The EU and China's velvet power
By Eric Maurice
One would not really imagine the EU inviting journalists from some 100 countries to present its development programmes and ask the media to help it promote its projects and external policy.
It would probably be accused of mixing information with spin and trying to impose European views and interests on other parts of the world.
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But China did exactly that last week. The People's Daily, the official paper of the ruling Communist Party, organised a "Media Cooperation Forum on Belt and Road" in Beijing.
The objective was clear: wooing world media to support China's economic diplomacy and world view.
The One Belt - One Road initiative - also called the New Silk Road - was launched in 2013. It is a massive plan to invest and build infrastructure in Central and South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
The belt is the inland part, mainly for transport and energy. The road is a maritime route from China to Africa and the Mediterranean, with the development of port infrastructures.
China has put $40 billion on the table and has created two international banks to fund projects: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which has more than 50 countries participating, including several European countries; and the New Development Bank in cooperation with Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa.
The 21st century Silk Road is a way for China to open new markets to its companies at a time of slowing domestic growth. It is also a way to expand its interests and influence on a global scale.
In a roadmap for future EU-China relations published in late June, the European Commission mentioned One Belt - One Road four times in 18 pages.
It said the EU-China Connectivity Platform - a programme on transport - "should create synergies between EU policies and projects and China's 'One Belt - One Road' initiative".
It added that "co-operation with China on its 'One Belt - One Road' initiative should be dependent on China fulfilling its declared aim of making it an open platform which adheres to market rules and international norms".
What the commission may have missed is that the New Silk Road is well under way. China has already signed agreements with more than 30 countries. According to figures given by Chinese authorities, more than $1.4 billion (€1.25 billion) has been invested so far and 60,000 jobs have been created around the world.
But the Beijing forum showed something else. By sending engineers, construction machines and infrastructure companies, China pictures itself as a benefactor for the world. China is projecting its soft power and creating an attractive narrative.
'A common treasure'
China and Russia, the two main powers that dispute the Western-led world order, use different methods.
While Russia disrupts the existing order with covert action, unilateral modification of international borders and disinformation, China seems to use the order to advance its goals through messages that are meant to be non-controversial.
A senior party official told the forum participants that One Belt - One Road was "in line with globalisation", which itself "is the trend of the future".
In a message to the forum, Chinese president Xi Jinping said China wanted to build a "mutually beneficial and cooperative network" and that the initiative would "honour the interests of all".
"The Silk Road is a common treasure for people from all over the world," Xi said, while other officials repeated that it was aimed at "peace and prosperity".
With the Silk Road, China portrays itself as a velvet power.
Even China's expansionism in the South China Sea is described as a part of the country's effort for "harmony". Supporting Beijing's rebuttal of a recent international court's arbitration is considered as being an effort for "consensus" building.
While Russian media abroad - Russia Today or Sputnik - and activists on social media are tools to destabilise the West, Chinese state media is pushing a benevolent image of its home nation on to the international scene.
A large part of the Beijing forum took place in the People's Daily's ultra-modern tower, with discussions on new technologies and media innovation.
The People's Daily itself is an interesting model of development, with more than 650 million readers online, corporate blogging platforms and even virtual reality and data mining projects.
'Go forward hand in hand'
"Media plays an essential role in communicating information, enhancing mutual trust and building consensus," Xi said in his message, adding that the Beijing forum provided "a platform for media from many countries to engage in dialogue and practice cooperation".
"We hope to utilise this platform to promote the development of international relations, deliver public opinion and deepen mutual trust, as well as to push forward the progress of the Belt and Road Initiative," he said.
Xi, and the whole event, made clear how the Chinese government hopes the media will promote China's actions and views around the world.
After the round tables, the People's Daily officially signed a so-called "International Coalition for new Media Cooperation for One Belt - One Road" with 15 media groups, including some from Portugal and the Netherlands.
The aim of the "coalition", the text said, was to "build consensus against misunderstanding and mistrust … establish information sharing … [and] improve culture harmonisation".
"We will persevere in media innovation [and] go forward hand in hand," the text said.
No European narrative
What was not said is that media development and "communication information" in China concerns official media only. The day before the forum, Chinese authorities shut several independent news websites for failing to rely exclusively on official reports.
Europe already knows that China's global activism poses a challenge, as the current discussions about China's market economy status or Chinese dumping of cheap goods have shown.
But it is also faced with a power that offers its own narrative, including to Europe and parts of the world with historical ties to Europe, and provides the means to circulate it.
The EU, on the other hand, not only seems to have no narrative to tell the world, but is now, after Brexit, even looking for a new story to tell itself.