China power audit: The hard and the soft

President Xi Image copyright EPA
Image caption President Xi addressed the UN on women's rights

It was a typically gritty day of toxic air and toxic politics in the capital of the world's rising power. Plainclothes police were shoving protesters and journalists outside the courthouse; inside a lawyer was on trial.

Only hours earlier, Chinese negotiators had basked in praise from an unlikely quarter.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said a global deal to limit climate change could not have been won without China's help "to build a working partnership".

But that soft power win was of short duration. With the thugs outside Pu Zhiqiang's trial, Beijing was back to form, squandering soft power as if it had no use for it.

So what exactly is soft power? Joseph Nye, the political scientist most often associated with the idea, defines it as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments".

President Xi says soft power is part of his mission.

Insisting that China is a civilised country with a rich history, he urges that "the stories of China should be well told".

To this end, China has continued its programme of building "cultural aircraft carriers", an expansion of its media and cultural footprint around the world.

The most recent acquisition is Hong Kong's most venerable English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, the buyer one of China's biggest private companies, Alibaba.

Responding to alarm over the future prospects for editorial independence at the Post, the new owners promised they would not interfere, but also said they wanted coverage of China to be "balanced and fair".

Outreach efforts

Treading this line is never easy under the watchful eyes of Beijing's propaganda bosses, but the latter are learning to loosen the reins enough to allow a slick product that subtly supports China's outreach efforts.

One such experiment in October produced the YouTube video Song of Shisanwu to promote the Communist Party's 13th Five Year Plan.

But the soft power successes of the year pale into insignificance alongside China's tremendous year in hard power.

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Media captionThe BBC's John Sudworth was pushed away by security officials as he tried to report from outside court

According to Joseph Nye, hard power is "the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will".

China's authoritarian system is well designed to do this.

Its diplomats have been refining carrots and sticks for many centuries.

Their most marked triumph in 2015 was the launch of the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank

  • Twenty-one Asian countries signed a memorandum of understanding on 24 October 2014 to establish the bank
  • Led by China, headquarters will be in Beijing
  • It will help finance construction of roads, ports, railways and other infrastructure projects in Asia
  • The bank is expected to be fully established by end of 2015
  • As of 15 April 2015, there are 57 prospective founding members - 37 from within Asia and 20 from outside the region
  • Those from outside: Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK

Everyone knew Beijing had money, but the AIIB signalled that it also had the confidence, ambition, determination and vision to build regional institutions to suit its purpose and challenge the US.

And the stampede to join up, from even the oldest US allies, demonstrated that China's hard power carrots were meaningful, even when measured alongside the sticks of the existing superpower.

Other obvious hard power triumphs of the year were the September military parade featuring China's daunting new weaponry, and the reclamation of perhaps 2,000 acres in the South China Sea to build artificial islands on what was once submerged rock.

But as a $10 trillion economy with growing military might and territorial disputes with many of its neighbours, China's hard power often works to undermine its soft power.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hillary Clinton and Tony Abbott have been outspoken on China's influence

The military parade might have made many Chinese proud, but by the same token it made neighbours uneasy and the list of those who stayed away was as telling as the list of those who attended.

In fact, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott probably summed up the feelings of many regional leaders when he reportedly told the German Chancellor Angela Merkel that his government's policies towards China were driven simply by "fear and greed".

In contrast to its hard power, China's soft power deficit is sobering, especially given the effort expended on it.

When President Xi went to the US in September, his retinue had choreographed every line of the charm offensive down to the disclosure of a personal passion for Ernest Hemingway that had once landed the president in a Cuban bar drinking mojitos.

Upstaged by the Pope

But in an accident of timing, the man who commands a huge economy and the trappings of a rising superpower was comprehensively upstaged on his US tour by another who pointedly renounces the trappings of wealth and power.

The Pope met adulation wherever he went, mentioned more than 20 times as often as Mr Xi on television and nearly five times as often in print. That is someone with real soft power.

But President Xi might have been forgiven for echoing Stalin's dismissive question - "How many divisions does the Pope have?" - as he basked in the deference of some of the world's mightiest companies on his US visit.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Mark Zuckerberg said he was delighted to meet the Chinese president

With the bosses of Apple, IBM, Facebook and the rest desperate enough for access to China's market to meet his terms, President Xi might argue that he commands both the tank divisions and the subtler forms of hard power.

And he might also argue that it should be called soft power if you can get the founder of Facebook to greet you in Chinese, wearing a red tie, claiming to have read your book on governance and describing the meeting with you as a "meaningful personal milestone" - even when you have denied his company access to the Chinese market.

But no, that is still hard power, the dangling of carrots to make others follow your will - in this case, possible future access to the Chinese internet.

Accusation of hypocrisy

China's soft power problem was exposed a second time during the US visit when President Xi addressed the United Nations Assembly in New York on the subject of women's rights.

Hillary Clinton tweeted "shameless", pointing to the detention of five feminists earlier in the year for a planned poster campaign to protest against sexual harassment on public transport.

Their crime was to have convictions and to act on them, to exercise a private conscience and to express it publicly.

Image copyright CFP
Image caption Wang Man, third from left, protesting in front of a court trying a domestic violence case, was detained by the authorities

George Orwell once said: "The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it."

This explains why an authoritarian China that insists on dictating truth will always lack soft power.

Beijing seems determined to continue to rail against Western ideas, tear pages from university textbooks and lock up its lawyers.

But in 2015, as its hard power has grown, its soft power has withered.

And that is what makes the thugs outside the courtroom necessary.

After all, as history has shown over and over again, soft power can challenge hard power and a man or woman with convictions is dangerous to a system with none.

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