Soft power and the personality void
Later this year, both China and the US will go through some fairly major political upheaval. In the States, the people will go to the polls to deliver their verdict on whether they are willing to give Barack Obama another four years to build upon the moderate successes of his first term. If they decide that the country's economic recovery has been too sluggish, his health reforms too radical, or his rhetoric too lofty, they will usher in Mitt Romney as the next President.
When the results are in, and regardless of whether it's Obama or Romney who is sworn in to office, you can be assured that almost every single person in the country will have some view on the man set to occupy the oval office until 2016. This is not necessarily because they will all be politically curious and opinionated, but because such is the nature of politics in the US; both candidates will have been figuratively hung, drawn, and quartered a hundred times over by the opposition in the run up to the elections.
The national media will have wall to wall coverage, exposing any inkling of weakness or scandal in the candidates, and no stone will be left unturned in their quest to dramatize the proceedings. No American will be able to listen to the radio, watch TV, or even surf the internet, without having their day interrupted by some kind of party political broadcast. Nines times out of ten, these broadcasts will take a negative point of view, creating a poisonous, febrile atmosphere between the two political parties.
Outside of the US, anyone with more than a passing interest in the next leader of the free world will easily be able to read up on Barack and Mitt at their leisure, coming to their own conclusions about the choice the American people will make in November.
Of course, there will be no elections in China, but nor will there be much of an opportunity for anyone inside or outside of the country to find out much about the men due to take up the position of President and Prime Minister of the most populous nation on earth. To most people inside and outside of China, two faceless Communist Party suits will be replaced with two faceless Communist Party suits. Only a smattering of insiders will have any real and reliable insights into how these men think, what their plans are for the country and to what extent we can expect either more of the same or radical changes in terms of government policy.
The smart money is on more of the same, but isn't it somewhat remarkable that, in this day and age, when China is so focused on building its soft power beyond its national boundaries, that it has not thought it appropriate to invest in educating the world about these two men who are about to take up the hot seats at the pinnacle of power? Xi Jinping did make a well choreographed trip to the US last year, but given how suspicious most nations and people are of China's rise, why has there been such little effort to try and break down the image of the country being run by shadowy, characterless figures, devoid of personality and of public proclamation?
When the author visited Hanoi to attend an APEC business summit back in 2006, the difference between China and the US's approach to building their international image and relationships based on mutual trust could not have been more stark.
The first speaker of the day was Hu Jintao. Hu arrived on time, his speech was placed on the lectern by one of his flunkies just moments before he arrived, and he proceeded to read out the statement in a voice that suggested this was the very first time he had read the words in front of him. He paused for polite applause at the end of his speech, and then departed as fast as his legs would carry him. His entrance and exit were closely guarded by his entourage, who seemed utterly convinced that any interaction with the audience or waiting media could only end in tears. The auditorium was no doubt impressed by the speed and efficiency of his appearance, but there was certainly no feeling of warmth, friendliness or care emanating from the platform.
Next on stage was then Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. This meeting was occurring right in the midst of the war on terror, and Ms Rice was not the most popular person in the world at that time. Even more provocatively, she was appearing at an event hosted by the government of a country that the US had entered - also uninvited - forty years previously.
Things did not start well for her as she arrived conspicuously late, but her entrance was immediately captivating. She paused on her way to the stage, shook several of the audience's hands, made sure everyone could see her smiling, and if my memory serves me correctly, she even embraced the person who was tasked with introducing her. She then spoke for 20 minutes using prepared notes, but speaking with utter conviction and passion on her chosen topic - the fact that people would look back at the war in a more favourable light than they see it now.
Most of the audience disagreed with her and I don't think many were won over by her argument. But few could not have been moved by the way she stated that amazing things can happen in current affairs, and to those who kept faith in what they believed in. After all, she said, who could have envisaged forty years ago that a black female Secretary of State would be standing there addressing a friendly audience in Hanoi in 2006? She completed her speech to a standing ovation lasting several minutes and then proceeded to take Q&A for another twenty minutes, clearly enjoying herself and the intellectual debate she was able to enter into with the people fortunate enough to be attending.
The above story is demonstrative of the challenge China faces as it advances its interest on the world stage. America is unpopular in many places, but at least most people know who its leaders are and what they stand for. For all its investments in Confucius centres around the world, and its attempts to turn CCTV into a respected global news channel and voice of the Party (shame about the xenophobic statements by its news anchor then), very few foreigners really feel comfortable with China's rise.
Would it make a considerable difference if there wasn't such a deep personality void at the very top of the echelons of power? We all know what happened to the last senior politician in China who dared to run a 'campaign' around personality, so one suspects monochrome statements from monochrome men in monochrome suits will be the norm for some time to come... but here's hoping that in an era when China is stepping into its role as a global leader, the new Party leaders surprise us all by appearing to at least care what the rest of the world thinks of them.