Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom: China’s Attempt at Gaining Soft Power is Tripped Up by Clash Over Human Rights





[Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history and department chair at University of California Irvine and the author, most recently, of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know,” published this year by Oxford University Press.]

IRVINE: Since the late 1980s, China’s leaders have embraced globalization in a bid to remake the nation, and it has recently sought to leverage its growing economic power in a grand re-branding exercise. China, the exercise tried to show, was no longer Mao’s backward revolutionary country, but a modern superpower. Unfortunately for China, the same interconnected world that enabled its economic surge has sometimes stymied the nation’s public relations efforts.

The re-branding drive has overlapping, but somewhat different domestic and international ambitions. President Hu Jintao and his comrades strive to convince China’s citizens that they can simultaneously raise living standards, maintain stability and garner international respect. The emphasis abroad, meanwhile, has been on convincing residents of foreign countries, including people of Chinese ancestry, that the People’s Republic of China 2.0, though still run by a Communist Party, has been utterly transformed.

The biggest successes of this re-branding drive have depended on Beijing’s ability to ride the tide and take advantage of distinctively global aspects of the current era. Without far-flung supply chains and fast-flowing foreign investment – including that of ethnic Chinese in Taiwan and other locales – China could not have surged past Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. And without satellite television and the internet, the visually stunning opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games and strong showing by Chinese athletes could not have had the dramatic impact they did in 2008, helping dispel at last the lingering visions of China as a technologically backward “sick man” of Asia....

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