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« The Commodification of Education | Main | Kim Jong-il was not Confucian, Kim Jong-un is not Confucian »

December 16, 2011


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Good piece and congratulations on getting quoted by The Economist.

As I've discussed here, the Economist article is not without flaws.

A couple of additional points:

First of all, there is no serious harm or contradiction in using Sun Tzu as an instrument of Chinese Soft Power. Even India uses Gandhi to promote its Soft Power abroad despite processing nuclear weapons and being the largest arms importer in the world, and no one points out that contradiction. Same thing for France and Napoleon. Unless we consider a very extreme case, and they are only exceptions to the rule (and much of it depends on the target country too), this principle applies everywhere, as I've explained below.

"Thus the paradox of Sunzi's "soft power:" the strategic vision of Sunzi is widely known and studied and respected, but it creates an image of China as a potentially devious, deceptive...and self-interested power, not quite the picture Beijing wants to paint.

Really,one doesn't see why. I don't see any reason why an average citizen of another country might attribute Sun Tzu's thoughts and tactics to the current Chinese government's actions. Just because the author of The Art of War (assuming that he indeed authored it) is being used to increase Chinese influence aboard doesn't mean that the Chinese government likes war. As I've explained in my post that I linked to above, the influence of any country's Soft Power abroad has actually to do more with convenience and entertainment than with any love or appreciation for the projecting country. People eat at McDonalds because they like it, they watch Hollywood movies because they enjoy it, not because they love the US. However, The Economist will most certainly not tout this logic because it doesn't fit in its standard China narrative.

In a nutshell, Sun Tzu lived in a different time. According to my understanding of The Art of War, and I might be wrong and stand to be corrected if I am, Sun Tzu meant war to be used only as a LAST RESORT, if all other options fail. The Art of War has become humongously popular in the west (even without the blessings of the Chinese government), and not only among military planners; and the Chinese leadership is simply taking advantage of the opportunity (it would be stupid not to). The Art of War became so popular in the west despite Sun Tzu's being "not a peacenik". By contrast, for example, Genghis Khan's image in the west is not that favorable, and the Mongolian government might want to think twice before using someone like him as an instrument of Soft Power propagation.

Why, pray, does promoting Soft Power have to be related to the Chinese government's official policy? That Sun Tzu said that politics is about deception doesn't meant that the Chinese government is out to deceive everyone else, in just the same way that the millions of deaths and destruction caused by America have not caused a decrease in its Soft Power. This is an artificial relationship created by the western media to paint the Chinese government in a negative light.

I repeat - Sun Tzu was ALREADY popular, the Chinese government is simply taking advantage of it now.

@Maitreya, It is reasonable to relate soft power to a government's policies when the particular "soft power" the government is promoting is supposed to be related to that government's values. Hence the problem with Sunzi: regardless of how "pacifist" his writings, they are unequivocally about how a state should gain power vis-a-vis other states. "Promoting" presumably doesn't mean just plastering his name everywhere, a la Confucius Institutes, but suggesting that his thoughts are an integral part of Chinese culture, and therefore associating Chinese culture with his thoughts. China already has issues with neighboring nations being wary of its power (and no, this is not just a creation of the Western media), so promoting an association between its culture/ worldview and Sunzi may actually be risky.
As for the McDonald's example, you may be right. But that would merely suggest that China's strategy is wrong, and that depending on ancient philosophers for soft power is fruitless, and that China should focus instead on commercial/ cultural exports.


Well, who said that this particular "soft power" is supposed to be promoting the Chinese government's values? Please show me where the Chinese government has officially said that Sun Tzu represents the government's values in any way.

Secondly, if France promotes Napolean, does it mean that it wants to invade Europe?

Hence, as I've said previously, context matters. Napolean is looked upon in a favourable light in the west, so it is a good choice to use him as a tool of Soft Power. Genghis Khan, on the other hand, is NOT looked upon favourably in the west, and hence the Mongolian government's attempts (if any) to promote him will probably backfire. A line has to be drawn here. In this particular case, Sun Tzu was ALREADY popular, and The Art of War is used and admired in the west for much more than just "war" (business principles for example). That it is studied by the US army is not well-known among the western public (and what if it is?). Sun Tzu, despite "not being a piecenik", was extremely popular in the west, with hardly any support from the Chinese government. I wouldn't blame the Chinese govt for taking advantage of this situation. In fact, it would be foolish not to. Sun Tzu's principles can, and have, been used in all aspects of life, and not just war. The Economist is simply following its own agenda of portraying him as nothing more than a military strategist and a warmonger and then relating The Art of War to perceptions of Chinese government policy, and it is something that the general western public (to whom this Soft Power propagation is aimed at after all) doesn't give a damn about.

