Beijing has invested heavily in its ability to achieve important foreign policy goals through non-military persuasion and to project China’s image as a peaceful superpower. After two decades of effort, the country’s soft power is impressive in Africa and Latin America, but remains limited in the West.
Soft power is a country’s ability to get another country to want what it wants without having to resort to force or offer incentives. Harvard University political scientist Joseph Nye first described the concept in his 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power: “[W]hen one country gets other countries to want what it wants it might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants.”
The non-coercive currencies of soft power are culture, political values, and foreign policies. Recently, the term has also been used in reference to less transparent channels of influencing the powers that be and public opinion, such as lobbying.
In the 21 century, traditional hard power tools, from military threats to economic incentives, are becoming increasingly difficult to wield. Many states have turned their attention to soft power as a lower cost and lower risk alternative. From the British Council and the Goethe Institute to the BBC World Service and Voice of America, soft power infrastructure is something that western nations are willing to spend big money on. For Chinese leaders, soft power has long been of interest as a potentially handy tool for challenging U.S.-led Western hegemony.
According to research, however, China lags behind the West in its power to persuade. Beijing’s vast expenditure on soft power – an estimated $10 billion every year to the U.S.’ estimated $666 million – has bought China scant influence in the West. In a 2016 ranking organized by social media site Facebook, market research firm ComRes and communications consultancy Portland, the Asian colossus ranked only 28th in the world. Hungary, which has a population less than 1 percent of China’s size, was placed 26th in the rankings.
Soft power is, however, a tricky phenomenon to measure. The attempts to evaluate countries in these terms are often marred by excessive focus on the players’ ability to influence a handful of rich Western nations. In reality, making Western countries to want what China wants is only one of Beijing’s goals. A great deal of its soft power investment has been centered on the developing world.
Beijing first became interested in soft power in the 1990s, as China’s rapid economic development made it a bigger and more active player in regional and international politics. In 1992, when the Communist Party of China (CPC) enacted the Territorial Sea Law which laid claim to much of the South and East China Seas – an extremely controversial policy to this day – the world began to wonder if the inevitable rise of China would be peaceful or threatening to the regional and global order.
Beijing grasped at the then new concept of soft power as a possible way to deflect the China-as-a-threat narrative. The CPC leaders believed that a belligerent image would hinder China’s relations regionally and globally. In the 2000s, the CPC began to include soft power issues in its foreign policy discussions. By 2007, at the 17th CPC national congress, the pursuit of soft power was adopted by then-President Hu Jintao as an official policy. In 2014, President Xi Jinping called on the Communist Party’s Politburo “to promote China’s cultural soft power by disseminating modern Chinese values and showing the charm of Chinese culture to the world.”
For China, soft power policy comprises two core components. The first is the promotion of Chinese culture globally, in order to build a better image of the country and to facilitate contacts between Chinese people, businesses and politicians and their counterparts around the globe. It is not by accident that the number of foreigners who study at Chinese universities has swollen dramatically. According to the China Scholarship Council, between 2004 and 2014 the number of foreign-born students in China rose more than threefold, from 110,844 to 377,054.
The second, arguably more important component is the promotion of China’s political view of the world. It is built around a thesis that the country’s rise has been, and is certain to remain, fundamentally peaceful in nature.
Soft power infrastructure
China uses a range of tools to support its soft power goals. In the promotion of culture, the most important are the state-run Confucius Institutes. As of 2014, over 480 such institutions promoted Chinese language and culture through Beijing-sanctioned education programs in dozens of countries on six continents. Beijing’s goal is to establish 1,000 Confucius Institutes by 2020. It also has expanded the international presence of its state media, broadcasting in English, French, Spanish, Russian and Japanese, among other languages. State-backed English language newspapers, such asChina Daily, are now found in news stalls around the world, reaching out to foreign audiences and the potentially useful Chinese diaspora communities.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics was perhaps the best example of the country’s pursuit of soft power. Its government spared no expense to project the image of a vibrant, modern, non-belligerent China, and it worked. By April 2016, however, it was revealed that the State Council, China’s chief administrative body, was auditioning five Western PR firms to help manage China’s image globally. Apparently, the Xi administration expects more return from its investment in soft power.
Today, China faces stiff challenges in this area. The country’s territorial claim to much of the South and East China Seas, the very issue that prompted its interest in soft power in the 1990s, remains as the main hurdle for the CPC’s efforts to present China as a benign power. There is also the issue of Tibet, which amplifies broader human rights concerns. The Dalai Lama’s ability to meet with world leaders, despite China’s protestations, remains a thorn in Beijing’s side. Cybersecurity is an emerging public relations issue for the government, as headlines regarding Chinese hacking hit the global headlines. There is also the pesky problem of the misbehavior of Chinese tourists abroad. After a series of well-publicized incidents that included a Chinese teenager defacing an ancient Egyptian temple, the CPC released an official etiquette guide for tourists.
