Saturday, April 11, 2009

Soft Power Your Way Out O' This One China!!!

As the unassuming title to this post conveys, China's soft power has taken yet another hit as we've moved from toys to formula to pet food to housing. I guess people really aren't joking when they say that EVERYTHING is made in China, eh?

Here's the retort from the article linked above, unfortunately for the company based in Tianjin (which has Knaupf in the title, but I guess we won't blame certain countries located in Europe who seem to be operating in China under the relaxed regulations...I wonder if that figures in the profit margin at all...yes, I am laying it on pretty thick here), this retort comes after several paragraphs of product bashing and complaints from Americans in the Southeast U.S.:

Dr. Phillip Goad, a toxicologist hired by Knaupf Plasterboard Tianjin, sampled drywall from 25 homes, some that contained the company's wallboard and some that did not.

"The studies we have performed to date have identified very low levels of naturally occurring compounds," Goad said. "The levels we have detected do not present a public health concern. The chemicals are naturally occurring. They're produced in ocean water, in salt marsh air, in estuaries."

I want to make two points on China's soft power here:

First, this is an excellent example of how China is actually where U.S. and other "developed" countries were during their phases of rapid industrialization - in both cases the countries grew bigger than their breeches. One can look up many an article/book by the likes of Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker to see this point. So, long-term, they'll be fine as the pressures increase due to the soft power goals - they can also turn this into a positive domestically by citing it as an instance of outsiders trying to degrade and berate China - push them to greater regulation as they become weary of these instances.

Second, there are many countries where the external efforts of China's soft power strategy have back-fired significantly. In Africa, for instance, there are instances where governments have signed deals with the Chinese government for loans and other assistance to expand information communication technologies, build roads and other infrastructure, and even to build soccer stadiums and other higher profile building projects. This often plays out in the press coverage as China making in-roads that are under-cutting the U.S. and other power players. On the flip side, though, I would venture for discussion that the domestic reception of China is not very positive in many of these places. In Sierra Leone, the Chinese employers are widely criticized for poor treatment of local employees. Further, there are several shady aspects to many deals that give Chinese interests advantages in the local economy that are not mutually beneficial at face value or after digging through the weeds of some of the deals.

Concluding Remarks:

In sum, China is where the U.S. used to be in many ways and has a lot of promise for being a major power on the international stage. I would caution, though, that the Chinese, for better or for worse, are not taking many lessons learned from how the U.S. arrived where it is today to avoid ending up in many of the same predicaments. I predict a significant say-do gap for China (already there in many ways) and an immense set of population pressures that the U.S. does not have to deal with. China is rising, but it will have a longer way to fall when it trips up. Speculating, just speculating.


  1. Jameson, you made very good points here. I agree with you in saying that China is actually where U.S. and other "developed" countries were during their phases of rapid industrialization. For the Communist Party, they have to achieve high economic growth in order to maintain legitimacy. An economy-centered development strategy while have brought lots of wealth to the Chinese people, social development and environmental protection have lagged far behind . That is why Hu is calling for a "harmonious society". I think China is now still in an early stage of public diplomacy, as Beijing's priority is still economy-driven. That is why someone argue that China's soft power in Southeast Asia, Africa and other developing countries is not really the soft power defined by Nye since lots of the recipient countries are actually drawn to China out of economic incentives. I speculate that it will probably take at least 2 decades or so for China to really achieve harmonious development and act as a responsible stakeholder in the international arena, and come out with a serious of concerted PD policies.

    Second, about the China's huge population. This is a good point. It is worth noting that this is often an evidence that Chinese government use to retort the US's criticism of China's poor human rights records. Officials often complain, "how could the US blame us without ever knowing how to manage and stabilize such a huge population,they will never understand what a daunting task it is. How can they teach us what to do without such an experience?"China does not want to fall to a "functioning chaos" as someone call India. For the government, a stable society always takes priority of personal freedom, at least in a foreseeable future. The perception gap on collectivity VS individualism between US and China, in my opinion, has led the two oftentimes pointing at each other and never reach agreements.

  2. YuanYuan: Thanks for your comments. It's great to get your perspective.

    I remember, during the lead up to Olympics, hearing a NPR story interviewing young, Chinese citizens (specifically, young professionals) about their perceptions of some of the minority groups (Tibetans, Uighurs, etc.). The responses showed that quite a few of them viewed these individuals as agitators, even outsiders, trying to take advantage of negative attention from the international community toward China. I would be interested to know if, if you know, the Chinese government's internal information programs focus on these groups in terms of trying to incorporate them through "soft power" to avoid this kind of "functioning chaos" or if it is set on a "hard power" move to isolate them where they are to keep a separation in Chinese society in order to avoid that "chaos."

  3. Jameson, sorry for getting back to you late, my firefox is having some problems recently. Regarding your question, in my opinion, the Chinese government's internal programs focus on these Tibetan, Uighurs,and other ethnic minorities more through soft power means and economic incentives in order to better incorporate them into the bigger happy multi-ethnic family as they hope. For example, there are lots of education policies very favorable to the minorities. Bars are very low for the minority ethnics to be admitted into universities while for the Han Chinese, bars are much higher. A big portion of government financial assistance programs go to the minorities. Equally important, in the Chinese leadership's minds, economic development is very critical in stabilizing the less developed minority regions. In the early 90s, president Jiang launched the "West Movement" strategy through investing more advanced infrastructure development, and bringing in more technologies, skills, and talented young people from the more developed eastern regions. Also, the CCP is also quite skillful at co-opting the ethnic minorities. The leaders in the Five ethnic minority autonomous regions in China are mostly local minorities, who received good education in the Chinese universities , believe in Communism and abide by CCP guidelines.