It would be easy to dismiss CCTV ’s global push as an expression of government propaganda, but the reality is more complex: it also reflects the growing influence of China’s private sector, the peculiar brand of public-private capitalism that has powered the Chinese economic boom. While American soft power was largely a result of the creativity of its private sector, which made brands, technology, and cultural products that found global adulation, the Chinese version seems an efficient, assembly-line attempt. What’s unclear is whether it will have the same creativity and attraction for the world.

Tao Xie is one Chinese intellectual who is critical of the leadership’s narrow interpretation of soft power. Xie is an associate professor at Beijing’s Foreign Studies University, with a PhD from Northwestern University and an acclaimed book on Sino-US relations. He describes himself as someone who likes to push the boundaries with the Chinese leadership, and he often criticizes party policies, even on “hostile” networks like the BBC.

Xie sees an economic motive behind his country’s drive to globalize China’s media, movies, and academics.

“How long can you keep investing in railroads, highways, and airports?” he asks. “At some point, you will run out of urban projects. And there are signs that the economy is slowing down. The leadership thinks these low-pollution, capital-intensive cultural industries could be the next growth engine for China, at least for a short period of time.”

But can it work? “It looks increasingly to me that unless China has fundamental political change—transforming into a democracy—its security dilemma with US, India, or Japan will be difficult to soften, to say nothing of being eliminated,” he says. “Unless our system becomes more transparent, so foreigners know what our military is doing, how our decisions are made internally, and the process of foreign policymaking, outsiders will continue to suspect us. And they will invite the US to maintain strategic balance in the region.”

In soft-power terms, if the country with the better story wins, then China’s political system just may be the villain of its own piece.

Research for this story was supported by a grant from the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute, for which we are grateful.


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Sambuddha Mitra Mustafi is a Fellow with Swaniti Initiative based in Delhi. Follow him on Twitter @some_buddha