Soft Power & China’s Need to be Liked

China's President Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama during Hu's official visit in Washington, D.C.

by Gabby LaVerghetta

China wants to be liked. More specifically, China wants to be liked by us. And by us I mean the American public. Over the past few months, China has undertaken a massive public diplomacy campaign in the United States. The highpoint was Chinese President Hu Jintao’s official visit to the White House this week, but the process is ongoing.

Washington residents might have noticed the construction of a China Central Television studio on New York Avenue.  CCTV is an international news broadcaster run by the Chinese government.

With a large enough following, CCTV could rival other English-language news like the BBC and Al-Jazeera English. But the Washington studio isn’t really about language or news.

Some experts say the goal is to increase China’s soft power in the United States, where it receives largely negative attention in the media.

Although CCTV launched in 2004, few have paid attention until now. A studio and bureau in the capital demands that American policymakers pay attention. However, reaching the political elites doesn’t guarantee a change in public opinion.

And that’s not even the biggest shortcoming of the campaign. Paul Farhi of The Washington Post questions whether a news network run by the same folks responsible for the Great Firewall of China will receive a positive response. It’s not likely.

Censorship is one of the main reasons for Americans’ skepticism of China. Unless the network is careful, any information coming from CCTV will seem like government propaganda, and that’s not going to help the country’s image.

Recently, China unveiled another project aimed at attracting Westerners. The result? A minute-long video of Chinese celebrities will be shown in New York’s Times Square until mid-February.

This idea isn’t the greatest either. Sure, the video will be seen by average New York City residents as well millions of tourists – a much wider audience than CCTV is sure to draw. But the content is still lacking.

China needs to engage us. To reach young Americans, CCTV should follow the lead of Voice of America. Its “OMG! Meiyu” video program features a bubbly host who teaches American lingo to Chinese audiences. The series became extremely popular because of its light-hearted approach to cross-cultural communication.

A similar initiative could be successful in the U.S. In the fall of 2009, Chinese was the seventh-most studied language in American colleges with 60, 976 students enrolling in courses, according to the Modern Language Association.

The interest is there, and so is the respect for China’s culture and prosperity. What’s missing is the personal connection. China can’t win over the American public with censored English-language news or a montage of Chinese celebrities.

But it can win us over with a conversation.

(Note: A version of this piece is cross-posted on Gabby LaVerghetta’s personal blog Un’occhiata.)

(The photo is an official White House photograph by Samantha Appleton and is in the public domain.  To see Jessica Beinecke the producer/host of “OMG! Meiyu” explain the ideas behind her popular web series to the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, please check below.)

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