Can China Successfully Build Soft Power Without A Global Internet Strategy?

China’s efforts to build its “soft power” have been in the news over the last few months. So far none of the coverage of the media strategy for soft power has discussed what may be the fatal flaw in the government’s strategy-the media efforts are almost entirely focused on declining media like television, radio and print.

Not only has there been limited emphasis by the Chinese government on using the Internet to further soft power, but there are also major structural and cultural issues that make it extremely difficult for China to push its soft power agenda over the Internet. China has planned the soft power effort as a multi-decade effort, but the lack of effective products for the medium of future generations may doom the government’s efforts.

Can you really win hearts and minds when you are known as a country that blocks Facebook, Google, Youtube and Twitter, among the most popular Internet services globally?

First, some background. This Sinica Podcast-Dimensions of China’s Soft Power-and this story in the Washington Post by John Pomfret-From China’s mouth to Texans’ ears: Outreach includes small station in Galveston-are both excellent primers on the media aspects of China’s soft power push. And today Professor David Shambaugh, one of the top American scholars on China, has an Op-Ed in the International Herald Tribune-China Flexes Its Soft Power. He lays out many of the measures China has launched to further its soft power:

[The] State Council Information Office is coordinating China’s media and exchange organizations to “go out” (zou chuqu) and establish a foothold in the international media environment and think-tank world.

The Chinese government is investing a reported $8.7 billion in 2009-2010 in its “external publicity work” — primarily on the “Big Four”: China Central Television (CCTV), China Radio International (CRI), Xinhua News Agency and the China Daily newspaper — while media executives and opinion shapers from various countries are being brought to China for “familiarization” tours.

All four of these external media outlets have had major makeovers in recent months, all intended to give a less propagandistic face to the world. Foreigners now anchor news broadcasts; op-ed pages are becoming more serious; radio programs are more diversified; Web sites are more informative; and newspapers are publishing more investigative stories.

Some specific efforts include Xinhua TV now operating a 24 hour news channel that is trying to imitate Al Jazeera; CCTV News is trying to compete with CNN and BBC; CRI is buying more air time in a number of AM and FM radio markets in the United States and Europe, while broadcasting directly into Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. CCTV now broadcasts six international channels in five languages and claims a total global audience of about 125 million.

Some provincial television stations (Chongqing, Shanghai and Hunan) also seek a niche in the foreign broadcast market. China has also funded a series of English and Chinese language television stations abroad, such as Blue Ocean Network (BON TV) and Great Wall TV in the United States.

Xinhua News Agency is penetrating deeply into the developing world, becoming the principal source of news for people in Africa. Xinhua also sees a particular target of opportunity with the main Western news wires (AP, UPI, Thomson Reuters). Xinhua’s strategy is to file mainly descriptive news reports, unfiltered with Chinese political perspective, and to develop a clientele by marketing a cheaper news report than the big Western wire services.

Currently, Xinhua has 80,000 paying institutional subscribers, which produces a strong revenue stream, but also provides a source of news and information to publics in the developing world where there are precious few domestic sources. Xinhua has 400 correspondents posted in 117 bureaus around the world, with plans to add 10 more by 2012 and to grow to 180 by 2020.

These are very impressive and expensive plans. China is leveraging the media channels and distribution mechanisms it understands, and hiring, no doubt at great expense, western old media hands as consultants. But as Google and Facebook and its 500m users have shown, the future influencers globally are increasingly online.

Google’s withdrawal from China will have a lasting impact on China’s soft power efforts. As I told the New York Times soon after Google’s withdrawal:

“The Chinese are very serious about pushing their soft-power agenda,” Bill Bishop…said Tuesday. “Google just put a big hole in that sales pitch, and I think they know that.”

There are no domestic Chinese Internet firms that have a shot at developing the global impact of a Facebook, Google or even Twitter. First, the language barrier is a real issue; maybe the Confucius Institutes will eventually teach decent Chinese to millions, but that will take decades and even then there will still be vastly more people outside of China more capable of reading English than Chinese.

Second, none of the top Chinese Internet firms-Baidu, Tencent, Sina, Sohu, Shanda, Netease-have either the DNA or the credibility to succeed materially in major overseas markets. In most markets they will face the same kinds of difficulties that Western Internet firms face in China. They may gain share, especially in gaming, in parts of the developing world, but not in any significant way that would have a meaningful impact on the overall soft power goals.

