Wednesday, October 08, 2008

China’s souring soft power

China’s case shows us, once again, that soft power is hard to get but easy to lose. South Korea - The Beijing Olympic Games. When Beijing was selected as the host city for the Games in 2001, China toiled for seven years to prepare itself, and in the end the event was a big success.

That triumph quickly soured when the melamine scare broke out less than a month after the Olympics ended.

China was proud of its Olympic coup, but it has now become notorious as a country that produces dangerous food products.

With its public image now in shambles in the international community, the country is facing one of its worst-ever crises over its soft power.

Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University defines soft power as the ability to attract people’s hearts, thus being able to get your way. Soft power is a kind of charisma that enables you to charm people into doing what you want them to do.

China has worked hard to enhance this power, with the Beijing Olympic Games as the climax of its efforts.

It is said that as much as $43 billion was spent on sports arenas and social infrastructure, revealing the country’s ambition and drive. China’s case shows us, once again, that soft power is hard to get but easy to lose.

The United States finds itself in a similar situation. The Iraq War was the equivalent to melamine for the U.S.

America has lost both the support and trust of many countries because of the ongoing war. It belatedly announced a new defense strategy emphasizing international cooperation and soft power, instead of the existing defense strategy that focuses on the exercise of military power, including pre-emptive attacks.

But it looks like it’s going to take a long time for the country to restore its tainted image.

China and the United States are currently the two superpowers in the world. When the two leading countries lose their credibility, it doesn’t do other countries any good either.

As seen in the financial crisis in the United States, the global village now shares the same destiny due to globalization. It has become clear that when powerhouses are in trouble, it is difficult for the rest of the world to prosper.

China, acting as it does as the world’s factory, manufacturing products of all types including food items, should resolve the melamine scandal and restore its damaged soft power as soon as possible.

This is not only for its own people, but also for those in all the other countries that can’t do without China.

Chinese President Hu Jintao has ordered companies to learn a lesson from the melamine scandal and manufacture safe dairy products that consumers can trust.

However, the Chinese authorities’ attitude and response have on the whole been truly disappointing.

The milk companies and the authorities knew about the scandal long before the official announcement was made, but they didn’t immediately announce the toxic tainting to consumers.

They hid the facts and thus are guilty of serious negligence, all in the name of preserving the success of the Olympic Games. The scenario is reminiscent of the SARS outbreak that rocked China in 2003. The authorities were desperate to hide the facts then, too.

The recall on melamine-tainted milk products was conducted later than it should have been, only increasing the overall damage.

China didn’t inform countries that imported the products of the problem. Swift and transparent measures were necessary, such as when an earthquake hit Sichuan.

If the melamine case is not resolved, China’s soft power will be so seriously damaged that it will be impossible to restore. People afraid of what Chinese food may contain will avoid traveling to the country.

In 2004, dozens of babies died after having been fed tainted milk. At the time, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao promised a thorough investigation, strict punishment for the guilty and measures to prevent a similar case from happening again, but his promises were not kept.

China can’t become a superpower in the truest sense unless it sharpens its approach toward safety. We hope that China, as a country that plays an important role in the collective prosperity of the world, will carry out thorough reforms.

*The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Han Kyung-hwan
OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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