human rights

Why China Lacks Soft Power

A stunningly successful upstart fashion company (Shein) is beating all its established rivals like Zara to become the #1 shopping app. However … Shein goes to extreme lengths to hide the fact that it’s a Chinese company. Go to their “About Us” page, and there’s no clue that it’s based out of China. Even TikTok did the same for a long time.

This is China’s problem: Lack of soft power.

Another recent example is Hungary where 10,000 people protested the proposed campus of China’s prestigious Fudan University, which is ranked 34th in the world. Stunning 70% of Hungarians oppose the campus. It’s incredible how much fear and loathing China evokes.

Here are China’s dismal unfavorable views/ratings in many countries in Asia, Europe and North America — Philippines (58%), Germany (71%), UK (74%), South Korea (75%), USA (79%), Australia (81%), India (84%), Japan (89%), and Vietnam (90%). (Data from Pew Research, Gallup, SWS, ASEAN, and MOTN polls).

Even in the 10 ASEAN countries – neighbors of China – 72% have an unfavorable view of China and staggering 88% view China’s growing influence as a threat.

Why? China’s astronomically growing wealth and military power combined with South China Sea conflicts naturally scare its neighbors and other countries. The other reason is because China is stubborn, authoritarian, and acts as if it doesn’t care what the world thinks.

The recent raid on Apple Daily — an anti-China tabloid in Hong Kong — and the mishandling of Uyghur re-education camps are two examples that show China doesn’t understand basic principles behind soft power.

Problems with Suppression of Apple Daily

First, it goes to the basic principles of freedom of speech and free press. Governments invading media offices, arresting journalists and editors etc. is so third-world, tin-pot dictatorship. This shouldn’t be happening in the world’s second most powerful country.

Yes, Jimmy Lai – the founder of Apple Daily – is a tool of Western powers; and his tabloid is full of anti-China nonsense. However, China has to learn to fight ideas with ideas. Brute force and censorship only make China look bad. And to send 200+ policemen to raid a newspaper? Terrible optics.

Second, it doesn’t even make sense. Apple Daily can move to say, Australia, and publish the same articles on the web.

Ex post Facto or Retroactive Laws

Third, and most importantly, this raid was based on retroactive applications of the national security law. Apparently, Apple Daily published some articles in 2019, which are considered illegal under the new laws passed in 2020. (The articles welcomed sanctions on China).

This is a fundamental violation of common sense, fairness, and legal frameworks all over the world. In technical terms, “ex post facto” dictates that the government cannot pass a new law and apply that to past actions. This is so intrinsic to a civil society that it was a part of the Roman laws 2000 years ago — it was called “maxim nulla poena sine lege” or “no punishment without law.” The US Constitution also explicitly prohibits the federal and the state governments from enacting such retrospective laws. Most countries in the world also disallow ex post facto laws for obvious reasons.

Problems with Xinjiang Re-education Camps

China doesn’t fully understand the need for Rule of Law. This means the laws are applied to everyone equally — from the poor to the rich, and the powerless to the top leaders of the government. And there should be proper procedures and due processes that protect the individual’s rights and liberty. Now consider what happened to the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang:

First, there were no trials! People were sent to re-education camps without any due processes like lawyers, courts, jurors etc. This is shocking in the 21st century.

Also, there was no transparency — China never revealed how many people were sent to these camps.

Uyghurs in the de-radicalization camps didn’t even know what laws they broke other than vague accusations such as having “extremist thoughts.” Police can literally tell any Uyghur that he/she must attend a re-education school. One official in a BBC video admitted that the trainees had not committed any crimes but they “fit the profile” of someone who would commit crimes in the future. Needless to say, this is extremely dystopian. (If the translation is right — BBC has a lot of anti-China bias).

These chosen people have to spend many months at a school far away from their homes; and they get to go home only one night a week. How many months they spend in the camps is totally up to the camp officials. One trainer in the BBC video said that it takes 2-4 months for a person to learn how to change a bed (to become a maid). And she said that sincerely.

Uighur detainees at a detention facility in Kashgar take vocational classes. All the detainees in this class admitted to having been “infected with extremist thoughts.”

Ethnic minorities who fled China claim that they were forced to work in factories for no wages and were threatened that they would be sent to the camps. Maybe they are exaggerating but the lack of transparency in China creates such bad publicity.

Can you imagine this happening in Shanghai? Or to any middle class professional in Beijing? Of course, not. And the fact that Han Chinese in Xinjiang are not sent to these camps also show unequal treatments based on race/ethnicity.

