Saturday, September 29, 2018

What brand China needs is some serious, urgent sprucing up

Eric Wamanji,

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In Summary

Through their multinationals and NGOs, the West boasts of a dizzying network of soft power infrastructure spread in all corners of the world.

The trouble with China is that it is still a mystery. Her intention in the new world order as a super power is still fuzzy.

Conversations about China have become a daily staple. Any group consumed in tittle-tattle must rant about the red dragon.

Folks seem exasperated, and their discourses are spiced by lines like: “China wants to colonise us … Chinese are crafty. Chinese are disrespectful. Chinese are racists … China this, Chinese that …”

No doubt the masses’ attitudes towards China are negative. This week, the online community for instance was volcanic in fury, rattled by a signage at the Ngong Tunnel of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR).

The signage, written in blood-red Chinese logogram, screamed atop the tunnel that could as well pass for a project in Guangzhou.

A cheeky online user even called it “Hong Ngong tunnel,” a pejorative link to Hong Kong.


Clearly, China is suffering an image crisis in Kenya and most of the world. This is because China’s soft power is fragile.

Her global image is suspect even as she chugs on expanding geopolitical sphere of influence in the rise to be a super power. China has to find a way of worming herself into the hearts and minds of the citizens.

But she seems unbothered. The Ngong Tunnel fiasco comes soon after talk of “debt trap” schemes Beijing has deployed to hook onto developing countries.

Citizens fret about the dangers of paying high taxes or even ceding strategic national assets in lieu of the loans.

Then, lately, Chinese nationals have acted in the most barbaric a manner that does not advance Beijing’s diplomacy.

Take the sad expose of discrimination at the SGR. As if that was not pain enough, Chinese national Liu Jiaqi had the audacity to insult the black race and even the sovereign President of the Republic of Kenya.

A few years ago, the Daily Nation busted a Chinese restaurant in Kilimani for racism. These folks are vomiting on our shoes.


These and many more incidents explain the strong resistance of China among the taxpaying masses.

China may be wealthy – the second largest economy in the world after the US. China may be militarising at an astronomic rate. But that is not enough.

Hard power alone cannot buoy a state to an influential stature. China needs to construct a robust soft power programme to win the hearts and minds of the world.

Indeed, soft power, in the international system, has become the currency to sustain hegemony. It is not that Beijing has not discovered this weak link.

The current emperor, Mr Xi Jinping, in 2014 came our [sic] strongly on soft power: “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s messages to the world.”

No doubt China has rolled out some soft power strategies like spreading the Confucius Institutes, there are 54 in Africa. Then there is the Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network (CGTN).


But China has some catching up to do. These instruments pale in shadow, say, when juxtaposed to the British Council, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Goethe-Institut, or Alliance Française.

Nor is China producing any significant cultural products like the Hollywood. The Silk Road, the latest project that would have earned China a great deal of public relations and international admiration, is mired in scandal for its believed role of trapping poor countries in debt.

In fact, lately, billions of unflattering words have been produced on the phenomenon of the “debt trap diplomacy” - a tactic that, critics believe, China is using to capture states.

Through their multinationals and NGOs, the West boasts of a dizzying network of soft power infrastructure spread in all corners of the world.

It is not for nothing that such instruments like the Usaid, Ukaid, DFID, or Netherlands Development Organisation exist. They help to shape the West’s narratives.


The trouble with China is that it is still a mystery. Her intention in the new world order as a super power is still fuzzy.

Most of the values that China espouses are incongruent with the West, on whose axis most states rotate.

Indeed, the liberal West has given the world such values as democracy, liberties such as freedom of religion, conscience, expression, human rights and independent judicial systems.

These are fundamental rights that the world abhors anytime they are infringed upon.

China, indeed, doesn’t seem to be capable of being a guarantor of the liberal world order, nor its approach any admirable to folks who value their rights and freedoms.


Thus, the Chinese forays, in quest to expand empire, should pay heed to the essential matter of dignity, what the German thinker, Immanuel Kant, described as “an intrinsic worth”, and thus “valuable above any price”.

And as a utilitarian would teach us, dignity is an end to itself; it has no price. The late Pope John Paul II would call it transcendent.

Or the Transcendent Dignity of the Human Person — so infinite, so beyond the control, and rob by any mortal; so godly.

That is why China has to relook at its soft power strategies, this includes redesigning its public diplomacy [JB emphasis] shedding off the oppressive tag and teaching its diaspora the wisdom of being respectful.

From the fortresses of their embassies, the Chinese diplomatic community must come out and meaningfully interact with locals.

Mr Wamanji is a Public Relations and Communication adviser. twitter: @manjis

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