China's soft-power failure

Li Datong
19 May 2008

The Chinese government planned the year of the Olympic games in Beijing on 8-24 August 2008 as a demonstration of the country's pride and confidence on the global stage. So far, it has not turned out that way. The Tibet protests in mid-March, and the disruption of the Olympic-torch relay that followed, have created confusion in government circles. Now, the earthquake in Sichuan on 12 May has presented the authorities with another severe challenge of management and public relations. A triumphal year is becoming ever more tense.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:

"Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

"China's media change: talking with Angela Merkel" (6 September 2007)

"Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

"China's leadership: the next generation" (3 October 2007)

"China's communist princelings" (17 October 2007)

"China's age of expression" (14 November 2007)

"China's modernisation: a unique path?" (28 November 2007)

"Taipei and Beijing: attitudes to historical truth" (12 December 2007)

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

The official reaction to this series of events is part of a pattern that reveals much about how China is ruled and how its leaders think. In this sense, their response is not random but a case-study in the nature of modern governance in China.

The torch of merit

The Olympic-torch relay suffered unprecedented disruption in Britain, France and other countries, and has at times descended into chaos. In response, the Chinese government, through the media, launched an unprecedented counterattack. Now that the torch is back on Chinese soil, the media war has abated.

The Chinese government's fury is easily understood - the protests were a total humiliation for China. This is the biggest blow to the country's image for twenty years. The only comparable setback came after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. Then, China's reputation suffered almost irreversible damage in the face of international condemnation and sanctions from the United States and Europe.

But at least the government was prepared for the consequences of its post-Tiananmen repression. Chinese leaders were ready to make the sacrifice necessary in order to hold onto power. Deng Xiaoping knew that sanctions against such a large country as China could not go on indefinitely, and that China could ride out the storm. Deng also understood the importance of repairing China's image, and as early as 1990 put forward the plan for China to apply to host the Olympics.

The Chinese government never expected such embarrassment over the torch relay. Over twenty years, the influence of Tiananmen has been diluted, and to international amazement, China's rapid economic development has made it one of the world's largest economies. Every major country has been affected by China's development. After its unsuccessful bid to host the 2000 Olympics, China was favourite to be awarded the 2008 games, and emerged victorious. As a country of over a billion people, a member of the United Nations Security Council and of the World Trade Organisation, China had no less right to be awarded the games than had the Korean military regime in 1988.

Also, China's size means that it will be unlikely to slip into debt due to the Olympics, unlike Greece. In terms of hard facts and figures, China was definitely one of the best-qualified countries to host the games. The Chinese government was full of confidence, and in principle the torch relay was an idea that would be welcomed by the rest of the world. But things did not go according to plan.

The claim of right

What the Chinese government didn't realise was that "soft power", rather than hard power, has become key. Soft power stems from a country's human-rights situation. It depends on the progress a country has made in maintaining universal values, and trust in the country from the international community. However much the claim is made that the Olympics are and must be separate from politics, there is at least a political minimum that countries have to achieve to qualify as hosts. It would be hard, for example, to imagine the games being awarded to South Africa under apartheid.

To be fair, China's human-rights situation has improved since 1989. The situation now is the best it has been since 1949, and this is why the Chinese government feels that is has been treated so unjustly. "Why does no one talk about our achievements?" the government wonders. The answer lies in the rule of law and institutions. The increasing freedom and improving human rights of the Chinese people lack any substantial legal or systemic foundation. The government's overarching concern is still to keep the ruling party in power. Unrestrained government power can be relaxed and contracted at will.

Also in openDemocracy on China's Olympics and Tibetan tensions:

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "One, two or many Chinas?" (15 February 2008)

Kerry Brown, "Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power" (28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Kerry Brown, "Taiwan and China: an electoral prelude" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008)

Ivy Wang, "China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report" (8 April 2008)

Ramin Jahanbegloo, "Olympics of shame" (9 April 2008) That is to say, the progress China has made is not necessarily a one-way street. When things are good, progress can be allowed, but at the first sign of trouble the one-party totalitarian system automatically reverts to type. It is at these times that the government's obtuseness and crudeness shocks the world. For example, as the preparation for the Olympics began in earnest, at a time when the whole world was looking at China's human-rights record, the government locked up Hu Jia - a fragile young man who has done nothing but publish some articles on the internet - on charges of "subverting the state".

Questioned on this by foreign media, the normally eloquent Chinese premier Wen Jiabao could only respond that China "is a country with the rule of law". In light of the fact that freedom of speech is protected by the Chinese constitution, this answer seems both weak and ridiculous. Why the government acts so idiotically is beyond comprehension.

The call of Tibet

The recent Tibetan troubles could also have been handled differently. If a few people want to come out of the temples and protest, what is the problem? If the route and time are arranged in accordance with the law, and the people conduct their march, shout their slogans and then go home, why should this cause trouble? The more people are repressed, the more they want to rebel, and the consequence is chaos.

A country ruled by law should guarantee its citizens' right to protest. In those circumstances, if citizens break the law, they should be stopped without hesitation. But China has things the wrong way around. The lawful right to protest of a number of monks was crudely taken away, and then when trouble started there was no timely intervention due to fears over international opinion. This allowed the riots to get out of control and resulted in loss of life and damage to property.

This theme is exemplified in other respects. There was a lack of information and preparation on the Tibet issue before the violence broke out, and then after the events the government went into its conditioned response of shutting out foreign journalists, before bringing them back in on organised tours. The government first blamed anything and everything on the Dalai Lama, and then - after coming under international pressure - announced that it would enter into talks with him. All of this demonstrates both the government's passivity and the stupidity ingrained in the totalitarian system.

Whereas some Chinese have been stirred to nationalist emotions by the problems with the torch relay, the Chinese government is in shock. It needs time to digest the facts. It needs to ask itself: in the eyes of the world, why are a few people shouting "free Tibet" more persuasive than the hundreds of billions of yuan that the government has invested in Tibet? Why does the western public put more trust in information from the media than from the Chinese government? Why is an increasingly powerful China seen as a threat rather than a force for peace?

The bond of law

The tragedy in Sichuan has made headlines across the world. An intense effort of search and rescue is underway in very difficult terrain. The Chinese government is acutely aware of the need to perform this task efficiently. But now that it is more exposed than ever to the scrutiny of its own people as well as foreign media, the mechanisms of control and persuasion it is used to operating by are newly vulnerable. The problem of trust is just below - and occasionally emerges above - the surface. The tensions between hard and soft power are on display.

So when will the Chinese government finally wise up? The answer is simple - when it does things by the law. When it unconditionally guarantees the rights of citizens set down in the constitution, and cracks down on those who break the law. The Chinese government needs to understand that in response to the western media, an independent and free Chinese press would be much more credible than a government spokesperson. The truth lies not in one voice, but slowly becomes apparent amidst a diverse range of voices. An understanding of this underlies the effective deployment of soft power.

Whatever happens, the Beijing Olympics will provide many lessons for the Chinese leadership. If they still have the ability to learn, China's leaders will be able to turn this would-be triumphal year's early humiliation into a force for change.

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