Yes, the problems with terrorism are real in Xinjiang. And China has successfully stopped terrorist attacks in the last four years. However, the ends cannot justify the means. The entire vocational schools programs could have been handled very differently, while protecting people’s rights and avoiding a PR disaster.

Rule BY Law

The two examples discussed above illustrate what is known as Rule by Law. This is basically a totalitarian system where the government can change laws at will and do whatever it wants. Actually, it doesn’t even need to pass laws.

Rule BY law is where the government dictates and everyone obeys. In this system:

  • People cannot challenge the laws, as there are no votes or referendums.
  • Citizens may not even have access to lawyers to defend them.
  • There are no independent media to investigate the government as well.
  • Finally, there are no checks and balances through an independent judiciary that can strike down the government’s unjust laws or actions.

Free Speech Makes a Government More Credible

There are many great accomplishments of the CPC. But the fear of basic speech in the 21st century is counterproductive and irrational. Arresting and silencing professors, lawyers, bloggers, artists, journalists etc. make China look awful. In the last decade, 100s of intellectuals have been fired or arrested for simply saying or writing what the government doesn’t like.

  • Popular law professor, Zhang Xuezhong, was fired for writing an article about the importance of following the Chinese Constitution.
  • One long-time communist party leader, Cai Xia, had to flee China after comparing Xi Jinping to a “mafia boss.”
  • Another professor, Xu Zhangrun, was detained by police and then fired from China’s #1 university, Tsinghua, after criticizing the government’s response to COVID-19.
  • Last year, a retired tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, was sentenced to jail for 18 years after he called Xi Jinping a “clown.”
  • In Hong Kong, many book publishers have disappeared and are suspected to have been kidnapped by China. People arrested in China can be kept in prison for a long time without charges or access to lawyers.

China’s obsession to control speech actually backfires and makes all its messaging look like propaganda. For example, here’s a playlist of 1600+ videos of normal Uyghurs talking about how there is no forced labor or genocide in Xinjiang. Guess what? Outside of pro-China circles, nobody believes these videos. They are easily dismissed as fake or coerced. Why? 100% of the content is positive. Not one Uyghur has one bad thing to say about their lives or the Chinese government or the re-education camps.

The New York Times and ProPublica analyzed 3000 such Uyghur videos and found that people are repeating the same talking points, making the videos look phony and scripted. Worse, they may look like confessions of prisoners of war. (link for NY Times, link for ProPublica)

“We are very free” — Uyghur videos that look scripted and coached

Almost certainly, all these abnormal videos are vetted by local officials, who think they are so smart in controlling the message. However, this excessive censorship and control is precisely why people around the world easily believe the atrocity propaganda about China. So, when a Uyghur separatist woman living in the West says she was gang-raped or tortured at a vocational school in China, why wouldn’t the average person believe her?

Recently, the billionaire CEO of Meituan was reprimanded by Beijing officials after he posted on social media an ancient Chinese poem. Ironically, it was a Tang dynasty poem about a Chinese emperor who burnt books to silence intellectuals (and the emperor was overthrown by the people later on). Of course, Beijing thought that the CEO was referring to the current Chinese government. So, the government did exactly what the poem was talking about — forced the CEO to delete the social media post! And the CEO, Wang Qing, who used to be very active on social media, has gone silent since then. (This follows the punishment and virtual exile that Jack Ma has been facing since last year for his views on the financial system. Will a whole bunch of billionaires in China will conspire together in the future to challenge the government?)

A popular blogger with 2.5 million followers on Weibo got arrested for merely questioning the official Chinese death toll in the India-China border clash. China has new criminal laws against “insulting” national heroes, martyrs, and the military.

The Chinese government encourages people to report on one another for online “speech crimes.” Last year, whopping 160 million such tattlers’ reports were filed! It’s like Cultural Revolution 2.0 — Digital Version. Examples of speech crimes punishable by jail sentence in China include: (1) ”twisting” party history — i.e. having any opinion that deviates from the Party’s version of its own history (2) criticizing party leaders, ideology or policy (3) “smearing” heroes and martyrs (4) speaking negatively of China’s traditional, revolutionary or modern culture. (Here’s a great Los Angeles Times article on this trend).

An account on Twitter – @FreedomSpeechCN – lists, with evidence, numerous cases of people getting arrested for reasons like “insulting the police”, “insulting China”, “slandering political officials” etc.

China’s censorship also extends outside its boundaries. When NBA officials and WWE athletes (John Cena) are forced to apologize for wrong think about Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan; or when a British academic (Jo Smith Finley) was sanctioned by China for her writings on Xinjiang, Americans and others become more afraid of China’s growing power.

