Last October, China's Communist leadership endorsed a decision to enhance the nation's soft power. Even before, that, in 2010, China launched 24-hour global English TV news. In February, CCTV America, based in Washington, was launched. In addition, China has set up more than 320 Confucius Institutes around the world to promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture, at a cost of roughly $150 million a year as of three years ago.
Ongoing events in China play a much greater role in shaping how people view China than "new perspectives" or "alternative views" presented by spin doctors or professional western journalists on China's payroll. Countering the Confucius Institutes spreading word about the virtues of family cohesion is the heartrending account of Chen's family held hostage by the government.
In the Chen case, the United States crafted an agreement under which the Chinese government agreed to relocate the dissident and his family to another part of the country where he could enroll in a university to study law. Chen insisted that he wanted to leave the country as soon as possible, and stated he feared for his family's safety in a phone call to an emergency US congressional hearing on his case.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman announced today that Chen could also apply to study abroad.
This is unprecedented. If China carries out its part of the bargain, it could mean loosening of the grip that security authorities have had on the country in recent years, ostensibly for maintaining social stability.
Little of this is known to the Chinese public because of official censorship. However, while China can gag its own media with directives from the party's propaganda department, it can do little about news reports from other countries. Despite China spending billions on public relations, editorial comments in the free media reflect what the world thinks of China.
Major western media, of course, have been unstinting. Referring to the fall of Bo Xilai, Businessweek called it "the most serious threat to the authority" of China's Communist party since the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising.
The Chinese government has insisted that the Bo case - including allegations that his wife committed murder - was no more than a "criminal case."
Publications, in Asia and elsewhere, though wonder about China's opaque power struggle, belying the image of a unified China preparing for orderly succession. Japan Times, in an April 30 editorial, commented on reports that Bo had wiretapped telephone conversations of President Hu Jintao and concluded that the former's downfall "points to a possible power struggle at a time when China is preparing for leadership transition." Hu, the party leader, is expected to step down later this year as part of a once-in-a-decade changeover.
In South Korea, the Joongang Daily, in a March 16 editorial, called for political reform, arguing that "China's stable development is not its problem alone, as it is tied to the interests of the world."
An editorial in the Korea Herald suggested: "The scandal represents absurdities of today's China, where power is connected with money.... How the collective leadership will handle the Bo Xilai event will show whether the system in China is durable."
Still in Asia, the China Post in Taiwan carried an editorial on the Bo case April 15 in which it called for "the institution of a truly independent judiciary that does not bow to the rich and powerful."
In South Africa, one of China's BRICS partners, The Star carried an opinion piece May 2 on Chen. Titled "A Chinese Puzzle," the essay called the drama being played out at the US Embassy "a microcosm of a conflict between the two powers" and said the crisis "needs to be defused - but not at the expense of Chen's new-found hope of freedom."
For weeks, Germany's Der Spiegel has asserted that China's leaders "have been embroiled in a bitter power struggle that could jeopardize a carefully planned transition in the national leadership." But because of censorship controls, "many Chinese have become so cynical that they don't even trust the party media, such as state-run television, when they actually tell the truth...."
So, while Chinese censorship is successful, it only extends as far as the country's borders. In other countries, the media is free to draw its own conclusions about China, based on what's happening on the ground. If Beijing is serious about increasing its soft power, it must first change the way it treats its own people. But that might embolden critics to question one-party rule, which remains non-negotiable.