Soft power: It’s culture war for India and China

The World

Soft power seems to be the new mantra for India and China, as the long-running diplomatic tiff between Asia's two largest powers cools down. But this a contest that India can win with its bureaucrats tied behind its back.

As China scholar Joseph Nye points out:

China's president Hu Jintao greeted 2012 by saying…China was under assault by western soft power and needed to fight back. Over the past decade, China's economic and military might has grown impressively, and this has frightened its neighbours into looking for allies to balance rising Chinese hard power. But if a country can also increase its soft power, its neighbours feel less need to seek balancing alliances. For example, Canada and Mexico don't seek alliances with China to balance American power the way Asian countries seek an American presence to balance China.

The upshot is that China is spending billions of dollars on everything from the “elaborately staged” 2008 Olympics to an economic conference it bills as an “Asian Davos” to several hundred “Confucius Institutes around the world to teach its language and culture and a “24-hour Xinhua cable news channel designed to imitate Al Jazeera,” among other schemes.

But its international reputation hasn't gotten a single fuzzball fluffier. Why? As Nye explains:

What China seems not to appreciate is that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities. The 2008 Olympics were a success, but shortly afterwards, China's domestic crackdown in Tibet and Xinjiang, and on human rights activists, undercut its soft power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but was followed by the jailing of the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and the artist Ai Weiwei.

The issue of soft power was on my mind this week as I put together a story on the “Battle for Buddha” underway between India and China, with both countries vying to leverage Buddhism to improve relations with neighboring countries in the region. You'll have to wait a few hours for the full treatment on that subject – which can sound like something straight out of John Le Carré. But here are some outtakes / ruminations.

India has some obvious advantages over China when it comes to soft power. It's a democracy with more or less free and fair elections. It honors civil liberties like the freedom of religion and freedom of speech. And for countries that aren't keen on that stuff, it practices pretty much open economic policies as opposed to predatory practices like secretly subsidizing its industries of “dumping” its products abroad to gain market share. It always works through multilateral bodies, it doesn't engage in saber rattling and it's more prone to self-criticism than it is to breastbeating.

The last couple are probably why a study conducted by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs found that other countries of the region were aware of India's rise, but not threatened by it, while they saw China as something to worry about. But some or maybe all of the traits or reasons or whatever that I mentioned aren't “soft power” — they're characteristics that India can leverage in soft power. And as Nye points out, China, too, has a lot going for it.

So where does the advantage come in?

As a member of India's foreign service pointed out to me last week, soft power works best when it's not directed by the government at all. So Bollywood films – which for the most part pale in comparison with movies like Zhang Yimou's Story of Qiuju – gloss over India's biggest problems with a cotton candy veneer of song and dance schmaltz. And independent producers, crazy fans, etc push it like hell everywhere from the Middle East to Manhattan. Meanwhile, China tries to "package" news stories on its censored wire service and cable network, tries in vain to block critical (but, I would argue, harmless) films and novels from being distributed, and so forth, with the result that its cultural products are seen as "despite the government" instead of "because of the great Chinese tradition".

Moreover, because India allows its vibrant, free press to hammer the government, the opposition, big business, big religion and everybody else, it hardly takes any flak for its myriad failures. Imagine if China was seen to ignore so callously its poor people when it came to health care? Or compare the international image of the rebellions in Tibet or Xinjiang, to the one in Kashmir, or, for that matter, the ones that you have never even heard of in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and so on.

That's more important than you may think. For one thing, it's allowed India's "public diplomacy" wing to branch out into social media, hoping that its Facebook friends and twitter followers will do for the government what it can't do for itself.  It doesn't need to control the message. But that's not because it hasn't done or doesn't do anything wrong, but because it has always let its own people air its dirty laundry and fight for change (often with less results than achieved in China, ironically).

Believe it or not, I used to work in public relations in Beijing – not for the government, though that would have been more interesting. One of the only things that stuck in my mind, apart from a strong distaste for the word “marketing,” was a study about the latest trends in PR knocking around at the time. As it turned out, some guys looking into the impact of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (I know, I am going pre-Internet on you) determined that companies that had ADMITTED to a major problem or scandal and publicized the steps they were taking to solve the problem actually had a BETTER IMAGE than companies that didn't face any public problems.

Why else would India skate through so many crises without the slightest ding to its image? Just as no form of publication excites as much interest as a banned book, no story whets a journalist's appetite more than the one you forbid him to report. And once you do that, every effort you make to tell your side is tainted with the stink of cover up.

No matter how many Buddhist conferences held in China, no matter how many senior communist leaders take interest in religion, no matter how many billions of dollars China spends to restore Buddhist temples or set up study centers, the world will remain focused on the story it doesn't want told – no, the one it tries to forbid from being told.

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