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.
Broadly speaking, it might be anything that feeds into the Chinese government’s own concept of Comprehensive National Power, according to Rogier Creemers, a research officer at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Socio-legal Studies, who notes that soft power has been an important buzzword in Beijing ever since Hu Jintao identified it as a policy priority in 2007 (one wonders if part of Hu’s soft-power strategy was to have himself replaced with the far more genial Xi Jinping). “Soft power is conceived as government PR,” Creemers argues, adding that Beijing thinks “it’s up to the government to decide what China is and then market it abroad.” This concerted marketing push was seen as necessary because of the international weakness of Chinese brands and cultural exports, which are the best soft-power assets of countries like the U.S., the UK, or South Korea.
Locating China’s soft power
The debate about Chinese soft power tends to focus on what China is doing, and on China’s motives for doing it.
These things matter. But if soft power is all in the eye of the beholder, we can only really understand whether China has it by seeing Chinese activities and motives through the eyes of the countries it interacts with. What is their idea of China? Is it something attractive, which they might wish to emulate or freely engage with? Or is something repellent, which they might choose to reject and oppose?
The obvious conclusion is that China looks very different depending on which part of the world you’re observing it from. And if you want to see China in an attractive light, Africa surely provides the best vantage point.
China’s involvement in Africa is often interpreted as a cynical resource-grab – but mainly by Westerners. In fact, Chinese involvement in Africa – which has mainly taken the form of co-operative development, rather than aid – is much older and more constructive than many people realize. It goes back to the 1950s, long before the advent of Confucius Institutes or the launch of Hu Jintao’s soft-power agenda.
China’s activities in Africa and local attitudes to them have been well documented by Deborah Brautigam in her 2009 book The Dragon’s Gift. Brautigam demonstrates that Africans are generally receptive to China’s developmental approach: they observe with approval one developing country helping another, “the poor helping the poor”; they value the longstanding connections built over decades with their Chinese partners; and they feel that China shows them far more respect than paternalistic Westerners.
The newly published China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa by Kenneth King, an emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh, focuses more narrowly on China’s educational programs in Africa and finds similar levels of approval among local beneficiaries. King not only documents the teaching of Chinese language in Africa on an increasingly grand scale, but also the thousands of scholarships which send Africans to study at Chinese universities, and the professional seminars which bring thousands of African businesspeople to China for sought-after learning experiences. Once again, these educational efforts are packaged respectfully – they are an attempt to show Africans how China does things, not a means of lecturing Africans about how they should do things.
Are these soft power initiatives on China’s part? “That is surely the intention,” says King in an interview with The Diplomat. But whether they are or not, soft power is what China appears to be accruing from these educational projects. “African students are very positive about their exposure to China and the Chinese culture of learning and hard work,” King says. “People are saying: ‘This has changed the way I think about work.’ And it’s the sheer number of Africans who are going to China.”
China inspiring Africans: Isn’t that soft power in a nutshell?
Education is not, of course, China’s only concern in Africa. According to Aid Data, China has committed $74 billion to African projects since 2000, and has delivered $49 billion so far. Fifty out of 54 African states have benefited. Grandiose gestures include the $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa (one of many African cities which China has helped modernize and reshape). China also pays Africa the kind of high-level diplomatic attention that it seldom attracts from elsewhere. “Chinese leaders are a bit like swallows,” observes King, “they set off for Africa at the start of every year.” Sure enough, Xi Jinping visited three African states in March right after becoming president. “He even went to Congo-Brazzaville,” notes King. “Who else goes to Congo-Brazzaville?”
China’s growing influence is inevitably causing some discomfort in Africa itself, with Lamido Sanusi, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, recently arguing that China’s “win-win” approach now involves too much “win” for the Chinese, and too much “lose” for the Africans. However, even Sanusi’s critique acknowledged China’s enduring soft power. “A romantic view of China is quite common among African imaginations,” he observed, adding that “this African love of China is founded on a vision of the country as a saviour, a partner, a model.” Sanusi’s message was that Chinese soft power in Africa will evaporate if China pursues a hard-power path along which it simply buys influence and resources without benefitting the Africans themselves – but that for the time being it still has formidable soft-power reserves.
The patchiness of Chinese power
Africa is not the only place from which China looks appealing. Its soft power also draws people in Latin America, Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, where the popular impression of China might contrast favorably with the general perception of the West, or where Beijing might be seen as a welcome partner in tough financial times, or as a trusted long-time ally.
Western commentators tend to overlook this, noticing only China’s lack of soft power in North America, Western Europe and those parts of Asia that fear or dislike China. In these places, the bad news about China – everything from its smoggy air, to its venal politics, to its repression of dissidents, to its apparent strangeness – drowns out any soft-power messages that Beijing might be trying to send. But elsewhere the good news drowns out the bad.
So Nye’s criticisms are half-right. In many states, China probably is wasting its time and resources when it tries to get people to watch CCTV, piles newsstands with English versions of China Daily, or part-funds its Confucius Institutes. These initiatives are doomed to fail in certain contexts. But these same activities can work beautifully elsewhere.
Even in the China-bashing West, China’s marketing messages are finding an audience. The U.S., for example, hosts more Confucius Institutes than any other country (70 at the latest count). If they convince even a few Americans that China is somehow likeable, respectable, trustworthy or admirable, then Beijing’s efforts won’t have gone entirely to waste.