China’s Soft-Power Deficit Widens as Xi Tightens Screws Over Ideology

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 23

A senior Chinese official speaks at China's First World Internet Conference in Wuzhen in November. (Credit: Xinhua)

Even for a country that is notable for its myriad contradictions, the gap between China’s hard and soft power has never been more pronounced. The year 2014 has witnessed the kind of global hard-power projection that is unprecedented in recent Chinese history. The two-year-old Xi Jinping administration has used China’s growing economic and military might to impose its stamp on the world order. Yet the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) increasingly draconian efforts to impose ideological control on 1.3 billion Chinese has not only stifled their creativity but also detracted from the worldwide appeal of the “China model.”

Beijing Buying International Influence Through New Forums

From January to November this year, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang—who is ranked second in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC)—visited 26 countries over a total of 70 days. Yet it was during year-end multinational gatherings—particularly the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, the G20 meeting in Australia, and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) conclave in Myanmar—that China’s hard-power putsch was most impressive (see China Brief, November 7; People’s Daily, November 25; Jinghua Daily [Beijing], November 24). Xi revived old concepts such as the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP)—which was first proposed at the 2004 APEC meeting—and unveiled new institutions such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). He gave a big push to the inchoate New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. The Chinese government is shelling out half of the $100 billion seed money for the AIIB; this is in addition to a similar amount that Beijing has committed to the BRICS Development Bank established earlier this year. Moreover Xi announced at the APEC conference that his government would offer $40 billion in loans for infrastructure development related to the two Silk Road schemes (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], November 18; People’s Daily, November 9). These multi-pronged proposals seem geared toward buying support from countries that might otherwise be lured into joining America’s perceived containment policy against China. Beijing also hopes that a web of finance and infrastructure—for example, high-speed railway networks partially financed by China—might restore the country’s traditional status as the Middle Kingdom of the Orient.

The Xi administration has also pulled out all the stops to project military power. At the annual Zhuhai Air Show in Guangdong province that was held the same time as APEC, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) showcased state-of-the-art weapons such as the J-31 stealth jet fighter, which is billed as China’s answer to the United States’ F-35 (see China Brief, November 16, 2012). The official media reported that sales of Chinese-made hardware had kept rising. “The demand for our products from emerging markets continues to expand, and now a lot of foreign armies are coming to us,” said Liu Song, Deputy General Manager of Norinco, one of the country’s biggest arms manufacturers (China Daily, November 17; Global Times, November 11). At the same time, PLA construction teams are enlarging islets in the South China Sea through relentless reclamation (see China Brief, October 23). Western news agencies recently reported that a strip of land large enough to serve as a runway for jet fighters had been added to Fiery Cross Reef (called Yongshu Reef in China) in the Spratlys chain of disputed islands (Reuters, November 22; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], November 22). This was in addition to similar reclamation work being done on Johnson Reef, another Spratly outcropping that is called Mabini by the Philippines and Chigua by China (Jane’s IHS, September 19; South China Morning Post, June 8).

The Xi administration is aware that the fast-rising quasi-superpower is disproportionately weak in the soft-power department. It is estimated that the country spends $12.5 billion a year on disseminating Chinese culture and ideas through means ranging from establishing nearly 500 Confucius Institutes worldwide to running TV news channels in English and other languages (see China Brief, October 10; Times Higher Education, November 20; The Australian, November 17). In the wake of the 14-year-old Boao Forum on Asia—dubbed the “Chinese Davos”—Beijing has also been organizing international colloquiums to bolster China’s say in matters ranging from economic development to international relations. The newly upgraded Xiangshan Forum, which is the Chinese equivalent of the Shangri-La Dialogue, is aimed at promoting exchanges of views among military personnel from some 40 countries on issues of security and confidence building (Global Times, November 25; The Diplomat, September 15).

