Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:55 AM CST – China

Editorial

One Belt, One Road could be China’s best soft power project

As China’s foreign policy adopts a more global scope, the government should make a serious effort to promote and encourage study of the relevant regions to cope with its shift in diplomatic focus

The high profile “Belt and Road” initiative (a reference to the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the parallel Maritime Silk Road) not only aims to promote China’s investment in and economic ties with countries along the two routes, but also serves as a strategy to help China seek an expanded role in global affairs.

Since the initiative was first mooted in 2013, China’s efforts at promotion have focused primarily on the fields of trade and finance. But the leadership should be aware that in order to establish China as an influential global economic player, the country needs to adopt a soft power approach to further its landmark global initiative.

Firstly, the government should make efforts to strengthen and encourage academic research covering the regions included in the Belt and Road initiative. In the past, as China’s diplomacy has focused on developed countries, its international studies have zeroed in on North America and Europe. By comparison, the major regions covered by the Belt and Road initiative, such as Central Asia, the Middle East and the broader Islamic world and, crucially, Southeast Asia, have received far less attention in academia, a field in which the Chinese government still plays an important role.

The result is not only a lack of general public knowledge of these regions, but also a lack of expertise in dealing with their unique economic, political and religious affairs on an academic level, an underlying weakness that will become a major impediment for the success of the Belt and Road initiative.

As China’s foreign policy adopts a more global scope, the government should make a serious effort to promote and encourage study of the relevant regions to cope with its shift in diplomatic focus.

Secondly, China should seek more innovative and effective ways to project its soft power as it seeks to play a greater global role. In past years, the Chinese government has launched various soft power projects, such as its network of hundreds of Confucius institutes, as well as the launch of various communication initiatives in the world’s major capitals. However, given the inevitable associations with propaganda inherent in the response to such government-led initiatives, their ability to foster greater understanding of China can be very limited. As Chinese tourists made more than 100 million overseas trips in 2014, the current approach towards promoting China’s soft power has become obsolete, especially with the rise of social media.

Instead of taking a lead in cultural communication, the Chinese government should change its approach to focus on nurturing and encouraging positive behavior among Chinese companies and individuals, who can then be independent ambassadors for the culture as a whole. In the meantime, China should liberalize its policies governing non-governmental organizations to encourage the establishment of a robust NGO sector. China’s experiences abroad have shown that NGOs are far more effective than government agencies in terms of soft power projection, and yet such independent entities continue to operate under constant pressure from the government.

Only through a commitment from China to foster a well-rounded and nuanced understanding of the political and cultural differences between nations, and the projection of a positive image of China without resorting to propaganda, will the world be in a position to truly embrace the Belt and Road initiative. 

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