Isabel Hilton: 'China is using soft power to smooth her way'

From a contribution by the author and journalist to an Intelligence Squared debate on the rise of China, at the Royal Geographical Society, London
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The Independent Online

China has felt keenly the humiliation of the last 150 years, when powers that China felt were culturally inferior imposed their will on a weakened and decadent imperial state. The restoration of China to her "rightful" cultural station is as important to the Chinese sense of national well being as her steadily growing GDP.

Which is why China is using soft power to smooth her return to her rightful place in the world. To remind ourselves of what that is: for most of China's history the Chinese empire was both the biggest economy and - for China -- the cultural centre of the world. until wrongfully deposed by the upstart West. That is what China now seeks to recover. And since the world is globalised, this time the influence will be too.

China understands soft power: the Chinese government knows that culture creates warm conditions for political and economic expansion. That's why they are pouring millions into cultural diplomacy, the promotion of Chinese language teaching and new partnerships across the world to promote Chinese studies in what, ironically enough, are called - Confucius Centres - the philosopher the CCP spent years trying to erase from history.

A state that wishes to project its culture must know what it is trying to project. The current regime is searching for an official narrative that encompasses both modernity and the unresolved legacy of Maoism. In the absence of a better one, the dominant story is the nationalism that is rooted in the humiliations of the 19th and 20th centuries and in the Great Han chauvinism of the modern imperial project.