These efforts will likely gain momentum under China's new leadership. Since his appointment in November, President Xi Jinping has spoke often about "China's Renaissance" and "China's Dream." The Song, Tang and Han dynasties to which Xi's slogans hearken were known not just for their political influence or economic strength, but also for their artistic achievements.
Just as the United States set up its own libraries and information centers abroad in the mid-twentieth century, the Confucian centers are partly a natural byproduct of a wealthier, more globally engaged China. A better understood and more influential Chinese culture can grease the wheels of Beijing's economic and political engine, just like American music, movies, and sitcoms did, and still do, for the United States.
But the dividends of Chinese cultural investments will be discounted as long as Beijing keeps censoring its most interesting exports. Many of its boldest faces internationally have made their name while resisting Chinese government controls. Just last month, the well-known Chinese director Feng Xiaogang used an acceptance speech for a Chinese Film Director's Guild Award to lament: "In the past 20 years, every China director faced a great torment, and that torment is [beep]." By cutting out the offending reference to censorship, Chinese censors put the spotlight on themselves.
When Chinese novelist Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize for literature, scarcely a story in the international media reported the news without also mentioning Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese dissident awarded the Nobel Peace Prize two years earlier in recognition of his defiance of Beijing. Mo's failure to more openly challenge the constraints of the Chinese regime, or to support Liu, made his achievement as controversial as it was crowning.
China's cultural push is by necessity largely confined to film, television, radio, exhibits, and in-person events. Severe controls over the Internet and social media make it difficult for it to effectively promote its culture through today's most powerful global platforms. China's most frenzied and dynamic cultural outlets -- its microblogging sites -- are defined by censorship and by a dizzying array of user-tactics aimed to evade it.
Beijing's billions in cultural investments aim to showcase China's accomplishments and contributions. But for every great Chinese painting, poem or film exhibited internationally there is a tale of the creations that are buried or distorted by censorship. The story of China's cultural emergence has spawned a counter-narrative of the state's war against its own greatest writers and artists. The heroes in that story are not those on screen, but those who are kept off.