Friday, 1 June 2012

Chen Guangcheng, “China’s Real Soft Power”?

According to Elizabeth C. Economy in a recent post for the Council on Foreign Relations, recently-arrived-in-America Chinese human rights activist, persecuted lawyer and asylum seeker Chen Guangcheng “has the potential to emerge as the most potent weapon in China’s otherwise fairly dismal arsenal of soft power.”

After reading this statement, I was rather confused. When it comes to Soft Power, one assumes that it is not just elites that will be swayed or influenced. The idea is that, in this case, Chen’s story and optimism about China will be able to influence American perceptions of China… How? Economy mentions Chen’s positive comments at a recent CFR event as evidence of this. Economy explains that

“Chen revealed himself as an optimist and a Chinese patriot: optimistic about his own future and ability to travel back and forth between China and the rest of the world; optimistic about the inherent goodness of the Chinese people, who want to do the right thing; and optimistic that democracy – in one form or another – will emerge sooner rather than later in China.”

This is all well and good, but when have China specialists and commentators ever suggested that the Chinese people were not inherently good or patriotic (often they are painted as easily-manipulated nationalists)? It’s the the Chinese Communist Party and ruling elite who are the problem, so Chen’s and Economy’s assertions that the Chinese people are decent people (which is true) doesn’t really make any difference, and is somewhat irrelevant to China’s Soft Power. I remain, therefore, entirely sceptical about the premise of this article.

Economy goes on to point out that

“Of course, part of Chen’s story underscores the dark side of contemporary Chinese political life: the extreme and pervasive levels of corruption and violence – who knew that a senior Shandong official blew up his mistress of thirteen years with a remote-control bomb? – the continued threats to the safety and well-being of Chen’s own family members who remain in China, and the utter system of lawlessness that pervades the local system of governance. Yet, Chen, in his remarks, never wavered in his belief that time was on the side of right.”

This is what most people are going to take away from the Chen incident. That he fled China, effectively, and did so in a high-profile way, a story that was surrounded by strange goings-on, daredevil escapes, and some early confusion and conflicting reports of events.

I fail to see how an activist like Chen, and his overall story, can ever be considered a good thing for China’s image in the world. He did, after all, seek asylum from persecution from his own government. He is concerned for his family in China’s safety. He has been re-located to New York City. This is not good press for China. It is good press for him – which is why he waited until the Secretaries’ visit to do anything. His happiness about his newfound freedom to travel between the United States and China is largely due to his celebrity (seriously think they’re going to arrest him the moment he steps off the plane? He’ll be monitored very closely, though). It is also good press for America, because it shows that when push-comes-to-shove, the government will step up and do the right thing when it comes to activists (limited though their options may be).

Of the event at the CFR, Economy finishes thus:

“In the end, Chen accomplished in an hour of free speech what the billions of dollars behind China’s go-out media strategy have never achieved: a balanced and nuanced portrayal of this complex country that left his audience with not only a better understanding of China but also a greater admiration for the Chinese people themselves. Now it is just up to Beijing to live up to Chen’s faith.”

An hour of free speech he could not have enjoyed in his own country…

I believe that China will eventually move towards political and social openness, but it won’t be soon, and it won’t be quick, and it certainly won’t be easy. Change in China has always come from the people (which is part of the reason officials in Beijing are so quick to squash dissent). But it has rarely (if ever) been a bloodless process.

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