Chinese director Chloe Zhao, who lives in the U.S., won the Oscar for her movie Nomadland. It was scheduled to be released in China. However, somebody dug up an old 2013 interview in which she had said that China is a place “where there are lies everywhere.” So, immediately, her movie was cancelled in China; and she and her movie were wiped off the Chinese internet.

Hollywood blockbusters all now have embedded Chinese censors who vet the plot, characters, costumes, and other smallest details to make nothing offends the Chinese government. Like Tom Cruise’s jacket, shown below:

Top Gun (1986) versus Top Gun (2019). Flags of Japan and Taiwan replaced with meaningless symbols

And the things censored by China go beyond geopolitics — for example, the objectionable things include ghosts(!), women’s cleavage, men wearing earrings, homosexuality, Chinese actors playing bad guys, government officials being portrayed as corrupt (unless the officials are foreigners!) and the list goes on. Since Hollywood doesn’t make one movie for China and another movie for the rest of the world, what happens is that China dictates what movies the entire world watches.

When the government tries to control 100% of speech, it loses 100% of its credibility.

Why U.S. Wins the Soft Power Contest

The extraordinary soft power of the U.S. confounds many people around the world. There are myriad factors: Hollywood (movies, TV shows, music), America’s dominance in news and social media, corporate brands (Nike, McDonald’s, Disney and so on), America accepting refugees and immigrants, English as the global language and, more importantly, the American system. The American system is based on the rule of law, individual liberty that is protected by the Bill of Rights, freedom of press and speech etc.

Many people use “whataboutism” to deflect criticism of their own country. But America is bad and you’re not talking about it! Well, I have written hundreds of articles and blogs on all the problems in America — from its imperialism and dysfunctional democracy to capitalism and every other crucial topic you can think of. These articles sometimes hurt liberals and sometimes hurt conservatives.

My pro-China articles have been read 100s of thousands of times. But America allows it.

That’s the kind of a free society that gains soft power. More importantly, that’s the kind of society where intellectuals, entrepreneurs, thinkers, writers, artists, and philosophers bloom like flowers in spring. The multiple voices of the society don’t seem “harmonious” but they lead to bold and revolutionary ideas in science, technology, medicine, economy, and all other fields.

Now compare that to what a Chinese woman living in the U.S. wrote when asked if she would go back to China: “You only hear one type of voice in Chinese media outlets. And on China’s social media platforms like Weibo, patriotic nationalists report posts that they consider to be unpatriotic.

A number of people I know or have interviewed have been monitored by the security apparatus. When they travel or book a hotel, they have received phone calls from the police or have been forced to visit police stations. A doctor in Wuhan who I interviewed through WeChat was forced to visit a police station. Among the evidence police officers showed him to prove him “guilty” was a printout of his WeChat conversation with me. It feels scary knowing that the government has been monitoring my WeChat, and feels even scarier since I don’t know where the line is: Which word could cause me trouble? What kind of behavior would result in more serious consequences like detention?

It is emotionally hard that I have not visited my hometown and my family in China for years, and that I might not any time soon. I do hope there will be more room for free speech and independent journalism in the future, and that people will be able to express different opinions while seeking common ground.

Here’s an article that describes four types of nationalism in China: liberal, conservative, populist, and revanchist. The populist nationalism, which is anti-Western, radical, and jingoist, is the winner these days on social media, but it also works against China’s soft power. These modern day “Red Guards” confirm the worst fears about China’s rise.


The Chinese Constitution guarantees free speech and free media. Why would it say that if those are not important concepts? Here is Article 35: Citizens of the People’s Republic of China shall enjoy freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, procession and demonstration.

Think of how and why China opened up its economy. Free market economy is chaotic, while communist economy was micromanaged by the government and seemed stable. However, the benefits of free market outweighed the chaos it caused. The same applies to free speech and free media.

Moreover, consider that millions of Chinese have studied in the USA, UK, Australia, and elsewhere; and tens of millions have traveled all over the world. They haven’t gone back and started a color revolution. Also, the Chinese government boasts that more than 90% of Chinese citizens support the government. So, China should trust the strength and vitality of its own system.

Xi Jinping recently said, “We must … be open and confident … and strive to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” Those two ideas — openness and positive image — are intricately linked. Some people may think that once China is rich, everyone will love or respect China regardless of its authoritarian system. However, this is a shallow understanding of geopolitics and human psychology.

China is poised to become the world’s #1 economy and has numerous strengths. However, if China wants to become a true global power with soft power that matches its economic might, China must embrace concepts such as the rule of law, individual liberty, free speech, and a less combative foreign policy. More power should equate to more confidence, more tolerance, and a softer persona.

P.S. I am deleting a lot of comments from people who use their free speech to argue why free speech is bad. The irony is incredible…