China’s soft power collides with Russia’s war on Ukraine
Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Maria Repnikova.
Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and, of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to the tectonic shifts underway as China rolls out what we call the Red New Deal. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.
I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If you listened to last week’s show with Evan Feigenbaum — which I recommend you do because he was just an outstanding guest — you’ll know that I intend to do a few more shows on the topic of China’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I do intend to get back to the “thinking about thinking about China” series at some point and have some of those planned already as well. Some episodes have not much to do at all with politics or war or with other weighty and depressing matters. But for now, I think it’s important to focus on this world-changing war and the role China plays, as I hope you’ll agree.
One of the issues foremost on my mind is how China’s media has been talking about the invasion. For one thing, they don’t call it an invasion, and that certainly tells you something. We can learn much, I think, from watching how state media covers it or doesn’t, how social media is talking about it. Last week, Evan Feigenbaum talked about how China will likely be sanctions-compliant in hopes of avoiding damage to its economic relationship with the U.S. and the EU. But it’s already clear that in spite of its efforts, China is suffering serious reputational damage in the West. And the way that China’s media, as well as some of the more vocal Chinese netizens are talking about the war, well, frankly, that is not helping. China state media, which is supposed to be at the vanguard of China’s efforts to build soft power and tell China’s story well — jiǎnghǎo zhōngguó gùshì 讲好中国故事 — is working at cross purposes to that mission, at least in the West.
So wouldn’t it be great if there were an individual whom I could invite onto the show who speaks and reads both Chinese and Russian, who has followed closely the ins and outs of the China-Russia relationship, is steeped in the study of China’s media apparatus, and, to top it all off, is an authority on China’s efforts to create soft power?
Well, as luck would have it, I know someone who ticks every box there. Maria Repnikova is an assistant professor of global communications at Georgia State University and a Wilson Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She’s the author of a great book that Jeremy and I interviewed her about way back in February 2018 called Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism. I highly recommend that book.
And she’s also got a brand-new very short book under the Cambridge Elements series called Chinese Soft Power. And there’s another book in the works about Chinese soft power focusing on her research in Ethiopia specifically and Africa more broadly. So just today on Friday, March 11, while we’re recording, she’s got a piece out in The Atlantic co-written with Wendy Zhou, who’s one of her graduate students, called “China’s Russia Policy Is About America,” which I urge you to read right away. All this in one person, can you believe it? It’s enough to make a podcast host believe in miracles. Maria Repnikova, welcome back to Sinica.
Maria Repnikova: Thank you so much, Kaiser. It’s great to be back.
Kaiser: Well, it’s great to have you back. I should also mention that Jeremy did a print interview with you and listeners should definitely check that out on supchina.com. Maria, I know that everyone is anxious to hear about the piece in the Atlantic and about your take on the impact of China’s Russia policy on global public opinion since the invasion on February 24, and on all the media messaging that’s coming out of China and the impact that that’s having on Chinese soft power. I promise you, dear listeners, that we will get to all of that, but let’s set the stage first and talk about your new book as a way of understanding China’s soft-power ambitions to begin with. So to start with, Joseph Nye, as probably everybody knows, at the Harvard Kennedy School, was the man who coined the phrase soft power, but he defined it rather narrowly: basically, the power of attraction, not payments or coercion. Can you talk about that definition and, by contrast, what Beijing means when it talks about soft power?
Maria: Yeah, thank you for that question. So Joseph Nye is indeed the godfather of soft power. So he coined the term and he’s been writing about this in various new adaptations of his original article and book and so forth. But yeah, his term is primarily focused on values culture and foreign policy.
That’s what he defines as kind of the key resources of attraction. And his ideas are very much rooted in the U.S. context, the American perspective. In particular, he coined the term in 1990. So this was at the very edge, the end of the Cold War, a collapse of the Soviet Union was just about to happen.
So there’s all these grand events that are happening in the world, but the end of the Cold War has motivated his writing because some historians were arguing at the time that the U.S. power overall is declining, right? So Joseph Nye came in and said, well, I don’t think so. We can actually gain a lot through soft power, which is the power of attraction. Not only military power, but soft power is something that really distinguishes U.S. for many other nations.
But you mentioned that this term is quite narrow but at the same time, it’s pretty broad, right? Attraction is such a subjective thing. What does it really mean to have attractive values, to have attractive culture?
Maria: And can be answered in a variety of ways. So, because it was so ambiguous in some ways, but also because it defined kind of in some ways the powers of the U.S., it got really quickly adapted by other countries. Turkey, Iran, Russia have been using and deploying, rethinking this term.
But China has been one of the most enthusiastic adapters of the term soft power starting in mid-2000s. We see a lot of articles coming out, just thousands and thousands, which took me a while to sift through and find kind of the more representative ones on what soft power is. A lot of policy debates about soft power.
Maria: And of course, new terms coming out in Chinese, like cultural power, right? Wénhuà ruǎn shílì 文化软实力, dàguó xíngxiàng 大国形象, great power kind of image, big power image. Discourse power, of course, huàyǔquán 话语权 is familiar to many of us now because it’s used so often. So all these terms have come out, but what does it actually mean in terms of what’s different? So I think there are two differences I want to point out.
One difference is that Chinese idea of soft power I think overall it’s just much broader. It’s broader, more expansive than Nye’s. So that’s just the overarching difference. So that’s kind of the big distinction, but what specifically is it broader on in terms of resources and motivation? So one is that the resources of soft power, the way the Chinese government sees it and Chinese scholars, they can include almost anything that bolsters China’s image.
So it’s not necessarily just culture values and foreign policy, but also China’s technological innovation, economic governance, political, capacity building and mobilization, and many other things, right? So culture is emphasized as kind of the core feature, but culture itself is also ambiguous. It includes traditional culture, values, ideology in it. So culture itself is an all encompassing very fluid concept.
And then in addition to that many argue that there are other ways to think about soft power, specifically focusing on politics and economics as the key kind of additional features or facets of advertising or promoting Chinese image.
So that’s kind of one big, big distinction in terms of Nye who focuses on culture values and foreign policy, and Chinese scholars who see almost anything that helps bolster China’s rise, Chinese images, potentially part of soft power,
Kaiser: Including things that he would categorize as payments actually.
Maria: Yeah, including things he would categorize as payments. So they critique in Chinese writings, the distinction between hard and soft power is having kind of this really clear line, right? That there’s hard and there’s soft power.
They kind of see that material power, in particular, economic power is very much transfused into cultural attraction or overall image making, right? In the book, I write a lot about that. Just how much of the material kind of enticement and opportunities that China creates are connected to its overall image building.
So it’s not this… It’s hard to distinguish between the two. So Nye would probably say that’s computation, coercion or that’s economic computation, right? But from Chinese perspective, I don’t think they necessarily see it that way.
Kaiser: Yeah. And it’s hard for me not to be persuaded a bit by the Chinese argument there, but it’s also hard for me not to think, goddamnit, why do you keep talking about soft power? The first rule of soft power should be, don’t talk about soft power. Once you start talking —
Maria: Right, maybe not… Don’t be so outspoken, but I guess it’s also that they talk amongst themselves, right? It’s kind of an internal conversation.
Kaiser: Yeah, but we’re all listening.
Maria: Yeah, we’re all listening.
Kaiser: So as they talk among themselves, they’ve kind of divided into three schools, three basic ideas about what soft power is. And these are, I guess, like sort of a culture school, a wénhuà pái 文化牌. One that emphasizes China’s political capabilities as the second one, and then the state capacity and so forth. And then one that focuses on the attractiveness of China’s developmental model. I can certainly see the appeal of the latter too. I mean, there’s just been a lot of discussion about state capacity and government’s capabilities, especially in the time of COVID-19 and of late, not just in the Global South, but even here in the U.S.
