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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Hard line mocks Beijing's designs on global influence

April 8, 2009

David Bandurski
The Australian
April 8, 2009

WHEN China's ideological chief, politburo member
Li Changchun, met Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on
March 21, his visit was undoubtedly part of an
attempt by China to boost its global soft power.
For months Communist Party leaders have spoken of
this as an urgent need. Following an important
use of the term by President Hu Jintao in October
2007, Li made the point more forcefully late last year.

"Communication capacity determines influence," he
said. "In the modern age, whatever nation's
communication techniques are most advanced,
whatever nation's communication capacity is
strongest, it is that nation whose culture and
core values are able to spread far and wide, that
nation that has the most power to influence the world."

Li spoke about the need to strengthen China's
"communication capacity" at home and abroad to
give China a more prominent place "within the
international public opinion structure".

China's propaganda campaign on Tibet, which in
recent weeks has saturated its domestic media and
sent salvos scudding overseas, reads like the
opening act of this strangely antagonistic bid.
The campaign, an all-out assault on the notion
that Tibet is a troubled region, argues
aggressively that human rights in Tibet have
taken a dramatic turn for the better in the past
50 years and that Tibetan culture has been
generously preserved by the Chinese Communist Party.

The centrepiece of the campaign is a television
documentary comparing the emancipation of Tibetan
serfs by Mao Zedong in 1959 to the freeing of
American slaves by president Abraham Lincoln in
1862: an unnerving analogy for Chinese who have
not forgotten that Mao's brutal policies resulted
in the deaths of tens of millions in the space of two decades.

The festival atmosphere culminated on March 28 in
a theatrical prime-time gala on Chinese state-run
TV to commemorate Serf Liberation Day, a newly
created holiday portraying what some regard as
the solemn anniversary of a violent suppression
as a triumphant moment for the Tibetan people.

The facts on Tibet may be debated hotly for the
next 50 years, but China's pugnacious approach to
the facts raises serious questions about how it
plans to engage the world on a range of critical
issues, including human rights.

It is true that Chinese voices should be heard
more readily and taken more seriously on the
international stage. But in its present
conception, China's soft power is being projected
globally against a backdrop of domestic
repression, which means Chinese journalists,
academics and citizens cannot debate issues
freely, nor do they have access to the full richness of the facts.

And when China speaks with one voice, bought at
the cost of personal freedoms, this substantially
hardens the edge of its so-called soft power.

In countries such as the US, soft power arises
predominantly from strong, independent
institutions, from the strength of
non-governmental organisations, universities,
media and cultural industries such as Hollywood.

On the issue of Tibet, China's leaders have
approached soft power as though it can be
packaged for export at a central location in
Beijing, which is precisely what they have done.
A photography exhibition, consonant with the
CCP's propaganda message on Tibet, has travelled
across the world, from Seoul, South Korea, to
Larnaca, Cyprus, highlighting the sufferings of
Tibetans before 1959 and portraying the Dalai
Lama as a hateful oppressor. The exhibition's
international reception has been reported loudly
and favourably in numerous languages by China's official state media.

These and other soft power ploys have worked in
tandem with political arm-twisting. Facing stiff
Chinese pressure, the South African Government
denied entry to the Dalai Lama, who was to have
participated in a conference of Nobel peace prize
winners on March 27. Hong Kong's Foreign
Correspondents Club, an independent professional
association, was similarly pressured into
postponing a scheduled talk by Kate Saunders, of
the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.

One underlying problem with China's conception of
soft power is its fundamentally confrontational
view of the world. In articulating the need for a
bigger share of "global public opinion", China
reverts to type, talking in official rhetoric
about "anti-Chinese forces" and a monolithic and
hostile Western media. It rails against the West
for "harbouring a Cold War mind-set", when what
it glimpses is in fact little more than a
self-reflection of its persistent Mao-era rhetoric about the West.

In fact, China's deficit of soft power has little
to do with its "communication capacity" or the
hostile attitude of the foreign press and
everything to do with its failure to recognise
the basic nature of soft power: the articulation
of values that the rest of the world can aspire to and emulate.

If China indeed hopes to improve its
international reputation and boost its soft
power, it will have to act in a spirit of
openness and exchange, not with a hard-minded
insistence on facts that do not admit discussion
or challenge. Most important of all, it will have
to allow the emergence within China of credible
and diverse voices that can engage with the
world, and this means encouraging more
independent media, real academic and artistic
freedom, and unleashing the power of civil society.

If China speaks in party platitudes, with the
kind of broad uniformity that can emerge only
from the stamping out of dissent, how is the
world to accept the facts it presents, even if they are true?

David Bandurski, a Hong Kong-based journalist,
works on the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project.
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