Belt and Road Initiative. Illustration: iStock
The Belt and Road Initiative is a key component of China's foreign policy. Illustration: iStock

Many people around the world and are thrilled by the rapid rise of China within a span of a single generation. But people’s perception of China is informed and influenced by two different schools of thought.

First, the China exceptionalism school trumpets how great, resilient, and responsive the Chinese system is with full accounts on how China plans to take over the world by stealth. For the proponents of this school, the Chinese regime is not only flexible but exceptional enough to overcome the enormous internal and external challenges the country faces.

Second, the China imminent collapse school, on the other hand, argues that China will be the victim of its success. Huge ecological damage, an insurmountable pile of bad debt – in both the public and the private sector – and simmering dissent over corruption and crony capitalism are put forward to assert the rationale of China’s looming collapse. The proponents of this school tend to forget the potential opportunities as China climbs the industrial, scientific, and cultural value chain.

A notable similarity between these two schools of thought is the domination of Western media. Yes, it is true: The Western news organizations still decide on both the content (what to tell) and the medium (how to disseminate the story) about China.

The ability of a country to make others behave according to its wishes – without employing any form of force or coercion – is a contested theory in international relations, and is termed “soft power.” Harvard professor Joseph Nye has made this framework popular in assessing a country’s power calculus.

Countries have two broad types of power – hard power and soft power, which combined form “comprehensive national power.” Comprehensive national power is the tally of a country’s strength. The hard powers are economic, conventional, and thermonuclear military power; soft power is the appeal of the country’s culture, religion, costumes, political system, and foreign policy. Soft power can be described as the “carrot,” a form of seduction or influence, while hard power is a “stick” to beat others with. A “superpower” is hence a country that has the remarkable and unparalleled ability to project and deploy both realms of power consciously.

In a broad sense, the overall content and direction of US foreign policy are neither appealing nor seductive for other countries. The binary thinking of “you are either with us or against us” is the core of the US foreign-policy strategy that has waged endless war in the pursuit of hegemony in the past 70 years.

However, a range of soft-power tools is at its disposal ranging from popular culture, cinema, high technology, its educational system, and the American way of life, which substitutes for the shortfall of the appeal and seduction of US foreign policy.

The vaunted US visa is the single most cost-effective measure through which the US informally seduces the elites in other countries to write or speak for the US cause without firing a single bullet. This situation is common in the developing countries among the elites in the media and the political structures. The Fulbright scholarship has remained a potent means for the US to cultivate the minds of the elites in other countries.

Think-tanks and media are the pivotal tools of US soft power and are at the forefront of setting a global agenda on behalf of the US establishment. The number of times that a report produced by even a little-known think-tank based in the US by the elites in other countries is a case in point.

China’s overall image has changed to that of a supplier of high-quality but affordable products instead of the low-quality goods of the recent past. In the minds of people in the Global South, China is also the leader in infrastructure building, and can ‘walk the talk’

As for China, its soft power has increased in close alignment with its economic and political heft on the world stage in recent years. China’s overall image has changed to that of a supplier of high-quality but affordable products instead of the low-quality goods of the recent past. In the minds of people in the Global South, China is also the leader in infrastructure building, and can “walk the talk.”

The scale and pace with which China has been building civil infrastructures domestically – such as high-speed rail, cities, airports, electricity projects and highways – have caught the attention of the general public and political leaders across the world. China escaped the 2008 financial crisis unscathed, which turned out to be the most prominent soft-power projection the Chinese have received, without a single penny spent. The scope and pace of change in China, relative political stability, and little or no impact from the 2008 financial crisis have given rise to nascent thinking called the “China model” of development.

The principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is also a Chinese soft power. Political leaders in the developing countries like to deal with China because of its unconditional support and the respect it gives to any country irrespective of its size. It is just the opposite of the long list of conditions the West would like recipient countries to abide by to access development financing. For the West, this Chinese principle of non-interference is propping up “Third World despots” and is a blatant attack on the rule-based global financing order set by the Paris Club.

China does not profess to hold the export of ideology as a foreign-policy goal. However, Western strategies have sounded an alarm bell that China is the main rival the “West” will have to deal with in the future. The End of History author Francis Fukuyama, in an article published in 2015, argued that the perceived attractiveness of China to the developing world poses a threat to the liberal world order that the West created. Hence a new counter-narrative is in the making to thwart China’s attractiveness to the rest of the world.

China seems to be conscious about investing in its soft power, as its interactions with the outside world have grown manifold in recent years. China Global TV Network (CGTN) and the Global Times are the two vital platforms to tell the story to the outside world from the Chinese perspective. The Global Times was a singularly important tool for China to deliver its message to Indian policymakers and the general public during the recent border showdown between the two at Doklam in 2017. The number of times Indian media reproduced the opinion pieces published in the Global Times during the confrontation was significant.

Confucius Centers are also a new addition to China’s arsenal to increase its cultural soft power. The attraction toward Chinese language education in schools in developing countries is a growing trend.

The increasing number of international students from developing and neighboring countries enrolled in the Chinese medical and engineering colleges and universities are also interpreted as ever-increasing soft power for China. China has the second-highest number of international students attending its universities, after the US. Chinese government scholarships have also played a significant role in attracting students to China. More Indian students participate in Chinese universities than British ones, replacing the UK as the traditional higher-study destination for Indian students.

The ever increasing number of Indian students in China is a remarkable feat of soft power since China is one of two hatreds (the other being Pakistan) and two loves (cinema and cricket) that have pan-Indian appeal.

Borrowing a cue from Fukuyama, Western media are in an all-out effort to prove China is a rising power with ulterior motives. From the Chinese perspective, Chinese “debt diplomacy” is a construct to discredit the fundamental credence of the so-called China model.

China and its growing number of think-tanks need seriously to think through both the “content” and the “medium” to tell its story to the outside world. The rebuttal from Chinese thin- tanks during the Hambantota controversy in Sri Lanka is a case in point, where China experienced a reputational backlash. The narrative of China being a loan shark got produced and reproduced by the Western and Indian media, catching the attention of conscious citizenry across the Global South.

The negative coverage that China received from the Hambantota incident could have become a significant public relations roadblock for China and the developing countries willing to take Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects ahead.

The debt-sustainability framework for countries participating in the BRI that was published during the second Belt and Road Forum held in April was China’s response to the allegation that economic principles and rationale are not followed in its lending to developing countries.  The framework hardly got a mention in Western media and there was a lack of attempt from the Chinese think-tanks to make the borrower countries understand it.

The need of the hour for the Chinese think-tanks is to develop narratives and counter-narratives to make the Global South aware of what it plans to do and how. If possible, they need to wade into globally contested issues on China, instead of taking a passive role.

Navin Subedi is a Kathmandu-based freelance development consultant. He can be contacted at

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