Today's date:
Winter 2003


The Rising "Soft Power" of India and China

Jehangir Pocha, the Indian essayist, wrote about Hindu extremism for the Fall 2002 issue of NPQ.

Cambridge, Mass. - After Lana Makhanik, a yuppie Russian immigrant to the United States, saw Monsoon Wedding, the "Bolly-Holly" romantic comedy about a rambunctious New Delhi family, she came out ecstatic.

"The color, the vibrancy, the joy and fun of it all!" she gushed, "It makes me want to be Indian!"

Across the world, millions of people are reveling in the burst of creativity coming from India and Asia's other cultural giant, China. As China and India have rejected the grim socialism of their past and opened up their minds, borders and markets, a new generation of artists from these countries have been taking Chinese and Indian pop and fine culture to new levels of sophistication. They are expressing and explaining their experience to the world on their own terms, and an America redefining itself as a multicultural nation within a globalized world is soaking it up.

Bollywood musicals are dazzling US audiences and playing to packed houses across the country. China's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has become the highest grossing non-English film of all time. On the street in many an American city, teenage girls have taken to wearing a Hindu-style "dot" between their eyes, and boys to tattooing themselves with Chinese characters they cannot read.

In more rarified circles, Chinese and Indian artists are winning acclamation at the highest levels. In 2000, the Paris-based Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian claimed China's first Nobel Prize in literature. In 2001, the award went to a member of the Indian diaspora, V.S. Naipaul. And a Bollywood film, Lagaan, became the first Indian film nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar since 1957.

Even as culture czars and consumers celebrate India's and China's dramatic reentry into the popular imagination, they are unwittingly driving another dynamic.

Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, calls it "soft power" - the influence and attractiveness a nation acquires when others are drawn to its culture and ideas. Nye, who developed the concept, says soft power enables a nation "to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction rather than coercion."

Until recently, soft power was largely an American weapon. Washington had learned to wield its soft power as astutely as its "hard," or military and financial, might. Adherents of Nye's theory believe the Cold War was won as much by Radio Free Europe, Motown and Hollywood as it was by President Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program.

As emblems of America, Mickey Mouse, McDonald's and Levi's presented to the world a nation that was easy to love. To many, these brands became symbols of the universal ideals of America - free markets and free people - and made people all over the world want to follow and be like Americans, even if their leaders told them differently.

A Chinese dissident once told me that when she was forced to listen to local Communist Party leaders rage about America, she would hum Bob Dylan tunes in her head as her own silent revolution against them.

But now India and China are acquiring soft power and turning the tables. Even as Sen. Henry Hyde bashes China on C-SPAN, Americans are tuning in three channels away to watch Jackie Chan take on a bunch of international racketeers, including shady Americans. In such films and in other media, the images of Chinese and Indians, and more generally of China and India, are increasingly becoming more positive.

For decades, any mention of India or China conjured up images of under-clothed, underfed and over-populated nations preaching a combination of socialist dogma and political revolution. To a Western world in the throes of post-war consumerism, they seemed hopelessly disconnected. Of course, in the heady '60s both India and China enjoyed ascendancy in the cultural imagination, but it was brief. Within a few years, Nehru jackets and the Little Red Book were soon passé. As John Lennon, himself once enamored and soon disillusioned with Asia's many ambiguities, sang "if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you're not going to make it with anyone anyhow."

The reason for India and China's cultural regression was that their Socialist utopias, which were aimed at offering the world an alternative to American capitalism, failed. The ensuing political turmoil and economic stagnation - the Maoist years in China and Indira Gandhi's authoritarian rule in India - caused a creative drought. Censorship and imposed notions of culture suffocated domestic creative impulses.

The liberalization and reform of the 1980s and 1990s changed all that.

The creativity of India's and China's new artists has been so powerful that apart from attracting audiences to Indian and Chinese cultural products, they have begun to shape and influence aspects of America's own culture.

Albums such as Nitin Sawhney's Beyond Skin have inspired rock bands to interlace their searing guitar riffs with raunchy Indian melodies. Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest production Bombay Dreams, a celebration of Bollywood music, just opened to raves and sold-out performances. The directors M. Night Shyamalan, Shekhar Kapur and John Woo are conjuring celluloid charisma by marrying their indigenous instincts with Hollywood style. At society balls the glamour set are arriving packaged in a new élan that combines Indian and Chinese designs with American classics, while gourmands are savoring the cuisines of these once remote countries.

Lu Ann Walthers, a senior editor at Pantheon Books that publishes Chinese and Indian authors including Ha Jin and Meera Nair, says America's captivation with Indian and Chinese culture is a natural corollary to living in a globalizing world.

"In the past, one could read excellent American books and never get any picture of the outside world," Walthers says. Now, she says, "the outside world is thrust into America's consciousness (and) Americans are puzzled by its complexities and reaching for works that help explain it."

Meera Nair, whose collection of short stories is called Video, says she intended her book to be "an exploration of what happens when the West intrudes into the East."

"But what I have come to realize is that when Americans read a book written by an Indian about how Indians see America, it changes their view of both cultures," says Nair. "So a book about the intrusion of American culture into India itself becomes an intrusion of Indian culture into America."

