China’s Not-So-Soft Power

In 1990, Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” to explain how U.S. global pre-eminence might outlast the Cold War. Unlike hard power, which coerces or bribes, soft power attracts, inspires, and persuades. Nye believed democratic values radiated soft power; humanitarian outreach, advanced technology, and an energetic culture of mass entertainment also enhanced America’s image and, perhaps more effectively than its military might, disposed many nations to align themselves with the U.S.

The concept became popular and was applied in rather different contexts—notably, in China. In 2007, addressing a Communist Party congress, General Secretary Hu Jintao said China needed to develop soft power. The following year, when the PRC spent $42 billion hosting the Olympics, an estimated two billion TV viewers watched the spectacular opening celebration of Chinese culture. At the start of 2009, Beijing announced it would invest seven billion dollars expanding the overseas bureaus of its state-run media, the better to tell China’s story around the world. Over the next decade, the number of Confucius Institutes would double.

Planning for this book began in 2014, when some still hoped that Xi Jinping, then barely a year in office, might make China a “responsible stakeholder.” But in the six years it took to complete this book, events have called into question its premises. The Uyghur genocide, the death in custody of a Nobel Laureate, the international kidnapping of a bookseller and the hostage diplomacy practiced against Canada, the flouting of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea tribunal, the repudiation of the Hong Kong handover treaty, the negligence (or worse) that unleashed COVID-19 upon the world, and the decision to launch a murderous raid into Ladakh across the Line of Control maintaining a delicate peace with India: these are not the actions of a state accumulating soft power or even interested in doing so.

In a deft introduction, the editors acknowledge this difficulty and invoke the larger context of the many tools of statecraft. “China’s leaders desire influence over foreign audiences, but soft power is not the only way to achieve this … we can expect China to be willing to sacrifice some degree of attractiveness in order to enhance its immediate influence over crucial policy outcomes.” Indeed—but the abrasive heavy-handedness of Chinese policy has become so consistent that, as a lens through which to view China, soft power obscures more than it reveals. In one of this book’s essays, a piece on Chinese relations with Japan and South Korea, Gilbert Rozman writes pungently, “As China’s hard power grows, soft power matters less to it.” China’s hard power has grown a lot.

Power Over Discourse

The elements of a better approach are available. The editors acknowledge Walker and Ludwig’s 2017 insight into the “sharp power” wielded by authoritarian regimes to subvert the information systems of democratic societies, but they don’t do much with it. The editors also acknowledge that “it can be difficult to disentangle the mechanisms of economic inducement from the ideational attraction of soft power.” This is true, but the problem facing the student of Chinese foreign relations is simpler: economic inducements frequently can be distinguished from ideational attraction, and China relies more on the former (and has much more success with it) than on the latter. In the excellent chapter on Chinese soft power in Latin America, R. Evan Ellis writes:

… by contrast to US soft power, expectations of individual benefits, rather than abstract principles or value alignment, arguably play a greater role. … the expansion of Chinese soft power arguably coexists with a persistent lack of understanding of, and substantial mistrust for the Chinese. … Far more than when dealing with the United States, the calculus of political and corporate decision makers in Latin America includes an understanding that the PRC will aggressively, and sometimes unfairly, seek advantage in their dealings, including cutting corners on contracts, attempting to steal intellectual property and other bad behavior. The choice to engage … reflects a calculation by the decision maker (whether or not justified) that they can manage the risk while securing personal or collective benefit from the engagement.

This can be a source of strong influence, but it is not what Nye meant by soft power. There are a few other things which the Chinese seek under the rubric of soft power which similarly have nothing to do with Nye’s concept. The topic has become difficult because people are using the same term to signify different things; there is a gulf here which the wry qualifier in the book’s title (“with Chinese characteristics”) cannot bridge.