China’s soft power push is likely a boon to western media consultants, cable channel and radio station owners, and advertising sales people, but is the currently strategy flawed to the extent that worries about China’s media soft power efforts are overblown?

Professor Shambaugh, who also makes no mention of the Internet in China’s soft power plans, concludes his Op-Ed with the following:

No matter how well resourced the (state) messenger is and how much the message is massaged, it is still reality that will play the main role in shaping China’s image around the world.

And when it comes to the Internet, the reality is that China has a poor image and a weak product offering for most global netizens.

Note: If you are interested in more in-depth reading about China’s soft efforts, please see the following:

China Media Project-Li Changchun on the media and China’s “global influence”

China Media Project-Hitting hard with “soft power”: China explores macro-measures to bolster its global cultural prowess

People’s Daily-How to improve China’s soft power?

CSIS-Chinese Soft Power and Its Implications for the United States

People’s Daily-中国的软实力有哪些不足?

CRS Report: China’s Foreign Policy and “Soft Power” in South America, Asia, and Africa

Harvard Kennedy School-Joseph Nye on Smart Power

Imagethief-Unsolicited advice for Xinhua’s new CNC TV news outfit

The Daily Show-China’s Soft Power Push Vs The Daily Show And Stupidity In Hacienda Heights, California

Please tell me what you think in the comments.

If you use RSS you can subscribe to this blog’s feed here, and if you use Twitter you can follow my more frequent updates @niubi, and if you use Sina Weibo you can follow me here. You can also follow my blogging on digital media and the Internet in China at DigiCha.

Subscribe to the Sinocism China Newsletter email. Free

  • Pingback: China’s soft-power push: Where’s the Internet? « Imagethief

  • http://www.chinavortex.com pdenlinger

    The trouble with much of the analysis of China’s projection of soft media power is that it is based on the western consumer model, which was fueled by advertising expenditure. Just in the past few weeks, all of the leading European economies have instituted painful cuts, and just today, the Obama administration has called for 5% cuts in government spending.

    These cuts will be very painful, and advertising expenditure in the markets of western Europe and North America will likely take a major hit until they put their financial affairs back in order. Looking at the debt load they are all carrying, this is likely to take a while.

    The age of mass consumer spending where advertising defines mass cultural values and behavior are over.

    In the media field, western media companies continue to be dominated by pre-digital business models, along with legal definitions of trademark and copyright which have not been updated for the digital age. Isn’t it wiser just to let these models die off first? Does it make sense for China to spend a lot of money capturing mindshare in those markets while their economies are in a prolonged funk, if not decline, and while their advertising revenues are in freefall?

    I don’t think so.

    Western cultural power and influence was based on a combination of technology, ideas and economic success. China now has the technology and economic success. While the west has many good ideas, they did not have the ideas which would have prevented it from getting into the current economic mess.

    For China, it’s much easier, cheaper and smarter to build new media models in Africa, South America, and SE Asia which are relatively unencumbered by outdated media models. With their rich natural resources, these will be the important markets of the 21st century, not NA and EU.

  • http://twitter.com/LewisRosa Lewis Rosa

    Looking at the reach of China’s soft power is quite awkward. Well, it is from Scotland anyway.Firstly, is there a distinction to be drawn between the soft power of ‘the Party’ and that of ‘China’ in broader, apolitical terms? I would certainly agree with you that China’s global expansion is being somewhat hampered by what you’ve called a “weak product offering.” That is, global netizens simply aren’t being catered for. The Party’s use of outdated communication models will do them no more good in asserting influence than any big brand trying to pay for public opinion. The internet is rapidly becoming an earned space and even more importantly, a shared space. Of course, in terms of social media, there still exists a significant and much publicised divide between East and West. However, rather than one brand conquering another, whether it’s Facebook and Tencent or Baidu and Google, viewing the internet as an open forum for multi-cultural discussion will do far more to serve China’s influence than paid advertising.

  • http://www.bestblogs.asia Giles Dawe Best Blogs Asia

    I live and work on the internet in China, actually things have gotten better over the past few months. Less sites are blocked and is quite fast nowadays. China is still growing, they need focus on the web but then again they need to focus on all aspects of daily life over here too…it will happen at some point in time though.

  • http://www.chinavortex.com pdenlinger

    The trouble with much of the analysis of China's projection of soft media power is that it is based on the western consumer model, which was fueled by advertising expenditure. Just in the past few weeks, all of the leading European economies have instituted painful cuts, and just today, the Obama administration has called for 5% cuts in government spending.