Nair sees this interplay as the essential alchemy of culture - that an impulse from the West may influence the East, and an interpretation of this influence could travel back to the West. "In the end," says Nair, "ideally both cultures are transformed, for they have achieved some greater understanding of the other."

Artistically, this is heady stuff. Even before the mantra of globalization, art and culture had always sought to achieve a universalism of expression. One might expect nations to cheer this cultural mingling of waters. But politically, the burst in India and China's soft power is entangled with some powerful geopolitical undercurrents.

In this media age, the power of image is of growing significance in international politics. "We live in an information world and information depends on its credibility," Nye says. "Countries that are more credible are more likely to be believed and then followed."

Britain, Israel and Taiwan have long understood the value of cultivating a positive image, not just with US decision makers in Congress, but also with ordinary Americans. A positive public image not only brings tourists and trade, it is also critical in shaping American public opinion on international disputes. During the 1982 Falklands conflict between Argentina and Britain, for example, the deep affection many Americans felt for Britain was undoubtedly part of the reason Washington "tilted" toward its Atlantic cousin while staying officially neutral.

The Indian government, especially since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 1998, has been quick to see the importance to building its image in the US, and it recognizes the appeal of its movies and culture as a persuasive way of achieving this.

"New Delhi can exercise considerable soft power," Nye says. "Bollywood films and pop music are indeed widely followed...In addition to that, India's reputation as a democracy adds to its soft power."

As part of India's push to promote its cultural exports into the US and beyond, New Delhi supports India's participation in US film festivals, at the Academy Awards and in international beauty contests. It gives generous tax breaks to the Indian entertainment industry to promote exports and consular officials have been instructed to work hard toward promoting Bollywood in their host countries.

The most vivid illustration of India's efforts to use soft power as a tool of foreign policy came recently in Afghanistan. When the Taliban fell in Afghanistan, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was one of the first dignitaries to ?y into Kabul and welcome the interim Karzai government. Unlike other visitors, Singh, who was eager for India to replace Pakistan as the neighbor of influence, packed his plane not with supplies of food, medicines or arms, but with tapes of Bollywood movies and music that were quickly distributed across the city.

New Delhi's objective is clear - to influence other nations, particularly America, with a view to winning friendship, investment and political support in its rivalry with Pakistan. On a recent visit to the US, B.K. Agnihotri, a senior BJP leader, exhorted Indians in America to "train in propaganda" and hosted a series of workshops to coach Indians in "educating US media" on such issues as the conflict in Kashmir.

China has been less savvy in understanding and using its growing soft power in the US, but its intention to manage its image through the media is no less certain. Ironically, much of the soft power that could accrue to China through the novels and films Chinese artists produce is diluted by the government's attempts to squelch works it sees as subversive. While Beijing, like New Delhi, promotes the export of selected films, it also heavily censors its own filmmakers and imposes tight restrictions on the import of US films into China.

Besides cultural influences, Nye says, a substantial dimension of China's attractiveness and soft power comes from its economic success. This, he says, has won the grudging respect of the West, and has caused developing nations to want to emulate China.

Maintaining this economic success story has been critical for the Chinese government, both to retain its credibility and to attract more foreign investment. Each year, it posts official economic growth rates of 7 or 8 percent - figures that many international economists look at with great skepticism, given that China has entered the most difficult stage of overhauling its moribund state sector and that hundreds of millions of Chinese are now unemployed or underemployed. Still, the Chinese government's message to the outside world is that China is in a dynamic stage of growth, confidently expanding its economy and taking its rightful place among the world's economic players and top powers.

Toward that end, China has welcomed the visibility that has come with hosting such events in the 1990s as the Asian Games and the UN International Women's Conference. In this new century, many Chinese are overjoyed at the fact that Beijing will host the 2008 Olympics - a chance to show the world what China can do. A flurry of construction and renovation projects has already begun, and several of the worst polluting factories in Beijing have been ordered to clean up or shut down.

Even as China and India use soft power, successfully, to improve their international image, front pages have been carrying a different kind of story.

China's exports of weapons and technology to Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, its aggression toward Taiwan and its crackdown on dissidents has troubled Washington and much of the world community. India's slide into Hindu religious fundamentalism and its accompanying belligerence toward Kashmiris and Pakistan has brought the subcontinent to the brink of nuclear war four times in the last four years.

US and world response to these actions has been muted. Some analysts say that India's and China's rising soft power in the US has limited the options Washington can use against them, complicating Washington's already delicate relationship with both countries.

"When a country gets very popular with the American public it gets somewhat harder for Washington to follow a hard line against them," says Nye.

For example, in the dispute over Kashmir, increasing numbers of Americans seem to be taking a more indulgent view of an India they have come to understand much better than its Islamic counterpart, Pakistan.

Increasingly, the astute use of popular media and public events by governments is eroding the fine line that used to separate propaganda and soft power. While this is nothing new - Hitler used the Olympics to showcase a new Germany in 1933 and the Allies made imaginative propaganda use of films like Casablanca - artists and writers such as Ha Jin say the process of using art for politics is "a kind of violation." But other Chinese and Indian artists are, increasingly, supporting the direct state actions New Delhi and Beijing are taking to build their soft power.