Another set of challenges is the increasing difficulty in framing soft power messages to suit China’s domestic and foreign audiences simultaneously. As the country’s economy slows down, the government increasingly resorts to nationalistic propaganda at home, which undermines the soft power efforts on the international scene.
A 2014 global poll conducted by market research company GlobeScan for the BBC World Service produced troubling results for China. According to a poll of 24,542 individuals in 24 countries across the world, China’s overall image was more negative than positive. GlobeScan’s research also showed that between 2005 and 2014 – the years in which China conducted a soft power offensive – China’s positive ratings dropped from 48 percent to 35 percent, with the negative ratings rising from 32 percent to nearly 50 percent.
Broadly speaking, China’s efforts to wield soft power in the West have not succeeded. According to a 2015 Pew Global Attitudes survey, Europeans and North Americans are among the most skeptical about China’s intentions. Of the eight Western countries surveyed, six held mostly unfavorable views of China, with only France and the United Kingdom being favorable on balance.
The latter country recently threatened to deal a defeat to Chinese soft power. China had focused on its relations with the UK to make it a showcase for the rest of the West. It hoped that the UK would become the first Western country to allow Chinese investment in critical infrastructure – its nuclear energy sector. In July 2016, newly appointed British Prime Minister Theresa May delayed the approval of a massive nuclear deal, in part due to the perceived security risk posed by China.In mid-September the deal was finally approved, but there are still serious concerns.
The Chinese soft power campaign seems to be going nowhere in the West, but Latin America is quite a different story. People in all six countries in that region surveyed by Pew in 2015 held very favorable views of China. This has helped Beijing sign arms deals, gain access to natural resources and come close to signing contracts on big infrastructure projects, such as the proposed shipping canal across Nicaragua, which would compete for business with the Panama Canal. A 2015 U.S. Department of Defense report noted that Chinese soft power also gained strength from the Chinese army’s training programs for officers from “virtually every Latin American and Caribbean country.”
But the region where Chinese soft power is at its zenith is Africa. Of the nine African countries surveyed by Pew, all held favorable views – six with favorable assessments above 70 percent, greater than in any other region. With 46 Confucius Institutes in place and more to come, this is the most pro-China part of the globe. South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe have put the Chinese language on their national school curricula, and Kenyan universities continue their expansion of Chinese studies.
AFRICA. The most likely scenario for Chinese soft power in Africa is for it to go from strength to strength. China’s political values are popular among African leaders, who like to see their financing and aid coming from Beijing without the political conditions Western democracies often attach to such transactions. Beijing’s biggest challenge is to figure out how to minimize the impact of its large-scale infrastructure and resource projects on Africa’s local communities, lest the current goodwill sours with China’s growing footprint on the continent.
LATIN AMERICA. There are only small clouds in the sunny sky of China’s soft power there: the end of an economic boom in the region, caused by China’s decreasing demand for commodities and the question of Chinese-owned debt could, if mishandled, potentially spoil the countries’ relations with Asia’s emerging superpower.
EAST ASIA. It is there, among China’s neighbors, that Beijing’s need for soft power is the biggest, but it arguably gets the least traction from its efforts. Beijing’s escalating maritime conflict with the Philippines and Vietnam, otherwise a close ally, demonstrate the limitations of its two-prong policy of simultaneously trying to build soft power and engaging in an aggressive geopolitical game. Not accidentally, this is also an area where U.S. soft power is highly effective.
A glass ceiling
Globally, China’s soft power strategy is also hampered by the centralized nature of the state. Governments play an important role in the accumulation of soft power, but they are limited in what they can achieve without a supportive network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private companies and influential citizens. The Chinese soft power toolbox is half empty. It contains only the Chinese language, a state sanctioned cultural history and an official ideology that is unlikely to captivate hearts and minds.
Beijing’s desired image will be a hard sell in the coming years, as China digs in its increasingly assertive positions on the regional and international stages. Its soft power problems in parts of the world should not be, however, confused with a lack of influence. Beijing may be viewed skeptically by governments and people in Europe and North America, but for now at least, China retains the ability to use economic incentives to gloss over security concerns, including the multibillion dollar Eurasian “Silk Road” transportation infrastructure project.
Moreover, whether China’s neighbors like it or not, Beijing will likely become the preeminent military and economic influence in Asia, meaning that hard power options will remain firmly at its Communist Party’s disposal.
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