    These cuts will be very painful, and advertising expenditure in the markets of western Europe and North America will likely take a major hit until they put their financial affairs back in order. Looking at the debt load they are all carrying, this is likely to take a while.

    The age of mass consumer spending where advertising defines mass cultural values and behavior are over.

    In the media field, western media companies continue to be dominated by pre-digital business models, along with legal definitions of trademark and copyright which have not been updated for the digital age. Isn't it wiser just to let these models die off first? Does it make sense for China to spend a lot of money capturing mindshare in those markets while their economies are in a prolonged funk, if not decline, and while their advertising revenues are in freefall?

    I don't think so.

    Western cultural power and influence was based on a combination of technology, ideas and economic success. China now has the technology and economic success. While the west has many good ideas, they did not have the ideas which would have prevented it from getting into the current economic mess.

    For China, it's much easier, cheaper and smarter to build new media models in Africa, South America, and SE Asia which are relatively unencumbered by outdated media models. With their rich natural resources, these will be the important markets of the 21st century, not NA and EU.

  • http://twitter.com/LewisRosa Lewis Rosa

    Looking at the reach of China's soft power is quite awkward. Well, from it is from Scotland anyway.

    Firstly, is there a distinction to be drawn between the soft power of 'the Party' and that of 'China' in broader, apolitical terms? I would certainly agree with you that China's global expansion is being somewhat hampered by what you've called a “weak product offering.” That is, global netizens simply aren't being catered for. The Party's use of outdated communication models will do them no more good in asserting influence than any big brand trying to pay for public opinion.

    The internet is rapidly becoming an earned space and even more importantly, a shared space. Of course, in terms of social media, there still exists a significant and much publicised divide between East and West. However, rather than one brand conquering another, whether it's Facebook and Tencent or Baidu and Google, viewing the internet as an open forum for multi-cultural discussion will do far more to serve China's influence than paid advertising.

  • http://www.bestblogs.asia Giles Dawe Best Blogs Asia

    I live and work on the internet in China, actually things have gotten better over the past few months. Less sites are blocked and is quite fast nowadays. China is still growing, they need focus on the web but then again they need to focus on all aspects of daily life over here too…it will happen at some point in time though.

  • Pingback: China's Soft Power Meets The Daily Show And Stupidity In California | Sinocism

  • Pingback: Planner Reads » Blog Archive » Links for 2010-06-08 [del.icio.us]

  • http://joyceyland.blogspot.com/ Joyce Lau

    Media — whether print, broadcast, online, etc — is only a tool. What China has to work on is message. Without content, it doesn’t matter how many tools you have.

    Look at TS coverage, or lack thereof. The world’s media covered it. Most had photos of the 150,000-strong memorial in HK. Basic news judgment would say that a large protest, on the anniversary of a politically significant event, is worth covering. The last TS-related item on the China Daily website was about a shuttle bus. The Xinhua site gave repeated error messages when I did a TS search. China can have all the media workers and funding in the world — it still looks silly. State control keeps China’s coverage removed from the instincts, feelings and thought of the rest of the world.

    I read a good post (from the Global Times?) from a Chinese reporter who asked a pro-Israel lobbyist in Washington why they were so good at applying diplomatic pressure, and China wasn’t. The lobbyist replied that China seemed to have no message that the average American would sympathize with.

    Just saying, “We have lots of your money. You better not saying anything bad about us” isn’t going to fly.

    All of the developments posted above are good. China has money and resources, which, say, U.S. newspapers have less and less. (They pay a price for being independent of government). Inviting foreign journalists to work with Chinese journalists; sending Chinese journalists for overseas training; serious Op/Eds; informative websites; investigative reporting — all good. Lots of Xinhua correspondents? Great. Hopefully, people out in the field now will return with more global, open views. And that will eventually change China’s “soft power.”

    But we have a loooong way to go. The average non-Chinese / non-China expert / non-media professional has probably never heard of CCTV, Blue Ocean, Great Wall TV or even Xinhua.

  • http://joyceyland.blogspot.com/ Joyce Lau

    Media — whether print, broadcast, online, etc — is only a tool. What China has to work on is message. Without content, it doesn't matter how many tools you have.

