On a blustery recent Saturday morning on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, as planes roared overhead on approach to the nearby international airport, three dozen people sat in a tiny classroom at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. Crammed shoulder to shoulder, they watched raptly as a flat-panel TV showed a pair of Chinese pop stars crooning a love song in Mandarin.
Chea Munyrith, head of the academy's Confucius Institute, one of more than 350 such Chinese government-funded outposts of language and culture around the world, pointed out prominent students in the class. "There, we have a high-ranking member of the military," he said, gesturing toward a man wearing a black tunic and gold-rimmed glasses, standard garb for Cambodia's ruling elite. "We also have a secretary of state of the Council of Ministers," he added, the equivalent of Cambodia's cabinet.
When the video finished, a teacher in her early 20s from China named Zhu Hong walked to the front of the room and led the group in a booming recitation of the song's saccharine lyrics. Chea nodded with satisfaction. Earlier, he had told me, "The relationship between China and Cambodia is growing stronger, and more and more Cambodians want to learn Mandarin." He added, "They are turning away from American culture to Chinese culture."
After investing tens of billions of dollars in Southeast Asia, China has now decided that its vaunted economic power, which has bought it significant influence with regional governments, is not enough. Beijing now wants to be loved, too. In this brave new world of Chinese diplomacy, language and culture -- and, yes, pop songs -- are playing a major role in Beijing's quest to be understood and, if all goes well, win the affection of Southeast Asia's 600 million people. It's is uncharted territory for a government that until recently appeared to care very little about how it was perceived outside of China. "The Chinese government is paying much more attention to public diplomacy than before," said Yang Baoyun, a Southeast Asia expert at Peking University in Beijing. "The government has realized that people are important, and that cultural exchange can supplement traditional diplomacy."
On Nov. 18-20, Cambodia will host Barack Obama, Wen Jiabao, and other world leaders at the ASEAN Summit. As the United States pivots from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and re-engages with the 10 countries of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, much of the focus at the summit will be on Washington's ability to revive its flagging diplomatic influence. But in the contest for public opinion, which the United States is accustomed to leading without challenge, the landscape is shifting. The Chinese government, with the help of large companies and thousands of young language teachers willing to relocate overseas, has launched an ambitious cultural diplomacy effort designed to clean up its image, which has been soiled by a number of high-profile scandals in the region, including investment projects that have resulted in land grabbing and environmental damage. To counter these negative perceptions, Beijing has overseen an explosion of language schools, exchange programs, bookstores, and cultural corners. The effort began in earnest in 2004 when Hanban, an organization that falls under the Ministry of Education, began establishing Confucius Institutes at universities around the world. There are now 353 of them in 104 countries, part of what Hu Jintao described in a 2007 speech as China's effort to "enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country." Hanban plans to open 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020.
Cambodia, the current chair of ASEAN and a key backer of China in its disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and other bloc members over resource-rich islands in the South China Sea, is a microcosm for China's cultural ambitions. Phnom Penh's Confucius Institute, which coordinates closely with the Chinese Embassy, has 31 teachers from China and 1,000 students. In addition, Beijing has provided nearly 500 scholarships for Cambodians to study at universities in China, and it has sent numerous government officials, academics, and journalists on exchange visits to Chinese cities. One of the largest bookstore chains in China recently opened its first overseas outlet in Phnom Penh, and the country is home to 57 Chinese-language schools with more than 40,000 students, although many of these do not receive support from Beijing.