China Rights Forum on China’s influence abroad

China Rights Forum, the publication of Human Rights in China (HRIC), devoted its 4/2009 issue to “China’s Soft Power.” The issue includes contributions by Andrew Nathan and He Qinglian, as well as by the remarkable Qin Hui, who has managed to publish both on the People’s Daily website and here. Prominent political scientist Nathan and co-author Andrew Scobell write on China’s impact on the international human rights regime, and conclude that Chinese diplomacy has not only successfully undermined multilateral human-rights pressure on China but, more generally, weakened the weight of the human rights issue in international organisations. He Qinglian, author of the famous China’s Pitfall and now a “scholar-in-residence” with HRIC, slams China’s “purchase order diplomacy” but notes that is less successful with the U.S. than in Europe: the failure of a massive government shopping trip to the U.S. to prevent American anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese steel pipes in 2009 caused outrage among online “irate youth.” He views China’s African diplomacy as neocolonial. Zhang Boshu, a mainland-based philosopher, points out that while Chinese academia’s soft-power discourse originates in highly “realist” and often Machiavellian foreign-policy writing (it is generally considered that the term began its career from an article by Zhao Bijian in Foreign Affairs), it has synergies with a more sophisticated, postcolonial strand of humanities scholarship, which stresses the hegemony of Western discourse. The government’s desire to create a Chinese media group capable of “correcting the image of China” abroad, reportedly with an investment of US $7 billion, combines the recognition of the epistemic hegemony of English-language writing with the assumption that the “correction” of this hegemony can and must happen through a government-led initiative. Zhao Yan, a journalist once imprisoned for providing “state secrets” to The New York Times and interviewed in this issue, believes this will not work. I am not so sure.

 The authors of the issue, from the exiled He Qinglian to the semi-establishment Qin Hui, agree that “China’s rise” is having, or will have, a negative influence on the world by making it “more like China.” But they focus on different aspects of the transformation. Qin Hui, who is sometimes described a sociologist and at other times as an economist (also sometimes as a leftist and at others times  as a liberal), offers the most interesting argument. He maintains that, in the current international discourse on “China’s rise,” “the ‘left’ praises China because free competition is still underdeveloped there, and the ‘right’ praises it because its welfare standards are very low” (p. 56). In response to competition from China, “the welfare states are obliged to reduce their welfare standards, and the free trade nations, too, it seems, will finally have no choice but to re-erect trade barriers,” sometimes simultaneously (ibid.) Most others see this process as a result of the “neoliberal hegemony” rather than of China’s policies, but for Qin, what is happening is that “the mechanisms of globalization disperse Chinese social contradictions to the whole world” (p. 58). Qin notes that China has achieved its economic growth not just thanks to cheap labour but thanks to the simultaneous cheapness of labour, capital, and land, which has been the result of the unlimited power of the state to intervene with the economy. “The development of this trend has made the welfare state [internationally] unsustainable, and … the worldwide labor union movement has been affected” (ibid). According to Qin, French President Sarkozy’s move to simultaneously expand the power of the state and dismantle welfare is in fact a sign of the “Sinicization” of the world. Unlike the other authors, however, Qin maintains that this can easily (!) be changed if China expands freedoms, limits state power and builds welfare.

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