China’s soft power efforts are much discussed, in as much as they don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I was interested to read the latest round of China experts/old hands/talking heads on why it’s a tough sell. While this latest article has some smart people (Jeremy Goldkorn, Bill Bishop, Jonathan Landreth, and others) making good points (to wit: lipstick on a pig is still a pig; it can’t be top-down; and emphasis on old media is futile in a time of internet connectivity, which China obviously does not get), none of them seem to strike at what I think is the heart of the matter. China of course is ruled under the aegis of Marxist theory, in theory if not always in practice. Officials are trained – steeped – in Marxist theory. And Marx, while he has a lot to recommend him as a philosopher, economist, sociologist and journalist, gets his theory ass-backwards in one critical way: by saying that ideology is formed by the mode of production, it’s easy to get into economic determinism for everything. This is the mistake China’s rulers are making, in assuming that by virtue of China’s economic rise and re-assertion of itself as a great power, soft power and influence therefore will flow naturally and inevitably to China – aided of course by judicious use of touchy-feely Confucius Centers, building African Union headquarters, funding exchange students, and so on.
This is a profound psychological misreading. People do not love or admire a nation which is rich and powerful because it is rich and powerful. They love it for the the positive things it has done, the benefits it has contributed to the world, its munificence or benevolence. There is no deterministic economic relationship between power and admiration. To take the United State as an example: the “American Dream” is an extremely powerful national-myth, but only because of the reality of its open-door policy (until 1914), and things like the Marshall Plan and the open and democratic nature of its society. Similarly, whatever the rights and wrongs of imperialism (and there was a hell of a lot wrong), the British Empire did nonetheless build railways and infrastructure, and tried to give efficient administration. (As Monty Python said: What’ve the Romans ever done for us, eh? Apart from the aqueducts, irrigation, sanitation, medicine and wine).
No one is going to love China merely because it is increasingly powerful, or because it’s stuffing money into causes. That is as likely to cause fear and anxiety as respect. Saudi Arabia (to take Jeremy Goldkorn’s example) may be oil rich, but it is sure hard to love.
The same failure to appreciate agency is why communist states are awful depressing monoliths. The aggregation of economic forces, the control of pillar industries like agriculture or steel or, indeed, telecoms, sharply reduces the power and freedom of the individual. Control passes from the anarchy of the market to the bureaucratic oversight of government: in effect disenfranchising the great majority of actors within any field. If you lump “the masses” together, the outcome is the Brutalist architecture of grim Eastern bloc origin – with that same treatment extending throughout society – and seen in China’s unlovely buildings.
After the hacking revelations, there was a nice piece by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post, on the “myth of scheming”. Klein said that he thought hacking the US was a waste of time – imagining the poor Chinese operatives scrambling around Capitol Hill or the Pentagon or the White House files looking for the key, the master plan. There isn’t one, in a open, developed society. That’s the beauty and richness of it. People have the freedom of their own ideas and ideals, instead of being puppets shaped by “the laws of history” or “the mode of production”. The Chinese soft power push will endlessly fail until it comes to terms with that.