Yet Another Decline in Chinese Soft Power

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 8, 2010

I have written a number of times about China’s suddenly plummeting diplomatic image. Its reaction to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, and its effort to get as many people and countries to boycott the Nobel ceremonies represents only the latest hamfisted Chinese diplomatic misadventure, one that looks like it is going to backfire:

On Dec. 10, global public opinion will likely be aghast as a wider audience learns that the laureate’s wife has now become a virtual prisoner in her own home. The reputation of China’s legal system will take another nosedive as it becomes apparent that the government discarded all legal pretense in putting activists under effective house arrest, while calling Liu a “criminal.” And the Nobel Committee’s decision to honor a Chinese human rights advocate will appear all the more justified precisely because of the anti-human rights response from Beijing.

Even more problematic for Beijing is the Nobel Committee’s decision not to formally award the prize at the ceremony on Dec. 10 because no one in Liu Xiaobo’s family will be allowed to receive it. (Only one of the Chinese activists close to Liu, AIDS activist Wan Yanhai, will be present in Oslo on Friday.)

Admittedly, China’s rulers might be ready to withstand the inevitable international blowback. After all, the regime withstood such opprobrium following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize that year to the Dalai Lama.

But the ham-fisted response to the Nobel crisis has dramatically undermined Beijing’s post-Tiananmen efforts to rehabilitate its image. Language unbecoming of a world power used to characterize the Nobel Committee members (“little clowns,” in the words of Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu) has only made Beijing’s predicament worse. Beijing’s attempt to threaten European Union members through official diplomatic channels not to send their ambassadors to the Nobel ceremony has also ruffled feathers. This move has raised the stakes for EU countries — to stay away would be understood as bowing to naked pressure — and has turned what was routine attendance into a symbolic rebuke of Chinese interference. Although Beijing has insisted that a “vast majority” of countries would not attend the ceremony, so far only 18 have declined, including Cuba, Iran, and Russia.

Beijing may even further embarrass itself if the Chinese Embassy in Oslo goes ahead with its current plan to organize Chinese students to stage a counterdemonstration outside the ceremony venue. The irony of Chinese citizens legitimately exercising a right in Norway that the government denies them at home will not be lost on journalists and other observers.

I now can’t help but wonder whether I was too tough on Thomas Friedman. Sure, his pretend-cable was full of poor reasoning and misinformation, but given how many mistakes the Chinese have recently made on the diplomatic front, maybe Friedman’s imitation of a typical Chinese diplomat was better than I gave him credit for.

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