China's Soft Power Obsession
The ultimate symbol of Chinese soft power
Image Credit: Flickr/ Marc Blickle

China's Soft Power Obsession


“Power, like love, is easier to experience than to define or measure,” Joseph Nye once wrote. That’s even more true when it comes to soft power, defined by Nye as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments.”

Such attraction, according to Nye, derives from a country’s cultural heritage, political values, economic prosperity, technological innovation, smart diplomacy, etc. Attraction could be temporary, but it also could be internalized and become one’s sincere preference. In the real world, this could mean that if a foreigner has internalized democracy and freedom as championed by the United States, he/she will probably support U.S. policies to spread — or even impose — these values in other countries, even if such policies may be detrimental to this person’s interests (e.g., bringing domestic instability in his or her own country).

If that’s the case, who wouldn’t want soft power? Instead of military coercion or economic payments, a country can achieve its foreign policy goals through willing support and cooperation from others. Such a soft approach to foreign policy not only adds to one’s legitimacy, but also avoids conflicts. To be able to achieve foreign policy goals in such a fashion is to be softly powerful. Or to borrow from the famous ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without a war.”

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No wonder so many countries — big and small — quickly jumped on the bandwagon and launched soft power campaigns of various sizes. Yet it seems that the Chinese are the most devoted students of Nye. In fact it is not too much of an exaggeration to say the Chinese have become obsessed with soft power.

One indication of this obsession is that a search on CNKI — the world’s largest digital collection of Chinese language journal articles — for articles with “soft power” in the title generates 1,777 entries since 2000. Another indication is the sheer number of research centers or programs for public diplomacy, which is widely viewed by Chinese analysts and government officials as the means to the end of improving Chinese soft power. At least two dozen such centers and program have been established within universities alone, plus a similar number of them within government-affiliated think tanks.

The Chinese government also has spent hundreds of billions of dollars improving the communication capabilities of its media outlets like CCTV, organizing mega events such as the Olympic Games and Shanghai Expo, funding Confucius Institutes, hosting summits attended by dozens of world leaders (e.g. APEC), and sponsoring forums on regional security and prosperity (e.g. the Boao Forum). An important justification for such lavish spending is that these activities can contribute to China’s soft power.

But is China getting a return on its soft power investment, and how much? To answer this question in a rigorous way, one needs to overcome two methodological challenges. First, as mentioned by Nye, how do we know how much soft power a country has and how do we compare soft power across countries? Public opinion polls are the most frequently used instruments these days, but they tell us little about the degree of attraction, the essence of soft power. Second, how do we know that one country’s foreign policy behavior is a result of another country’s soft power? In other words, how can we isolate the independent effects of soft power from those of hard power (such as economic inducements or military coercion)?

Take the United Stated as the example. The worldwide popularity of Hollywood movies, Apple products, Google, Starbucks, and the NBA — to name just a few — may be cited as evidence of U.S. soft power, but it would be far-fetched to argue that this soft power has been a crucial factor behind the U.S. ability to get what it wants in other parts of the world. For one thing, drinking Starbucks coffee or watching the NBA does not necessarily translate into pro-American policy preferences. For another, it is difficult to imagine that the symbols of American soft power would have spread to the rest of the world and had such broad appeal had it not been for unrivaled American economic and military power.

But let’s assume soft power can be rigorously measured and that it does have significant impact on foreign government’s policies, then there is still the question of how long it can last. Soft power is not impervious to change; the sharp decline of U.S. soft power since 2003 — as reflected in cross-national surveys — amply shows that it tends to be much more ephemeral than hard power. One policy decision could easily ruin decades of soft power efforts.

Soft power is as seductive as it is elusive, which makes it irresistible. Soft power is also costly and ephemeral, which makes it undesirable and unaffordable. Last but not least, it is nearly impossible to separate the effects of soft power from those of hard power. Entering the realm of conspiracy theories, soft power could be a trap set up by an American analyst. The former Soviet Union collapsed partly because of its hard power race with the United States. A rising China could be distracted by a similar soft power race.

It is time for Chinese leaders to rethink soft power and their obsession with it.

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