The Peoples Republic not of the People Anymore

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It has been a while since I have arrived in the PRC. I embarked at first as a tourist and later on got myself a job as an English teacher for a training school. In my travels to the country’s historical sites discovered a bitter sweet truth. Although China and her soft power policy appeal to the world as friendly and welcoming, (it actually does to some extent) the reality in its domestic policy is a little different. As every other famous touristic site in many countries of the world, China does charge a considerable amount of money for you to enter. It understandable however, the maintenance of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and many other sites is expensive. What surprises me a little perhaps, is the entrance fee on national parks and parks in general.

Peoples Republic as a term was initially associated with populism, a political position which states that the citizens are being mistreated by a small circle of people, this small minority can be overthrown if individuals in masses understand the danger and unite to overthrow them. Wait a second…, it resembles exactly to what China appears to be right now. The elites of the communist party do control many aspects of the Chinese “life”. The other 1 % of China’s wealthy people control the rest with means of corruption, and payoffs.

When I first arrived in Beijing I lived near the Workers Stadium, the Embassy Residences Area, and the party district. As I was walking on the street aiming to go get a beer and watch the European Cup, I came across a club with countless of luxurious cars parked outside. I have never seen so many Ferrari’s, Roy’s Rolls, Mercedes’s, Jaguars and many others. I guess, such cars are a way of showing wealth, although traffic in Beijing is quite horrible. For a place 30 min away in a subway it took me nearly 2 hours on the car.

I took a 14-hour train from Beijing to Xi’an in the south in order to go climb the Huashan Mountain and its 5 peaks. The highest point of the mountain is the west peak with an elevation of 2,154 meters (7,067 ft). From the Daoist mythology in the II century BCE, the Daoists believed that in that mountain lives the god of the underworld. Due to the harsh terrain, and the inaccessibility of the mountain, it was only visited by imperial pilgrims and locals. Huashan became an important place for individuals who seek knowledge and “immortality” as many herbs, Chinese medicinal plants, and powerful drugs are to be found there. I climbed the mountain at night, so did many other individuals. You still had to pay a considerate amount of money to be granted passage, students with ID paid half price. What surprised me the most though, was the intervention in the mountain, the governmental structures, I assume, built and carved stairs in the bed of the mountain to make the climb easier. Climbing up was tiring, and boring at the same time, although it was a little dangerous and steep. One could easily fall and get injured if the ground is wet.

This tangent was to somewhat illustrate how governmental agencies and other organizations have tempered with the classic way of climbing. Imagine building stairs, or a cable car in the Everest, it will simply ruin the joy of the climb. The government does control many aspect of the Chinese life, although the individuals are so used to it that it does not make any difference. They live freely and can do whatever they want, terms and conditions may apply.

I mean it, the Chinese do not give a flying fuck, I have observed them to be selfish, possibly due to the one child policy, they never learned to share. Many individuals appear to be a little inconsiderate, they do cut in the line, litter, although the trashcan is two meters away from them, spit in the subway, and at times I have seen children often encouraged by their parents, peeing and pooping in the street.

For several years already, the Chinese have become somewhat obsessed with the west, and with the European and American popular culture. English teaching schools are appearing in Beijing and other major cities’ like mushrooms after the rain.  I work at Sesame Street English, yes the real Sesame Street Company, just this year alone they have opened more than 10 English schools in Beijing and many others in the country. Their aim is to teach different values, like courage, collaboration, kindness, respect, responsibility and many other similar values to 3-6 year olds. Values that in my opinion should be taught at home. After they finish their kindergarten, children from the ages of 3-5/6 come to the training schools to learn English and other values which would later help develop a character. The children spent most of their time from one learning institution to another. To their parents it is so important that their children learn English that they neglect to teach them much about their culture. It appears that the Chinese culture was dead after the cultural revolution. I see children going to English language training institutions, but I haven’t heard of any cases where their parents sent them to a Kong Fu training school, I understand it sounds a little stereotypical, I am simply making a point.