There’s a certain vogue for Chinese kind of planning for technocratic planning, industrial policy in some quarters. That’s got some traction. What puzzles me is the first one, this wenhua pai, this culture camp. Those who think that Chinese soft power is ultimately about Chinese culture. They seem to be in the ascent, as you say, in the book in China. There are more of them. And when it comes to China’s own understanding of soft power, I mean, it seems kind of diluted or naïve to me that they think that the appeal is all about ancient Chinese philosophy and values like harmony and community. It’s hard for me to imagine that… I mean, these are inherently positive things for sure, but these cultural values taken together just strike me as being very specifically Chinese. So that outside of East Asia, it’s hard for me to imagine them being perceived as anything other than kind of alien or exotic. I mean, this is not BTS or Squid Game, right?
Maria: Right, yeah. Well, so it is a little bit puzzling why this particular school is so prominent, but at the same time, if we kind of unpack what the other schools mean, and also the various kind of potential impediments on how China presents itself in the world internally, right? Bureaucratic impediments, it may be less surprising that culture’s emphasized this much.
So for instance, when it comes to political school, political mobilization, right? In some ways, it is at times perceived, increasingly so in the West, that China’s selling its model, kind of authoritarian and political model. So political efficacy mobilization can also be interpreted as kind of China’s autocratic model being exported to other countries. And the Chinese government is very reluctant to promote this image, or it’s very resistant to the idea that we’re exporting anything, right? So the idea of exporting something political, something coherent. And then in terms of the economic governance, that’s tied to that as well. So is this something that’s kind of uniquely Chinese? And are they exporting it, as again, as a coherent kind of idea? And how? So there’s a lot of debates about to what extent China is mainly inspiring other countries to potentially do something similar or at the very least, maybe just be more hardworking, productive, and follow some similar footsteps. That’s very broad, but can they really kind of transform other countries in its own image, right? I think many Chinese scholars don’t believe in that. So those kind of, I think factors may impede. But the other thing is that it’s also potentially sensitive to talk about economic and political governance, without touching upon some aspects that are not working well.
Like, what aspects of Chinese governance they need more further addressing, further thinking and how do you present or answer those questions? So if you’re presenting the model and somebody asks you, oh, we heard the environmental governance in China is not doing so well. How do you respond to that? You have to have those answers ready.
And then if something comes out that’s too sensitive, you might get punished from your superior, right? In your respective organization or bureaucracy. So culture, it’s much less sensitive. It’s a very broad term, but it includes also kind of ideology, Chinese history. So it’s not really just cultural kind of norms or values or practices. It’s also going back to this distinctiveness of Chinese past, its history of humiliation and rise and ancient history, as well as its ideological thoughts. So in many ways it’s also rooted in some kind of a, in some ways in allegiance with the Chinese communist party.
So culture is all also in some ways Chinese Communist Party in its own making. So those things are all fused together. There’s no clear definition of culture in these discussions.
Kaiser: So is this related to Wáng Hùníng’s 王沪宁 idea of culture security as well?
Maria: Yeah, so that’s very much related to this idea. And in fact, one thing I didn’t mention yet, but one of the other distinctions between Chinese vision of soft power and that of Joseph Nye is that the motivation and the target of soft power in China is as focused on domestic publics as on external.
So cultural security is all about securing confidence. So kind of securing certain sentiments of allegiance and coherence around one’s culture within China and as a result being kind of more immune from Western influence. And that of course, contributes to the resiliency of the Chinese communist party in their view.
Kaiser: So, yeah, that’s one of the things that I thought really jumped out at me in your book, and I don’t think I’d really come across this elsewhere. But not highlighted certainly the way that you highlighted, it’s this idea that China’s soft power concept has this important domestic component, as you say. It’s really aimed in part at Chinese people in China. That was really fascinating. And I guess it does confer kind of immunity to the persuasions of other cultures I suppose, right?
Maria: Yeah, I was fascinated by how they use this term, the immunity. It’s almost this kind of a medical terminology and sometimes also war-like terminology of resistance and war and conflict. It’s kind of used to describe cultures. You’re immune from a virus almost. So I found that language to be very interesting. It kind of makes it sound very hyped up and very sensitive and significant in how they think about Western cultural infusion, transfusion or whatever you call it into China.
Kaiser: Well, speaking of Western transfusion into China, that was another thing that leaped out at me in your book is this idea that the discourse on soft power in China has been used by Chinese intellectuals especially sort of more liberal Chinese intellectuals to smuggle in or to camouflage their criticism of the Chinese political system. I have a sense for how that works I think, but could you spell that out a little more?
Maria: Yeah. So in some of the writings they will try to focus on the challenges of Chinese soft power. And I think the overall consensus, which is also worth mentioning is not that China’s doing great, right? In soft power. It’s not over confident about its own efforts, but actually they think that there’s a lot more to be done. And in many ways it’s not doing well enough. That’s kind of the consensus.
Kaiser: Oh yeah.
Maria: And so then some of these intellectuals, they try to unpack — almost similar to critical journalists that I’ve researched in my first book, they’re trying to kind of unpack some of these challenges and then infuse some solutions, right? Some suggestions of improvement. So one thing that the critique in particular, when it comes to Chinese media and its efficacy, we’re going to talk about that later on Ukraine, but it’s influenced globally. They talk about the fact that Chinese media has a lot of restrictions right there. It’s heavily restricted, politically, bureaucratically. It doesn’t have as much space to tell so-called the good China story.
Maria: So some of them kind of push on that point and say, well, Chinese media could do much better if it had maybe more openings, more flexibility, more capacity to innovate, right? Innovation, adaptability. So they focus on these positive traits, but at the same time, very cautiously hint that maybe some things have to transform from within for that to happen.
Kaiser: So to tie these two ideas together, the domestic goals of the soft power crusade with this idea of criticism, part of the idea about appealing to Chinese domestic audiences is to increase this sense of self-confidence in their own attractiveness.
It’s something that China has long struggled with. But my sense is that, especially since 2008, China has kind of swung rather too dramatically from this kind of crippling inferiority complex to a kind of bullying swagger overconfidence without ever settling into that comfortable attractive self-confidence. So is that part of the critique as well? That hey, look, I get that you want us to be more confident, but you’re overselling this and we’re producing these really prickly, arrogant nationalists.
Maria: So that critique I haven’t seen as much publicly written about. I think they might be a little too sensitive.
Kaiser: Yeah, that’d be a hard one.
Maria: Especially given what you just mentioned, the climate has changed so much. And I also notice this really maybe it’s not that quick of a jump, but somehow it feels quite drastic. And so I think expressing that would mean you’re criticizing some of these officials in the Foreign Ministry. You’re criticizing pretty prominent diplomats and that might backfire for one’s career at university or as a party of kind of bureaucrats. So I think that that critique hasn’t come out as publicly, but I think privately, you hear that. In my research in China pre-pandemic, scholars would reflect on the fact that is it that useful to have this kind of boisterous stance?
And some would say, yeah, China’s finally standing up for itself, but others would say that’s a little too extreme and that’s not really how we think about the world and that’s not helpful. So there was quite a variety of opinions when you talk to people privately, but in public, I haven’t seen very overt critiques of this approach.
Kaiser: So Maria, you mentioned that in the sort of culture school one major feature is China’s ideology. Both the previous and the current American administrations have framed the contest with China as chiefly an ideological one. So to what extent would you say that China’s soft power push is ideological? And to what extent is America ideological actor as well?
Maria: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. And of course, we’re seeing this framing of autocracies versus democracies, this kind of unrelinquishing framing under Trump and now under president Biden as well. I think that this framing can be a little bit sort of unhelpful if we think about how Chinese soft power is actually practiced. Right now, we just talked about conceptions of soft power.
