China’s soft power
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Children use smartphones near monitors displaying a still from Chinese action movie “Wolf Warrior 2” at a cinema in Beijing in August 2017. A new tone of aggression has earned Chinese diplomats the title of “wolf warriors”, after the Rambo-like blockbuster film. Photo: AP

Letters | What China needs to win hearts and minds in the West: a change of tone

  • Government spokesmen should break free from the script, and adopt a more open approach – like professor Zhang Weiwei or late Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew
The Chinese leadership apparently pays attention to how it should court global opinion. Last month, the outspoken Prof Zhang Weiwei was enlisted to share his point of view and, in his personal capacity, he forged a formidable defence of the Chinese political system and culture. What is striking is that he did it in a style and tone largely divergent from that of Chinese government spokesmen. Prof Zhang pointed in the right direction, and it was helpful to see a style of communication that undoubtedly works better.

The Chinese would do better to engage with the West with some degree of intellectual openness. With some courage they should break free from the official script, and adopt an exploratory approach. They could even agree with their critics when they deserve it. 

That also means getting less personal in rhetoric. They should view international relations from a wider perspective of humanity. China’s top leadership has demonstrated such maturity. It is a matter of time before more people come to appreciate it. 

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But while being less personal, one should appeal to the emotion of one’s audience, by using language that visualises details and consequences. Prof Zhang does this exceptionally well.

Once, discussing the hypothetical scenario of electoral democracy in China during an interview, he said the country would end up with a nationalistic, “peasant government” which would want to invade Japan. That was a thought-provoking answer to give even your most presumptuous opponent. This kind of free thought and exploration is what endears you to others. They feel the human side of you. 

China’s spokespersons should speak with the polite assumption that their Western counterparts and critics mean them well.

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew once bested a detractor of Singapore’s conformist system by prefacing his response with: “If the Financial Times does worry about us, and sincerely takes an interest in our future...”. With such a coherent, frank and considered reply, he left few in the audience doubting the British journalist’s true motivation.

When Singapore first showed signs of global thought leadership and development success, the country was greeted with scepticism and disbelief not unlike the reception China is getting now. China’s leadership might as well approach this with patience and wisdom, and know that there is some element of preconception that the West finds hard to reconcile with China’s extraordinary progress.

It is said that science does not change people’s minds. Rather, minds change when the old generation dies, and a new generation grows up believing something else.

Lee Kuan Yew was proof autocratic government can be good

The next generation of the world will only know China as a country of great development, outstanding technology and cultural advancement, and perhaps also magnanimous leadership. 

What is needed in the Chinese government’s diplomatic communication is nothing short of holistic re-examination.

Lim Wei Siang, Klang, Malaysia