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Beijing turns to 'soft power' to win over the people

A new Chinese restaurant in the suburbs of Mandalay.
A new Chinese restaurant in the suburbs of Mandalay.ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Mandalay-based reporter Maung Tar took a 10-day trip to China last year. He visited the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, admired Tianjin city and also traipsed through the famous stone forests of Yunnan province. He didn't have to pay a cent.

China has launched a charm offensive of late, inviting journalists, teachers, monks and other influential groups to visit the country, to enhance its reputation amid bad press in the region.

The visits, which take place at least four times a year out of Mandalay, are coordinated by the Mandalay Myanmar China Friendship Association and the Chinese Consulate-General in Mandalay, as well as other parties, association secretary-general Khin Saw Oo told The Straits Times.

"These trips are very important," said the second-generation ethnic Chinese and restaurant owner. "The people over here who misunderstand China, when they go over there, they will understand."

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The Chinese Consulate-General, when contacted, declined to comment.

Relations between China and Myanmar chilled in 2011, when then President Thein Sein abruptly suspended work on the China-backed Myitsone Dam over environmental concerns.

That was when China decided to change its strategy towards Myanmar and focus on its "soft power", says Yunnan University lecturer Zhu Xiang Hui.

"It realised that it needed to engage with Myanmar on all levels, not just government to government but also people to people," he told ST over the phone. It held trips for individuals from opposition parties as well as the media.

For 29-year-old Maung Tar, the contrast between Chinese and Myanmar cities left an impression. "They are very systematic," he told ST. "Look at their old buildings. They maintain them well. When you see that, you want to walk instead of taking the car because the environment is nice and clean."

Tan Hui Yee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2017, with the headline 'Beijing turns to 'soft power' to win over the people'. Print Edition | Subscribe