The hard truths about Chinese soft power
China has been making major efforts to increase its ability to influence other countries without force or coercion. In 2007, then President Hu Jintao told the Communist Party that the country needed to increase its soft power; President Xi Jinping repeated the same message last year. They know that, for a country like China, whose growing economic and military power risks scaring its neighbours into forming counter-balancing coalitions, a smart strategy must include efforts to appear less frightening. But their soft-power ambitions still face major obstacles.
To be sure, China’s efforts have had some impact. As it enrols countries as members of its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and doles out billions of dollars of aid during state visits abroad, some observers worry that, when it comes to soft power, China could actually be taking the lead over countries such as the United States.
The American sinologist David Shambaugh, for example, estimates that China spends roughly US$10 billion (S$13.7 billion) a year in “external propaganda”. By comparison, the US spent only US$666 million on public diplomacy last year.
However, the billions of dollars China is spending on its charm offensive have had only a limited return. Polls in North America, Europe, India and Japan show that opinions about China’s influence are predominantly negative.
The country is viewed more positively in Latin America and Africa, where it has no territorial disputes and human-rights concerns are not always high on the public agenda. But even in many countries in those regions, Chinese practices such as importing labour for infrastructure projects are unpopular.
TWO LIMITING FACTORS
Combining hard and soft power into a smart strategy, it turns out, is not easy. A country derives its soft power primarily from three resources: Its culture (in places that find it appealing), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority). China has emphasised its cultural and economic strengths, but it has paid less attention to the political aspects that can undermine its efforts.
Two major factors limit China’s soft power, as measured by recent international polls. The first is nationalism. The Communist Party has based its legitimacy not only on a high rate of economic growth, but also on appeals to nationalism. Doing so has reduced the universal appeal of Mr Xi’s “Chinese Dream”, while encouraging policies in the South China Sea and elsewhere that antagonise its neighbours.
With, for example, China bullying the Philippines over possession of disputed islands in the South China Sea, the Confucius Institute that China established in Manila to teach Chinese culture can win only so much goodwill. (China has opened about 500 of such institutes in more than 100 countries.) The consequences of the country’s foreign policy can be seen in last year’s anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam following the positioning of a Chinese oil drilling rig in waters claimed by both countries.
The other limit is Chinese reluctance to take full advantage of an uncensored civil society. As noted by The Economist, the Chinese Communist Party has not bought into the idea that soft power springs largely from individuals, the private sector and civil society. Instead, it has clung to the view that the government is the main source of soft power, promoting ancient cultural icons that it thinks may have global appeal, often using the tools of propaganda.
In today’s media landscape, information is abundant. What is scarce is attention, which depends on credibility — and government propaganda is rarely credible. For all of China’s efforts to position the Xinhua news agency and China Central Television as competitors of CNN and the BBC, the international audience for brittle propaganda is vanishingly small.
The US, by contrast, derives much of its soft power not from the government, but from civil society — everything from universities and foundations to Hollywood and pop culture. China does not yet have global cultural industries on the scale of Hollywood or universities capable of rivalling America’s. Even more important, it lacks the many non-governmental organisations that generate much of America’s soft power.
In addition to generating goodwill and promoting the country’s image abroad, non-governmental sources of soft power can sometimes compensate for the government’s unpopular policies — such as the US invasion of Iraq — through their critical and uncensored reaction. China, by contrast, has watched its government policies undermine its soft-power successes.
Indeed, the domestic crackdown on human-rights activists undercut the soft-power gains of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And the benefits of the 2009 Shanghai Expo were rapidly undermined by the jailing of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and the television screens around the world broadcasting scenes of an empty chair at the Oslo ceremonies. Marketing experts call this “stepping on your own message”.
China’s aid programmes are often successful and constructive. Its economy is strong and its traditional culture is widely admired. But if the country is to realise its enormous soft-power potential, it will have to rethink its policies at home and abroad, limiting its claims upon its neighbours and learning to accept criticism to unleash the full talents of its civil society.
As long as China fans the flames of nationalism and holds tight the reins of party control, its soft power will always remain limited. PROJECT SYNDICATE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Joseph Nye, a former US Assistant Secretary of Defence and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government. Prof Nye coined the term “soft power” in a 1990 book, Bound To Lead: The Changing Nature Of American Power.