There’s nothing unusual about teenagers singing songs from Disney’s “Frozen” or television quiz show contestants answering questions about business relations between two countries. There’s also nothing shocking about a reporter interviewing a political leader—even Syrian President Bashar Assad (after all, Barbara Walters has done it).
What does seem odd is that all these things are being done by Chinese citizens speaking fluent Arabic.
It may surprise some to see Chinese people speaking flawless Arabic when so few of us Israelis have mastered the language of our neighbors. However, according to Joseph Braude, author of a forthcoming book on Arabic media and soft power in the Middle East, we shouldn’t be too taken aback by this.
“Chinese schools have produced a legion of fluent Arabic speakers, many of whom go on to serve Beijing as part of a soft power ‘army’ in the Middle East,” Braude told The Times of Israel.
“The country has strengthened its political alliances, beat Western companies in competition for lucrative contracts, and eclipsed the US as the largest trading partner to nine Arab countries.”
By “soft power,” Braude was referring to a concept introduced by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye to describe the ability to attract and persuade without the use of coercion or force. This is often done by changing and influencing social and public opinion through public diplomacy carried out by means of media, culture, advertising and branding.
In an article Braude wrote for The American Interest in 2014, he explained how China’s Arabic-language television and radio outreach efforts are specifically targeted to niche audiences in Middle Eastern countries that can go on to influence those states’ broader societies to be more pro-Chinese.
“Niche content on radio and television supports a broader effort to attract a modest number of Arabs in countries of high strategic concern, who go on to serve Beijing as assets and emissaries to the media as well as the society at large,” he wrote.
“With their help, China strives to reach a vast audience via the region’s indigenous broadcasts, with which no foreign outfit can compete. This exposure, in turn, supports a ground campaign of ‘soft power’ to tweak the region’s cultural fabric in favor of Chinese interests.”
Braude told The Times of Israel that he is fairly certain that since his article was published, the audience in Arab countries for the Arabic programming of CCTV (China’s state television broadcaster in mainland China) has surpassed that of Alhurra, the Arabic network funded by the US Congress to present America to the Middle East.
“The 50-episode ‘Legend of Bruce Lee’ [broadcast on CCTV] has been one of the main draws,” he said.