China fails the soft power test

Beijing's strong-arm tactics at a recent sinology conference highlight the vast chasm between its hard-power prowess and soft-power shortcomings.

Sinology conferences are usually lacklustre affairs where scholars talk about anything from burial rituals in the Han dynasty to Tang poetry. However, a recent European sinology conference in Portugal has turned into a completely scandalous event thanks to some Chinese officials.       

When hundreds of European sinologists were given a conference program handbook on the 24th of July, they were "surprised and dismayed" to find pages had been torn from the handbook. The pages contained information about the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, a semi-official Taiwanese academic organisation that supports and promotes Chinese studies.   

As it turns out, Chinese officials presenting at the conference had secretly seized conference materials and removed these 'offending' pages from the handbooks. Vice Minister Xu Lin, director general of the Confucius Institute, ordered her underlings to remove the pages, according to a public report issued by the European Association for Chinese Studies (EACS).

The association issued a strong public protest, condemning this unceremonious act as interfering with academic freedom. "Such interference in the internal organisation of the international conference of an independent and democratically non-profitable academic organisation is totally unacceptable. It cannot and will never be tolerated by the EACS," said Roger Greatrex, president of the association.

The scandal has raised two interesting points. The first is about Beijing’s practice of soft-power diplomacy, and the second relates to the Chinese government’s interference in academic freedom at overseas higher-education institutions.

Vice Minister Xu’s behaviour at an academic conference is a sad reflection of China’s ability to project its soft power at a time when the world is growing increasingly jittery about the rise of China. It is interesting to note that Xu’s job is to charm foreign academics and students through the Confucius Institutes -- non-profit, Chinese government-affiliated institutions designed to promote Chinese language and culture around the world.

China is a giant in the hard-power leagues of military and economics -- the world’s second-largest economy with the largest standing army -- but it is a dwarf in the parallel universe of perception and ideas. Beijing is trying to improve the country’s image abroad through large-scale, centralised schemes such as the Confucius Institutes, which fund and promote Chinese language studies. 

Xu’s behaviour highlights the problem of executing Beijing’s charm offensive. Many officials like Xu still behave like party ideologues even when they are abroad, ordering people to censor materials at academic conferences and restricting topics of discussion at educational institutions.

They fail to understand that the essence of soft power is all in the mind -- unlike hard power, which is all about tangible assets. If Beijing wants to be liked and trusted internationally, it has to change its behaviour and handle sensitive issues such as Taiwan and Tibet with more tact and sensitivity.

The great irony of this incident is that the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation is perceived to be pro-China in Taiwan. The namesake of the foundation is the much-loved late president of the Republic of China -- an ardent pro-unification statesman who ended the country’s military rule.

The president of the foundation, Professor Yun-Han Chu, told The Liberty Times -- a pro-independence Taiwanese newspaper -- that Chinese education bureaucrats got used to bossing people around in China and they could not help themselves from acting in a similar fashion even when they were abroad.

Joseph Nye, the noted Harvard scholar who coined the term 'soft power', wrote in the Wall Street Journal that despite "spending billions of dollars to increase its soft power … China has had a limited return on its investment".

The scandal also shines light on another problem about the Confucius Institutes and academic freedom. There are about 300 Chinese government funded institutes around the world -- including in Australia -- which are generally located inside leading universities. They have been long-regarded as a propaganda arm of the Chinese government.

Many scholars believe the presence of these government-funded institutes degrades academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors, which has more than 47,000 members, called for the agreement between the Confucius Institutes and universities to be either terminated or renegotiated to better reflect Western values of academic freedom.

"Confucius Institutes function as an arm of the Chinese state and are allowed to ignore academic freedom," said the association in a statement. 

Xu’s brazen behaviour raises serious doubts about whether Beijing can respect academic freedom at universities. China’s flagship soft-power project could suffer a serious blow if professors and universities start to boycott the Confucius Institutes.

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