And I think when they mentioned ideology, they mainly speak to just adherence and allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party’s. So kind of the notion that the Chinese Communist Party is doing well in raising up its own people, and that this is the only way that this country works basically. But not so much that China is trying to remake the world into autocracies and sell this autocratic governance elsewhere.
As I mentioned earlier, we don’t really see this kind of export emphasis in official discussions nor in practice. But when you look at actual practice of soft power, I think Chinese approach is actually very pragmatic. It’s very opportunistic. I talked about the fact that they deploy any types of resources that make it look more attractive that’s conceptually, but also in practice. You see that they’ll combine trade fairs with big diplomatic kind of spectacles. They’ll offer opportunities for getting jobs at Chinese companies as part of Confucius Institutes in Ethiopia where I’ve done research and they will often speak to economic dimensions, economic interest first, rather than kind of political interest.
And the way China presents itself through trainings with the leads from the Global South is much less so, or actually completely by passing the authoritarian dimension, but much more so is a democracy that’s more efficient than more kind of a better performing economically, and then focusing a lot on economic aspects.
But in the U.S. side, we see in some ways a much more ideation way of promoting a soft power and we could argue it’s also ideological. The ideology being liberal democracy is kind of the prominent defining system of our age, the most successful system. And of course, our values of freedom, freedom of association, religion, media, communication, all of that is constantly being promoted as part of kind of the American dream. Even though of course, domestically in the U.S. we also have a lot of trouble with some of these values and ideas in terms of implementation, but that’s how it’s promoting itself. And it’s been promoting itself this way for many, many decades.
So in some ways, American kind of self-promotion hasn’t changed that much, but China’s self-promotion is a lot more pragmatic, a lot more focused on practical interest than its own ideological thought.
Kaiser: So I do want to get into your fieldwork in Ethiopia and talk about Africa more broadly and even the Global South. But before we do that, maybe let’s talk a little bit about some of these definitions, because one, we discuss Chinese soft power efforts. There are a lot of different terms that get thrown around. Some of them are very clearly value-laden and get used, not surprisingly, I suppose, to describe China’s efforts. Others strike me as more neutral and are naturally the preferred descriptors for what we Americans do. So China does propaganda and sharp power and influence operations while we just engage in public diplomacy. How do you actually distinguish these things operationally?
Maria: Yeah, so it’s tricky because they are conflated together. And I think we’ve seen many reports coming out of U.S. think tanks that tend to treat most of what China’s doing as sharp power or influence operations. I tend to disagree with that because I think we need to look at what actually is happening again on the ground, how it’s being implemented to try to distinguish operationally what is sharp power curse of influence operations and what is soft power?
Public diplomacy I see is falling under soft power. It’s one of the instruments of soft power. So public diplomacy is a bit more of a narrow term than soft power. Soft power is now defined as kind of the power of attraction. I think the Chinese leadership sees this power kind of image making positive image of China and public diplomacy is one of the ways in which it deploys this kind of image building.
Same thing I think for the U.S.. Sharp and coercive power is more about forcing someone to do something. So forcing someone to delete certain content, buying their allegiance and so forth. So that’s something that’s distinctive from kind of overall public diplomacy practices that I find in the book in some ways mirror what the U.S. and other countries are doing.
That side I think Chinese public diplomacy, if you look at it close, it can include some of these kind of sharper edges, right? For example, if you have journalists traveling to China for trainings and fellowships, they’re not really required to say very particular things about China, but they’re encouraged to write articles that are seeing or presenting China in a positive light. And when I looked at many of these articles produced by journalists who came from Africa and Southeast Asia, they were mostly very positive articles. So in some ways that’s kind of this co-creation of China’s image. And the expectation is that you should be grateful. You should kind of reciprocate by producing positive content and not asking too many negative questions, not embarrassing China, right?
So even though that’s not explicitly said, there is this kind of sharper edge that you’re supposed to kind of follow through and give back, right? This is about image building for us. So you’re coming here for free. So you’ve got to reciprocate.
So that could be kind of seen as a sharper edge of larger public diplomacy sort of initiative of bringing people to China, but conceptualizing or treating all of it is coercive and sharp power I think really dilutes the whole picture.
And it makes it very difficult for us to understand, to what extent what China is doing is in some cases overall just public diplomacy, in which aspects are kind of the sharper edges, in what ways might it use this to potentially co-op or attempt to present itself in a particular kind of skewed way. So I think it’s a tricky thing.
I try to look at this empirically so I would examine what they’re saying, and then what they’re doing and how people are responding to it. And I think it also helps to look at it comparatively to see is this different from the U.S. or from Western Europe. And that also helps us distinguish which aspects are more cursive and which aspects are more related to public diplomacy.
So I think both need to be studied. There’s a lot to study on both domains. So I’m not by any chance dismissing the fact that there is sharp power, but I think we also have to look at public diplomacy as its own sort of initiative and it’s multifaceted and dynamic. And it has many, many different angles including sharper edges, but that’s not the only defining feature.
Kaiser: Yeah, for sure. So Maria, I would say that conventional wisdom now says that Chinese soft power efforts have broadly failed in Europe and in the developed world in the United States, especially. And if you look at public opinion polling about attitudes toward China, that’s in ample evidence.
However, conventional wisdom is now coming around to the idea that it’s been a success in the Global South. Can you talk about that based on your field work? And how would you contrast American public diplomacy efforts and Chinese soft power efforts in the Global South, and who’s doing better?
Maria: Yeah, that’s a great question. Thanks for asking that. In terms of success versus failure, I think my first critique of that question, not really the question, but the framing is that it’s very binary, right? That definition of what it is to be successful. So, I think that sometimes the trouble is that people are looking for very easy kind of solutions of what’s successful.
But when we look at success, we can measure different ways. So first of all, public opinion polls is the key kind of indicator of success so far, the way that’s been established in the contemporary debates. So public opinion polls are more favorable vis a vis China in the Global South. That’s right. Especially in Africa, we’ve seen pretty high ratings and also in Russia interestingly.
We’re going to get to Russia later, but pretty high ratings recently in terms of perceptions of China, favorability towards China, much lower ratings and declining ratings in the West and Global North. So there is that kind of dichotomy. So in some sense, yeah, it’s maybe hard to see the world in success and failure, but we do see public opinion polls pointing to some directions that maybe showcase China is more favorable viewed, or perceived in better light.
At the same time when we kind of unpack on the ground how people engage with China, we see that public opinion polls, they always have certain limitations because the questions of course, are kind of general, right? Not everybody is willing to say something that’s potentially sensitive through those polls and you don’t have space to really engage in more nuanced answers.
So when you do interviews on the ground or you observe the perceptions of China, I think they’re very contradictory and mixed. On the one hand, they’re very opportunistic engagement with what China is offering. So enthusiasm for taking on what China’s giving, right?
So scholarships, learning Chinese language if it benefits or it creates job opportunity, engaging with Chinese media, if it’s free or if it helps in some ways to produce a report for say Ethiopian media, going on certain trips. And of course, carving out various projects, right? Big infrastructure projects that may help governments look better and so forth.
And public itself, buying cheaper phones, right? That are made in China, buying cheaper technological products more broadly. Just all kinds of material products that are just mostly made in China these days. People are engaging with them and taking them on board, right? Taking advantage of them.
At the same time when you ask do you like this engagement or this product or this particular interaction with China? A lot of the sentiment is quite critical or at the very least a bit cynical and concerned about the long-term influence of China in their home countries, right? So is China here to stay? Are the loans kind of agreements, are there fair?
