​Firming up the positives of China's soft power

By Harvey Dzodin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, July 20, 2018
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Chinese tourists in New York, U.S. [Photo/People.cn]

While President Xi Jinping has undertaken many notable initiatives, none is better known, and potentially capable of having more impact internationally, than his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013. 

According to World Bank estimates, BRI could include 62 percent of the global population and involve 30 percent of world GDP. While most attention is paid to BRI as a massive public works and infrastructure initiative, another key element is people-to-people exchanges – in other words soft power. 

While cementing economic and political alliances with others from a position as the fast-emerging leader of globalization and win-win cooperation is certainly very important and necessary,  alone it is not sufficient; soft power is the other critical part of the equation. 

That's supported by the recently-released annual Soft Power 30 survey from the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy, and Portland Communications, where  China was ranked 27th out of 30 countries analyzed. While the U.K., France, Germany and the U.S. hold  the top positions, China dropped two places this year, having managed to improve last position in the initial 2015 survey. 

The bottom line, therefore, is that there is room for improvement in China's soft power and I think that the biggest dividends come from positive people-to-people interactions. Unfortunately, that goodwill, sometimes so difficult and time-consuming to build, is too easily destroyed, sometimes in a heartbeat by thoughtlessness or neglect.

Given the sheer size of BRI, the armies of workers being sent abroad as a consequence are enormous! Inevitably, therefore, the positive or negative feelings towards China that they generate in close proximity to citizens of the host countries is an important element.

Several events in Kenya show just how much impact these personal contacts, or lack thereof, can exercise. The most recent is still playing out in the Kenyan press and social media and involves the relationship between Chinese and Kenyan staff on the new Nairobi-Mombasa railway line built by the Chinese state-owned enterprise, China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). 

Kenyan staff are alleging that, among other things, there's an unofficial (unwritten) rule that locals and Chinese staff don't sit at the same table in the staff canteen or ride in the same company van. 

Much of the positive press that accompanied the opening in June 2017 of this modern technological wonder has been severely negated as has the goodwill from the generosity of CRBC, which has funded full engineering scholarships to Chinese universities for deserving Kenyan students.

It harks back to an event in 2013, when a Chinese restaurant in Nairobi's affluent Kilimani district excluded Kenyans in the evening, the Chinese owners citing security concerns. The story went viral and while it had nothing whatsoever to do with the Chinese government or any SOE, it was China's soft power that again suffered, not only in Nairobi, Kenya or even Africa, but perhaps even universally. 

So, what is to be done?

Chinese executives, workers at all levels, tourists and students are going abroad in ever-increasing numbers. Whether they know it or not, their actions, good or bad, might be the single most important factor that influences people in the places they are visiting to think well or ill about all China and all Chinese people. 

They should all be required to take a short online course on their responsibilities as unofficial ambassadors. Some countries might even choose to make proof of successful completion as a prerequisite for a visa. 

And it would be helpful if foreign governments could issue all foreign visitors, including Chinese, a simple manual of dos and don'ts in their country either while issuing a visa or at the point of entry. Ignorance should no longer be an excuse for unacceptable behavior and for damaging China's soft power.

To reduce the likelihood of recurrence of the problems CRBC is facing in Kenya, which are not isolated, companies employing Chinese staff overseas should ensure they educate their workers abroad in what is expected of them while living in foreign lands. This should be an element of their performance review and that of their supervisors. 

Since Chinese people are among the most patriotic in the world, I'm sure they will act properly, especially if reminded of what behavior is appropriate and of how, to a large degree, their actions will influence how the world views China. This is a solemn responsibility, especially as China goes global, that should never be taken lightly.

The author is a research fellow for the think tank Center for China and Globalization, senior adviser to Tsinghua University and former director and vice president of ABC Television in New York.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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