One would think that by sending their children to a language school to learn English and other life skills parents are taking an initiative in getting involved into their children’s education. Some parents I’ve met actually are, they help their kids practice English and take them to many activities. However, many others seem to have little input, they just bring the children to school, register them to the advanced English courses, although their children have no knowledge of English, and they expect the schools to teach them.  For some others, this place is just another kindergarten to dump their kids while they are at work.

One of the issues that I have experienced at the school I work at (I assume many other similar schools have the same issue) is the curriculum that they teach to the children. At Sesame Street English, the curriculum is issued by the umbrella company. The books and the materials are designed for little children whose English is their native language. Children of USA, UK, Canada and others… Here at my school in Beijing we use the same curriculum issued by the company, we teach to nonnatives courses that were developed for natives. The program is very rich but it is not adopted according to the needs and language skills of the students we teach. The ages of the children are from 3-6, the curriculum requires them to do homework, such as simple writing in English and to say and repeat phrases which they do not know the meaning of. They are just like some little parrots that imitate whatever they hear. If I had to compare it would be similar to the EU policies that they shove down to countries who would want to get membership, such as policies and reforms developed in EU but that are not adapted in accordance to the type of governments and countries it is being introduced too.

The above paragraphs are simply conclusions drawn from simple observations. The written section bellow is based on research regarding the Chinese foreign policy and Soft Power.

Over the past several years The Peoples Republic of China has focused its image in the world by relying more in its “soft power” thus investing billions of dollars only to convince the rest of the international community to accept its soft rise in the international system. Harvard’s Joseph Nye’s soft power concept describes the ability to attract and co-opt rather than by violence and aggressively, but through using money and lobbying as a means of persuasion (Nye, 1990). The definition of the soft power according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, soft power is the ability to shape preferences of others through appeal and attraction. A state that possesses military and economic power, in our case China has both, and in general a vast superiority to that of the other states.  One of the most defining natures of the soft power is that is noncoercive, meaning that the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and might in foreign policy (Encyclopaedia Britannica).  Now a day, soft power relies mostly on influencing social and public opinion through much less transparent channels and lobbying through different natures of governmental and no-governmental organizations. China being the old fort of the communist east has developed several skills convening its ideas and beliefs. One of the most successful ones of course its propaganda, and there is no one else better than a communist country to instill ideas and brainwash individuals regarding their real nature.

Over the recent years, China has been the prime focus of many scholars and many governmental agencies, who are trying to measure the effectiveness of Chinese soft power, basing on the efforts of Beijing to expand influence through the promotion of cultural values and public diplomacy. China’s interest in soft power polices dates back to 1993. It was up until 2007 that soft power was identified as a major and important feature of the national policy. During the recession of 2008 China contributed 14% of its GDP (in that year) to help migrating the impact of the global financial crisis with the introduction of the economic stimulus package. This is where China began its endeavor in order to change the perspective the world has on its foreign and domestic policy. If one is to use idioms, one would say that China switched from using the stick to using the carrot as a policy offering a combinations of rewards instead of punishments in order to induce and change behavior. Unlike Nye’s conceptualization of the soft power, China began to articulate its own theoretical basis for soft power, based on a combination of modern Marxist and ancient Confucian thought (Huang 2013).

The Chinese values and culture are seen as being in competition with the USA’s use of soft power, which includes peacemaking, human rights, and freedom of speech. The US values of democracy are spread around the world, given the impact that the US has as the international police. When the soft power does not work, the United States uses the stick, hence is military which conveniently has a base in many different countries. In developing its own soft power, China seeks to undermine the appeal of the American values, which in long term threaten the Chinese legitimacy and claims on soft power (Jintao, 2017). China has invested millions of dollars into cultural programs, such as schools, scholarships and bribes in order to strengthen its voice and influence in the world, and most importantly to encourage a sense of pride and nationalism, hence appealing to the individuals that live in China and abroad.

