China’s role in Myanmar: Hungry dragon or cuddly panda?

China is seeking to burnish its public image in Myanmar against the backdrop of decades of fraught relations.


A Chinese military choir in position ahead of a military parade in Beijing. (Greg Baker / AFP)

A Chinese military choir in position ahead of a military parade in Beijing. (Greg Baker / AFP)

The year 1990 was a strange one for the world’s power brokers. The global geopolitical landscape was upended by the end of the Cold War, and with it, the received wisdom that had influenced policymakers since the end of World War II.

The inimical impasse of the two-superpower era gave way to a messier incarnation of the global order, one in which the United States was still at the helm. How, then, could the world’s sole superpower retain its crown?

Joseph Nye, an esteemed doyen of neoliberal international relations theory, suggested that there was a “more attractive way of exercising power than traditional [military] means” – a model of “soft power,” as he termed it, for a multipolar age.“It is just as important to set the agenda and structure the situations in world politics as to get others to change in particular cases,” Professor Nye wrote. Soft power is successful, Prof Nye says, “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants.”

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This non-coercive influence need not occur within the confines of traditional statecraft. Governments can also engage with citizens of foreign countries directly, a process known as public diplomacy. Since 2011 and Myanmar’s partial détente with the West, such efforts have increased significantly, and new players are joining the fray. In comments at the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2007, President Hu Jintao asserted that the party needed to better “enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country, to better guarantee the people’s basic cultural rights and interests.”

President Hu’s sentiment may appear to be dry, Communist boilerplate, but it signalled a sea-change in China’s attitude towards diplomacy and winning hearts and minds. “This is the first time that a document from the highest authoritative government body… promoted ‘soft power’,” Yiwei Wang, an international relations scholar at Fudan University, wrote in 2008. “Few Western international relations phrases have penetrated as deeply or broadly [as soft power] into the Chinese vocabulary in recent years.”

Most of the focus on China’s soft power has emphasised infrastructure projects spearheaded by Beijing as a way to forge good relations with countries it deemed to be of strategic importance. But China has come to recognise the intangible benefits of a well-burnished public image abroad – goodwill and influence roads and railways alone cannot buy.

This policy shift encompasses Myanmar, which sits high on Beijing’s priority list due to its geography and resources. But China is far from universally loved in Myanmar, where Beijing needs to contend with serious image problems.

Many of these stem from opaque deals signed throughout the 1990s and early 2000s with Myanmar’s former military junta. These deals are highly unpopular and include the proposed Myitsone dam in Kachin State, which the government suspended in 2011 in response to an escalating national protest movement. The Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Region and the oil and gas pipelines from Rakhine coast to Yunnan Province in China’s southwest have also provoked public outrage, because of their environmental impact and a lack of transparency over the revenues paid to the Myanmar government to China.

“I interviewed people that are against the Sino-Burma pipeline. The general view is that it benefits China and Myanmar as a country, but that the Myanmar people have to sacrifice first,” says Yunfei Zhang, who heads the Yangon bureau of Xinhua, China’s state-owned newswire. The bureau was launched in 1956 with one permanent correspondent but today has 10 reporters, most of whom are Myanmar.

“[Historically] we’ve been publishing news in English and Chinese,” said Mr Zhang, who is lived in Myanmar for 10 years and is the only Chinese national on the team.  “This year we have started publishing news in the Myanmar language.”

Much of that reporting is shared on Facebook, a platform that has – in many respects – become synonymous with the internet in Myanmar. Xinhua is not the only Chinese state-run media outlet with a presence in Myanmar: CCTV, a broadcaster, has a bureau, as does Global Times, a newspaper that, unlike the other two news organisations, receives direct oversight from Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese government has made news from its state media enterprises as accessible as possible: Xinhua licences its stories to media outlets for free, unlike Western wire services such as Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, which charge a fee. In countries that Beijing deems to be of strategic importance, including Myanmar, CCTV pays for its videos to be ‘promoted’ on Facebook – a bitter irony, as the social network is banned by China’s strict internet censorship.

If Facebook ‘likes’ are a sign of cultural capital, China sits firmly in the middle of its geopolitical peers and rivals in Myanmar. Its 60,000 followers are dwarfed by the nearly half-million Facebook users that follow the US embassy, but Beijing is comfortably ahead of India, whose embassy has a meagre 6,000 followers.

Is China’s state-owned media just propaganda, as its detractors claim? “Why aren’t people criticising NHK, Voice of America or BBC?” says Mr Zhang. “They are all government funded.”

Public diplomacy in Myanmar extends further than the media. France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom have all established institutions promoting culture, and, to varying degrees, political education and the development of civil society. The American Center and the British Council, underwritten by the US State Department and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office respectively, operated before the change of government in 2011, and provided hard-to-access materials deemed politically sensitive by the former military junta.

Similarly, China has established in Myanmar two “Confucius Institutes” – a global network of cultural and language-learning institutions linked to universities and high schools. There are more than 1,000 such institutes worldwide, with the overwhelming majority in Europe and the United States. Beijing also provides thousands of scholarships a year for students to study in Chinese universities. On September 6, Myanmar state media reported that the Myanmar and Chinese governments inked a ‘reciprocal’ deal to establish “cultural centres” in both countries.

Keeping a consistent message – throughout all of China’s public diplomacy efforts – is a key concern, and Xinhua unapologetically reports from the ‘China point of view,’ said Mr Zhang. “We value balanced reporting, but we try to keep things positive.”

But there are limits to what Xinhua will publish, and Mr Zhang concedes that some contentious issues are off-limits. “[We are] not like most news agencies, who report critically,” he said. “Myanmar is a developing country, and we are not Big Brother, judging what is wrong or right. We see Myanmar as a friend, and we prefer to report on business, economic development, and culture.”

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