Wall Street Journal: China’s ‘Soft Power’ Problem

The Wall Street Journal
By David Feith Dec. 17, 2015 1:20 p.m. ET

■ The Miss World pageant, of all things, is a window into Beijing’s repression and paranoia.

When the Chinese city of Sanya hosts the Miss World 2015 finale this weekend, it will be more than a one-off celebration of beautiful women. China has hosted the pageant six times in 12 years as part of a national obsession with image—its own.

It’s the same reason your local college has a Beijing-run Confucius Institute and your local multiplex will soon show movies co-produced by Hollywood studios and Chinese state-backed firms. As Chinese supremo Xi Jinping said last year: “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s messages to the world.”

The problem is that so much authoritarianism, repression and paranoia still mars the picture. Consider a few examples from this week alone, starting with the Miss World pageant.

Anastasia Lin is crowned Miss World
Canada 2015 during Miss World
Canada 2015 pageant competition on
May 16 in Vancouver.
Photo: Andrew Chin/Getty Images

As women from more than 100 countries competed in preliminary rounds, there was a notable absence: Miss Canada, 25-year-old actress Anastasia Lin. Chinese authorities denied her a visa because she has used her fame to advocate human rights in China, the land of her birth.

Ms. Lin practices Falun Gong, the Buddhist-inspired spiritual discipline that Beijing banned in 1999 as a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. The state has since imprisoned hundreds of thousands of practitioners, with many tortured or killed, as Ms. Lin learned after immigrating to Canada at age 13. She resolved to speak up, portraying victims of Chinese state abuse in movies, penning articles and even testifying before the U.S. Congress.

Beijing lobbied Miss Canada officials not to crown her. When they did anyway, Chinese security agents threatened her father, who still lives in China. “No doubt fearing for his livelihood and business,” Ms. Lin has written, “my father asked me to stop advocating for human rights.” She refused, feeling that going silent would make her “complicit” in continued abuses. Her father then cut off contact.

“Lin has to pay a cost for being tangled with hostile forces against China,” says the state-run Global Times. Such official thuggery, and Ms. Lin’s bravery and pain, are now the legacies of an otherwise forgettable pageant meant to convey cosmopolitan glamour.

Beijing’s image-makers have an even tougher time with the case ofPu Zhiqiang, perhaps the highest-profile casualty of the regime’s escalating war on lawyers. A witness to the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, Mr. Pu built a career defending labor-camp inmates, anticorruption activists, dissident artists and other victims of state abuse. He was arrested last year and put on trial Monday.

Outside the courthouse in Beijing, protesters, journalists and diplomats were roughed up by police and plainclothes security agents wearing face masks and yellow smiley-face stickers (yes, really). “If we as ordinary people in China don’t speak out, we will be repressed,” one protester told a news camera before being shoved to the ground. “Lawyers and civil society leaders such as Mr. Pu should not be subject to continuing repression,” said U.S. diplomat Dan Biers, reading an official statement, before he was shoved and interrupted.

And for what does Mr. Pu face eight years in prison? Charges of “picking quarrels” and “inciting ethnic hatred” based on seven social-media posts criticizing Beijing’s sham Parliament and repression of Uighur Muslims. “They were trying to find that he was sexually promiscuous, or that he had avoided taxes or was corrupt [or] a traitor,” China scholar Perry Link told the Guardian newspaper. Having come up empty, they settled on “putting a man away for tweeting.”

Which brings us to another spectacle of Orwellian rather than soft power: Xi Jinping hosting a World Internet Conference Wednesday and calling for “multilateral, democratic and transparent” global rules for cyberspace. What he meant is that governments like his should be able to control the Internet without facing criticism from other countries, which he denounced as “Internet hegemony” and interference in “internal affairs.”

State media broadcast the speech live on YouTube, which is blocked by China’s notorious Great Firewall, and posted links to Twitter,also blocked. Lucky conference attendees got access to some sites that are typically blocked (including WSJ.com), as if to prove that the Internet in China, like all media, is governed not democratically but at the state’s mercy.

Hence the report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, also this week, that China has at least 49 journalists in prison, “the highest number ever recorded there” and 25% of the global total. The report notes that Beijing sometimes tries to silence criticism by jailing nonjournalists too, such as the three brothers of Washington, D.C.-based Radio Free Asia journalist Shohret Hoshur. Like Anastasia Lin, Mr. Hoshur has refused to go silent even amid the terrible reprisal.

The next time a Chinese leader laments Beijing’s lack of soft power, he need look no further than his government’s behavior to know the reason why.

Mr. Feith is a Journal editorial writer based in Hong Kong.

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