Are the terms fair? Are we going to be able to repair or repay those terms? And I think there’s also a big dichotomy or kind of tension between the scale of what China’s offering and the quality. So the scale is enormous. And you mentioned about what China’s versus the U.S., U.S. can’t compete on that scale on most of these things, whether it’s infrastructure or trainings or education and stuff like that.
They just can’t compete in offering this much, but the quality is often questioned as kind of a subpar. The quality isn’t good enough. And people talk about like educational experience is very mixed terms, they talk about trainings. It’s not always learning experience with more kind of just diplomatic spectacles. They talk about the infrastructure as potentially breaking or breaking down in a few years. So there’s a lot of critique of, is this really high quality?
Maria: And I think that’s something that is true across Global South, including in Southeast Asia as well.
Kaiser: So, in Africa, especially, we’re seeing kind of a contest between Chinese and American public diplomacy. People talk about BRI versus B3W and things like that. Different competing development policies and initiatives and all that has soft power ramifications. You’ve talked to American diplomats in Africa.
What’s your sense of how they perceive China’s presence and its position? Because I think a lot of them are now tasked with doing this. There are these kind of listening posts now.
Maria: Yeah, they’re interesting.
Kaiser: I think that started during the Pompeo tenure at the State Department, but…
Maria: Yeah, I was quite fascinated by this new, I forget the exact name of the position there. The kind of China watchers within the U.S. Embassy. So I think the first one might have been based in Kenya and then they expanded to other places. In fact, somebody I spoke to who was based in Africa is now based in, I think it might be Sarajevo. They move around and they have this mission to attract China and to see what China’s doing on the ground. So that’s kind of a new thing maybe the past three years or so that’s in the making, but in terms of the overall perceptions, I mean, they’re mixed of course, but overall I found that the perception’s quite negative.
So cynical, negative dismissive. So all these efforts that China is doing are there to in debt these countries. A long-term influence will be very harmful. The implications are extremely bad for these countries when it comes to sustaining themselves and so forth. And overall what the U.S. is offering in their view is much more again, sustainable.
It comes with much better governance, more transparency. It’s connected to the demands and kind of the care of the people themselves, not just governments and elites. So U.S. can differentiate itself as much more I guess a thoughtful developmental partner and a long-term sustainable kind of partner versus China that is all basically after its own gains, right? Opportunistic, and cares only about its own interests. So I think there is that perception. Few officials I spoke to had a bit of a more balanced view. They would say, actually, it’s good that China is building infrastructure because we can’t do that. And then we can provide something else. So we can kind of build on what they have committed to, and then maybe carve out other projects that help us implement other initiatives because we have the infrastructure now. So kind of like taking advantage of what China has done versus just dismissing it.
Kaiser: Yeah, no, that –
Maria: So there’s no like uniform view, but I think overall my sense was quite a bit of skepticism and almost like aggravation annoyance. Like, oh yeah, China is here. The latest airport they built going to probably going to fall apart soon. But it’s all built by Chinese workers, kind of dismissive commentaries like that. But also in some degree, a bit of ignorance about what China’s doing on the ground. And maybe this is pre that kind of posting phase where now that they have the China watchers. But at least in Ethiopia, I was surprised that some officials didn’t know that there were a certain number of Confucius Institutes. They knew that there were some, but they didn’t know that there are two major ones and four Confucius classrooms across the country. They didn’t know what they really offered them. They didn’t know that much about the jobs or what the jobs pay when they graduate. So they didn’t really study those conditions. They didn’t really engage in those kind of domains of Chinese soft power.
They sort of chose to ignore them. So I found that to be also interesting. Is this really competition or is it kind of more like we’re doing our own thing and you’re doing yours and we just choose not to engage with each other while we’re in the same country?
Kaiser: Maria, there was another thing that I found really fascinating in your book and this kind of speaks to the way that China has expanded or kind of blurred the lines around what soft power is. And it’s connected to China’s rollout of telecommunications infrastructure in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South. They’re not just laying down the pipes as it were, but they’re also pumping in content as well. And one example of that was StarTimes in Africa, all the energy that it’s putting into creating content to pump into that. Can you talk a little bit about that, what they’re doing and what StarTimes is? Because yeah, I think a lot of people don’t know StarTimes.
Maria: So StarTimes group is a private company that’s based in Beijing, but they primarily focused on the African market and they have very close links with the Chinese communist party as well with various officials. And I visited the company for tour with actually some students from beta African studies center.
So we went for a tour and I was just impressed by how good they were at PR, incredibly smooth. If thinking about soft power, right? You think of this kind of awkwardness of some of the Chinese messaging, but this was not at all awkward. It was incredibly smooth, almost transparent. Here is what we’re doing, here are all the programs we’re doing.
In particular recording and dubbing a lot of these Chinese soap operas, and all kinds of different shows into many, many African languages.
Maria: As I was walking by, I was just observing all this dubbing being done in real time, which I found fascinating. And also they do all kinds of competitions across Africa where they recruit local students for these dubbing jobs.
Maria: So it’s kind of like a festive event and it’s very celebratory. You get to be recruited, you make money and then maybe you get to travel to Beijing. So that’s one thing that I found quite impressive. But the other thing is that they do offer basically digital television packages, right? So that’s their main kind of business.
They offer digital TV packages that are cheaper than anybody else can offer and they’re very popular. And in those packages, they also infuse some Chinese content. So it’s not all Chinese, it’s very smart. They’ll have like Western media content, they’ll have some local content and then they’ll put in some Chinese educational shows, especially pop culture, some shows.
And that seems to be the way they kind of, in some ways include some of these ideation elements into the actual technological facet, right? So it’s not just technology, it’s also some ideas, some practices, some cultural exposure. So I think that’s a really interesting, intriguing example of Chinese soft power when we look at this potentially much more successful than say China’s state media reporting of China, Africa relations.
So it’s really interesting how they kind of localize. Most of their staff is local. I don’t know if it’s 90% or more. They were very proud of the fact that they’ve extremely localized operations and that they do all this, as I said, dubbing sessions and festive gatherings and all kinds of different activities that are also aligned with that and providing these TV packages that includes some Chinese content. But also many, many other types of shows and news broadcasts.
Kaiser: So one of the other areas that we flicked out of this a little bit, but is China’s push to become kind of an education hub, to be known for capacity building for language training, for all sorts of other training programs, agricultural extension. Can you talk about the extent to which that’s been successful to date? And especially about the big hurdle that you identify in your book, which I completely agree, which is racial prejudice. Because I think many of our listeners are going to remember incidents from recent years, especially in, in Guangzhou when a lot of Nigerians and other West Africans were sort of kicked out and had to spend the night in the street after they were evicted. Is official China still in denial about this? Or do you think there’s a growing awareness and any attempts to kind of address it at the ground level?
Maria: So first of all, just broadly in terms of China becoming the education hub, I guess I found that to be one of the most interesting aspects of doing research for this book, because we don’t talk about it enough. I think we talk a lot about media. Again, because maybe it’s because it’s related to sharp power. Media kind of, Confucius Institutes, of course, they’re very popular in a negative light here in the U.S.. But education in terms of bringing students to China, I think it’s something that has been a major transformation for just China’s overall kind of direction in terms of its education development. Because just what? 20, 30 year, years ago, it was primarily China learning from the West or sending its students to the West. But now it’s actually, in some ways has educated quite a significant workforce of Chinese faculty, professors who are coming with diplomas from various universities in the West and they’re teaching students from the Global South.
So this kind of a trickle down of globalization effect, which I found just really interesting and most of them are coming on their own dime. So they’re not there on scholarships. They’re coming on their own funding because it’s low cost. So India and China seem to be actually competing for many of the students because of the cost advantages that they offer in comparison to Western Europe and the U.S. So that’s just one kind of point to make.