The perceived "cultural hegemony" of America has rankled many such Chinese and Indians. Eileen Chow, an associate professor of Asian studies at Harvard University, says there is "an unabashed nationalism" in China and India, and a tendency to see America as the mean street bully trying to keep them down. Many Indian and Chinese artists feel that the US media has neglected them and portrayed their nations inaccurately. Many of them, with their new sense of empowerment, are determined to combat this. In China, Chow says, there is growing desire among artists for their nation to recapture its previous positions of eminence in the world and an appreciation of what it means to be Chinese.

"Nationalist sentiment is mined in China, because the party is totally bankrupt intellectually," Chow says. "By getting people excited about China, young people feel very proud of their culture and their politics."

Indians, too, yearn for greater recognition and respect for their ancient culture, and for a more influential place in the modern world. Like the Chinese, they celebrate any sign that this is happening. When the Indian film Lagaan won its Oscar nomination, the jubilant reaction in the media, among politicians and on the street was similar to that after India tested its nuclear weapons - a celebration that India had shown the world just what it could do.

The massive Chinese and Indian expatriate communities in the US - 2.4 million and 1.7 million respectively - also play a critical role in promoting the political interests and culture of their home countries. Both have powerful lobbies in Washington. The Indian community, which is now America's richest ethnic minority, has become particularly effective in influencing US policy toward South Asia, and the soft power gained from ever-increasing American interest in Indian ?lm and literature has boosted their efforts.

"If you look at places like New Jersey and New York City, you are seeing that more Indian Americans are getting involved in politics," said Parag Khandhar, a policy associate at the Asian-American Federation Census Information Centre. Many US-based affiliates of the Hindu nationalist parties that currently rule India have also tried to infiltrate the US public school system, offering to make seemingly benign "cultural presentations" to students, says Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. In reality, Prashad says, the presentations are far from accurate or fair. They are instead, he says, designed to spread the Hindu nationalist view of India and India-Pakistan relations.

Washington is disconcerted by such initiatives, and by the increasing dilution of its own soft power. Calls are being made from all ends of the political spectrum to rebuild the United States Information Service (USIS) and increase funding to such public diplomacy initiatives as VOA. A report by the Center for the Study of the Presidency, an influential think tank, cautions against the growing media power being acquired by other nations. It warns that "some of the information revolution's benefits have been turned against (America)." The US, it says, needs a "new public communications strategy to preempt...rising anti-American sentiments and negative perceptions."

Though such concerns are focused around the Middle East where such Islamic information services as the Al Jazeera cable network are transmitting a very different reality of the world to its audiences, India's and China's increasing efforts to wield their own soft power have not gone unnoticed in Washington.

Adm. Bill Owens, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the US must "rebuild (its) capabilities to speak to the world about America and what it truly represents." Owens says the growth in foreign media "threatens America's fundamental interests. Negative perceptions are often a diffuse threat, but over time, such perceptions can erode our power abroad."

President Bush appears to believe that soft power can indeed play a vital role in projecting and protecting American power. The president has promised to consider restructuring and refunding the US public diplomacy machine, and he recently appointed a former advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. Beers gained fame on Madison Avenue for sharply increasing the sales of Uncle Ben's rice. One of her first actions in her new position has been to launch a new radio station for the Middle East, called Radio Sawa, or Radio Together. Beers has said she hopes the station will help change the political climate in the region, offering Middle Eastern youth an endless stream of Britney Spears and other pop music recordings, interspersed with carefully edited news bulletins. While there has been plenty of criticism of Radio Sawa, local journalists and diplomats confirm that it is fast becoming ubiquitous.

As the world transitions from an era of old-fashioned brute power into an information age, the added emphasis on soft power is natural. Just as China and India acquired their own nuclear weapons as a way of standing up to US dominance in what was and still remains the chief determinant of strategic power in the last century, both nations are now moving to claim their own positions in the US-dominated domain of soft power.

The repercussions of India and China exploding into the American cultural imagination could be as significant as the explosions that blasted them into the nuclear club, although they will play out more subtly and over a longer period of time. Though neither India nor China can really challenge the US, their rapid attainment of strong positions in both areas is leading the US to shore up its own position in both fields. While Washington plans to safeguard its nuclear omnipotence with the controversial Missile Defense Initiative, it is also moving quietly to strengthen its soft power.

US trade negotiators have turned up the heat on China to allow the import of more American movies. India's resistance to opening its media and publishing industry to foreign investors is also slowly being worn down by US pressure. Meanwhile, the US has created legal and invisible barriers to foreign media seeking entry into the US.

Like consumer marketers competing for a slice of public mindshare, Washington, Beijing and New Delhi are increasingly trying to win hearts and minds. Superficially, this may not seem an altogether bad thing. The battle for minds may be insidious, but at least it is not gory. Yet, as the US founding fathers warned, the good judgment of citizens is essential to their freedoms. As public perceptions are increasingly manipulated, there is a risk of misjudging what is actual and what is artifice, making citizens less vigilant and less aware of how politics are actually playing out on the global stage.