By Lakna Paranamanna/Ceylon Today
Hollywood has been one of the most effective soft power instruments of America; a medium that charmed the global citizen on liberal values, popular culture and the ‘American way of life’. The recent release of Disney’s live action remake of ‘Mulan’ – a story of a girl who breaks cultural stereotyping and barriers to become a soldier in China’s imperial army – marked an interesting turn of tables; the deputing of Hollywood into a vehicle that promotes Chinese values and culture. But Mulan is not the first of its kind and is only another step in the growing dependency of Hollywood on the Chinese movie market.
Mulan was met with harsh criticism in the U.S. and abroad. The American movie industry was accused of ignoring human rights violations committed on Chinese soil against ethnic minorities for financial gain – hashtag #boycottMulan was trending. However, for some movie-goers Mulan though not a masterpiece ended up serving a thick slice of glorification of Chinese dynasty, culture and China’s national narratives.
Concept of ‘soft power’ by American political scientist Joseph Nye refers to instruments that enable a country to influence other nations without coercion. Soft power has proven itself to be an important tool of power projection and diplomacy particularly in the present information age where relying on hard power alone has not proven successful.
America was once a success story on the strategic implementation of soft power, which helped boost its image alongside its military prowess as the world’s superpower. Starting with its decline as a hegemony, America’s global image became one of a warmongering nation owing to its interventions in the Middle East during the Bush administration, worsened by the Obama administration. In the words of Nye himself, at present the incumbent US president and administration continue to further erode America’s soft power.
As of 2016, the US remained the largest donor to Sri Lanka funding close to 44% of all foreign grants while China remained the biggest lender. China has been accused by none other than Americans themselves of systematically pushing Sri Lanka towards a ‘debt-trap’. But any hopes of salvaging Sri Lanka from a strong Chinese foothold are long gone – with its most obvious manifestations standing tall in the form of the Lotus tower, Colombo Port City and the Hambantota harbor.
Despite allegations however, there is minimal public outcry against Chinese projects in Sri Lanka , particularly when compared to initiatives led by the U.S. such as the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC), PeaceCorps that sparked widespread public protest among Sri Lankans, indicative of a growing failure in American soft power in Sri Lanka. Despite its repeated efforts at shedding the negative perception among Sri Lankans, history seems to be repeating for the US, considering public protest similar to what was seen against the MCC occurred some three decades ago against the establishment of the Voice of America facility in Iranawila as well, which resulted even in the death of a Sri Lankan.
Soft power moves in Sri Lanka: China vs the U.S.
Despite having mastered the art of public diplomacy and soft power, why has the US not been able to paint a more favourable picture of itself among Sri Lankans?
Although late to the game, the art of soft power is not new to the Chinese. Their legendary statecraft manual “Art of War” describes multiple ways in which war can be waged to subdue the enemy without an armed conflict, whereas American propaganda efforts was a relatively newer concept that rose to popularity during WWII initiated by Edward Bernays.
Also, Sri Lanka was by no means a level playing field to American and Chinese soft power play – the latter is equipped with rich historical ties with Sri Lanka that predates to 4th century AD. This, coupled with Sri Lanka’s colonial history has no doubt caused Sri Lankans to view intentions of the West with a wary eye.
A significant erosion of American image and interests in Sri Lanka began however with the push for international accountability mechanisms on allegations of grave human rights abuses in the post-war context, enabling domestic political narrative to project the US-led West as bearers of sinister intentions against Sri Lanka’s hard won territorial integrity and violating its sovereignty. Projection of the US’ ill intentions caught solid ground given its conduct in the war waged against Iraq and its involvement in other Middle Eastern conflicts. Today almost a decade on, US’ actions at the UNHRC actions have led to the portrayal of the US as a hypocrite in the eyes of the locals, following withdrawal from the UN human rights body calling it a ‘cesspool of bias’ and sanctions imposed against International Criminal Court staff investigating American troops.
The Chinese on the other hand, have continuously chosen to stay away from intervening in domestic politics, making economic interests their leading marker in its relations with Sri Lanka, at least superficially. While Americans are busy tussling over issues of high politics, the Chinese have launched a clever plan of reaching out to the very grassroots of Sri Lanka – rightly understanding that with the growth of populist politics, the larger public opinion is no longer dependent on the elites or think tanks in Colombo but with those at the community level.