And I think it’s around 80,000 African students there based in China. So very, very big number. And I believe it’s about half of that in the U.S.. So it’s already a huge flow of students that are coming to China. So this brings us to the race question and yeah, we definitely have seen quite intense frictions, conflicts, especially during the pandemic within Guangzhou with residents that were not, say the students, but more kind of I guess they were migrants and traders.
They were driven out of their homes even, and extremely mistreated, all sorts of images being taken and through social media transmitted back to their home countries and ambassadors and officials in Africa calling in Chinese ambassadors to talk about this. It was really dramatic kind of PR disaster for China. What has happened since then?
Not that much, I would say. I mean, the students were also part of this battle. There were many of them were also discriminated and felt very much alienated. There were a lot of really interesting podcasts coming out of the time about race and being an African student. And the China in Africa Podcast has done a great job documenting some of these voices.
But what has happened, the Chinese government has denied any presence of racism in China and what they have done, which I think is somewhat predictable, they I guess, quietly punished some of these Guangzhou officials and told them to extend maybe some visas to local African residents to kind of soften some of their policies when it comes to prolonging their stay or not being as actively checking their registration or just making them feel more comfortable.
So on the ground, they have kind of softened a few measures, but in terms of the actual public discourse on this, not that much I think has happened. And I also analyzed social media discussions on this topic at the time. And they’re extremely problematic in terms of just racial biases and aggression and a lot of sentiments of discontent that in particular African migrants are taking over Guangzhou, the city’s disappearing, it’s unsafe.
All this kind of tropes of safety over kind of sexualization of African men. So all kinds of very familiar tropes that are coming up in these discussions. And very few voices from this analysis stood up to defend these African residents. So that to me was kind of a sign that’s unofficially, right? In public there’s quite a strong sentiment of discontent and also critique of the government for giving scholarships to these African students. Why are they getting scholarships? And this of course is a historic trend. This has been a big critique over time. I think even under Mao, there probably was a lot of discontent about foreign students coming in and getting better conditions.
And nowadays, we still have Chinese students, multiple students in one dorm room. I don’t know what the conditions exactly are now, but foreign guests, foreign students gets somewhat better conditions, right? Maybe one person per room, two people per room. And there’s a lot of critique of kind of privileging these students. That they can get in easier, they get better conditions, why? And then they end up dating Chinese women and that there’s the kind of this gender dynamic comes in here.
Kaiser: Yeah, of course.
Maria: That we’re sacrificing our women, right? So overall I think that hasn’t been a public or kind of officially led discussion of race but mostly in aversion of this topic.
Kaiser: For sure. There’s so much more to talk about when it comes to soft power, but I do want to shift gears now and talk about China’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and it’s impact. But maybe let’s get there by way of another soft power related question. We tend to see Beijing’s official response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine as unquestionably eroding Chinese soft power. And when it comes to the West, that seems to be the case. I mean, I don’t think it’s arguable. The February 4th joint statement, which is all laded with pins to sign a Russian friendship with no limits, blah blah. Huá Chūnyíng 华春莹 from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling the U.S. the culprit in her infamous press conference. And Wáng Yì 王毅 has actually doubled down on the strategic partnership with Russia in the last couple of days. None of that makes China look good in the eyes of the West. It reinforces, I should say, in the American mind this idea that China and Russia form kind of an axis of authoritarianism.
But what about in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South? Does China’s Russia-leaning neutrality play just as poorly in the developing world as in the developed world?
Maria: That’s a great question. So I think the way that this will play in the developing world probably won’t be as severe when it comes to China’s image. And there are several reasons for that. I mean, I think first of all, if we look at the UN Security Council resolution, the recent resolutions, we see that many, many African countries, I don’t remember the exact number, but the number of them have either not shown up for the vote or they abstained.
So the support was not by any means uniform in favor of the Western sanctions and the overarching critique of Russia as the culprit in this war. So what does that mean? They’re kind of stating or not critiquing. I think part of it is the idea of not picking sides. It’s kind of non-alignment, is something that has very deep historic route dating back to the Bandung Conference.
And China and I think many African countries share that this idea that you want to be aligned. You don’t need to take sides. This is idea of staying in the middle. And I think that’s something that reflects deeper historic legacies. But the other side of it is that many of these African countries, they also are starting to build closer relationships with Russia.
So in this sense, we think about China’s influence there, but Russia is stepping up its game. It kind of mimics some of these summits, summit diplomacy that China has embraced FOCAC China’s version, Russia has set up a Russia Africa summit, and there’s actually one taking place in Addis Ababa I believe this coming fall.
Maria: So I really hope I can maybe travel to be the fly on the wall if I can get in there. But yeah, that’s really interesting how they’re kind of replicating some of these efforts and a lot of, I don’t know the number, but quite a number of intellectuals and people on Twitter coming from various African countries were supporting Russia in this conflict and also pointing at racism.
Again, we go back to the race card. In this conflict, of course we had stark images of African students not being able to board trains to exit Ukraine. And also images of being harassed and pushed back and so forth. And that of course, plays very strongly in the African context. These are students from their home countries that can’t get out.
So in this context this was framed in some tweets I read this kind of we need to rescue the students, but also we stand with Russia. Ukraine is discriminating. So all kinds of commentaries that are not necessarily, or not even close to being pro-Western. And then lastly, I think China from what I’ve seen in this kind of diplomatic messaging in Africa, they haven’t been really discussing Ukraine that much.
They’re kind of under-reporting or under-covering this topic. They’re talking a lot about just China’s again, economic presence in Africa, China, Africa relations, but not pointing to the Ukraine conflict as much as maybe they could have. So maybe that also kind of shapes or affect some of these perceptions.
But overall my guess is that China’s lack of strong commitment to one side and it’s pro-Russia leaning won’t necessarily hurt its image significantly in the Global South. Maybe it’ll vary by country. Maybe with some countries that have strongly spoken out against Russia, they might shift or at least have some stronger sentiments about this, but those that have it, of course wouldn’t be as effective.
Kaiser: So you mentioned earlier how in Russia, favorability toward China in the general population has been ticking up in recent years. How is China portrayed recently? I mean, have you been following what Russian media has been saying about China since the invasion began? Have they talked about China?
Maria: Yeah. So I have been trying to keep up with that along with Chinese media. So it’s a bit of a crazy mix of things in my head right now. But what I’ve been following is that at least earlier on there have been quite a number of statements made by Russian officials and, you know, various reports in Russian media that use this kind of, you know, somewhat ambiguous stance of China and the fact that China is not aligning with the West as very much being pro-Russia, so China stands with us, there have been some comments made that, you know, Russia is not alone, we have one of the strongest partners in the world, one of the strongest nations is actually with Russia. That was kind of the initial reaction.
But then more recently, just yesterday, I was looking at the latest report about… I guess it came from Russia. A Russia official claimed that China will not provide certain aviation parts-
Kaiser: That’s right.
Maria: … To Russia. And that was taken, that was quite a big topic of debate that was taken with some critique, but also just a lot of discussion. Is this true? Is it fake? But also China has been forced or pressured by the United States.
So I think we’re starting to see some of these kind of fractures or some maybe tensions arising when we’re actually looking at what China is really giving or what is it able to sacrifice for this friendship, right? This strategic partnership. Is it going to be able to rescue Russia from some of these impediments due to sanctions or is it going to stand by and protect its own interests?
And if so, how do you keep saying that this is your key partner, if it’s not actually doing something to support you? So I think this is a really interesting space to watch as more of these decisions are going to be made by Chinese government.
Kaiser: What about the opposition in Russia, Putin opponents? Say supporters of Alexei Navalny. Do they also tend to be really strong critics of Xi and the Chinese leadership?
