China’s Soft Power Divergence5 min read

Why Beijing’s global propaganda drive is strugglingMartin Gelin


Standing in New York’s Times Square in June, I gazed up at the iconic neon-lit skyscrapers and counted four gigantic advertisements for Chinese companies and media firms. At one prime spot, an electronic billboard glowed with the name of China’s state news agency, Xinhua. According to recent estimates by Quartz, advertising on these billboards costs at least $2.5 million a month, so it is likely that the Chinese government is paying around $30 million annually just to have the Xinhua logo shining brightly over the people of Manhattan, 365 days a year.

It is unclear exactly what the Chinese government hopes to achieve with this splurge. But one thing is for sure: Times Square billboards are just a tiny fraction of the full efforts of Beijing’s spending on global promotional efforts.

One goal of China’s massive branding investments is to challenge America’s soft power supremacy, with mixed results. There have been well-documented attempts by China to invest in Hollywood and the entertainment industry, as well as to influence American academia, elite schools and universities. Chinese investment, which comes directly from the government as well as from state-owned enterprises, also has growing influence over American tech industry, luxury retail and e-commerce.

“The play deals with one of the most crucial geopolitical issues of our time, through the time-tested medium of song and dance”

Less well-known are the attempts to influence Broadway and US show business. According to David Henry Hwang, a veteran Broadway playwright, wealthy Chinese businessmen are now doggedly approaching Broadway producers in the hopes of making a Chinese hit musical. One day, apparently, we might see a Book of Mormon style musical, but about the Belt and Road Initiative. Unsurprisingly, Hwang has not been impressed with these pitches. Instead, he wrote a satire of the attempts, mocking the eagerness of the Chinese government officials and billionaires who are trying so hard to win over American hearts and minds.

Soft Power, written by Hwang with Jeanine Tesori, recently opened in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and will follow in New York. Advertised as a “play with a musical,” one could also describe it as an attempt to deal with one of the most crucial geopolitical issues of our time, through the time-tested medium of song and dance.

The play begins when an earnest Chinese executive, Xue Xing, travels to Los Angeles with a dream of making it in the movie industry. He wants to achieve by creating films about the glory of his homeland. He soon befriends a character who also goes by the name David Henry Hwang, a warm but weathered Hollywood veteran, played by the excellent Francis Jue. When Xue explains his hope of improving China’s image abroad, Hwang replies that their terrible image is precisely because they try so hard to project a perfect facade.

This is a concise summary of the shortcomings of China’s soft power efforts. Despite massive investments in global branding, China’s image in America has not improved at all. According to most public opinion polls, China’s popularity has not improved markedly in the US, even as its power and influence has increased.

Kaiser Kuo, host of the Sinica podcast, recently wrote about these failures in a Facebook post:

I see no evidence to suggest that opinions of China, whether within the government, within the defense community, within academia, within media, or within the American public more generally, have improved at all – let alone improved as a result of these influence ops.

Constant headlines about Chinese authoritarianism, the controversial social credit system, perceived bullying by China of its neighboring countries, and the Communist Party’s recent decision to extend Xi Jinping’s term limits indefinitely, do more to shape American public opinion of China than all the billboards in Times Square ever could. It is hard to promote your national brand globally when people fear you. The very pushiness of China’s soft power efforts damages its efficacy.

At the same time, Chinese cultural power is increasing organically across the world, creating a divergence between two kinds of Chinese soft power. On the one hand, there are the clumsy, and often counter-productive, government-funded influence operations. On the other, there is a wave of Chinese art, culture, tech and innovation – not to forget cuisine – that very succesfully strengthens China’s global brand, without much direct help from the government. Tech CEOs such as Jean Liu of Didi Chuxing and bikesharing brands like Mobike have probably done more for Chinese soft power than most of the government’s propaganda.

The very pushiness of China’s soft power efforts damages its efficacy”

Chinese consumer products are rapidly spreading globally, on their own strength. But the Chinese artists who are able to break into the American market often have messages that directly contradict government PR. At the New York Guggenheim’s recent exhibit ‘Art and China after 1989,’ the overarching themes were prisons and repression. A few blocks south, the golden cages of Ai Weiwei’s public art installation ‘Good Fences Make Good Neighbors’ reminded viewers not only of the global refugee crisis, but also of Ai’s own 81-day detention in 2011, after his art drew attention to shoddily constructed buildings in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

For now, Chinese art seems to get a lot of global cultural gravitas from the very fact that it stands in opposition to the authoritarian message of the Chinese state. So while Beijing continues to spend billions promoting their national message, successful Chinese artists and citizens are telling an entirely different story across the globe, mostly critical of the same system. Any attempt to improve China’s soft power will have to deal with that contradiction.


Header image: The slogan of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, displayed Hollywood-sign style on a hill near the Great Wall, by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.