I can imagine that American studio executives and foreign policy wonks breathed a sigh of relief when the 2016 film The Great Wall (directed by Zhang Yimou) “bombed” at the global box office. Representing a co-production between China and the United States through the Wanda Group’s recent acquisition of Legendary Entertainment, The Great Wall was meant to bring together American film making and marketing skills with Chinese capital in order to showcase China to the world. Starring Hollywood stars Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe and Chinese star Jing Tian alongside Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau, the film was rocked by controversy before its release, including accusations of whitewashing and a formulaic yet meaningless story. Earning $171 million in China and $163 million from the rest of the world including the United States, The Great Wall made a modest profit but nothing of the magnitude of The Fate of the Furious (2017), Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) or the Chinese production Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) which made 5.7 billion yuan domestically ($860 million).
We can see The Great Wall as an example of a new kind Chinese soft power effort that seeks to place China much more prominently in the public’s eye. By learning from Hollywood and utilizing its massive marketing and global distribution reach, China hopes to promote itself as an attractive nation in the eyes of the world. It has been long said that Hollywood films promote an American lifestyle and American political values. Although The Great Wall was seemingly a failure, Chinese filmmakers and film companies will have learned valuable lessons to be applied in their own future productions – with or without American partners.
These ideas of being attractive underpin what Joseph Nye called a nation’s “soft power,” defined as “the ability to get what you want through persuasion or attraction in the forms of culture, values, and policies.” The United States has been seen to be the primary beneficiary of soft power throughout the 20th century, through its image-making pop culture industries and Hollywood in particular. People all around the world desire not just American products, but an American way of life replete with its democracy, civic institutions, and worldview. Rather than just coercing people through military or economic means, many people have been won over to America through its power of attraction and want what America wants.
As China rises and becomes a global player as big as, if not bigger than, the United States, many have argued that China will also need to develop its own forms of soft power. Successful soft power will convince the world that China is a benign and benevolent power and attract others to Chinese culture and its way of life. As early as 2007, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao was quoted as saying that “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture.” More recently, in 2014, President Xi Jinping said, “We should increase China’s soft power, give a good Chinese narrative, and better communicate China’s message to the world.” One of Xi’s signature policies, the “Chinese Dream,” has been proposed as a kind of corollary or alternative to the American Dream. This is all part of a “charm offensive” that will only accelerate in years to come, especially in light of the events at the recent 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
However, the consensus amongst observers is that despite its efforts in developing soft power over recent years, China is not making a significant dent in world public imagination. Writing in a recent series of blog posts, Joshua Kurlantzick (author of Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World) remains “doubtful” of Chinese soft power. He notes that “despite the fact that Beijing has upped its soft power efforts since 2007, its soft power appeal has not grown” and has in fact declined. Robert Thomas, writing for The Diplomat, comes to a similar conclusion and argues that China’s investment in soft power is not paying off. An Economist article from early 2017 also comes to a similar conclusion, arguing that Chinese pop culture is nowhere as attractive or ubiquitous as American pop culture.
One problem that analysts point to is the dissonance between image and action. Thomas points out that the recent death in custody of Liu Xiaobo was a soft power “own goal” for China as the world saw how the Nobel Prize winning activist was treated. Many are not convinced that China’s construction activities in the South China Sea and the acquisition of strategic infrastructure in countries such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka are benign. Moreover, the Confucius Institutes, which have been touted as a main component in the Chinese soft power agenda, are said to be a risk as their activities come under scrutiny and may not deliver on the investment.
Other examples include in the media, where China has begun to assert its message through a variety of means. A number of key media have been acquired by mainland companies in recent years, including the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Other media companies such as Apple Daily (Hong Kong) and the New York Times have come under financial pressure. And there is an expansion of state-owned media Xinhua and CGTN (formerly CCTV) around the world. The criticism here is that Chinese media interests are promoting forms of propaganda and suppressing voices critical of China.
Ultimately though, analysts of Chinese soft power say that the Chinese political system is a liability. Despite the focus on soft power and the spending of billions of dollars, China is fundamentally unable to be attractive because it’s not a liberal democratic regime like the United States. China, unlike the U.S., will never be able to attract people through the ideals of freedom, political participation, and civil liberties. Similarly, China’s undemocratic political system is opaque to outsiders and seemingly impenetrable. But perhaps these observers have got China and the rest of the world wrong.
First, they are seeing Chinese soft power through an American lens. That the United States was the case study for Nye’s theory is not a problem; the problem is assuming that other nations need to be like America in order to be attractive. This is to universalize the particular and speaks of the ethnocentrism of many American policy thinkers. Since China is diametrically opposite to America, the conclusion is that China lacks fundamental criteria to be an attractive country. China’s attractiveness is in fact very different from the United States’, and American observers may be blind to what makes China attractive. This is not “soft power with Chinese characteristics,” as Mikael Weissmann calls it facetiously, but requires an understanding of how the rest of the world thinks.
As my colleague Bill Case has proposed, China is in fact a very attractive model to leaders and politicians in Southeast Asia and no doubt in other parts of the world. Leaders see in China a powerful nation able to defy American and Western dictates, whilst ensuring economic stability and prosperity for its citizens. China emerges as a solution for struggling regimes in Southeast Asia as they navigate difficult economic scenarios or, in the case of Malaysia’s embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, a corruption scandal that threatens the legitimacy of his premiership. China provides a useful model for already illiberal and authoritarian-leaning political leaders and regimes to sustain themselves.
American and other Western observers fall into the trap of assuming that freedom, civil liberties, and democracy are more desired than economic stability and prosperity. As Chua Beng Huat has argued in the case of Singapore, liberalism is not a necessary precondition for the functioning of an advanced capitalist nation. Instead the legitimacy of Singapore’s leaders comes from their performance as economic managers and their ability to respond to citizen demands. Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument increasingly looks anachronistic. Many people in developing and poorer nations look up to Singapore, and increasingly China, as a model of political stability coupled with economic growth and prosperity. If people have to give up a few civil liberties – which many do not enjoy anyway – then why not, if it means less corruption, better infrastructure, more jobs, and increased income.
Looking at China’s rapid development – and as more people see it – China will grow in stature amongst lay opinion. Democracy is increasingly seen to produce inaction and stalemate as evidenced in countries across the European Union, United States, and Australia. Many Indonesians increasingly opine that things were better under authoritarianism and pejoratively call the post-1998 era “democrazy.” China, by contrast, is seen to take a no-nonsense approach to problems; it has clear objectives and gets things done. Rights may be trampled or limited in this process, but to many people who live in clogged cities like Jakarta or Manila or in underdeveloped regions, China’s model of action and development look like a godsend.
In an era of economic uncertainty, declining social mobility, economic inequality, rising unemployment, and casualization, the American model looks increasingly less appealing. If the election of Donald Trump is symptomatic of these problems, then it is little wonder that people are looking to other countries to emulate. On the other side of the Pacific, China continues to grow in stature and appears to be a paradigm of stability and prosperity. China’s success is of course not guaranteed, but in a world of economic uncertainty, the China model increasingly looks more attractive than Pax Americana.
Thomas Barker holds a PhD in Sociology from the National University of Singapore and teaches film and cultural studies at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.