In 1989 the Japanese bought controlling shares in a patch of midtown Manhattan that included Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall. It was one of the last gasps of Japan Inc., before the bubble burst and sucked confidence out of one of the most stunning economic success stories in modern times. By 1995 the Japanese had divested themselves of most of the buildings that they spent more than $1 billion to purchase. The economic superpower that had binged on American landmarks like the Pebble Beach golf course and Columbia Pictures was in retreat. Arrogance about the superiority of the Japanese financial model was replaced by two decades of pained introspection about why things had gone so awry.
Fast forward 17 years and Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, has planted its flag a few blocks from the Rock. Xinhua occupies office space on Times Square, along with a massive LED screen broadcasting programs from a media group that began as the Red China News Agency. The move into New York City by China's official mouthpiece symbolizes the growing ambitions of a country that in 2010 replaced Japan as the world's second biggest economy. In Washington, D.C., China's state broadcaster CCTV has unveiled new headquarters of what it hopes will be a competitor to international networks like al-Jazeera. After decades of isolation from or indifference toward the global community, Beijing is now engaged in a soft-power campaign to convince the world that its mix of economic dynamism and political authoritarianism can be a model for the 21st century.
Yet last month, Yang Rui, the oleaginous host of a CCTV International program called Dialogue, let loose a xenophobic torrent on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Commenting on an ongoing crackdown in Beijing against foreigners with questionable residency, Yang called expats in the Chinese capital spies and human traffickers. He proceeded to use a very bad word to describe a journalist of al-Jazeera who recently had been kicked out of China for her enterprising reporting. "We should shut up those who demonize China," he wrote, "and send them packing." A man who is supposed to be a bridge between China and the world was instead dissing that world and in highly intemperate language.
Today, a backlash against Chinese investment overseas is gathering force, with the cavalier practices of China Inc. drawing comparisons to the Western colonialists (and Soviet and American proxy warriors) before them. Countries within Beijing's sphere of influence, particularly those that share contested waterways with China, are also feeling nervous. Chinese military men are amping up bellicose language, even as Beijing tries to convince the world that its rise is a peaceful one. Last month, state-linked media in China warned that war could break out with the Philippines if the island nation didn't give up claims over a disputed scattering of rocks and reefs in the South China Sea.
China's attempt at soft power is a projection of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese companies doing business abroad building roads in Asia, sowing soybeans in Latin America, digging up minerals in Africa are nearly all state-owned. The Japanese government has its own soft-power campaign too: cool Japan. But the high-tech gadgetry, sleek design and animated culture that Japan churns out to great global acclaim are not produced by the state. That's the same case with South Korea, which wins cultural-diplomacy points from its exports of hip machinery, K-pop and addictive soap operas. What has China brought to the cultural marketplace thus far? State-run CCTV and Confucius Institutes, Beijing-funded cultural and language centers that China's propaganda chief Li Changchun once called "an important part of China's overseas propaganda setup."
China's regional muscle flexing and its internal crackdown on foreigners may be designed more for a domestic rather than an international audience. At a time of social tensions and political scandal, the party leadership is facing a once-a-decade transfer of power later this year. Yet Chinese citizens haven't been diverted from the serious issues at hand: rising corruption and income disparity, a lack of rule of law, a slowing economic engine. "A lot of Chinese are realizing that loving your country doesn't mean loving your government," popular blogger Li Chengpeng tells TIME. "Patriotism in China has developed from loving your government to loving your country, to loving values that you believe in." Now that really sounds like soft power.
with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing