights how African countries like Ethiopia consider the China Model a complete success and want to build their system and institutions based on the Chinese system.

Even though China emphasizes that the training programs mostly focus on capacity development of political parties, Beijing still attempts to promote China's experience in governance and development to African countries on these occasions.

"China actively pushes African political party members to personally experience China's economic success and systematically train them on China's paths to such a success," Sun wrote in the report.

Varrall indicates that the China Model remains appealing to countries without a strong liberal-democratic tradition, as China indicates that a country can succeed economically while remaining politically closed.

"There has been some positive responses to China's media efforts, for example in some parts of Africa and the Pacific," Varrall said.

Beijing recently said they would not seek to export their social models abroad in a editorial in the party mouthpiece Global Times. However, Cook explains that China is adopting a new strategy that allows them to avoid explicitly stating their intention to promote China's governance model. She said this new tactic could potentially exacerbate risks to democratic values in certain countries.

Even though China's strategy may have proven to be partially effective, Cook believes that there is a possibility that China could see some negative consequences.

"I think [we could] see increased censorship and control over access to information domestically," Cook said. "Internationally, there might be ways that some of these measures are more effective, but in other ways, it can also backfire at them."