"As for the McDonald's example...."

China doesn't have any internationally recognized brands similar to McDonalds, and so countries such as India and China have to use historical figures for the most part for Soft Power propagation. I don't see anything wrong with that.

Re McDonald's, no, there is nothing *morally* wrong with that at all. My point is that going by your reasoning that the US is able to maintain soft power despite its politics because of its successful brands, that without such brands China and India are unable to create effective soft power.
Re Your first point, so far as I can tell China's central govt has not yet tried to promote Sunzi, at least not with any vigor, so of course they haven't yet tried to relate Sunzi to their values. The discussion is about the possibility of the govt doing so, as the people of Huimin suggest. But if they did, they would presumably have to concurrently promote Sunzi's values, otherwise it would be little more than reminding the world that Sunzi is Chinese.
Re Napoleon, I had no idea France promoted Napoleon for soft power, but their doing so sounds daft to me. Napoleon carries negative connotations in my mind, such as arrogance, conquest and insecurity- take for example the common phrase "Napoleanic complex". Even more importantly, France already has a lot of soft power, and brings up a large number of positive associations- good food, culture, romance. In Taiwan for example French is a relatively popular language, even though it's not very useful for Taiwanese compared to other languages. Same in the US. And finally, France is not engaged in potentially violent territorial disputes with its neighbors, and, fair or not, is not taken to be a threat to anyone (many Cote d'Ivoirians will disagree on this point), so even if they promote Napoleon no one will seriously worry about their attacking anyone.
Re Sunzi's popularity, that does not necessarily translate into useful soft power tool. Maybe it will if they play their cards right- you are right it is a possibility they should pursue. But Sunzi's popularity is as a tool to gain advantage- people may use it for business rather than war, but the goal is still beating other businesses. People fear China not just for its military power, but for its power in general, and the potential it may "outflank" the west or other competitors. Frankly if you think the general western public doesn't given a damn about China's policies and how they effect other countries, you are very mistaken. Even before China's recent assertiveness there were media reports even in Europe touting paranoid theories about China. It may be unfair but this is an issue China has to deal with.
Finally, Re: India, I would say India is unique in its ability to depend on historic figures- namely Gandhi and the Buddha- that have positive connotations around the world. China has nothing that can compare, even Confucius, and would probably be wiser to not focus so much on individual figures.

1. Well my point about McDonalds was that the US maintains soft power despite its wars, so why can't China? However, with the heaps of media bias and misconceptions floating around in the western media, this gets affected. And this affects not only Soft Power but all aspects of Chinese perceptions abroad. That is something that we'll just have to deal with the best we can. This is just part of a general trend. However, this does not mean that the Chinese government will not take advantage of this extremely popular figure.

2. "....but the goal is still beating other businesses"

Yes it is. And who DOESN'T want to do that? ;-)

3. The Napoleon example was purely meant as an illustration. Whether the French government is using him or not is beside the point. He is looked upon favourably as compared to Genghis Khan in the west,
which is the point I was trying to make. BTW, as the old adage goes, when an invader goes from west to east, he is portrayed "the great", as Alexander, but when one goes from east to west, as Genghis, he is portrayed as a barbarian. :P. Now given this sad reality, who could blame the Greek government for using Alexander for Soft Power propagation in the west, and Mongolia for NOT using Genghis Khan?
(BTW, Napoleon was a fan of Sun Tzu ;-))

4. "If you think the general western public doesn't given a damn about China's policies and how they effect other countries, you are very mistaken"

What I meant was that they wouldn't necessarily relate the two, as they didn't in case of the US.

5."Re: India, I would say India is unique in its ability to depend on historic figures- namely Gandhi and the Buddha- that have positive connotations around the world. China has nothing that can compare, even Confucius, and would probably be wiser to not focus so much on individual figures."

Yeah that's because the west is gaga over Gandhi, and such media misconceptions and negative connotations don't exist about India. The British (and thus by extension the west) have historically liked Gandhi because he enabled them to give India independence on their own terms - when they wanted and how they wanted. Now which colonial imperialist country wouldn't want an "enemy" like that? ;-)

This is a separate topic in its entirety though.

5. And as for your last sentence, why shouldn't China use historical figures? If one has a rich culture and history, why not use it? Moreover, China hardly has any internationally-recognized brands. Neither does India, for that matter.

6. And lastly, I think you're giving too much importance to territorial disputes here. That China is involved in territorial disputes does not mean that China should not use Sun Tzu to promote Soft Power. The general public is not going to relate ancient historical figures to current government policies in territorial disputes (or any government policy for that matter). That is too far-fetched. Should every country that is engaged in a territorial dispute stop promoting historical figures?

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