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China’s paltry response to Typhoon Haiyan illustrates the limits of its soft power

Update: China has pledged an additional $1.6 million in supplies, including blankets and tents, to the Philippines.

The world’s rich and poor nations alike have pledged millions of dollars in aid to the storm ravaged Philippines—but China so far has offered a paltry $100,000.

The amount would be low even if China were a much smaller or poorer nation: Malaysia, population 29 million, has pledged $1 million in cash, as well as food aid; New Zealand, population 4.4 million, has pledged another $1 million. But when the $100,000 is coming from the second-largest, fastest-growing economy in the world, it’s so jarring that even a Chinese state-owned newspaper editorial made the case this week for “humanitarian aid”:

China, as a responsible power, should participate in relief operations to assist a disaster-stricken neighboring country, no matter whether it’s friendly or not. China’s international image is of vital importance to its interests. If it snubs Manila this time, China will suffer great losses.

China’s Communist Party has often pledged to grow the country’s “soft power,” the ability to sway other nations based on an appealing image rather than economics or force.

It’s a push that spawned President Xi Jinping’s recent “mild posture and language” tour of Southeast Asia and premier Li Keqiang’s light banter with the prime minister of Thailand.  China’s state-run media are now running English-language Twitter accounts (never mind that Twitter is blocked in China) and have loosened up their programming to include Western foreigner-bait like interviews with The Killers. This summer, China introduced the mother of all panda-cam aggregation sites and a new panda cub photo-op record with 14 cubs.

But the tight-fisted gift to the Philippines, as islands lie in ruin and bodies rot on the streets, is a reminder of China’s less-than-gracious treatment of its neighbors: China issues passports with maps that assert its claims to the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, forcing other Southeast Asian countries to tacitly acknowledge the claim when they allow Chinese citizens to visit. In August, China rejected any multilateral approach (paywall) to resolving territorial claims like the islands.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye, the man who coined the phrase “soft power” 30 years ago, wrote last year (paywall) that Bejing’s soft power push was failing. Despite an Olympics that broadcast China’s talented population, fast-growing economy and mind-boggling infrastructure and organization, the country’s brutal treatment of human-rights activists and dissidents had spoiled the picture, he said.

Since then, China has embarked on a crackdown on internet communication, threatening to jail or fine anyone who spread untrue information on the internet. In one instance, a teenage boy was detained after asking a question about a police investigation. The country has detained dozens of activists, critics, and social media voices in “a repressive drive” that “attacks the very freedoms that Human Rights Council members are supposed to protect,” Human Rights Watch said in August.

According to a Pew survey released in July, the majority of respondents in 26 out of 38 countries polled said they believed China acts unilaterally in global affairs and either considers others interests marginally or not at all. China’s paltry aid to the Philippines is likely to reinforce that image.

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