Why China Sucks at Soft Power

When Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, China knew it had been handed a once-in-history opportunity. What would’ve been a mere sporting event for 3rd place Paris or 2nd place Toronto, was more akin to a national graduation ceremony for China. As 30,000 fireworks exploded on the opening day, As 10,000 performers performed, And when the Olympic cauldron was finally lit, China’s symbolic tassel was turned, and it ceased being, if only in our minds, just another developing country. China was now a global player. While the Olympics always take on a kind of performative quality, rarely are the stakes so high. After all, a nation only graduates once. In the seven years leading up to the event, Beijing underwent both a physical and cultural transformation. Its airport received a $1 billion upgrade, three new subway lines were built, and 23 new roads were laid. Campaigns were launched to fight against spitting, smoking, littering, and cutting in line — anything that might give visitors a negative impression. In the words of then-Premier Wen Jiabao, the goal was to depict the country as “democratic, open, civilized, friendly, and harmonious”. Humorous as this description may sound today, it once wasn’t such a ridiculous idea. Having just joined the World Trade Organization, and in the context of a thirty-year reform era led by Deng Xiaoping, when a smiling Jackie Chan sang “Beijing Welcomes You” in front of the Great Wall, frankly, one was inclined to believe him, however cheesy the music video. China was on its best behavior. A little bit of wishful thinking was warranted. A lot has changed since 2008. Gone are the days of people exchanges, Confucius Institutes, and liberalization fantasies. In, are crackdowns, crude insults, explicit threats, and war games. Today, it’s awfully hard to believe that the China who “opened its arms to the world” — who declared the “whole world” its friend — is the same country we know now, just ten short years apart. A decade ago, to observe that China sought soft power would’ve seemed humorously banal — what nation doesn’t? The record-setting $100 million+ price tag of the 2008 opening ceremony made very clear exactly how much it cared what you thought of it. 2021 China, on the other hand, is liable to do enough reputational damage on any given Tuesday to offset that entire era of reputation building. In an almost too-Hollywood ending, the lyricist behind “Beijing Welcomes You” — a song almost universally loved in China — would eventually, be erased from the Chinese internet after showing support for Hong Kong protestors. What happened to make China aggressively and needlessly burn bridges with the same impressive vigor it once made friends? Around 2019 — long after every last grandma, Luddite, puppy, and local car dealership finally gave in and created a Twitter account — the company found a surprising new source of user growth: Chinese Diplomats. Embassies, consulates, politicians, and ambassadors all suddenly and inexplicably decided to join the site around the same time — naturally, raising some eyebrows. After years of largely ignoring American social media, what new 280-character insights did they just have to share with the world? Not much, it turns out. Follow one of these accounts and you’d see a continuous stream of Xi Jinping smiling at various objects, among other mundane headlines. Top hashtags used by these accounts included captivating topics like the #China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Once a year you’d be blessed with a flurry of posts about #TwoSessions — a reference to the annual plenary sessions of the National People's Congress. Clearly, the Communist Party was still a long way from mastering the art of sub-tweeting. Interspersed with these glorified press releases, however, was, every once in a while, something very different. The Chinese embassy in Brazil accused its president of having a “mental virus”, Another diplomat addressed the Prime Minister of Canada as “boy” and called him a “spendthrift”. These are two of the more tame examples. Members of the Chinese Foreign Ministry have hurled such bizarre insults as “crazed hyena”, “fatso”, and “running dog” — and at citizens of their host countries, no less. They’ve promoted conspiracy theories, spread offensive images, and mocked India’s deadly crisis — all in an official capacity. And in case anyone thought these were just rogue agents, China stamped its official seal of approval on this behavior in March, when it held talks with the U.S. in Alaska. There, the most senior Chinese diplomat, who reports directly to Xi Jinping, pulled no punches, saying “The US is not qualified to speak to China from a position of strength.” This style of communication has worked about as well as you’d expect — which is to say, very, very poorly. The share of Americans who view China unfavorably reached the highest level on record two years ago and has only continued rising at the same pace since. While this trend may not surprise you, take a second to appreciate just how overwhelming this sentiment is. For context, the shift in opinion which has taken place in the last three years is roughly equivalent to that in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. China is now the country Americans view most negatively — with the exception of only Iran and North Korea. That means Americans view it less favorably than Russia, Cuba, Iraq, or Afghanistan. In an unbelievably polarized era, the Communist Party has truly managed to do the incredible: unite Democrats and Republicans. China is one of the few truly bipartisan issues in America. A majority of both parties — 77% of conservatives, 54% of liberals, and 56% of moderates, see its economic rise as a “critical threat”. But don’t think this is unique to the U.S. Unfavorable views of China are also at their all-time high in Australia, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Korea, Spain, and Canada. One of the few countries not to experience this trend is Japan… but only because it had already maxed out. Now, it would be both unfair and misleading to ignore the ways in which the U.S. and other countries are also responsible for this shift — in ways both legitimate and not Creating a common, foreign enemy and exploiting fears of imagined rivals, is, without a doubt, a common political strategy for gaining domestic support. Innocent Chinese and Asian-Americans have been caught in the crossfire, used as pawns, and accused only of their race. But however much foreign politicians may be predisposed to portray China as an enemy, no government has done more to tarnish its reputation than China itself. With Ć’crackdown, sanction, or inflammatory remark, China makes it harder and harder for foreign countries to associate with it. Its hostility has brought its Southeast Asian neighbors closer together made Australia wary of its influence and single-handedly thwarted its investment deal with the European Union. Whenever there remains some room for giving it the benefit of the doubt, China is incredibly quick to eliminate any ambiguity. When Huawei tried to prove its independence from Chinese authorities, for instance, those very authorities were the first to defend the company. In its ongoing crackdown