The billions of dollars that China has spent over the years to polish its international look and charms have had a limited return. Many polls around the world show that opinions towards Chinas influence are predominantly negative. Polls suggest that China is viewed more positively in countries where democracy is rather a suggestion than politics, such as Latin America and Africa, where there are little territorial disputes and the human right issues are usually not in the public nor the governments to do list.  The combination of soft and hard power should be done homogeneously, soft power is usually derived from three main resources: its culture (appealing aspects of it), its political values, and its foreign policies (politics seen as legitimate). From experience the international community observes that China has emphasized its cultural and economic strengths, on the other hand it has paid less attention to the political aspects that can challenge its efforts (Nye 2015). In contrast, the United States, derives its soft power from the civil society, different social enterprises, social media, and individuals, rather than from the government. The US is seen as the center of the world by many, because of its music, cinematography, pop culture, and the numerous Non-Governmental Organizations that generate most of the soft power, which China lacks on.

The Chinese government has been exercising its soft power through various strategies. Some of this strategies include directly investing in underdeveloped African and Latin American countries; thus providing with humanitarian aid, establishing global media news services and opening Confucius Institutes; promoting the idea of the Model China. China has been supporting a variety of exchange programs, organizing cultural exhibitions and founding many multilateral institutions. Despite many efforts to obtain soft power and meliorate its image abroad, one cannot see China through Latin American and African lenses, although the Chinese government has been helpful. China’s investment has been short because many scholars and state actors consider the “sudden” Chinese schemes as propaganda. And agreeably China’s actions can be considered propaganda. In contrast with the perception of some African and Latina American countries, the perception that many Western States and Parts of Asia, have towards China is that they tend to be a bad news source for everything, from smoggy air, to repression of dissidents, to imprisoning Nobel Laureates, and to its corrupt policies (Peng 2015).

In China, the government manipulates and micro manages almost all propaganda and cultural activities, and therefore the bid for soft power will never be complete unless the Beijing government looseness up a little. Since its foundation, the Chinese communist system has always accepted that information must be managed, the people must be indoctrinated, and be taught the values of the communist party. In China, the term propaganda is not derogatory and usually it is something that the Chinese take up lightly (Shambaugh 2015). With the country globalizing and opening up to the world with its bid for soft power and two door policy actions, the state has had to try harder to withhold information, repressing the people and free speech and therefore its efforts to maintain state control have become more sophisticated. It is quite impressive truth to be told, and it is amazing to see the hypocrisy of the Chinese government, spending millions of dollars into aid programs in underdeveloped countries in Africa and Latin America whilst its people fight for resources. One of the most important institutions regarding soft-power operation is the State Council Information Office. This office is located in an old soviet era building, it looks and resembles the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The SCIO, has a large budged and many different functions, it forms a broader propaganda apparatus, coordinates propaganda efforts, and has a huge bureaucratic influence. It is the key censor and media watchdog in china, it serves as a fire wall, and brings fear and concerns to many Chinese, especially intellectuals and politicians. It has the function of the Big Brother that is always watching you (Shambaugh 2015).

Ultimately, China is using hard power in order to get into soft power, they are using unconventional means such as money, briber; through aggressively penetrating foreign radio waves, and propagandizing like there is no tomorrow. These media channels constitute the major weapons that china considers a dialogue war with the west. Many Chinese embassies and cultural centers around the world play an important role into propagandizing about china. They issue press statements rebutting foreign media characterization in China, take full pages of ads in printed media, and encouraging and intimidating many universities and nongovernmental organizations that sponsor events deemed unfriendly to China (Nye 2012).

