Propaganda & Crushing Dissent: How China’s Soft Power Works

Much hyped soft power of China includes ways of manipulating views at overseas campuses.

4 min read
Hindi Female

Much hyped soft power of China includes ways of manipulating views at overseas campuses.

In recent years, China has made aggressive attempts to project what it defines as its ‘soft power’. The concept, first propounded by Joseph Nye in 1990, has arguably helped the US to enhance its global influence and other countries have tried to follow suit in different ways.

President Xi Jinping in 2014 had said: “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world.”

China has used a number of ways to promote soft power. The prominent ones being: Confucious institutes, Chinese cultural centres, Buddhism, providing scholarships to overseas students to study at Chinese universities (as of 2015, nearly 400,000 students from over 200 countries studied at Chinese universities ) the Chinese Global Television Network earlier known as CCTV broadcasts 6 channels and of late, even think tanks.

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Propaganda through Chinese Cultural Centres

Ever since the first Confucious Centre was set up in 2004, China has opened 500 such centres across campuses, along with 1000 classrooms. Confucious Centres have been criticised heavily, with some arguing that the Chinese agenda is being pushed through blatantly.

Another method used for the promotion of soft power has been Chinese cultural centres, set up by the Ministry of Culture, in China. A total of 25 have been set up so far and unlike Confucious centres their rise have not been opposed as much, since they work closely with host institutions.

In January 2015, the General Office of the Communist Party provided clear guidelines for setting up world class think tanks by 2020. These think tanks, apart from having clear specialisations, would also focus on the Chinese propaganda.

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Gag Order at Overseas Campuses

Beijing has made concerted attempts to project its softer side, yet recent events at overseas universities clearly reiterate the point, that it is basically opposed to dissent, debate and diverse opinions.

Apart from China’s geopolitical assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region and South Asia, and arm-twisting of countries in South Asia, and South East Asia, which have been receiving financial assistance, there have been instances where the Chinese government has tried to block access to articles. Similarly, Chinese student associations which are pro-active at overseas university campuses have been trying to aggressively push China’s political agenda. Such associations have even threatened the western universities.

A prominent example is that of the Cambridge University Press (CUP), the world’s oldest publishing house, which had to comply with the Chinese instruction of blocking online access to more than 300 articles, considered politically sensitive (this includes the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen square massacre and President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian personality) published in the China Quarterly journal.


Pressure from Confuscious Centres

A petition circulated by the academics working on China, however, criticised the Cambridge University Press’ move to give in so easily to the warnings from the Chinese government. On Monday, 21 August, the Cambridge University Press rescinded its decision, following a strong push from the petition, and access to articles was restored.

In addition to this, a lecturer at the University of Sydney was forced to apologise after using a map which showed Arunachal Pradesh, Ladakh and Aksai Chin in India. The map was part of the lecture slides for a course called “Professional Practise of IT”. The instructor Khimji Vaghjiani had to apologise to students after the WeChat account of a Sydney University international students group first posted an article on 16 August, which complained about the lecturer terming his move as ‘unacceptable’.

This recent assertiveness by not just the Chinese government, but students as well, should not come as a surprise given the way China seeks to push its agenda through disparate means.

Commenting on the Confucious Centres on US campuses, a National Association of Scholars Report gives instances of how the Chinese agenda is pushed and contentious issues are not discussed:

Many institutes are reluctant to criticise the Chinese government or discuss subjects censored in China, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre. Host universities have on occasion felt compelled to comply with Chinese political preferences. In 2009, North Carolina State University (NCSU) rescinded an invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak on campus. NCSU has a Confucius Institute, and local observers state that pressure from the Confucius Institute was responsible for NCSU’s about-face.
National Association of Scholars Report

Like the NCSU, UC San Diego invited His Holiness Dalai Lama, the Chinese students and Scholars Association predictably opposed the move though the university did not relent.

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Is China’s Soft Power a Mirage?

In conclusion, what is evident is that China has scant respect for any sort of disagreement, and until it genuinely changes its approach towards dissent and difference of opinion, the talk of Chinese soft power is nothing but a mirage. India clearly scores over China in this area. Indian students at overseas campuses refrain from aggressively pushing a political agenda. India should seek to capitalise on this advantage.

Recently, there have been some instances of overreacting to reportage and opinion pieces in western media, similarly there have been attempts to tamper with curriculum and ban books.

India, being a democracy, should ensure that there is no compromise when it comes to respecting dissent, and diversity of opinion should be respected and considered an asset, not liability.

India has already begun to win the ‘Soft War’ with China, and it can win it outright if it thinks big.


(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. He can be reached @tridiveshsingh .The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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