Xi’s Control of Internet Reflects Larger Scheme

The First World Internet Conference (FWIC) held in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, in mid-November, was a good example of the Xi administration’s effort to enhance the country’s influence on the Intenet. Titled “An Interconnected World Shared and Governed by All,” the international gathering would, according to President Xi’s congratulatory message, show that “China is ready to work with other countries to deepen international cooperation, respect sovereignty on the Internet [and] uphold cyber security.” The supreme leader called on Chinese and foreign Internet entrepreneurs to “jointly build a cyberspace of peace, security, openness and cooperation and an international Internet governance system of multilateralism, democracy and transparency” (China Daily, November 19). As a gesture of good will to representatives of multinationals taking part at the FWIC, censorship on Google, Facebook and YouTube was lifted in Wuzhen for three days, a noted center of private enterprise (Bloomberg, November 21; China Times [Taipei], November 20).

Hard-line statements made by senior cadres, however, show that the CCP still regards the Internet as a dangerous medium through which “anti-China hostile forces” attempt to subvert what President Xi called “Chinese citizen’s self-confidence in the path, theory and systems of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (People’s Daily, September 23, 2013). Xi told the Wuzhen conference that “the development of the Internet has posed new challenges to national sovereignty, security and development interests.” While talking to Chinese and foreign participants at the FWIC, Vice-Premier and Politburo member Ma Kai indicated that “the Internet is a double-edged sword.” “If we use it well, [the Internet] could be Alibaba’s treasure trove,” he added. “If not, it could become a Pandora’s box.” He then unveiled what the Chinese media called a “four-fold security concept”: an Internet that will safeguard Chinese sovereignty and ensure data security, technological safety and safety in applications (Ta Kung Pao, November 20; Xinhua, November 19).

As Chairman of the CCP’s Central Leading Group on Internet Security and Informatization, President Xi is the first PBSC-level cadre to personally take charge of policies related to the Internet. Since the Fifth-Generation leader took power in late 2012, the number of dissidents arrested for allegedly spreading rumors or fomenting anti-party sentiments on the Internet has increased dramatically. For example, since the Umbrella Movement erupted in Hong Kong in late September, police and state-security officers have arrested a few dozen mainland Chinese intellectuals for posting articles on the Internet that supported pro-democracy activists in the Special Administrative Region (Financial Times, November 18; Apple Daily, [Hong Kong], October 13; BBC Chinese Service, October 1).

Party Role in Literature Harkens to Mao Era

President Xi has also revived theories about literature and the arts that are a throwback to the stultifying strictures of Maoism, which militate against not only global norms but former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s ethos about the open-door policy. On October 15, Xi presided over a seminar on literature and the arts with several dozen exemplary “engineers of the soul,” or writers, artists, musicians and performers who had received official plaudits for singing the praises of orthodox values. The CCP General Secretary admonished them to “take patriotism as the leitmotif for artistic creation.” “We must provide guidance for people to establish and uphold correct views about history and the state…so that their integrity and backbone as [model] Chinese will be enhanced,” said the Party boss. While Xi cited the importance of “the fusion of Chinese and Western [traditions],” he repeated Mao’s dictum that “things from abroad should sub-serve Chinese needs” (Xinhua, October 15;, October 15). Indeed, Xi’s talk was modeled upon Chairman Mao Zedong’s renowned Yan’an Talks on Arts and Literature, which were held at the CCP’s Shaanxi revolutionary base in 1942. Mao pointed out that “there is no such thing as art for art’s sake,” and that “proletarian literature and art are part of the whole proletarian revolutionary cause; they are…cogs and wheels in the whole revolutionary machine.” [1]

Xi saluted the works of ultra-nationalist blogger Zhou Xiaoping as an example of lofty patriotism (South China Morning Post, November 2; Voice of America, October 22). The 33-year-old writer is famous for articles that eulogize the “China Dream” and criticize the U.S. government for trying to subvert China’s socialist regime. “China’s oriental culture will ultimately defeat Western hegemony,” Zhou wrote in a recent article. He outlined in another article the nine strategies with which “the United States is waging a cultural Cold War against China.” “We must uphold our own cultural values,” he told People’s Daily (People’s Daily, October 24; Guangming Daily, [Beijing], July 24). Xi’s decision to highlight Zhou, combined with earlier People’s Daily coverage, proves that Xi’s Internet crackdown still leaves room for Party sycophants.

