Buoyed by its massive foreign-exchange reserve, China has spent billions of dollars to boost its soft power. Direct Chinese television broadcasts and Confucius Institutes around the world are aimed at winning the world's respect. But a series of political scandals showing a total lack of regard for China's rule of law have punctured claims about the Chinese system's superiority. Chinese netizens' claims that dissident Chen Guangcheng, who had escaped house arrest, was in "the 100 percent safe place" in China - the US embassy - sum up China's challenge. In fact, the Chen incident represents a loss of face, reflecting a lack of trust by Chinese citizens in their own government.
As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and actions in China of late have been deafening. A quick survey of world newspaper opinion pages shows the damage to China's soft power.
In February, Chongqing Vice Mayor Wang Lijun spent a mysterious 30 hours in the US Consulate in Chengdu and subsequently "left of his own volition," according to the US State Department. Obviously he thought the US mission was the best place for his personal safety. Now in custody in Beijing, he faces treason charges and, apparently, assists in the investigation of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, who is suspected of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.
The Bo saga dominated headlines for weeks, with salacious details leaked, including massive amounts of money involved and the poison administered to Heywood, who, it's alleged, wanted a bigger cut for laundering money. Chinese citizens treated the news as unusual only because it was public, which certainly does not boost China's soft power based on Confucian morality.
Then, just as the Bo saga was beginning to run out of steam, came another sensational development: the escape from house arrest of blind legal-rights activist Chen, who managed to travel from Shandong to Beijing, before finding refuge inside the US Embassy. Chen left the embassy after six days, again of his own free will, according to both the Chinese and US governments. Only a few hours passed before he changed his mind and wanted to leave China with his family.
Like China, the United States does not welcome Chinese citizens seeking shelter in its diplomatic missions, whether they're former police chiefs implicated in human rights abuses or dissidents mistreated by Chinese authorities.
After all, the United States has no means of sheltering dissidents for prolonged periods or spiriting them out of the country. Ongoing events show that the Chinese government's often belligerent and extra-legal behavior to a large extent influences how China is perceived by the rest of the world. Such actions have a greater impact on Chinese soft power - or its lack thereof - than programs beamed by Xinhua or CCTV around the world, at a cost of billions of dollars.