Chinese cultural and education diplomacy has played a key role in shaping a favourable national image in the eyes of Sri Lankans. Instead of trying to impose and thrust their values upon us, the Chinese have integrated with local culture via a multiplicity of avenues – be it through assistance for Buddhist temples, China – Sri Lanka friendship villages, Chinese students specializing in Sinhala language or the organization of mass weddings for Chinese couples – in moves seeking to embrace Sri Lankan culture and traditions.
Another success in China’s soft power engagements is its outreach with Sri Lankan media. Earlier this year, the US government funded non-profit think tank Freedom House accused China of coaxing Sri Lankan journalists to propagate CCP propaganda within Sri Lanka. Until Covid-19 travel restrictions hit Sri Lanka, China hosted a large number of Sri Lankan journalists from both print and electronic media in China on familiarization tours. Although not at the same level of professional capacity building, these tours are no different to the intentions of American exchange programs such as the International Visitor leadership Program (IVLP). The difference between them however lies in the fact that the American exchange programs remain highly selective due to the limited availability of slots, whereas the Chinese programs remain open to many. It has enabled the Chinese to maneuver the local media landscape with ease and deter any negative narratives of Chinese interests for Sri Lanka – a major win as far as soft power interests are concerned.
Another key reason for Chinese public diplomacy success helping bolster its soft power is the ability of Chinese diplomats to converse in the vernacular. Not only do they conduct their engagements in the vernacular but have adopted Sri Lankan names for ease of communication, helping expand the range of engagements with a wider Sri Lankan audience. Set this against American public diplomacy, where despite language training prior to a posting, not a single American diplomat has succeeded in delivering a speech in the vernacular languages , severely limiting their engagements to English speaking journalists and audiences.
Is the U.S. losing its plot on soft power?
Globally however, the advantage still lies with the US, at least according to SoftPower30 – a global ranking of the top 30 soft power houses in the world based on a series of criteria including digital diplomacy, education, culture, engagement etc. The Portland based ranking system categorises the US at 5 and China at 27 as of 2019. However, SoftPower30 also notes that Chinese cultural soft power has formidable strength, describing it as a ‘cultural juggernaut’.
Since 2019 China has suffered several hits against its national image due to accusations of human rights violations of the Uigher Muslims, skirmishes with India, restrictions of personal freedoms, labor exploitation in African nations, interventions in Hong Kong as well as being complicit in allowing the Covid-19 pandemic to spread worldwide.
These hitches presented the US with an opportunity to resume its place in the world order in terms of soft power, particularly in nations where its image has suffered grave blows. Instead America remains distracted with its own domestic issues that have spilled over to the global arena via the BlackLivesMatter riots, mishandling of Covid-19 pandemic, incurring further damage to its credibility. To make matters worse, America’s withdrawal from the World Health Organisation created a vacuum, while China rose to the challenge at hand despite the mounting accusations, rolling out ventures such as ‘mask diplomacy’ – an initiative to ship much needed medical supplies worldwide.
China is swiftly upping its game on improving its national image across the global. They have no dearth of resources with 1.3 billion people and 960 million square kilometers of territory at their disposal. While the Trump administration has shoved soft power on a backseat, the Chinese have recognized it as an important tool of diplomacy in its arsenal as evidenced through moves such as the establishment of the Beijing Foreign Studies University’s Public Diplomacy Research Center (2010).
Despite setbacks experienced in Sri Lanka, apprehension towards it foreign policy dominated by hard power, the American Dream has managed to retain its worldwide appeal. But it should not serve as an excuse to remain complacent, if the US wishes to promote its national interest and maintain its status in the global heirarchy. Going forward, it would be prudent for the US to invest more in strengthening its soft power initiatives, as opposed to the hard power driven foreign policy that does not even attempt to conceal their narrow self interests. Even in terms of Sri Lanka and building America’s national image, the same policy is applicable. Washington would be well advised to drastically change the direction and scope of their foreign policy instruments and outreach engagements – instead of attempting to beat Sri Lanka into submission in international fora, to focus on tangible deliveries as well as a more proactive approach to understanding local culture and context that goes beyond mere social media homages to local gastronomy, wildlife and picturesque landscapes.