Indians readily associate the term 'military offensive' with China. Think of the border war of 1962, or, as we speak, of the Galwan Valley incursion in Ladakh. On the other hand, we do not associate the term 'charm offensive' with our powerful Communist neighbour. That is why it was surprising to see a spate of interviews given recently by Chinese scholars and diplomats to the Indian media. Speaking to The Hindu, a senior Chinese academic argued that his country had handled the coronavirus pandemic much better than Western nations. He claimed that China provided medical assistance of different kinds to more than 80 countries, and then emphatically asserted, "The list of countries holding positive views of China is much longer than those with negative views".
Meanwhile, the Chinese Ambassador to India reached out to one of our television channels, to likewise present the best possible case for his country. "China is ready to provide support to India and do what we can to lend a hand," he said. "We sincerely wish India an early victory over the epidemic," he continued, "we have opened the channel for India's procurement of medical equipment in China."
Having made specific offers of support in the medical space, the Ambassador then sought to invoke the old, now mostly forgotten, spirit of 'Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai' that is supposed to have prevailed before the war of 1962. Thus he said, "This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and India. We are not only neighbours, but also friends and partners. As [the] two most populous developing countries in the world, China and India should cooperate together to win the battle against the epidemic."
Meanwhile, the Chinese Establishment have also taken this sort of smooth talking into the heart of the American Establishment. Writing in that bastion of Republican conservatism, the Wall Street Journal, a top Chinese diplomat argued that his country was being unfairly demonized in the Western press. China, he claimed, had actually been a model in how to fight corona. The diplomat remarked, "Among the countries hit by its first wave, China took a 'closed-book exam' with uplifting results that have informed other countries' decision-making in the 'open-book' tests that followed." He praised the people of Wuhan who, he said, had been 'the epitome of responsibility, self-sacrifice and solidarity', and had thereby inspired the world to fight the pandemic effectively. "While China never intends to export its system or model", wrote the diplomat, "its efficiency, spirit and sense of responsibility in the lifesaving battle against Covid-19 should be obvious."
This publicity campaign on the part of the Chinese State is unusual. It suggests a certain degree of nervousness, of guilt even. For independent reports suggest that the Chinese State were anything but responsible, open, or transparent in their handling of the pandemic. That they allowed the 'wet markets' trafficking in wild animals to reopen after these markets had caused earlier epidemics was itself a criminal act of irresponsibility. Then, when the present pandemic broke out, the Chinese State punished their own doctors who sounded the alarm early, while suppressing vital information from the rest of the world for several weeks.
This outreach by Chinese diplomats and scholars indicates that they are worried the pandemic will affect their country's standing in the international community. For several decades now, the Chinese Establishment has taken for granted its rising stature in global affairs. The spectacular economic progress that China has made, coupled with advances in defence and technological capability, had given the political leadership a growing sense of confidence. Pride in the antiquity of their civilization was always central to the Chinese ethos; now, the sinews of economic prosperity and military prowess consolidated a belief in their Manifest Destiny to dominate and shape the world.
This anticipation of global greatness has been endorsed by many writers who are not themselves Chinese. It was widely proclaimed that just as the 19th century saw Great Britain as the world's great power, and the 20th century witnessed the United States in that role, in the 21st century, this mantle would pass to the People's Republic of China. Long before the current pandemic, however, I was myself skeptical of these claims. I did not think that China would so easily come to succeed Britain or America as the most influential nation on earth. This was because, for all its economic success and military might, Chinese culture will never be remotely as appealing outside China as British culture once had been outside Britain and American culture still is outside the United States.
In the words of the Harvard scholar Joseph Nye, while China may have the 'hard power' to dominate global affairs, it lacks the 'soft power' to do so. In the 19th century, when Britain conquered the world, it brought with it the works of Shakespeare and Dickens and the games of cricket, tennis, football, and more. In the 20th century, when America conquered the world, it brought with it Hollywood, jazz, blue jeans, and the novels of (among others) Faulkner and Hemingway.
To be sure, China boasts of one of the world's great civilizations. However, the man who built Communist China, Mao Zedong, savagely repudiated the art, architecture and literature of the past, seeking to erase its traces entirely. In this, he radically differed from his Soviet counterparts, who sought actively to make their rich Russian heritage part of their strategy of cultural export. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Soviet Union so strongly competed with the United States for global influence, they would call upon, on their behalf, the great Russian composers and especially the great Russian novelists of the pre-Communist past.
When the British, or the Americans, or even the Russians, sought to increase their political footprint in Asia or Africa, they were met with fear and insecurity, on account of their economic and military might, but also with affection and love, because of the attractive cultural products they had to offer. Their sports, their books, their music, and their films all drew people of other countries into their sphere of influence. Compared to the capacious cultural offerings of past superpowers, all the Chinese have to offer the world is their cuisine - and this is by no means enough to reconcile us to their bullying and intimidatory ways. On the other hand, the global influence of Britain and America endured for as long as it did because their political dominance was consolidated by a cultural hegemony as well. Even while opposing American policies in Vietnam or Iraq, we continued to wear jeans, drink Coca-Cola, listen to rock music, and watch the films of Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. We could detest the American State while glorying in the beauty and diversity of American culture.
In comparison, in their own quest for winning hearts and minds overseas, the relative lack of soft power places the Chinese at a serious disadvantage. This was so well before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19. And this will be so after the pandemic has passed too. Even if they were not currently messing around our borders, Indians were never remotely likely to see the Chinese as a model in how to behave or conduct themselves. Nor are people in other parts of Asia or Africa. The Chinese might grow even more prosperous and powerful, and yet China shall never attract the range of friends and admirers in other countries that their great rival, the United States, has, and will.
(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include 'Environmentalism: A Global History' and 'Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World'.)
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