Maria: Yeah, so I was actually trying to find something on Navalny’s stance on China. And it was not a whole lot of information that maybe was publicly available, but one of the things that came up was that he was comparing Russian prison to Chinese labor camp.
So this was a very big kind of tagline that is all over Russian media and some Western media as well because obviously he’s in jail. He was comparing the conditions and the propaganda he’s facing there, just the dire life that he’s leading there to Chinese labor camp, which was interesting kind of contrast.
Sort of in some ways, I guess, implying that both of them are equally authoritarian and just not… Yeah, this kind of comparison to me is indicative of maybe in some ways of this symbolically, how he sees the two. At the same time, he’s quite the nationalistic figure.
And according to a number of Russian analysts, he wouldn’t necessarily dramatically shift course away from China because they share such a long border, that they have so many issues to reckon with economically.
So to defend Russia’s interest in this case, stepping completely away from China would not be very smart or practical. So I imagine he wouldn’t necessarily be as maybe as contentious or critical his remarks if he became president.
Kaiser: I’m trying to work out in my mind whether a Chinese labor camp is worse or better than a Stalin-era gulag.
Maria: Yeah, or the Russian prison. I’m sure that he’s under the worst possible conditions.
Kaiser: Yeah. So Maria, let’s talk about your excellent piece in The Atlantic, which I had the chance to read last night. Your perspective is completely spot on. I mean, I was like, “yes, this is correct.” So in a nutshell, just you argue that China’s pro-Russian lean has very little actually to do with fellow feeling for Russia, but is instead all about America. Totally agree. Howard French actually made the same point in a great piece that he wrote for World Politics Review. China’s response is basically emotional. It sees Putin has kind of the face of defiance to American hegemony. What’s interesting is that you find evidence of this across much of Chinese society because you draw on not only statements by elites and policy makers and media, but also in the broader public, online.
So let’s talk about the relationship between what we’re seeing on Weibo and WeChat and in comment sections and so forth, the popular view, and actual Chinese foreign policy in this case. Are elites and ordinary people who express support for Russia, are they responding to the same kind of emotional impulses?
Maria: Yeah. When you look at the Chinese official comments and as you mentioned Wáng Yì 王毅 has kind of stepped up this rhetoric about strategic partnership with Russia, but also the rhetoric against the U.S. has also been significantly accelerating.
So for instance, the latest is the bio labs, right? This potential of the U.S. as having some kind of biological weapons that are yeah, based in Ukraine in various laboratories or that they are threatening the very security safety of the country and potentially of course, threatening Russia.
That rhetoric about those biological weapons is widely being shared not only by Russian media, but also by Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚, one of the spokespeople for the foreign ministry. So this kind of anti-American –
Kaiser: What a surprise.
Maria: What a surprise. Yeah, of course. He loves this argument. He’s been keeping up with it for a while. It’s kind of maybe his mantra. Although it’s not as bad as what I read in Russian media yesterday, which was that there’s some birds that are being trained in Ukraine to carry those biological, I don’t know, weapons or some kind of biological threats. The birds are carrying them from Ukraine to Russia.
Kaiser: Oh Christ, okay.
Maria: So I was like, oh my God, this is just too much. I couldn’t handle it. So not quite as bad, but yeah, we do see this very emotional response and very, we could say militant assertive response that targets the U.S., that targets very much the U.S.. And NATO is one of the kind of larger products of U.S. hegemony.
So we see similar responses on social media in some ways, of course, more dramatic. The terms that I use in Atlantic, some of the phrases were captured with Wendy where like something like NATO will pay for the blood bath it created, very, very dramatic phrases. So officials wouldn’t use that language, but the sentiment is not that different.
Kaiser: You open the piece with these great little analogies, which I have seen when my wife sent it to me, all sorts of people have said these things to me. Telling this little parable about comparing Ukraine to a woman who has taken the kids and left. Can you spell that out and, and what is its appeal to Chinese people? I mean, obviously it’s nested in a family metaphor, which is something that Chinese people will immediately resonate with. It’s funny because every time somebody does something like this, like the Hong Kong parables about kidnapped children and stuff like that, the same kind of thing. But how does this one work?
Maria: Yeah. So in this case, it’s kind of a love triangle metaphor, the way that it was characterized. So it is definitely the family metaphor, but also a bit of a drama, right? There’s a love triangle. So Ukraine is characterized as Russia’s ex-wife who mistreated the couple’s children.
So Luhansk and Donetsk, the two republics in Eastern Ukraine that have been claimed to be independent and given the independent status by Russia. So they mistreated the children that Ukraine has mistreated because of course, Russia claims that many Russian speakers in those regions have been severely mistreated.
That’s the big argument for protecting these citizens. And then on top of that, Ukraine has been flirting with a new partner, right? It wants to be actually in a different relationship. That’s why the love triangle comes in. It wants to be with the United States and part of the bigger NATO family. It wants to be somewhere that it sees is maybe more prestigious or better for itself.
So it presents this kind of imagery of Ukraine is this seductress. First of all, it has a female kind of a character. The female form is that seducing this partner, but it was denied, right? So U.S. has actually pushed Ukraine aside. So basically it formed the wrong alliance, right? Russia is the original partner. It shifted from Russia to this seductive United States, but it was denied love.
It’s actually been rejected. And that’s something that also goes along with some other comments I’ve seen on Weibo that basically argues that Ukraine has formed the wrong alliances. It formed the wrong power Alliance. So it’s its own fault, right? It should have stepped up its game and picked the right partner.
Kaiser: Yeah, it was a depressing metaphor. I mean, there’s such misogyny built into it as you point out in the article too.
Maria: Absolutely, yeah. And some misogyny was critiqued by Chinese social media users. So it’s not that everybody accepts it, but of course, this misogyny point was also discuss in some depth in SupChina, right? And then SupChina faced some repercussions for that.
Kaiser: Oh, yeah.
Maria: So this misogyny point is actually –
Kaiser: That was fun.
Maria: Yeah, it turned out way more sensitive than I didn’t expect it to gain this much attention, but that’s what happened.
Kaiser: Yeah. I’ve got all sorts of thoughts about what happened to us, but anyway. But here, I mean, despite all that, I think it’s important to try to step into shoes for a minute and see what the experience of the last three or four years has felt like from the Chinese perspective. Because where does all this anger toward America, this resentment toward America come from?
I think it’s not hard to imagine because the Chinese public, Chinese elites, they would feel this nonstop trade war tech kneecapping, Mèng Wǎnzhōu 孟晚舟 and Huawei, allegations of genocide in Xinjiang, and this belief that American sponsored people were making mischief in Hong Kong. COVID, the blame for it in various forms from China covered it up to China to created it as a bioweapon or that at least it was a lab leak. It’s China’s fault someway or another. And then even the criticism of China’s handling of it every time it’s the “draconian crackdown.” “At what cost?” All this stuff, the Xi’an reporting. So it’s not hard to understand the source of the anger just as it’s not hard to understand the source of American displeasure with China. That’s also easy to understand, but where do you see this going? I mean, is this just a kind of cathartic release for China, a chance to vent by proxy the country’s frustration with American hegemony? I mean, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 got to recognize that he has to think beyond just this immediate response. Do you anticipate that the party leadership will try to retake control of the discourse and maybe to play this in a more levelheaded way going forward, that pragmatism will prevail?
Maria: Yeah, so a couple of points. This also relates to our discussion of soft power that I was thinking about when you mentioned this comment of frustration with the U.S. over the years. Something that also struck me in the larger discussions of soft power is that U.S. is often positioned as the key impediment of China’s soft power.
If not on the U.S., we would’ve been fine, right? Of course, some of these liberal scholars, as you mentioned, critique, maybe the media is not being open enough, but many also argue that the key impediment really is U.S. hegemony. That U.S. media is constantly pushing down on China. There’s this deep frustration that whatever China does is not enough. So-
Kaiser: Maria, it’s just like if China was married to a hen-pecking oppressive woman who keeps him from realizing his true potential.
