Soft Power: A U.S.-China Battleground?


In a recent opinion piece for the Global Times, Professor Liu Aming of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of International Relations writes that soft power “is a kind of power which can also make enemies.” At first glance, Liu’s comment is a curious one: how can a power that aims to attract rather than coerce also be a power that makes enemies?

Strip away the ostensibly benign surface of public diplomacy, cultural exchanges and language instruction, and it becomes clear that the U.S. and China are engaged in a soft power conflagration – a protracted cultural cold war. On one side bristles incumbent Western values hegemon, the U.S. On the other is China, one of the non-Western civilizations that Samuel Huntington noted back in 1993 “increasingly have the desire, the will and the resources to shape the world in non-Western ways.”

But to shape the world in non-Western ways means engaging in a soft power battlespace against an incumbent who already holds the high ground. Liu comments that in regions deeply influenced by Western cultures, political systems and values, the “latecomer” China is considered a “dissident force." Under such circumstances, “it is rather difficult for China to attract Western countries with its own political and cultural charisma, let alone to replace their positions.”

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According to this and similar viewpoints, China’s difficulty in projecting soft power across the world is in part due to the way the U.S. leverages its own soft power.  Wu Jianmin, the former president of China’s Foreign Affairs University, puts the point well when explaining that U.S. soft power is driven by the imperative of “maintaining US hegemony in changing the world, of letting the world listen to the United States.”

Thus, the state of global post-colonial, post-communist ideational hegemony is such that large swathes of the earth’s population see the world through lenses supplied by the West. Through these lenses, perceptions of China are dominated by such concepts as the “China threat theory,” which portrays China as a malevolent superpower upstart.

But it’s actually inside China’s borders where the soft power struggle between China and the U.S. is most prominent.

Official pronouncements from Chinese leaders have long played up the notion that Western culture is an aggressive threat to China’s own cultural sovereignty. It has thus taken myriad internal measures to ensure the country’s post-Mao reforms remain an exercise in modernization without “westernization.” Since the 1990s, for example, ideological doctrine has been increasingly infused with a new cultural nationalism, and the Party’s previously archaic propaganda system has been massively overhauled and working harder than ever.

Especially after the June 4th crackdown and the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s leaders under Jiang Zemin began addressing the cultural battlespace with renewed vigor. Resolutions launched in 1996 called for the Party to “carry forward the cream of our traditional culture, prevent and eliminate the spread of cultural garbage, [and] resist the conspiracy by hostile forces to ‘Westernize’ and ‘split’ our country….” Hu Jintao trumpeted the same theme in early 2012 when he warned that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernising and dividing China … Ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”

The rhetoric of culture war continues to emanate from the CCP. In a private speech delivered to Communist Party members last December—which was first reported by Seeing Red in China— Xi Jinping argued that the Soviet Union had collapsed because none of its members had been “man enough to stand up and resist” the onslaught of Western ideals. Then, in recent days, South China Morning Post reported on an article in the flagship CCP publication Seeking Truth, which warned that “adopting Western ideas would push the nation into a dead end and dash hopes for realising the ‘Chinese dream.’" The country’s university lecturers have also been ordered to avoid discussing certain topics reflecting Western values, such as press freedom and civil rights. While such machinations may be viewed as post-leadership change posturing, they nevertheless reflect Beijing’s long-held sensitivity to the incursions of the “aggressive” soft power of the West.

So, how can Chinese soft power combat the advantage U.S. soft power currently enjoys? Classical military strategist Sun Tzu famously likened an effective army to water. Just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness. So while winning over the hearts and minds of Main Street America may not be realistic, there are perhaps more achievable targets, from its cultivation of the developing world to enhancing its domestic soft power among its own populace.

On the latter front – and rather ironically – recent reporting indicates that Beijing is already getting a helping hand from a core source of U.S. soft power – Hollywood. A number of recent reports have said that U.S. film producers now modify blockbuster movies to win approval by Chinese authorities for their distribution in huge and growing Chinese market. With an increasing incidence of such “kowtowing to China” within artistic, commercial and political spheres in the West, it may well be Beijing’s economic hard power that ultimately prevents China from succumbing to American soft power. 

Nicholas Dynon is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University and is coordinator of the Line 21 project 

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