Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Beijing Using ‘Soft Power’ to Counter Anti-Chinese Attitudes in Central Asia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – Many Central Asians view China as a threat to their region, and to counter that image, Beijing has launched a well-funded program of “soft power” instruments to promote a more positive view of China and acceptance of the inevitable increase in its power there, according to an analyst in Kazakhstan.

            In a two-part article on the Radiotochka.kz portal, Ruslan Izimov says that Beijing has been using soft power throughout its history but has stepped up those efforts in the last decade not only in southeast Asia where its influence is strong but in the West and increasingly in Central Asia (radiotochka.kz/news/full/1581.html and radiotochka.kz/news/full/1592.html).

            China’s message through these measures, Izimov argues, is that China seeks a harmonious world, although it will defend its specific interests with vigor, that Beijing is ready and able to provide assistance in education, health and other social spheres, and that its Confucius Institutes are a channel for such cooperation.

            In Central Asia, Beijing’s first task in this area is the reduction of “anti-Chinese attitudes.” Unlike in Central Asia, Chinese influence in Central Asia has been relatively small in the past, and the image of China as an enemy or threat is well-entrenched.  Overcoming such attitudes is a long-term proposition.

            According to Izimov, China is moving in three directions to change this situation.  First, it is providing scholarships for Central Asians to study in China. In this year, there are 724 foreign students at Xinjiang Pedagogical Institute, most of whom are Central Asians, and more than 7500 students in other Chinese universities from Kazakhstan alone.

            China is also sending teachers to Central Asia.  This year, Izimov says, there are “more than 2,000” Chinese instructors in Central Asian schools, there are four Confucius Institutes in Kazakhstan alone. There are four such institutes in Kyrgyzstan, several each in Tajikistan and Uzbekstan, but none yet in Turkmenistan.

            Ever more Central Asians are studying Chinese: more than 2,000 Kyrgyz at the Bishkek Humanitarian University are, for example, and ever more students from these countries are going to China.  From Turkmenistan, although it does not have a Confucius Institute, more than 1500 Turkmens are now studying in China.

            Second, China is promoting itself by stationing its journalists throughout Central Asia and by providing pro-Beijing articles to the local media.  And third, it is actively promoting the expansion of Chinese business in the region, an effort that has been successful because Beijing puts fewer conditions on its investments than do Western governments and firms.

            An example of what China has been doing, Izimov says, is its promotion of “an economic corridor alongside the Silk Road,” Beijing’s response to Western efforts to promote a revival of that path.

                China clearly has had some successes, the Kazakhstan writer says, but the size of its effort has provoked a backlash in one respect: there are now even more articles in the media of the region about the Chinese threat and such commentaries reinforce precisely the attitudes that Beijing is now trying to overcome.

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