Losing Face: Why China Can't Stop Squandering Its Soft Power

Though the country has become the world's second largest economy, its leadership is struggling with the spotlight, and with the global expectations that accompanied their rise.

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Former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who was recently ousted over corruption charges. (Reuters)

China has had a tough few months in managing its image. As if police chief Wang Lijun's attempted defection and the ouster of his boss Bo Xilai weren't damaging enough, Chen Guangcheng's dramatic escape and the expulsion of an American journalist capped off a season of political revelation and regression. The supposedly airtight lid on the Chinese system turns out to be rather porous. To the outside world, an impression has formed of a political system that remains peculiarly insecure and knotted in contradictions. Even worse, for all the official Chinese rhetoric warning that the U.S. is undermining China's sovereignty through its crafty ways, Chinese officials and citizens alike seem to prefer U.S. sovereign territory in times of trouble.

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That these recent episodes embarrass the Communist Party is probably an understatement. The party's fear of general "instability" is perhaps matched only by the disdain it holds for the airing of dirty laundry. This is in part informed by a cultural psychology at the micro level that manifests in macro political behavior: The ugly stuff and internal bickering get sorted out in the privacy of an inner sanctum, while for the appearance of outsiders, all is well and please don't poke around.

But the "outsiders" are much harder to keep out of what was once exclusively domestic terrain. The penetration of communication technology, albeit heavily controlled, still acts as a transnational sieve. What appears on Sina Weibo is re-posted on Twitter within moments, multiplying readership in the outside, English-speaking world at unprecedented speed.

But it isn't just social media. The collective global attention paid to the world's number-two economy has increased drastically in the media and within policy circles. Call it the "post-Olympics effect." The triumphalism of the 2008 Beijing Games and the ensuing collapse of the global economy dramatically altered the extent and scope to which the world focused on China. Just a little over three years later, a "China story" is bound to splash across the front page of major U.S. papers week after week. The breadth and detail of coverage have increased significantly too. Many more Americans now likely know that there's a gargantuan Chinese city called Chongqing and that its leader is in serious trouble. And many more will have heard of Vice President Xi Jinping. In 2002, how many people knew who Hu Jintao was or what a politburo standing committee was?

It is a given that this level of attention will persist. What is not clear is how China will ultimately adapt. While it's theoretically positive for American public knowledge about China to grow, for Beijing, such endless attention is highly uncomfortable and unwelcome. What's more, some of that attention carries the expectation that China should behave more like a top-two power. Even before the recent slew of political and human rights troubles, Beijing spurned the idea that it must play a more expansive global role, especially if that meant big distractions from the home front. In light of recent events, China may have had a point: The image it has projected lately is not of a country that is strutting onto the world stage confidently and unencumbered.

Indeed, for all the financial muscle thrown behind shaping its global image, Beijing may have squandered more soft power in the last few months than it has accrued in years. Money flowed to Confucius Institutes and sleek CCTV America studios. Meanwhile, more Chinese elites are seeking exit visas to America. The message is tough to miss: China is the place to get rich fast, but America is the place to park your RMBs and protect the bounties. America, it seems, is the safe haven of last resort for Chinese dissidents and Chinese personal wealth. What good are Confucius Institutes (state-funded soft-power outposts that teach Chinese language and history at universities around the world) when many of your country's elites are voting with their feet and hedging against domestic unpredictability?

Surely, the Chinese government understands the ramifications of what could happen if these trends continue unabated -- another source of embarrassment that they might term "obviously manufactured by western press out to get China." Such propagandistic spins will increasingly fall on deaf ears, however, both to the domestic audience and to outside observers. If Deng Xiaoping famously captured China's development strategy in the pithy phrase "hide and bide," then China in 2012 certainly can no longer hide. It has already lost a considerable amount of control in hiding its unsavory domestic affairs, and it now must increasingly answer in the court of global public opinion.

Yet that is also a source of potential tension, as external perception remains at odds with the Chinese state's perception of its own capacity, creating divergent realities that will be difficult for the leadership to navigate. How can the country possibly meet all these expectations when it still has little idea of what it wants to become? The world is watching now, and it is impatient.