Maria: Yeah, kind of.
Kaiser: I’m going to put that out on Weibo and become famous, yeah.
Maria: Very famous, yeah. I’m sure it’s going to go down well with all this nationalistic people. But yeah, I think that this kind of feeds into a larger idea that there is… If the frustration is real, it’s not manufactured, right? We see that it’s taking place at several levels and it is cathartic to express some of these sentiments, but also speaking to this domestic kind of positioning or targeting of Chinese soft power in general or image making.
We see that maybe some of these officials are speaking to domestic publics, right? That they’re strongly asserting China’s position in the world. They’re saying that the U.S. is to blame for the larger expansionism and NATO and all the different wars we’ve seen in the past. U.S. is always using double standards and pushing down on other powers.
So they’re using this conflict in a ways of proxy to also assert their own positionality. And I think that speaks favorably amongst more nationalistic part of the population in China. So this kind of domestic targeting may also be a factor here. Is it going to be more levelheaded as it moves forward? For now, we don’t see any signs of the rhetoric as dramatically changing.
We see a few signs like China providing aid to Ukraine. That’s a new thing. So that’s at least attempting to be a little bit more engaged. We see a lot of calls for peace, but not so much active mediation of this piece. What does it mean to call for peace? Are you going to be actively setting this two sides up together? And will you put pressure on Putin?
We don’t really see that. At least we don’t know much about that publicly. It’s not visible. What we do see though is also concerns and at the very least some caution around this alliance with Russia in terms of economic cost for China. I think that’s something that China will be very concerned about.
And we see, of course, the National Party Congress meetings sessions, everything is about Chinese economy. And on social media, and something we discussed in this article as well, there are also kind of reflections on the cost Russia is facing and how can China preempt that? So I think the cautionary tale of this invasion may be something that will also stick with China in terms of moving forward.
Would that mean that it’s going to be more level headed than how it actually publicly communicates its responses to conflict? I’m not sure, but I think it might be less eager to support Russia economically.
Kaiser: So all of this talk about how the Party’s going to manage the media and messaging on this takes us back to the soft power. We haven’t really left soft power, which is good, especially the power of the Western media. I mean, one thing that has become glaringly obvious is just the enormous discursive power of the American and more generally, the Anglophone or Western media.
This is not to say that the facts themselves have had no role in this. I mean, to me, it’s obvious irrespective of who you see covering this, just to see, well, obviously Ukrainian resolved and Zelenskyy’s ability to just rise to this occasion show just such amazing courage. I’m going to have a t-shirt printed that says “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.”
Maria: Oh, I was about to order that as well.
Kaiser: Yeah, that’s a great one. This has all done a lot to shape attitudes, including at the state level, but China must find the “Western media” to be truly formidable, yeah?
Maria: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I haven’t interviewed these journalists about how they see it now, but I have observed… Actually, yesterday I was watching Xinwen Lianbo for a while from the very beginning of the invasion. And I started looking at CGTN and we see quite a big difference between the two. CGTN is trying to be more global, is trying to compete with this global outlets.
And the beginning almost no coverage, but as the conflict goes on, we see more and more coverage coming out of Ukraine itself. So kind of more local scenes and more balanced account of local suffering, more balanced account of various victims and some reporting of refugee floods and evacuations.
Maria: So I think to me it signals that there’s an attempt to kind of maybe catch up with some of these global media giants and we see some of these journalists being in the field and they’re in this extremely precautious conditions, right? It’s very dangerous and they’re still kind of straddling and trying to report.
So we do see that kind of coming out more from CGTN than from domestic Chinese channels that like CCTV, right? So that difference is quite striking. And I think that to me, signals that yeah, they do sense that they’re not competitive because obviously you can’t tell a one-sided story and be competitive with major global outlets that are reporting much more vivid and much more engaging coverage.
And I think part of it is also speaks to Ukraine itself. It’s been actually I think, strikingly open with the media. You see people willing to talk to journalists. And also of course, officials and military allowing them to be part of these spaces. I can’t imagine, for instance, in Russia this kind of thing being allowed and tolerable, right?
You see individuals expressing themselves and some of them are very fluent in English, some less so, but attempting to really engage their message. And you also see the same thing with various military people and just they’re trying to explain what they’re doing.
They’re inviting journalists to be kind of part of the story. And I think that also reinforces the coverage, right? I think that’s something that you have to give agency to the Ukrainian side on that.
Kaiser: Yeah, we should be talking about Ukrainian soft power, which is amazing.
Maria: Yeah. I mean, it’s incredible what Zelensky has done with his communication
Kaiser: Right alongside their hard power.
Maria: Right. I mean, it has mobilized quite deep sentiments from around the world. So I think that speaks to their power
Kaiser: Maria, in your recent book you contrast China’s storytelling agenda without Russia. I think you just gave some really excellent examples of this. I think this is a really important distinction. You say that Russia is more interested in, I’m going to quote you here, manufacturing a negative image of its main rival, the United States, than telling its own story.
Kaiser: That’s for sure. China is by contrast more defensive. Its focus has been on how China is misunderstood or misconstrued in the Anglophone media. There’s really no Chinese-language equivalent of RT, even though some people in China believe that there should be.
I have this horrible feeling, presaged by all this wolf warrior Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 stuff and the pugnacious attitudes that we’ve seen coming from some other people in the Foreign Ministry, that China is starting down that road toward RT. Already we’re seeing official Chinese outlets spreading, as you were saying, the bio weapon stuff. There’s a lot of disinformation on the web. Do you think it’s likely that we’re going to see a “Chinese equivalent of RT”?
Maria: Gosh, I hope so. Is it likely? So, yeah. So a few points there. I think that we see, I don’t know if it’s called RTization or some kind of-
Kaiser: Yeah, no, that’s a good word RThua.
Maria: We some kind of, RThua, we always see some of that, especially with the wolf warrior style of communication, right, on social media. I see that much more of a convergence between Chinese and Russian style of kind of this destructive and sort of sentiment and communication really with the West rather than kind of about Russia or China in particular.
But we see as much of it yet I think on state media. I mean, I did look at Xinwen Lianbo for the past whole week or whatever it’s been, 10 days since the invasion. And the story that they’re pushing out, they do rely on Russian sources. So that they definitely showcase Russian side more, but they don’t necessarily inflame the conspiracy theorists quite so much.
Maria: They don’t necessarily produce this very kind of dramatic rhetoric. And I don’t think that they’re doing that as much in CGTN either. I think what they’re doing more, CGTN is presenting this kind of double standard device that I also talk about in this piece for the Atlantic. This idea of comparing, right? So they’re like, “the Palestinians are treated really badly by Israel. U.S. supports Israel, but they’re standing with Ukraine.” So all kinds of whataboutism, about just kind of this comparisons being made. U.S. is bad and this is bad and nothing really matters kind of inspiring cynicism.
But I haven’t seen as many very provocative attacks on CGTN or Xinwen Lianbo, but we do see the reliance more on Russian sources as something has been written about today in the Times as well. This increasing drawing on Russian sources. I was surprised just by how much they’re covering it from the Russian perspective in terms of showcasing scenes from the Kremlin, outside the Kremlin. Of course, not the inside of the room with a long table, but outside the actual building. They’re showcasing the Red Square. And there’s a lot of this footage comes straight from Russia. Russian sites said this, Russian foreign minister said that, Russian spokesman said this and then a little bit on Ukraine and kind of Ukrainian perspective. And that’s the end. And also story of Ukraine came at the very end of each broadcast. You see like a 30-minute broadcast, the story of Ukraine typically is around minute 27. So it’s never the prime story. It’s never the top story of the day, which I also found really interesting. So those things, to me, indicate some concern with how to even tell that story. If it was very easy to tell that story, or they had a very deliberate line, they would just start with a story or at least push it a little bit earlier in the broadcast. But it comes at the very end, and we do see this kind of footage from Russia and then a little bit from Ukraine, but only the kind of footage from Ukraine that says they’re willing to have peace talks, right? They’re willing to come to the table. They agree to stopping violence and creating humanitarian corridors, but not so much about anything else. And in fact, the story of refugees is completely absent. I didn’t see any stories of refugees, which is over two million people are fleeing the country. That’s a huge story. So that’s really interesting.
