Soft power and hard truths

/ 05:00 AM October 20, 2019

It’s called “soft power,” defined as “a persuasive approach to international relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence.”

To use an American idiom, soft power is the carrot as opposed to the stick, the use of aid money or funding support, cultural exchanges, and educational and development grants by a foreign government to “win friends and influence people” in a territory it’s interested in.


The United States federal government, for instance, has one of the biggest such mechanisms. The US Agency for International Development uses its more than $20 billion budget to fund development initiatives, health projects and even scholarships and visits to the United States by “influentials.”

Another example is the sort of “soft power” wielded by South Korea, most famously through its “Hallyu” or “Korean Wave” that uses pop culture — movies, television dramas, “K-pop” girl and boy bands — to earn tons of goodwill from fans around the world, not to mention billions in revenue.


“Soft power” is a relatively new mechanism being wielded these days by countries like Russia and China. Once feared and shunned by peoples in many countries, the two behemoths have taken up the practice and promotion of soft power not just to create a gentler image before the world, but more crucially to advance their own interests especially in the developing world.

Filipinos are now seeing the beginnings of China’s and Russia’s use of soft power, not only on our country’s leaders like our seemingly-besotted President but also on our populace.

Recently, following a presidential outing to Russia, it was announced that starting next year Russian state media “will be training journalists and technical personnel from Philippine state media and share their best practices in media operations.”

The last sentence is bound to raise eyebrows. The media in Russia, at least by our own liberal standards, have little to teach us by way of “best practices.”

As reported in The Atlantic, Russian premier Vladimir Putin’s view of the media is a “simple transactional equation: Whoever owns the media controls what it says.” And as he told reporters in 2013: The media should be in the hands of “people who uphold the interests of the Russian Federation. These are state resources. That is the way it is going to be.”

So much for the media as watchdogs. Another problem with Russians “training” our government media personnel is the cloud under which the Russian information (or propaganda) apparatus now operates.

US President Donald Trump is facing a slew of charges and possible impeachment precisely because he is accused of allowing Russian operatives to have free rein to social media and the internet to engineer his electoral victory. Unless… that is precisely the reason President Duterte’s minions are allowing the Russians in?


The same scenario seems to be playing out with China. Time magazine reports that the Beijing government is waging a war of influence among foreign media outlets, including inviting groups of foreign journalists to China on “study tours.” But, according to a 2018 World Press Freedom Report, “China is using the same tactics to silence dissent at home to repress journalists overseas” by employing “blackmail, intimidation and harassment on a massive scale.”

Contrast this open-door policy to Russian and Chinese influence in our own media ranks with the fuss the President kicked up with regard to the news site Rappler. Among the accusations he hurled against Rappler was that it was “foreign owned,” citing the involvement of an American investor despite clarifications that the investor had no hand in crafting Rappler’s editorial policies and practices. Apparently, sovereignty and national interest are important only when allegedly wielded by governments the President detests.

Recently, the movie “Abominable,” partly produced by a Chinese studio, caused a region-wide furor. A scene in the movie showed a map of Southeast Asia bearing the fictitious “nine-dash line” that Beijing uses to justify its claim over the South China Sea.

Vietnam banned the animated movie for this offense, while Malaysia ordered the dubious China map cut from the movie.

Malacañang couldn’t be bothered to mount a similar pushback, however, and merely said the matter was up to the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) to resolve. The MTRCB did pull out the movie, but imagine if Vietnam and our other neighbors had not reacted so swiftly against this insidious propaganda ploy — in a children’s movie at that. Talk about soft power and yellow-bellied acquiescence.

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