In both China and the West, soft power is recognized as an important and desirable attribute of a state, with its characteristics such as cultural standing, language education and public diplomacy; this attributes are recognized as important and very valuable traits to one’s foreign policy. Ultimately, every country has their intake on how it should be proceeded in order to achieve the soft power. China, however, is not very successful at doing so. The government takes the lead role in shaping the development of society, rather than letting the society develop itself. China as a rising power, is more anxious regarding their “new place” in the international community and it seems as they are less inclined to pursue a revisionist type of development policies. It instead is becoming an international bully, supporting rogue states, and suppressing its people (Tao 2014). Chinas economic power is somewhat immeasurable, its traditional culture is admired by many individuals all over the world, and furthermore, its politics, policies, government, and philosophy, is studied. The soft power has an enormous potential, and therefore, China would have to rethink his policies at home and abroad, accepting critics, and start to rely on the talents of its civil society. China is not really sure regarding the position it has in the international community, although it is one of the most important stakeholders, when it comes to its position with international responsibilities, China however, maintains a low profile. China also holds the image of a threatening superpower, which is very likely to become in the near future, this threat is projected in the present day China. Many scholars argue that soft power is like respect, it cannot be bought, needs to be earned, and it is best earned when the talented society and its citizens are allowed to directly interact with the world and not be excluded from it.

Bibliography

Hu Jintao, ‘Hold High the Great Banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive for New Victories in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All’, Report to the 17th Party Congress, 15 October 2007, , accessed 1 March 2016.

Huang, C. (2013, January). China’s Soft Power in East Asia: A Quest for Status and … Retrieved June 11, 2016, from http://www.nbr.org/publications/specialreport/pdf/preview/SR42_preview.pdf

Nye, J. S., Jr. (2015, August 13). Chinese Communist Party and nationalism damage soft-power push. THe Australian. Retrieved June 11, 2016, from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/chinese-communist-party-and-nationalism-damage-softpower-push/news-story/9549f36084c04b912afaf241c76f4f59?nk=ba720765624d1ffe8f5f79f98c0d2973-1465637493

Nye, J. (1990). Soft Power. Foreign Policy, (80), 153-171. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1148580 doi:1

Nye, Joseph S. Jr. “China’s Soft Power Deficit.” Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2012.

Peng, W. (2015). China, Film Coproduction and Soft Competition – QUT ePrints. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/91326/4/Weiying_Peng_Thesis.pdf

Shambaugh, D. (2015). China’s Soft-Power Push. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2015-06-16/china-s-soft-power-push

Tao, X. (2015, April 14). China’s Soft Power Obsession. Retrieved June 13, 2016, from http://thediplomat.com/2015/04/chinas-soft-power-obsession/

“Bad” Student “Good” student.

I have been through three educational systems. I have attended a private liberal primary school in Albania where languages such as English, Italian, and German were mandatory for students to choose from. Where students were divided into bad and good students, the good students would sit on the front rows next to the teacher, and the bad students would sit on the back row. I sat somewhere in the middle. What really means to be a good or a bad student though? Where my professors too lazy to dedicate time to some students who had learning problems? As I mentioned before, I sat somewhere in the middle of the classroom. The “bad” students were sitting by the tables on the back row and the “good” students on the front row closer to the professor and the blackboard. I wasn’t considered a good or a bad student. Let’s just say I was somewhere in the middle. Hence, the place where I was seated. If I look back at the sitting scheme, it reminds me of where Bart Simpson from “The Simpsons” sat in class, and how he influenced the grades of the students around him.  The farther a student sat from Bart the better were the chances on getting a good grade and passing. I wonder though if that is what my professors had in mind. Dividing the students based on categories and only paying attention to the ones who they thought was worthy of their attention, and simply ignore some students who according to them had no perspective in life.  As an average student I often felt out of place. My professors would always tell me that I have lots of potential, and that I’m just lazy.  “If you could just try a little harder and not hang out with your friends on the back row you can be a great student” they would often say. I hated when they told me that.  I did enjoy getting in trouble just like the “bad” students. We would skip classes and go out for a smoke or an occasional beer. But that little escape from the professors iron fist wouldn’t last long. There would always be someone who would snitch for a better grade.