China has invested in soft power considerably, but it risks it all by insisting on complete control of the message.
This week, the China blogosphere was set ablaze over two high profile revelations related to journalism in China.
First, it was reported the Bloomberg buried a scathing investigative story on one of China’s richest men and his ties to the government. The New York-based outlet did this because it was afraid that the negative story could damage its business operations in China.
The second case involved veteran China reporter Paul Mooney being denied a visa to stay in the country. He said in a tweet that in the visa interview, agents asked him about his coverage of human rights and Tibet, issues that a highly sensitive in China.
Both of these stories, breaking in the same week, put a spotlight on journalism in China. Specifically, critics dogged the Communist Party of China (CCP) attempts to control the message of media—and not just the state owned outlets, like China Daily or Global Times.
Controlling the message looks to be counterintuitive for China. Now, every media outlet is reporting this story, after the New York Times, which is blocked in China, broke the Bloomberg story. The cover-up is worse than the crime, goes the old saying.
For a country that invests so considerably in its soft power resources, these failures seem to be ultimately discrediting the rising superpower. The image portrayed after reading articles like the two presented is a morally bankrupted, authoritarianism, and not the harmonious society sold by the CCP.
This soft power resource so craved by the leaders is often rooted in a society’s openness. Joseph Nye, who coined the term soft power, wrote that the US benefited from movies that showed the country in a damming light. Viewers in the Soviet bloc wondered how could a country that allowed this movie, be that bad?
On the contrary, the USSR gained much of its soft power from giving off an air of invincibility. The mystery and secrecy of the Iron Curtain helped these perceptions.
China clearly is not going the route of the U.S. Yet, it isn’t simply hiding behind an Iron Curtain either. The Soviet soft power example does, though, provide a closer comparison for modern China. The CCP’s soft power strategy is to purvey the idea of a prosperous and developed nation, one that is the future economic center of the world.
The two articles that broke this past week might be damaging in the short-term, but the long-term benefits are greater. Part of the Bloomberg piece was that the organization was self-censoring. And with journalist getting their visas denied, how many of them will think twice before penning a damning piece while in China? This natural self-censorship will shape the message to the liking of the CCP.
This strategy has already proven successful in another medium.
In an article from The Guardian, it was reported that China Film Co-Production Company (CFCC) asks that Hollywood make movies that show “positive images” of China, or else face rejection from being co-produced with a Chinese firm, a key factor in being widely released, or released at all, in China.
Hollywood is listening, and self-censoring is becoming commonplace amongst big budget films. Unlike with the newspaper industry, Hollywood only produces a handful of blockbusters every year and all of them want to be released in China. The industry must stick to the CCP guidelines and this is a soft power boon for China.
Soft power is not created through the willingness of filmmakers to yield to CCP demands. The soft power comes from the people who end up seeing these films.
Normal people around the world are watching movies with China portrayed as a developed economic power, a future world leader, and sometimes as a distinct plotline. This is creating the image that the CCP wants to foster. They have to, or they do not get access to the markets.
“I’m from the future. You should go to China,” says Jeff Daniels character in the movie Looper, a movie that was widely successful in China.
Illustrating this, a Pew poll released earlier this year showed that a majority of respondents thought that China will pass or has already passed the U.S. as the global super power. Is this life imitating art or just the nature of the actual roles in the world today?
The reality for China is that it has a long way to go. It is still a developing country, one that even receives a large amount of foreign aid. Yet, a majority of people already believes in its super power status. Popular movies have helped spread this message. Self-censorship by other journalist and their agencies will factor into this message too.
Despite the short-term soft power fails, the long-term gamble is paying off for China.
Expect to see more self-censorship by various media outlets. Expect more denied visas for journalists. Expect to see more summer popcorn flicks with Chinese characters and plot points. Expect all of this because the CCP’s attempts to control the message are working.
photo credit: Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse