From the Expats

Soft power flourishes in ancient emerging nation

(China Daily)
Updated: 2013-03-14 23:47

Soft power, the ability to influence, is a hard thing to carry off. The wording may be new, but it is not a new phenomenon. China's influence had already spread far and wide, long before the phrase emerged. But this happened before copyrights were ever thought of. Fireworks, table tennis and chopsticks all enjoy overseas appeal without any compensation.

Invented today, under a binding legal contract, they would be worth billions of dollars in annual revenue. And being soft means you don't always get the credit when it is due. It was Chinese tea that caused the British to lose their American colonies. The issues were tax and representation but it was Chinese tea, at the time more valuable than gold, that was thrown into Boston harbor. If the dumped boxes had been carrying say, beetroot, then it would have been a different story. The Boston Tea Party should be called, under copyright of course, the Boston Chinese Tea Party.

It is one thing not recognizing it from centuries ago, it's another not recognizing it today. We are witnessing, for the first time, an economic power that is not globally imperialistic making a world of difference.

As Europe hits the buffers, China is offering practical help. Terms and conditions apply, of course. It would be negligent not to have some conditions. But let's put it this way, the conditions that China attaches to its help are a lot softer than the conditions attached by Europeans to China, say about 100 years ago.China opened to the world in the softest way possible. No clash of rifles, no banging of drums, no parades, no ultimatums. Deng Xiaoping discussed the equal merits of felines regardless of color. This ushered in a new world economic order. It was so soft, is so soft, many still don't see it.

Energy and transport are just two sectors worth highlighting. Beijing's massive investment in wind turbines and solar panels will have global benefits. In terms of energy, China can see which way the wind is blowing. Construction projects, the Three Gorges dam, the Beijing-Lhasa rail line, high-speed rail, Maglev, and iconic buildings, define their times, as Brunel and Eiffel did. The US and Europe are stalling on transport investment. Some of their train stations resemble Anna Karenina backdrops. But even romance does not last long when the 4.45 arrives at 6.15 after delays at Fiscal Cliff, Sequester and Austerity. US President Barack Obama realizes the challenge and knows what must be done.

China has made the world do business differently. Its labor and expertise have altered global prices. It is the biggest investor in Africa, offering that continent an alternative from Europe and the US for the first time in three centuries. Sustaining booming economic growth for 30 years is not easy. Ask the Japanese. In the 1980s, when its economy was being touted as the next world leader, the square mile around the imperial palace in Tokyo was worth the total real estate in California, according to starry-eyed real estate agents. Now it's worth north Sanlitun. Soft power? China gives America street cred. That street is Wall Street. Anyone for tea?

Tom Clifford is a senior editor at China Daily. He can be contacted at