Document No. 9 Rolls Back University Independence, Enforces Party Control

The Xi leadership has also sought to tighten control over the country’s professors and university administrators. Last October, the Ministry of Education issued a circular entitled “Opinions on strengthening long-lasting mechanisms for the construction of morality among college teachers” to all institutes of higher learning. Academics and college staff were asked to refrain from engaging in seven pernicious activities, including “hurting the interests of the state,” “words and deeds that run counter to the goals and directions of the party” as well as “soliciting and accepting bribes from students or their parents” (Guangming Daily, October 13; Ming Pao, October 11). These edicts came on the heels of the Central Party Document No. 9, entitled “Concerning the Situation in the Ideological Sphere,” that the CCP General Office last year dispatched to Party units handling education, ideology and the media. Teachers and media personnel were instructed to steer clear of “seven unmentionable topics” (qige buyaojiang), namely: universal values, press freedom, the civil society, citizens’ rights, the party’s historical aberrations, the “privileged capitalist class” and independence of the judiciary ( [Hong Kong], April 15; BBC Chinese Service, May 28, 2013).

The authorities have also indirectly encouraged students to expose liberal and “pro-West” professors who often speak ill of China. In a much-noted article last month, the official Liaoning Daily cited remarks by students of different universities who complained that their teachers lacked patriotism and were “prone to singing the praises of other countries.” The article, titled “Teachers, please do not talk about China this way,” urged professors to “stop making disparaging remarks” about the Party and the country. Liaoning Daily also revealed that it had sent reporters to attend close to 100 lectures in five universities in Shenyang, Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Guangzhou (BBC Chinese Service, November 16; Liaoning Daily, November 14). Intellectuals in Beijing have compared President Xi’s draconian policies against dissidents to the Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s, in which Chairman Mao Zedong labeled hundreds of thousands of writers and teachers “rightists” and forced them to undergo re-education in the villages (Radio Free Asia, November 19; Utopia Net [Beijing], November 18).

Reclaiming China’s Narrative From the West

At the Fourth Plenum of the CCP Central Committee last month, the Xi administration pledged to bolster the “rule of law” and to curtail political interference in judicial proceedings (see China Brief, November 20). A spate of trials of dissidents and political activists, however, has raised questions about Party authorities’ commitment to global standards of jurisprudence. Several writers, lawyers and NGO activists—who are known for being liberal critics of the CCP—have been charged with offenses that could carry sentences of up to life imprisonment. For example, Gao Yu, a respected journalist and author, was last month put on trial for “illegally providing state secrets to [media] outside China.” The lawyer and relatives of the 70-year-old dissident noted that the alleged “state secrets” were the Document No. 9 issued by the CCP General Office in 2013 (Radio Television Hong Kong, November 21; Radio Free Asia, November 18). And Pu Zhiqiang, an internationally recognized rights lawyer whose clients included Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, was also due to appear in court on charges including “incitement to subvert state power,” “incitement to separatism,” and “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” (Radio Free Asia, November 24; China Digital Times, November 21).

According to Shanghai-based academic Zhang Weiwei, China should stop ceding “rights of discourse” to the West. “As a major power, China should get out of the constraints of narratives about ‘the West being the center’ and ‘the end of history’,” said Zhang, who was one of Deng Xiaoping’s English interpreters. “We must use our own language to answer big questions such as ‘where we came from’ and ‘what path should we take’ ’’ (Ming Pao, November 22;, December 20, 2013). Similarly, well-known Tsinghua University media scholar Li Xiguang noted that “the soft power of a country manifests itself in whether it had the power to define and interpret ‘universal values’ such as democracy, freedom and human rights.” Li indicated that in order to enhance the attractiveness of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” “we must let the whole world hear the stories that Chinese citizens have to tell about their democracy, liberty, human rights and rule of law” (People’s Daily, May 4, 2012; People’s Daily, February 7, 2012). The problem, however, remains that given Beijing’s stringent restrictions on democracy and civil rights, there does not seem to be much that ordinary Chinese can say on these topics that could reflect well on either the CCP or the China model.


  1. Mao Zedong, “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art,” May 2, 1942. Available at