In a speech to members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping called for renewed efforts to promote China’s cultural soft power. “The stories of China should be well told, voices of China well spread, and characteristics of China well explained,” Xi said.
Various commentators have long slammed China’s state-led efforts to strengthen the country’s soft power. Joseph Nye, to whom the soft power concept is credited, has commented that the Chinese government just doesn’t get soft power. Nye quotes Pang Zhongying of Renmin University as describing Beijing’s focus on promoting ancient cultural icons in terms of a “poverty of thought” among Chinese leaders.
Culture has emerged as the cornerstone of Beijing’s policies to develop soft power, yet the efficacy of this “all culture, no politics” approach has been widely criticized. Nation branding approaches also suggest that Beijing’s culture plugging is, at the very least, a monumental waste of effort.
What Nation Branding Tells Us
The 2011 Anholt-Gfk Roper Nations Brands Index, which annually measures the image of 50 nations, ranked China an impressive third for its “culture/heritage” brand. Countries with long histories and rich cultural resources tend to do well in terms of this branding attribute, with France and Italy perennially topping the rankings.
China’s cultural pull is nowhere more evident than in its meteoric rise as an international tourist destination. The number of international tourist arrivals in China was reported as 5,566,4000 in 2010, giving China a ranking of third, behind France and the U.S.
In relation to other attributes, however, Brand China’s performance is largely disappointing. Of the 50 countries listed in the Reputation Institute’s 2012 global RepTrak overall rankings, which surveys respondents in G8 countries, China ranked 43rd, below Egypt (39th) and Ukraine (42nd) and just above Colombia (44th) and Nigeria (47th), placing China in the bottom 15 percent. The 2012 FutureBrand country brand index, which surveys opinion leaders in 18 countries, ranked China well back in the field at 66th out of 110.
The Anholt-Gfk Roper Nations Brands Index lists China’s poorest performing brand attribute as “governance,” followed by “exports.”
One may find any one of the nation brand ranking methodologies to be unconvincing or unrepresentative given that many tend to draw respondents from the world’s richer countries. Yet each tells a similar story: brand China’s major strength is culture, and its major weakness is in governance and the political sphere.
The Elephant in the Room
Enshrined in the concept of “national cultural soft power” (guojia wenhua ruanshili 国家文化软实力), Beijing’s cultural diplomacy approach has sprouted deep roots. Nye comments that after he delivered a lecture on soft power at a Chinese university in early 2013, a party official told the students that “the Chinese approach to soft power should focus on culture, not politics.”
Culture is indeed benign and safe, but as the above evidence suggests, international audiences already have a high regard for Chinese culture. As Joshua Ramo points out, “the data suggests most people in the world already know China is an old and complicated culture. Further emphasizing that point does little to encourage new views of China.”
So rather than keeping politics out of the soft power frame, should China’s policymakers look to widen the frame to meaningfully incorporate issues of governance and domestic and foreign policy? Richard Conniff, writing for the Smithsonian Institute, suggests tongue-in-cheek that the best strategy may be to manage expectations: “China: Now 55 Percent Less Communist!”
Ramo suggests a white brand approach and the infusing of old cultural symbols with ideas of newness and innovation. Echoing the sentiments of other commentators, he recommends Beijing moves away from a broadcast approach of trying to tell the world what China is to a network approach that accepts that it will ultimately be the world that decides what brand China will represent.
Xi Jinping’s much-studied “Chinese dream” slogan is the closest thing to a white brand ever offered by Beijing. According to The Economist, the slogan is unique because “seems designed to inspire rather than inform,” and it avoids the wooden propaganda-speak of previous offerings. But its vagueness invites interpretation – a bold and risky move. As Di Wu, writing for USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy, comments, “externally, the core meaning of national revival attached to the “Chinese dream” may still be considered as a threat, although the human element of it can create opportunities to build a bridge between people.” In achieving a resonant catchiness, however, the Chinese dream maintains Beijing’s line of keeping politics well out of the frame.
Ultimately, nation branding tells us that the world already thinks highly of China’s culture, but looks upon her political system with disdain. Beijing’s “all culture, no politics” approach to soft power looks set to do nothing but perpetuate this, delivering for Beijing a zero return on its considerable soft power investments.
Nicholas Dynon is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University and is coordinator of the Line 21 project.