China’s Soft Power Diplomacy in Lanka Yields Dividends
COLOMBO: China has switched over to “soft power” projection in Sri Lanka to make China acceptable to Lankans in the context of widespread criticism of the many multi-million dollar projects it had secured during the pro-China regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Chinese companies as well as the Chinese government have, since the defeat Rajapaksa in the January 8 Presidential election, gone on a massive public relations exercise.
Earlier, China was mainly concerned about pleasing the Rajapaksas, executing the latter’s politically motivated fancy projects without feasibility, cost-benefit or environmental impact studies. This practice gave room for allegations of payoffs, which ultimately led to Rajapaksa’s electoral debacle.
When the successor government of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe stalled the projects for a review, China changed its policy. It became compliant and at the same time launched a massive image make-over exercise through people to people interactions and participation in socially meaningful activities.
Groups of journalists have been taken on tours of China and made to interact with think tank honchos. Correcting the impression that Chinese projects do not employ Lankans, Chen Chuan, spokesman of the China Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka, claimed that 100,000 Lankans have been employed. Scholarships are given to Lankans to study in Chinese universities. Thousands of Chinese are being sent to Lanka as tourists to beef up Lankan tourism. Chinese arrivals are second only to Indian arrivals.
While no Indian news agency is stationed in Colombo, Chinese agency Xinhua is present and active. Chinese broadcasts in Sinhala and Tamil are aired locally. In an effort to penetrate the Lankan media, the Chinese company building the stalled Colombo Port City, partly funded the high profile “Ran Bhoomi” ethnic reconciliation project launched by a popular media house.
To win President Sirisena’s heart, China will be funding a US$ 100 million kidney diseases hospital. Sirisena comes from Polonnaruwa district where kidney disease is rampant.
China’s soft power projection is showing results. Lankan journalists taken on visits to China have come back impressed. All stalled highway projects have restarted. The US$ 1.4 billion Colombo Port City project is to re-start soon. In addition, China will execute the Matara-Hambantota Expressway and the Colombo Outer Circular Expressway.