Patron: Her Excellency, The Right Honourable Dame Cindy Kiro, GNZM, QSO, Governor-General of New Zealand

China’s international influence: perceptions of soft power

By Dr Anita Perkins 

The previous Asia Forum article looked at shifting geopolitical geometry and the ways in which new international relationships are forming as the dominant global influence of the US changes. So, what is China’s role in these changing times? Has it really changed all that much? Is China’s international influence something to be feared, understood, and /or embraced?

One way of approaching these questions is by looking at current perceptions of China’s soft power. A basic google definition of soft power is: ‘a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence’. Interestingly, this term was coined by well know political scientist Joseph Nye in his 1990 book, ‘Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power’. Now, in 2017, would a more appropriate presumption be that China is ‘bound to lead’? How do media, academics and other respond to this changing dynamic? Is the West still to accept that the pendulum has now swung to Asia and, in particular, toward China?

Associate Professor Chongyi Feng of the University of Technology in Sydney wrote an article about China’s soft power following his detention is China after carrying out research there in March of this year. Feng’s view is that: ‘China’s influence has succeeded in shaping public perceptions and opinions about China, and even government policies toward China.’

Australia is a beautiful multicultural democracy that respects cultural diversity and promotes equality among all ethnic and cultural groups. However, even my freedom in Australia is increasingly under threat from China’s “soft power”.

It is wonderful that the Chinese communities in Australia are allowed to establish all sorts of associations, run Chinese-language media and keep their cultural practices and traditions. This is compatible with universal human rights.

It is unfortunate that the Chinese communist state has taken advantage of these institutional arrangements of liberal democracy to promote its communist ideology, its “united front” strategy in particular, at the expense of liberal democratic values.

Australia’s ABC news has a ‘China power’ news stream. Recent articles commonly project a rhetoric of fear over China’s potential soft power influence on Australia.

Chinese Communist party “propaganda” and “brainwashing” must be countered by compulsory “Australian values” education, according to a group of pro-democracy activists alarmed at Beijing’s growing influence in their new homeland.

The watchers were being watched — closely. Defence Minister Marise Payne said Australia was monitoring a Chinese spy ship “very carefully” as the vessel observed military exercises between Australia and the United States earlier this month.

Sometimes people fear what they do not know or understand well. The Asia New Zealand Foundation carries out work to build understanding of Asian culture so that New Zealanders may be better equipped to engage more successfully in Asian countries. This includes promoting awareness of Asian languages and cultures from an early age.

Asia New Zealand Foundation Deputy Chairman Hon Steve Maharey writes about the challenges of getting to know China and the importance of building knowledge and cultural competency at an early age by building this into the education system.

People do need to experience Asia first-hand. I’ve been going back and forward to China in particular for 30 years and I feel like I know almost nothing. I know a lot more than 30 years ago but it takes a long time to get to really know a country.