“We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s messages to the world,” Mr. Xi said not long after he took power in 2013.
In his most important media policy speech in 2016, Mr. Xi instructed the top official media organizations to learn to tell compelling Chinese stories and build flagship foreign-language media outlets with global influences. Xinhua, CCTV, Global Times and the rest have built up their presence in the United States and elsewhere. They have also taken to the very same social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter that Beijing blocks at home. Some accounts have amassed followers of over 10 million.
However, the Hong Kong protests have suggested that Beijing still knows hard power much better than soft. Instead of offering a competing narrative of a Hong Kong that could prosper under Chinese rule, it has instead made itself look like a bully.
Though troops haven’t crossed the border, images distributed around the world by Chinese media outlets show heavily armed personnel preparing for urban conflict. Beijing is forcing businesses, both global and local, to keep their Hong Kong employees in line or risk getting cut off from the vast Chinese market. On Sunday Beijing announced a new policy that will buff up the socialist city of Shenzhen just across the border so it can compete head-to-head with capitalist Hong Kong.
Some young mainlanders are so worked up with nationalistic fervor that they are using software to bypass Chinese censors to log into Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to blast and shame those who support Hong Kong. While that may have some impact on Chinese students living abroad, it has had little impact beyond that.
Contrast China’s approach with Russia. Moscow-tied groups have used social media to tremendously disruptive effect in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. But China needs to build a positive image for itself, not tear down the reputation of others.
That is in part why a recent CCTV tweet, comparing Hong Kong’s protest to the Nazi rise to power in Germany in the 1930s, undermines Beijing more than it helps. The post quotes a rewritten version of the poem by Martin Niemöller, the church leader who opposed Hitler, which ends with, “Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”