Many fascinating stories about the East German surveillance state emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is one about agents of the Stasi, East Germany’s dreaded state security, driving around East Berlin, looking for antennae pointed west to pick up West German broadcasts in order to suss out potential troublemakers.

Apocryphal or not, the story points to the role western broadcasts played during the Cold War. Dissidents behind the Iron Curtain have spoken after its collapse of how Voice of America, for instance, aided them.

It’s an instance of soft power that China hopes to replicate. It is planning to merge its largest state television and radio stations to form the Voice of China to spread Beijing’s message abroad. Here’s the thing, though. Soft power can be useful as a corollary to hard power—but not if it comes off as state propaganda. Beijing understands the hard power part well enough. But judging by the cack-handed manner in which Chinese state media currently pushes Beijing’s message, it still has to grasp the nuances of soft power.

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