BEIJING -- Taking a page right out of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War", China is looking to win the battle for global dominance without ever fighting. The strategy is to win over the international community with culture and values. But Beijing's playbook may be missing some important chapters.
When China sees the U.S. as its chief rival, it is not thinking just in terms of military might. In China's view, much of the appeal enjoyed by the U.S. around the world comes from culture and values. As such, Chinese President Xi Jinping has told the government to focus more on utilizing China's soft power. But Beijing's inability to keep politics out of the way could be gumming up the works, and reminding the world of the authoritarian nature at the core of the Chinese government.
"China's excellent culture and tradition is the strongest soft power we have," Xi said in a meeting with high-ranking Communist Party officials on Oct. 13.
Xi emphasized the need for officials to understand how great China's systems of governance, culture and tradition are, and to promote them to the world. One of the things the Xi administration introduced after it came to power was a recommended reading list for party executives. On this list is Joseph Nye's "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics".
The Chinese government frequently uses Confucius as the symbol of Chinese culture and tradition. This includes the Confucius Peace Prize. Its mission is to show the world China's view of peace through who is awarded. But so far, the big discussion about the prize has been the shortlists of nominees -- namely how askew these lists are in comparison with the general opinion of the international community. This year's shortlist, announced Sept. 28, includes former CIA employee Edward Snowden, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama -- and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Another example of the use of Confucius is the Confucius Institute. Funded by the Chinese government, the Chinese language education program has set up courses at universities in several countries. But its reluctance to let students discuss China's relations with Tibet, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and other subjects that the Chinese government deem undesirable has drawn sharp criticism as being against the spirit of academic freedom. Many schools, including the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University, have decided to end their Confucius Institute programs.
Nye's book says that the state should not be the one to control soft power in a free society. It is unclear how the Chinese Communist Party elites have been interpreting this point.
"For soft power to work, we need to gain international trust," said a party official who has been involved in China's soft power strategy in Xi's leadership team. "It will be difficult as long as the party system remains as it is today."
This official is critical of the Hong Kong authority's use of tear gas and other hard-line responses against pro-democracy protesters over the past month of demonstrations.
"It clearly contradicts the directions to boost China's attractiveness to the international community," he said.
But he may be looking at the different segment of the global community than that of other party officials. China's soft power seems to be attractive enough for countries that are working toward building more authoritarian political systems.
A mid-ranking official of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs was elated that "China's unique path for development is becoming a model that others in the international community look to."
According to this official, a representative from the government of Kazakhstan praised the Chinese system of governance at a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose members include Russia and Central Asian countries.
"The Chinese government puts social order before freedom," the Kazakh representative said, according to the Chinese official. "We will learn from China's approach toward building a different style of governance than the Western democracies."