Knowing that winter is upon you and actually having to experience it are two different things. Beijing weather can be a fickle beast. Last week it was warm enough to walk outside in shorts and a teeshirt but all that has changed.
As I write this week’s column in my dorm room overlooking the city, my fingers are numb and I’m swaddled like a child to keep the chill at bay. However, don’t throw me a pity party because, while I’m certainly missing home’s tropical weather, the opportunity to live and study here has allowed me to study at close quarters China’s operating system, if I might call it that, in some detail.
In 2007, former Chinese president Hu Jintao told the 17th Communist Party Congress that China needed to increase its ‘soft power’. Soft power, the concept coined by Harvard University don, Joseph Nye, in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power and then developed further in his 2004 book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, describes the ability to attract, rather than use force or give money (bribe/aid, whatever you want to call it) as a means of persuasion. The United States is the master of this approach. You can see it simply by switching on your television. More often than not, you’ll be assailed by Hollywood. Don’t for one second think that this kind of constant media blitzkrieg doesn’t affect your perception of what America is.
So, why was the Chinese leadership so taken up with the idea of soft power? What could they possibly hope to gain from it? What I’ve learnt while here is the fact that although China is rightly proud of its economic might, it’s leadership worries that they are misunderstood and seen in a continuously negative light, especially in the West. When most Westerners (especially Americans) are asked to opine on China, they are quick to slam it on its human rights record, treatment of Tibet, lack of religious freedoms, pollution and corruption. This despite the fact that they probably have never actually spent a day in the country. What that negative perception directly impacts China’s stated goal of sustained, nonthreatening growth. If you’re one of the thousands of Star Times subscribers, you will have probably watched CCTV’s English news broadcasts. The state broadcaster, which the government invested billions of dollars in, actively seeks to present a more nuanced and positive image of China to the rest of the wo
rld in order to counter the usual China bashing that we’ve come to expect from the Western media.
On Monday, I was surprised to learn that Charles Taylor, Liberian ex-president and convicted war criminal, had asked the Special Court in The Hague to send him to complete his 50-year jail term in Rwanda, rather than the UK because of worries that his life would be jeopardised. Not only was I taken aback by his request, I’m pretty sure his jailers were as well. He obviously had heard positive things about the governance of Rwanda’s penitentiary system. And, in a larger context, the way Rwanda itself was governed. That is soft power in a nutshell; the ability to positively influence the way people think about you and make them want to be a part of your process.
I know that Rwanda doesn’t have the billions of dollars that the Chinese government uses to splurge on adverts on New York’s Times Square and international television broadcasting. But what it does have is a compelling story. We need to figure out how to tell this story ourselves to our targeted audience. Currently, Rwanda gets hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. What kind of impression do we give them when they meet Rwandans in the streets, in the hotels they sleep in and the restaurants they have their meals? People-to-people interaction could be one of our strong suits, but I feel that we are punching below our weight in this regard. How about on social media? How well do we broadcast ourselves online? Do we tell our story as well as we could?
We are the nation that pulled a million people out of poverty in half a decade. We are the nation whose peacekeepers are one of the UN’s most prized. Our women are making the kinds of strides that confuse statisticians. We are growing economically at extraordinary rates, especially when measured against the expectations. We have a story to tell and its time that we told it. Any way we can. Whether it’s through a conversation with a visitor or a 140 character tweet. We cannot allow Rwanda to be defined by others because once their definitions stick, it’s almost impossible to change people’s mentalities.