    Look at TS coverage, or lack thereof. The world's media covered it. Most had photos of the 150,000-strong memorial in HK. Basic news judgment would say that a large protest, on the anniversary of a politically significant event, is worth covering. The last TS-related item on the China Daily website was about a shuttle bus. The Xinhua site gave repeated error messages when I did a TS search. China can have all the media workers and funding in the world — it still looks silly. State control keeps China's coverage removed from the instincts, feelings and thought of the rest of the world.

    I read a good post (from the Global Times?) from a Chinese reporter who asked a pro-Israel lobbyist in Washington why they were so good at applying diplomatic pressure, and China wasn't. The lobbyist replied that China seemed to have no message that the average American would sympathize with.

    Just saying, “We have lots of your money. You better not saying anything bad about us” isn't going to fly.

    All of the developments posted above are good. China has money and resources, which, say, U.S. newspapers have less and less. (They pay a price for being independent of government). Inviting foreign journalists to work with Chinese journalists; sending Chinese journalists for overseas training; serious Op/Eds; informative websites; investigative reporting — all good. Lots of Xinhua correspondents? Great. Hopefully, people out in the field now will return with more global, open views. And that will eventually change China's “soft power.”

    But we have a loooong way to go. The average non-Chinese / non-China expert / non-media professional has probably never heard of CCTV, Blue Ocean, Great Wall TV or even Xinhua.

  • Yan

    Information cames too cheap and chaotic and in a bad quality in China. I think it’s understandable that the government feels reluctant to include internet into its strategy. In all, it’s just another form to deliever the informations, and all the major tv stations and newspapers and radio stations have their own website. So maybe it is already included in the package.

  • Yan

    Information cames too cheap and chaotic and in a bad quality in China. I think it's understandable that the government feels reluctant to include internet into its strategy. In all, it's just another form to deliever the informations, and all the major tv stations and newspapers and radio stations have their own website. So maybe it is already included in the package.

  • Pingback: Chinese Bid For Newsweek Magazine Unsuccessful | Sinocism

  • Pingback: Chinese Investors Tried To Buy Newsweek « No More Chinese Communist Party

  • Pingback: Hao Hao Report

  • Pingback: #22 Living inside the Great Firewall « Napatra

  • Pingback: #22 Living inside the Great Firewall | ????‘??????’???? « Napatra

  • Anonymous

    ill check out China Media Project

  • http://best-ecigarette.info Best E Cigarettes

    ill check out China Media Project

  • http://energyinasia.wordpress.com Diana Ngo

    Building the media infrastructure is important, but what actual culture does China have to export. Soft power is essentially disseminating culture and influence so slowly that it does not threaten your audience. This is why in the early 1990s and 2000s, Japan and Korea took off. Teenagers and young adults in Asia today all know who their favorite Korean actors or singers are, but they could care less about Chinese celebs. 

  • http://twitter.com/pirugenia Maria Mayer

    I
    was blocked by all those sites for saying things without adornment, as I was
    sick of BS, also kicked out of Facebook for campaigning pro Chavez and Correa,
    against Romney (not that Obama is my cup of tea), and against any criminal
    attack by U$rael & NATO  against
    another Muslims nation in the Middle East: Syria & Iran are in the
    crosshairs (after Iraq, Libya etc). What is going on is the rise of
    totalitarianism in the US: the Patriot Act, the NDAA law, wars unending, sleaze
    unending, the FED printing money like in Weimar, a “complex” of synergic power
    much bigger than the Industrial Military Complex that Pres. Eisenhower warned
    us about back when he saw the rising phoenix of rocketry and NASA, and every
    single good initiative curbed or stopped. This nation has ceased to be under
    God, at least it is not the Christian God. There is some “hope” now
    that Elizabeth Warren won, and Joe Kennedy Jr. But I keep my expectations low,
    and try to keep my feet grounded. It was worth the fight: marching against the
    war[s] year after year, Occupy Wall Street, talking in public, writing letters,
    fighting in websites, being called names, given insults, mistreated verbally.
    If that is the price for not having Romney as President I would do it again and
    again. I find courage and inspiration mostly in people like John Paul II, who
    denounced the attack of Iraq as an inmoral war, in Oglala Sioux leader Russell
    Means (r.i.p.), in the abovementioned, plus bishop Ignatius Kung Ping Mei, and
    other martyrs. I trust simple men and women with a fighting spirit, and natural
    simple ways. Anything too sophisticated I abhorr. “Friends” I have just a
    handful, keep others at bay, a couple of pleasantries exchanged, and they go
    away saying how nice I am. They bore the hell out of me.