against Jack Ma, it’s made perfectly clear nobody is above the party. The big question, then, is why? Why are individual diplomats, all the way up to the highest ranks of power, absolutely intent on willfully destroying China’s reputation? What does it get out of all this? To answer this question, we necessarily have to leave the realm of raw facts and enter that of speculation. We’ve seen what is — now we try our best to explain it. The most common theory goes something like this: The difference between 2008 and 2018 China is that today it’s in a position of strength. China can afford to be confident and assertive because a) it’s a large, powerful, and important country, and b) it genuinely believes in the decline of its rival, the United States. Its diplomatic approach may be... brash, but only because it otherwise wouldn’t be taken seriously. By setting the precedent that China will retaliate against even the slightest perceived aggression, smaller, less powerful countries are deterred from acting out. The problem with this line of thinking is that strong, powerful nations generally don’t go around needlessly destroying their own reputations. China’s method of “asserting” itself — calling people “thugs” and “hyenas” — is just plain cartoonish. It belongs in Hollywood — and that’s no coincidence. The term used to describe this behavior is “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” — a reference to a hyper-patriotic, Rambo-style Chinese military film franchise. The second theory is that its diplomats are, in essence, acting — though, the movie only makes sense in Chinese. People or countries as confident as China are always insecure. Does the kid on the playground who constantly feels the need to puff up his chest and warn you how tough he is, seem confident? Seasoned diplomats, of course, are not 11-year Olds on the playground. They’re trained professionals with careers at stake, which suggests their colorful language serves a real purpose. The reason the smallest dog barks the loudest is not just to compensate for its relative size, but also, to convince itself. The audience for the PG-13 rated movie Chinese diplomats star in every time they tweet an angry insult is not the world, but rather, the Chinese public, who respond to these attacks just as positively as the rest of the world does negatively. In response to China’s adversarial tone in the Alaska talks, for instance, the Chinese internet was flooded with support for the diplomats, who were “finally standing up for the country”. It works. The language has become more and more inflammatory because it’s expressly designed to create conflict. The more offended the foreign public, the more hatred is hurled back at China, which, in turn, puts the Chinese public on the defensive. It’s a simple trade — lose support abroad, in exchange for stoking nationalism, and thus support, at home. But, is it really worth it? you may, quite reasonably, wonder. Credibility is among the most valuable resources a nation can behold, and rebuilding it takes years, if not decades. By so thoroughly burning every last bridge, China has implicitly committed to its aggressive tactics for years to come. With the costs this high, the only world in which this trade would be worthwhile is if its leaders were that worried about the outlook at home. They may have good reason. First, its population is rapidly aging. The past few decades of widespread improvements to quality of life have coincided with a glut of productive workers — those aged roughly 30-64. In the next few decades, these producers will retire at a staggering rate and the One-Child Policy will have left too few people to replace them. Intense nationalism and the difficulty of learning the Chinese language, among other things will prevent immigrants from filling in these gaps in any meaningful way. Second, it’s so far failed the transition to consumption-led growth. Instead, nearly a third of its economy relies on an unsustainable real estate bubble. The vast majority of new purchases are of 2nd or even 3rd homes, and prices across the country reflect a highly speculative market. Because local governments rely on land sales for their survival, they have no choice but to encourage wasteful spending merely to balance the budget. Third, a combination of mismanagement, climate change, and geographic luck have left China with a severe water shortage. In the past two decades, 28,000 of its rivers have dried up, the majority of the rest are severely polluted, and what remains is only a drop in the bucket. The North China plain, one of the country’s most populous regions faces a Saudi-Arabia-level crisis, minus the oil riches which enable desalination. What sets these challenges apart is not their severity or even scale, Every country faces obstacles to its development Neither demographics, housing, nor water problems are unique to China. In fact, in each case, there exists, if not a solution, at least a way to mitigate the effects. China could have ended the One-Child Policy decades earlier, It could accept the short-term losses necessary to shift its dependence from real estate, and market-based pricing reform would reduce its wasteful use of water. No, what makes China unique is that it doesn’t believe it can admit the extent of these problems, and therefore, can’t adequately address them. In the eyes of the Chinese government, a $100 billion engineering project to physically move water halfway across the country is easy, while simply raising water prices is unthinkable. The Communist Party has now held power for as long as the Soviet Union existed, and it’s acutely aware of how environmental protests contributed to the downfall of its counterpart. Raising the price of water even slightly would cause a material change in quality of life for millions of poor Chinese, not to mention the effect it would have on economic growth. Ecological or pricing concerns may not intuitively rise to the level of national security, but in the words of one Canadian researcher, they do “Present a unifying focal point for dissent that crosses geographic, cultural, socioeconomic, and political lines”. While China may project confidence in press conferences, its actions tell a very different story. Its military budget receives considerable attention, but you might be surprised to hear it actually spends more on domestic security. Provoking nationalism is like training an attack dog — Sure, you gain a powerful weapon to use against your real or perceived enemies, but it's a rather blunt weapon. The more a dog is wound up, the stronger its bite will be when the time comes to fend off an attacker, but also the more unstable it becomes, and the more the owner should be worried about losing control. Nationalism creates immense pressure for the government to act tough, increasing the cost of restraint. The one thing it cannot afford to do is be perceived as weak or indecisive. Because if it does, it risks becoming the dog, or rather, wolf’s, next victim. Next year Beijing will once again host the Olympics, but this time, it won’t be so welcoming. If 2008 was the culmination of three decades of reform and optimism, 2022 is shaping up to be just as consequential. What are the odds of a boycott? And what will the games signify this time?