When they began expanding their state media overseas, the Chinese spoke longingly of huayu quan, “discourse power.” Since that’s not air power or economic power or any of the other obvious examples of hard power, some writers have assimilated huayu quan to Nye’s soft power. This is a mistake. In the liberal tradition, discourse is a clarifying process of give and take, in which the truth will out, understanding will be achieved, and the best ideas will ultimately prevail (or at least the best available compromise between conflicting values will be identified): discourse itself is powerful. But by “discourse power” the architects of Chinese policy mean not the power of discourse, but power over discourse. Thanks to a regime of increasingly effective censorship, they take that power for granted at home; abroad, they look to purchase it or to impose it by threatening those whose speech displeases them. In Africa, Latin America, and the Chinese Diaspora, Chinese state media offer free or low-cost content-sharing agreements to (frequently under-resourced) local media: this has proven an effective way of influencing perceptions in those parts of the world and is mentioned in several of this volume’s essays. Further toward the sharp end of the power spectrum, paid commentators flood the comment pages of Western blogs and online newspapers, or bots create an illusion of widely shared opinions on social media. Sharpest of all, and possibly most effective, trade leverage helps police foreign speech. Ask Daryl Morey.

Can Money Buy China Love?

This last phenomenon, the influence of economic power on foreigners’ discourse, is explored in one of this volume’s best chapters. Daniel C. Lynch lays out the understanding of soft power to be found in the recent writings of Chinese social scientists—the people who teach at the Central Party School or write for publications circulated only among the Party elite. He offers a complex picture, but two points stand out. The first:

… most Chinese writers … showed little to no concern that there might be something fundamentally unattractive or fatally flawed about the Chinese system that limits its soft power potential.

Modern Chinese diplomacy, at least since the 1949 Revolution, has clung to what Christopher A. Ford calls an axiomatic blamelessness. Their image problem, found to persist even after billions have been spent on public relations, is therefore ascribed to the malign influence of hostile Western media.

… the “US-led West,” through its media, telecommunications, Internet, and computer empires, exerted hegemonic control over the world’s flow of discourse, and twisted the content of that discourse against China.

Lynch drolly cites an analysis prepared for China’s leaders in 2014 addressing the disgust felt in Hong Kong for visitors from the mainland who frequently let their children pee in the streets. The analyst explained that the reason the locals were not more understanding and accepting of a perfectly normal situation was that their “media” and “Internet opinion leaders” had distorted and sensationalized it.

The second thing that stands out is the solution which the Party’s counsellors propose: more economic power, in the face of which no one will depict China in unflattering terms!

There is … an embedded, unexamined materialist assumption that the economic rise will eventually lead almost automatically to what might be called an “ideational rise” (encompassing both discourse and soft power).

Lynch notes that the stalling of Chinese economic growth bodes ill for a “discourse power” dependent on that growth. He is right; but CCP soft-power doctrine could prompt another question, not about where the doctrine will lead but about where it comes from. How did Chinese scholars and officials (a great many of whom, it is safe to assume, are highly intelligent) come to believe that money infallibly buys love? That at least seems the premise of costly multi-year policies with what look to us like enormous blind spots. One possibility: the Communists are right. Economic power will, sooner or later, clothe in amiability the malefactor of great wealth. But as several authors in this volume point out, the economic emphasis of Chinese diplomacy comes across as a threat to the livelihood of many in the developed world, and that backlash is growing.

The building of American soft power was, for the most part, not a government project—a fact which gave American cultural and humanitarian outreach a credibility which China’s efforts often lack.

A second possibility: the Party, lacking the basis of legitimacy enjoyed by democratic states, is always on guard against the crystallization of domestic disaffection. In her chapter, Zhan Zhang points out that when “soft power” first entered official discourse with Hu Jintao’s 2007 speech, his stated goal was “to inspire the enthusiasm of the people for progress.” This internal focus suggests that winning the respect of foreigners enhances the domestic prestige of the regime, and this may be what matters most. It is easier to understand the State’s savage reaction to foreign criticism (even when such criticism is voiced mildly by humble figures) if we keep this domestic insecurity in mind. Chinese media love to quote foreign experts who praise China and endorse the actions of its regime. Perhaps the PRC’s campaign to polish its image overseas can be understood less as a foreign-policy initiative than as a protective envelope extruded by the regime’s stability-maintenance operations. This could explain the theorists’ confidence. Economic growth did more than anything else to win the Party legitimacy at home; why shouldn’t that strategy be expected to work abroad, too, if efforts there have fundamentally the same domestic motivations?  

