China is a failure when it comes to soft power – or so we’re told.
A giant in the hard-power leagues of money and military strength, China is often portrayed as a minnow swimming against the global tide of ideas and perceptions. Unloved and misunderstood, the country can only get things done through the use of carrots and sticks, not by capitalizing on the warm sentiments of others. Foreigners, in the end, pay heed to China only because they have to, not because they want to.
No-one has been more skeptical about Chinese soft power than Joseph Nye, the man who first coined the phrase twenty years ago. In particular, Nye has criticized Beijing’s efforts to acquire soft power through centralized schemes, like the spread of Confucius Institutes or the establishment at the end of last year of the China Public Diplomacy Association. Despite “spending billions of dollars to increase its soft power … China has had a limited return on its investment,” he recently argued. This is because soft power mainly accrues when civil society actors – whom the Chinese government tends to squash – make or do things with global appeal, according to Nye, not through top-down schemes which foreigners are likely to interpret as propaganda.
Nye rightly doubts whether all of China’s soft-power investments are paying off. However, we should not be too quick to write off China as an attractive force in global affairs simply because Beijing has fired a few blanks. In fact, Chinese soft power does exist. You just have to look for it in the right places.
The basics of soft power
What Nye first hit upon in his seminal article “Soft Power” is the fact that there is more to international power than plain coercion – that hard power has a flipside, a passive form of power whereby others gladly do what you want, without your having to twist their arm. Tidy definitions of soft power like “cultural diplomacy” or “national marketing” don’t seem to capture it, and maybe no single phrase can. Instead, it may be better to consider soft power’s essential features:
1. Soft power is the result of being liked, respected, trusted, or admired. It’s a kind of magnetism: countries are attractive when they have it, and repellent when they don’t.
2. Soft power is all in the mind, unlike hard power, which is all about tangible assets. Country A possesses soft power if people in Country B have positive ideas about it – if they regard Country A as likeable, respectable, trustworthy or admirable. Since likeability is all in the eye of the beholder, no country can acquire soft power directly, or force people or states to like it. But a state can make itself more likeable and more comprehensible through its behavior.
3. Context is king. Soft power only accrues when the conditions are right. Efforts to make yourself more likeable may succeed in one country and fail in another, as dictated by the many cultural, political and historical factors in play.
It’s also important to ask what soft power is to China. If we say that China has soft power, that means states and individuals do things China wants without any compulsion or inducement. So what is it that China wants them to do? We can safely assume that China’s soft-power aims including being given face on the international stage: being shown respect, and being treated like a great country. It wants its policies and actions to be viewed sympathetically, and to conduct its affairs without foreign interference. It wants to draw less criticism and suspicion than it tends to today, and to attract more friendly support on issues it cares about. It wants less bad press. And, of course, it wants to open up overseas markets for Chinese products and have freer access to commercial opportunities abroad.