Kaiser: It’s always fascinating to me how they always have this kind of good cop, bad cop thing in their outward facing media presence. I mean, you have CGTN, which as you’re saying, it’s English language and other language coverage has actually shown images of Ukrainian cities that have been devastated and talking about refugees and the suffering produced by the war. But then you have the GT, the Global Times, it’s the perennial bad cop. Yeah, it’s fascinating.
Maria: The bad cop and the good cop. And one thing to note also that’s in terms of RT and this influencer, whether we’re seen as, yeah RThua in China, I think there’s a mixed impression there from my research. I mean, on the Chinese kind of academic side, I have come across a number of articles that basically praise RT for success. You mentioned this earlier, too, just this idea that RT is kind of seen as maybe potentially successful in creating or combating the West, but also just having… It’s quite popular, right? So in Latin America, some surveys were done where RT is more popular than CGTN or CCTV in Spanish and so forth.
But they don’t really attribute some of this popularity to just kind of this contentious style, but more so that RT is very good at vocalizing its content. They’re very good at presenting stories through local correspondence. They’re very sophisticated in how they kind of carve out their rhetoric, but also technologically sophisticated. So there’s a lot of admiration. But when I was once asking this question to a CGTN producer, she was really offended by the comparisons. That they’re troublemakers. We’re not them. So it was completely… She just did not like that parallel at all. So that was also telling in terms of the different views on this within China.
Kaiser: Well, let’s hope that she prevails. I mean, because yeah, I think that anything that just deals in conspiracy and activating emotion and is just so deliberately transgressive, like RT, of course it’s going to be popular. That’s just human nature. And then CGTN’s really… Come on, let’s face it. It’s like the most boring news program probably in the whole world.
Maria: That’s not so great. Maybe we need to compare to others.
Maria: There must be some other boring ones.
Kaiser: Maybe. I’m exaggerating, but Maria, what a fantastically fun conversation. Let me remind everybody that her new book, which is part of this Elements series from Cambridge University Press, is called Chinese Soft Power. And definitely read her new piece along with Wendy Zhou called “China’s Russia Policy is About America” and it’s just out in the Atlantic. Maria, just what a delight.
Maria: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be back after a few years. It’s been fun.
Kaiser: Well, don’t leave now. We still have recommendations. But first, a quick reminder that the Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. And if you want to support the work that we do with the podcast, the best way to do that is to subscribe to the SupChina Access daily newsletter.
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Maria: So I have one recommendation of a book I highly recommend everyone to read and one of a show that I recommend everyone to avoid.
Kaiser: Oh, all right, excellent. A pick and a pan.
Maria: Yeah. So the book is by Silvia Lindtner and it’s called Prototype Nation. I think some of you may have already heard about this book but if she hasn’t been on your podcast yet, I think you should absolutely invite her. She just won an award for this book in AAS, and I read it and also taught it in my class. And it’s all about China’s tech innovation, how it’s been keeping up-
Kaiser: Oh, wow!
Maria: … With kind of Silicon Valley competing and creating this kind of the shānzhài 山寨movement, but also what does it actually mean? How has it transformed over the years? And she’s done ethnographic work in various close neat communities that are actually innovating and creating something that’s uniquely Chinese, but also gets somewhat submerged under this larger gaze of Silicon valley. So it’s a really fascinating account and it’s well written. Yeah, it’s really vibrant. And I think Silvia’s just a wonderful scholar and really interesting person to talk about this issue.
Kaiser: It goes right up at the top of my list. I mean, this is the sort of thing that I totally eat up.
Maria: Yeah, it’s great. And she’s also right now, actually in China. She managed to get out to do some more field work, which she was one of the only… I think she’s the only scholar I know who’s gone back, for six months. So she’s doing a new project. I think it’s some kind of digital sort of construction of happiness. She’s looking at all these different happiness industries in China. So she can tell you more about her exact new project, but she just does really innovative, exciting work. And she has the fresh gaze from China, which many of us haven’t been to now for years. So I think it is wonderful to have her on.
Kaiser: Oh my God, yeah, like me. I’m absolutely going to have her on. And could I prevail on you to make an introduction? That’d be really…
Maria: Of course, my pleasure.
Kaiser: Thank you. Great, two shows that I have been waiting for for a long time have now returned. So I’m going to recommend both of them. Oh, wait, I’m sorry. You had a TV show you wanted to unrecommend.
Maria: So if you don’t want to get… If you don’t want to sink into some completely nightmare-ish series, don’t watch Inventing Anna.
Kaiser: Oh, really? It’s terrible, huh?
Maria: Oh, no. I think it’s quite terrible, but it’s so addictive that you just I feel like your brain just starts to melt as you’re watching. Not adding any value, but it’s hard to stop. You just get totally infused in this pretty awful story. So yeah, I don’t recommend it, but if you want to avoid this kind of distraction and frustration.
Kaiser: I’m not sure that’s actually a very compelling… I mean, I think a lot of people will perversely want to watch it now just because…
Maria: Oh, okay. Maybe I’m doing the wrong thing.
Kaiser: No, that’s great.
Maria: Ignore everything I said.
Kaiser: No, you’re the expert on soft power. So no, that’s fantastic. Two shows that I’ve been waiting for for a very long time have finally returned. I’m just unreasonably excited about both of them. First there’s The Last Kingdom season five, which is on Netflix. It’s based on a series by Bernard Cornwell, which I’d been reading for a while, I think I read like five or six of the books until one-too-many shield wall battles between Danes and Saxons described in just almost the same language just made me give up. But Simon Elegant from Time Magazine in Beijing back in the day that I used to enthuse about these books. We were both reading them as kind of a guilty pleasure, but anyway, the show is just wonderful. It’s set during and after the reign of Alfred, the Great, and it follows the life of a Saxon-born but Dane-raised warrior named Uhtred. He has this kind of torn dual identity and maybe that’s why this story resonates so well with me. But the other show is Vikings: Valhalla, which is the sequel to the old history channel show Vikings, which I totally loved.
This new one is set about 100 years later. It starts in the very, very early 11th century and it runs until about 1066. So don’t watch it for its historical accuracy though. Just watch it for the sets, the props, the action, the fight scenes, the intrigue, the drama. It’s really fun. You’ll totally, I mean, if you’re into that kind of thing, historical fantasy and that kind of thing, you’ll totally dig it. Maria, what a pleasure, what a total pleasure. I will not watch Inventing Anna. What’s it called?
Maria: I think that’s what it’s called.
Kaiser: Inventing Anna
Maria: Inventing Anna.
Kaiser: Okay, yeah.
Maria: But your recommendations sound much more profound and interesting.
Kaiser: They’re not profound. They’re just like adventure for boys. It’s like…
Maria: Yeah, but at least you learn new things.
Kaiser: Yeah. No, it’s totally fun.
Maria: Yeah, that sounds great.
Kaiser: All right. Well, what a pleasure having you.
Maria: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina, and it’s a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you’d drop us an email at email@example.com or just give us a rating and a review on Apple podcast as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @SupChina News, and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.