The book contains fourteen essays. The ones I have already cited are well worth reading; others are, too. With illuminating quotations, Suisheng Zhao distinguishes the ideology of China’s rise (advertised as a return to an ancient, non-hegemonic tributary system whose linchpin was the Emperor’s virtue) from the social-Darwinist worldview that has actually guided China’s rulers throughout recorded history. Stanley Rosen, who acknowledges that China may not really be much interested in soft power, notes that in contrast to China’s public relations, the building of American soft power was, for the most part, not a government project—a fact which gave American cultural and humanitarian outreach a credibility which China’s efforts often lack. Wanning Sun goes into detail about Chinese-language media serving the Diaspora and explains the process (involving cultural and demographic factors as well as acquisition and manipulation) by which they have become mostly sympathetic to Beijing.

Antonio Fiori presents a thought-provoking account of China’s long and serious involvement on the African continent. He and Stanley Rosen conclude that China has made itself indispensable there, and that any American demand for African nations to choose sides is ill-advised. Dalton Lin and Yun-han Chu recount China’s effort to eliminate Taiwanese resistance to unification by luring the island nation into economic dependency. That effort failed—even before the swallowing of Hong Kong in 2020 made plain what “One Country, Two Systems” actually meant—because the mainland insisted on major political concessions too early, before tighter economic ties had had time to lull the Taiwanese into a sense of well-being and inevitability. And David Zweig recounts how, despite enormous resources and advantages, the mainland alienated the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers in the twenty years after the territory’s handover from Britain.

Lost in Translation

The book has weaknesses. Too much of today’s academic prose says nothing while devising ever more turgid ways to say it:

A brand culture approach directs our attention to a relational metaphysics, wherein shifts and changes occur through repeated interactions between various actors, including brands and consumers, across time and space. From this perspective, an analysis of brand development draws attention to emerging new knowledge around the co-creation and circulation of brands and cultures. Schroeder and Salzer-Mörling discuss the roles that history and culture play in branding, expanding recognition of research that taps into what they call brand culture, a third realm of branding research in addition to brand image and brand identity.

If you liked that, you will doubtless enjoy the essay from which it is taken, by Borgerson, Schroeder, and Wu.

This volume does not seem to have been copyedited. I surmise that it was left to the individual authors to check their own work. A few chapters are flawless. But in general, there are too many typos, there is some broken English, and there were two places where an argument became hard to follow because a key sentence was incoherent. I fault the publisher. One slip-up is striking: Zhan Zhang quotes a verse from the Analects of Confucius in Chinese, but she gets it wrong, misremembering a phrase from the beginning of Book II as yi zheng wei de instead of wei zheng yi de. A typo (“starts” for “stars”) also muddles her translation.

To take another example: in a 2014 speech in Germany, President Xi presented China as an immemorially peace-loving nation and quoted a number of Chinese proverbs “from of old” to support this claim. Suisheng Zhao quotes them in the original and identifies them as “Confucian wisdoms.” But the proverbs quoted come from diverse sources, including a Song Dynasty memoirist and a military manual of the Warring States period.* The only Chinese philosopher Xi mentioned by name in this speech was Laozi. Professor Zhao’s use of “Confucian” as a catch-all could confuse readers who are aware of systematic efforts (since around 2006) to align Confucius with the Party: in the speech cited, Xi Jinping was not doing that.

Perhaps these are cavils. For the most part, Soft Power With Chinese Characteristics is an informative, if awkwardly premised, symposium. But the prestige and credibility of an intellectual class, like the soft power of a nation, is not a secure possession: over and over, by careful and accurate work, it must be earned anew. Verbum sat.

* One of them, 睦邻友邦, presents a puzzle. My Chinese friends cannot identify its source, and David Bandurski of the China Media Project finds it extremely rare in official discourse. The speech in question, he says, is the very first time this phrase appears in a full-text database of seventy-four years’ worth of People’s Daily. It would be amusing if the People’s Leader had successfully caused his own utterance to be accepted as an ancient Chinese proverb, but it is unlikely that he has such a good sense of humor. If any readers can refer me to an early source for this proverb, I will be grateful.